The Story Behind Every Song On Jess Williamson’s Time Ain’t Accidental

The Story Behind Every Song On Jess Williamson’s Time Ain’t Accidental

In the three years since her last album, 2020’s Sorceress, Jess Williamson has lived a lot of life. She went through a heavy breakup, found herself single for the first time in nearly a decade, and began figuring herself out alone in Los Angeles. She reconnected with an old acquaintance in Marfa and struck up a new relationship; she now splits her time between the two towns. In the meantime, she was still making music — collaborating with Katie Crutchfield under the moniker Plains, the duo releasing their album I Walked With You A Ways last year. But, also, she was writing songs that made sense of the whirlwind of change she was experiencing.

The result is Time Ain’t Accidental, a new collection that traces the whole arc of Williamson’s experience in the last few years: from the fault lines of a fracturing partnership, through to grief and loneliness, and then the misadventures and fateful meetings that led her to a new place, a new center. The songs here zoom in on finely observed details in order to sketch the larger meanings of our connections with each other. It’s a powerful depiction of the long, zig-zagging journey from devastation to hope.

Ahead of the album’s release, we called Williamson up on Zoom to talk about the inspiration and making of Time Ain’t Accidental. Now that you can hear the album for yourself, read our conversation for the stories behind each song.

1. “Time Ain’t Accidental”

This song came out of one specific day, the very beginning of a new relationship on the other side of a breakup.

JESS WILLIAMSON: “Time Ain’t Accidental” is one of those lucky songs that I wrote really fast in one afternoon. The chorus talks about reading a collection of Raymond Carver short stories. The song is like a short story itself. It’s the true story of a day. It captures that feeling of the beginning of something where you’re just so excited and you don’t know if it will become something or not. When I wrote that song, it was celebrating this sweet beginning and not needing it to turn into anything or knowing if it would, and that being some of the beauty of it too. I’m just appreciating this moment.

The guy was an old acquaintance of yours. You crossed paths in Marfa, have this whirlwind day, you drive back home, and the song just hit immediately?

WILLIAMSON: I was just playing my keyboard and singing and it just happened. It almost felt magical in a way. It felt like the song wrote itself.

The album has a lot of breakup songs, but also songs of people sort of coming across each other in different places and times. I was wondering what the phrase “time ain’t accidental” meant to you not just for this one specific story, but in summing up the whole album and the rest of these songs.

WILLIAMSON: “Time ain’t accidental” means we can trust the timing is working for our highest good. When I wrote “Time Ain’t Accidental,” the lyric came from the fact I was so sad I had to leave [Marfa]. There wasn’t enough time. Looking at the ways this person and I had crossed paths over many years and thinking, “How did this not happen sooner? I’m just now connecting with you but I don’t live anywhere close to you.” The lyric is torn up over timing but it’s not accidental. What I realized as that relationship evolved — we’re still together, and now I live in Marfa part time — is it couldn’t have happened a day sooner. The timing was perfect because of a million circumstances but also because of where we both were in our development as people. I can look back and connect all the dots and realize it worked out exactly as it needed to as far as this connection.

As an overarching theme for the album and my life, I can trust that things are working out as they’re meant to. It might not be according to my timing or how I wanted things to go, but there are forces working that are outside of my control, working for my highest good and the good of those around me. When I step back and look at everything, everything happened in its own way and at its own pace and the way it needed to.

I used to really grip tightly to my desired outcome and how I thought things needed to go. It needed to be perfect and it needed to happen like this. None of that happened that way. I had a record come out in the middle of a global pandemic. All of my tours got cancelled. The relationship where I thought I was with the man who would be my husband and the father of my children dissolved. My plans were all turned upside down. And I’m so grateful that they were. I can see now that it’s not up to me and I don’t actually know what’s best. That was the big lesson in a lot of this. A lot of surrender and faith.

2. “Hunter”

Let’s talk about “Hunter,” an earlier part of this process you’ve gone through. You broke up and you start dating in LA, where you’d never been single.

WILLIAMSON: I had had really long relationships, and here I am single for the first time in nine years and it’s COVID dating. [Laughs] I tried it. I was raw from the breakup. It felt like being thrown to the wolves. It felt like: “These people have no context for me, and I have no context for them.” Everyone is judging each other and ghosting each other. It really didn’t align with my way of relating. It felt like an experiment. It was interesting, but it was very short-lived for me. I felt belittled by the whole process, if that makes sense. I felt unseen, the way I want to be seen by someone I’d potentially be dating. It was a weird way to be witnessed.

Thankfully, though, it did birth the song “Hunter.” I would hear people talk about “I’m just dating people, I’m not in a relationship,” so I thought, “OK, maybe that’s what I’ll do.” What I learned from attempting to do that was, that’s not interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is love and real connection. So that lyric “I’m a hunter for the real thing,” I learned that about myself by trying it a different way and realizing it was boring and unfulfilling. I would rather be home or with my friends than whatever this is.

Some of my favorite lyrics on the album are in this song, especially a “My love is pure as the universe/ Honest as an ashtray.” It’s one of those lines where I didn’t exactly know what it was supposed to mean but it really hit.

WILLIAMSON: Sometimes love, we put it up in the clouds with the angels — this beautiful thing we can’t touch. But I think love is also very earthly and carnal and messy. I think of an ashtray as gross. It’s trash. But also, to me, a full ashtray means it was probably a really good night. Maybe a lot of truth was spoken. I think some of my best, realest conversations have been in smoke-filled rooms with a lot of friends. A full ashtray says a lot about the night before, or the person’s house. The things that we say around a full ashtray. We can get really honest.

3. “Chasing Spirits”

When this came out as a single, you talked about the idea of having all these love songs you’d written, and wondering whether they were true anymore now that the relationship was over. You sing “Are my love songs lies now that the love is gone?” Were you able to make peace with your old material, or find a way to recontextualize it?

WILLIAMSON: That is to be determined. I’m about to go on tour and we’ll be playing some songs that will hold a new meaning for me now. Ultimately I think the answer to that question — “Are my love songs lies now that the love is gone?” — is no, they’re not lies. It’s a funny thing to sit with though. I wrote these devotional love songs about loving someone forever. I have a song on Cosmic Wink called “Forever,” that’s what I reference on “Chasing Spirits.” The lyric is “There’s the one about forever and/ Loving you in a past life/ Or whatever.” I said all that. That’s on the record — literally. [Laughs] I went on the record with talking about loving someone across lifetimes.

I don’t think the songs are lies, but I think they change. The thing is, they change as soon as you put them out. Everyone is going to have their own interpretation of a song, and the song lives on and has a life of its own. In that same vein, the title itself has this double meaning. “Chasing Spirits” is supernatural, chasing a higher self, trying to connect with other entities and spirits. But it’s also booze, to go back to that earthly, carnal thing. You go to the bar and get a shot and a chaser. I think it’s OK for songs to take on a life of their own. I think that’s part of the beauty of it.

I was going to ask about the dichotomy, the mysticism, and the heavy drinking. The way this story plays out, it sounds like you’re depicting you and your ex going in different directions.

WILLIAMSON: I think it’s open to interpretation. The last lyrics are “Now who is a bigger mystic/ And who’s winning a bar fight?” It doesn’t tell you who. To me, it’s both of us doing both. To me, standing on stage playing a show is a version of winning a bar fight. [Laughs]

4. “Tobacco Two Step”

One of the bigger threads you’ve referenced with this album was that after Plains, you were embracing country music in a different way.

WILLIAMSON: I just really like country music, and Plains was a really intentional shift to going all-in. Having this separate contained thing to lean all the way into it. For my own stuff, for this record… it felt right to work with some of my favorite instruments, like the banjo, which is the first instrument I ever learned to play. Pedal steel, which I’m obsessed with. I love the way those instruments sound. But I also love the horns, and these drum machine sounds we ripped from my iPhone. There wasn’t a plan, a “Now I’m doing this.” It snuck in there organically. It wasn’t something [producer] Brad Cook and I talked about.

I don’t know how literal each song is, but as you’re spending more time in Texas was there a period of reunions? There seemed to be some homecomings in certain songs.

WILLIAMSON: “Tobacco Two Step” is more like a short story — it’s not a literal recounting of a night, it’s more me imagining what it would be like. It hasn’t happened yet. I think it might and I think it might play out that way. It was me craving a story of what it’d be like to go back home, see all my old friends, be an outsider at home. I’ve had that experience a little bit. I grew up in Dallas but I lived in Austin for over a decade and that really feels like home. I don’t go back a lot, I’ve really only been through on tour. There’s this feeling of being a new version of me, back home, but home is different too, and navigating that. It doesn’t line up with your memory but of course it doesn’t.

5. “God In Everything”

Earlier you were talking about arriving at a different spiritual grounding. What does the phrase “God in everything” mean to you?

WILLIAMSON: Well… “God In Everything,” in the chorus, is pretty sexual. I grew up in an environment where sex before marriage was wrong. Very Christian. This idea of seeing God in everything is seeing God in the earthly and the sublime. In the messy stuff, and in the holy and pious stuff. It’s all human and divine, too. You can see God in the face of someone you love, in nature. You can see God in yourself, in the world. That song was written at a time where I felt very disconnected from home. I felt really rejected by the person I’d been in a relationship with. I was out here on my own, trying to figure out who I was apart from all of that. I was getting really spiritual. It was a coping mechanism in a way, to try to transcend “What do people think about me?” and… get right with God. [Laughs]

6. “A Few Seasons”

The line where you sing “I am well-known for being so OK” really leveled me. Obviously lots of art is inspired by breakups. I think what I’m interested in with your songs on this album is how you’re depicting yourself within that process. I once had this belief that the exact version of me that existed in my long-term relationships will never exist again. Some part of me dies with the relationship — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. You’re describing yourself in these ways where you aren’t exactly unkind to the past version of you, but you’re also asking how did you get so small. I’m curious about writing about a breakup from that perspective, not recognizing your old self.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah… that song is, I think, the saddest on the record. I was the saddest when I wrote it. I had gone through this breakup, but I was kind of doing OK. I had sort of put it on the shelf, compartmentalized it a bit. “It’s OK, it’s for the best.” Then I was watching Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. It’s a multi-part series and it is so sad. It’s a depiction of a relationship falling apart, and I related so much to the way the female lead feels in that film, I related to so much. I couldn’t stop crying.

I paused the movie and went into the other room where my keyboard was and that song came pouring out. By watching this story play out on the screen, I was able to access watching my own self go through something similar, and the ways I tried to contort myself to make something work. I felt so small, and the kindest thing I could do for this person was not be in their way, and how bad that actually felt. How I made so many accommodations to make someone happy, and realizing how hard it was for me. That was the lowest point, when I wrote that one.

Your ex was also your collaborator. You lost a partner both romantically and musically. Was that part scary or liberating?

WILLIAMSON: I was very scared that I wasn’t going to be able to make records that were good, or write songs that were good. The first thing I did on my own was “Pictures Of Flowers.” When you are always leaning into one person, it can be easy to neglect the other potentially amazing collaborators in your life. What happened was, when this void opened up, it forced me to lean into reaching out to other people. I’m not someone who can do everything on my own. I can’t play every instrument. I can’t record. I had to get brave and reach out to other people. That part was encouraging. I used to think nobody would want to collaborate with me, and only that person did, and I owed him so much. When that was gone, I started reaching out to other friends, co-writing with people, reaching out to people whose music I really loved. In that way, it was really healing.

How important was Plains in that regard? It sits in between these albums of yours.

WILLIAMSON: Katie was so encouraging of my songs. That experience, of getting in the room with her, and being so excited about the work we were creating together, the gentle approach she took with my songs and the encouragement she had… Maybe I was insecure, maybe I thought this one isn’t finished. She’d say, “No, it’s done, we don’t need to tinker with this.” That was very good for me.

7. “Topanga Two Step”

WILLIAMSON: I started writing this song when we were in the studio making the Plains record, just strumming on an acoustic guitar. That was when I was in my “dating in LA experimental” phase and feeling… excited about some of the people I was meeting and some of the places I was going. Experiencing new parts of the city. There’s an expansive quality to putting yourself out there where you end up in some cool situations.

But I also felt: How am I being judged in these situations? There’s a very specific type of person who grew up wealthy in Los Angeles. [Laughs] I should say I have incredible friends who align with that who are not this way. But let’s just say there’s a certain type of man that is dating in LA, that has money. I just realized like, “What do you think of me?” I don’t come from where you come from. I’m not familiar with some of these things that are normal to you. That’s where “Topanga Two Step” really came from. Noticing my own otherness, my own Texan-ness, in contrast to some of these other people that I was running around with for a second. I was so different in a way I had never thought about before. I was feeling a little judged but also having fun with it too and not taking it too seriously.

8. “Something’s In The Way”

I love the woodwind arrangement in this one, so maybe this is a good place to talk about working with Brad Cook.

WILLIAMSON: I got to know Brad from making the Plains record. It was such a natural process. Brad has a studio in his home, and that’s where we made our record. It was mostly me, Brad, Matt McCaughan, and Phil Cook, with the two different engineers. It was such an organic process of basically starting with me re-creating the demos, and then us together shifting stuff around, adding things, taking stuff away.

And hanging out. One thing I loved about working with Brad is that he’s not looking at the clock. He’s not like, “We gotta cram this in because we only have one day.” You know you’re going to finish a record and it might take a little longer than you thought, and that’s OK. It was a lot of hanging out, having conversations, drinking coffee, talking about what the songs meant, talking about life. Musing about where the songs could go musically. “Something’s In The Way” was one we knew was going into a territory none of the other songs were going. That song is about a situation that was pretty confusing, so it felt appropriate that musically it could get a little wild — a little zany, even.

9. “Stampede”

This is another song that seems like you could read it two ways. One there’s a bit dark, one person being too drunk to tune their guitar. But some of it also reads like “This burned very intensely and we were wild, and there was a potency to that.”

WILLIAMSON: [Pauses] Yes… the last line of the song is “And maybe I can love you better/ From three states away with someone else/ Wishing you well.” That’s something I was thinking about with that song, this idea that when you’re up close with somebody sometimes there’s a dynamic in place where it doesn’t work. It’s like you’re too close so you can’t see each other anymore, celebrate each any more. There’s so much resentment, bitterness, disappointment, that it can cloud how you see each other. “Stampede” speaks to that, that you can love someone from afar.

10. “I’d Come To Your Call”

WILLIAMSON: This is a song about desperately loving someone and waiting for them to love you back.

Is this breakup phase or single phase or all of it?

WILLIAMSON: Kind of pre-breakup phase. This actually was the first song I wrote for the record, in the fall of 2019. It was in the last few gasps of a relationship where I felt really left behind and like I was waiting for someone to come back.

The Sorceress song “Smoke” was a depiction of a codependent relationship. On this record, you sing about putting everything into the songs — implying there was all this stuff not being communicated but it was ending up in the music.

WILLIAMSON: I knew. That’s a song that… even though I wrote that while I was in the relationship, I never showed them. There’s a thing with songwriters if you’re in partnership with another songwriter, you have to know you’re going to work with what you have. I heard this Joan Didion interview once. Her husband was a writer, she was a writer. Someone asked her a question about writing about her husband. She said, “We both knew we needed to work with what we had.” There’s a mutual understanding and respect that exists in those kinds of situations.

11. “Roads”

In this song, love is hurricanes and tornadoes. Listening to it, I was thinking about you driving back and forth between LA and Marfa over and over. I was thinking about how at the beginning of the album, you are speaking about these identities being separate from each other. The first lines of the album, you’re telling the guy in Marfa: “I have a life somewhere real far away/ You wouldn’t make a lick of sense in that place.” By the end of the album, there’s this suggestion of the hybrid life you have, and the idea that the album might have found some kind of harmonious balance musically, too.

WILLIAMSON: “Time Ain’t Accidental” and “Roads” were the last songs I wrote for the record. They really bookend this whole difficult, winding road that it took to land at the final outcome, being the album and what my life is today with this new partnership and living in two places I love. “Roads” is a very hopeful song. It opens with the line “Find what’s freely given/ Real love’ll come to you.” In life, I think, it can be easy to grasp for things, to chase things, to want things. My experience was that you can just rest and sit back and real love will come to you. It’s not something you need to beg for. If you’re just living your life and being a version of yourself that you respect and doing your thing, you’re going to end up in the right place at the right time.

That was what I found, when I least expected it. When I wasn’t looking, when I wasn’t out doing my dating experiment. Here I was, out in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere and love falls in my lap. I wanted to end the record with “Roads” because it’s this hopeful image. I picture this road going off as far as the eye can see, with clear skies ahead. There’s no certainty, no one knows what the future holds. But it’s a way to end the album on a high note. We went through the highs and lows of this experience together, me and the listener. We’ve arrived at the end of the record and we’re going to keep going. We can trust that the timing was no accident and things are going to work out.

Time Ain’t Accidental is out 6/9 on Mexican Summer.

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