Better Judgment Winter 2021

Tiffany Williams and I met in Athens, Ohio, at a Women of Appalachia event.  I was reading a story, and Tiffany was singing a trio of her songs. I immediately felt like I knew her, though we’d just met, and soon realized we had a number of acquaintances in common.  We spent the next several months messaging back and forth, trying to plan a collaborative event near my home in West Virginia. Sadly, that never happened thanks to the pandemic. 

This might not be the sort of collaboration we were originally planning, but I’m so happy that Tiffany agreed to be Change Seven’s first featured musician. In addition to sharing some music with us (as well as a super cool playlist of her work), Tiffany answered a few questions about her music, her writing, and what life has been like for a no-longer-touring musician during the pandemic.   ~Natalie Sypolt

Did you grow up wanting to create? 

Yes. I always remember caring more about making things than playing with dolls or anything like that. Little art projects. I’d make bracelets and do latch hook. Sand art was big when I was little, and puffy paint. Culinary stuff–Easy Bake oven and beyond. My parents will tell you that I was a better cook in elementary and middle school than I am now.

My papaw was a miner but also a great carpenter, so I always harbored this desire to make things out of wood. That never really happened for me, but it still feels like a calling in a dream I had. It’s still with me somehow. But I’ve got so much to keep me busy these days that I didn’t even put up a Christmas tree, so no new avocations for me for a while.

Who are some of your biggest influences or inspirations? 

Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Ray Lamontagne, Counting Crows, the everybodyfields. There are tons of others, but those are the ones that were important to me around the time I was finding my voice.

You are also a fiction writer. How do you think songwriting and fiction writing are similar?

You’ve got the element of musicality in both fiction and songs, but with the latter there’s another dimension with the music itself. You’ve got rhythm and rhyme in fiction, as well as overall tone, but with songwriting you have chords overlaid with pitches and timbre that color and inform the story or characters. Also duration–you read the word “all” in less than a second but could sing the same word for a full bar if you wanted. And maybe that duration is symbolic. And then the chords, pitch, and timbre of that full-bar “all” would let us know the tone/mood. Of course, with that bonus plane in songs also comes limitations that fiction isn’t bound by. It’s fun to think about all that goes into the making of one vs. the other. One of us should write an essay on this, if we’ve not been beaten to it already. I’d love to read it if it exists.

They’re also similar in that they bring me supreme joy. When the writing is going well–songs or stories–it feels like nothing else matters.

Both songwriting and fiction allow me to work with words, which is what I love most. I don’t consider myself a poet, but lately I’ve been playing at poetry and gleaning lines for songs. Sometimes I’ll read a book and be inspired to write a song about it–the first time I did it was I believe with Tinkers by Paul Harding, and I’ve since done it for books by Robert Gipe, Silas House, and Carter Sickels. Eventually, I want to write fiction and write songs about the fiction, or maybe the reverse of that. I’m interested to see the interplay between the two when the subject is the same. I imagine having a novel with its own soundtrack, ultimately.

On being an Appalachian/Appalachian woman: how is this part of your identity? Do you feel any duty/responsibility to represent? Or have you ever found this to be a hindrance? 

You do the work because you love it & you have to. And you are who you are. And even though we are but conduits, who we are informs the work. Trying to separate myself from being a mountain woman or my work from myself is like trying to separate the Kool-Aid from the water after you’ve stirred it good.

I’ve never thought of the Appalachian part of my identity as a hindrance. It has been a pleasure to explore that part of myself through the things I make. I’m just thankful that I have always felt empowered enough and had the influences and role models I’ve had; all that was a buffer against any condescending narrative about hillbillies that might have tried to make me hate myself or my home.

As far as it being my duty or responsibility to represent Appalachia, I hope everybody from every corner feels a duty to tell their true story. We all need those stories. People need to see themselves represented, and as many as possible need to add to the narrative so that when it gets told back, to us or others after, it’ll be closer to the truth of who we were and are.

How has the pandemic affected you? What kind of things have you done to try to continue your engagement? Has inspiration been hard to find while being quarantined?

I had just left a good job with the state to pursue music full time, so it was tough when I had to cancel my first big tour in March. The blessing in the mess of it all seemed to be time to write, but it was tough in the beginning, when we were all having trouble doing more than sleeping and being sad and anxious. But I eventually got to the point where I could write some. I finished three songs by myself and three or four cowrites. I’m just recently starting to feel “back to normal” in terms of writing. Of course it always ebbs and flows, pandemic or no pandemic. 

What are you currently most proud of?  

Probably just going after it at all. I have had great jobs and opportunities that I’ve given up to do something I was scared to do and suspected I was too old to start doing. I didn’t pick up the guitar or write my first song until I was 26. I often feel a decade behind. Even though timelines can be silly, they get in your head.

And I have never been somebody who wanted to be the center of attention. I remember driving across the James Robertson Parkway bridge in Nashville from work to a gig feeling so torn up with nerves, and I said, “Why are you doing this if it makes you feel this way?” But I knew it was worth it. So getting out of my own way, that’s what I’m most proud of.

What have you been reading/listening to/consuming during quarantine?

Listening to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers, CHIKA, Phantogram, Briston Maroney, Khruangbin, Lizzo, Izzy Heltai. Stuff from the 90s. “WAP”, obviously. Love the new ones from Nick Jamerson, Abby Hamilton, Dalton Mills, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, and Fiona Apple. Reading Hillbilly Hustle by Wes Browne, The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickles, F*ckface by Leah Hampton, and COVID news.

One of my favorite podcasts is Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters. I thought I might like to write screenplays (I still might), but now I mostly listen to it because it’s interesting and good all around. I’m late on the Broken Record podcast bandwagon, but it’s excellent. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries, mostly music ones. Echo in the Valley was nice and the one on David Foster was pretty cool. I liked The Queen’s Gambit pretty well. I read someone’s take on it (can’t remember where), about how it’s so refreshing because it exists in a seemingly alternate universe where people are mostly decent and fair and do the right thing. 

What are you currently working on? 

I’m currently working on two projects, an EP, due out in February, and my first full-length album, slated for release in August or so. I got behind on the EP due to the quarantine blues, so now the work to get the albums out is overlapping. 

Follow Tiffany:

In 2021, Tiffany will collaborate with the writer Silas House on her new EP. House was featured in our Book People Talk to Book People section in Spring 2020. Check out his interview with writer Savannah Sipple here.