Cris Williamsonthe legendary singer-songwriter, feminist, activist and trailblazer for women in the music industryreceived the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award on Sept. 12 from the Americana Music Association in Nashville, alongside longtime friend and Olivia Records co-founder Judy Dlugacz.
Williamson's career has spanned over thirty albums in fifty years. The success of her 1975 independent release, The Changer and the Changed, brought Olivia Records into the limelight. She's just kicked off her Reunion Tour with Olivia Records veterans Barbara Higbie and Teresa Trull.
Windy City Times: So you're starting your reunion tour with Teresa and Barbara. How does that feel?
Cris Williamson: Oh, it's just the best because they're two of my very best friends. They're soloists as well, so when you put three soloists together you got a pretty good orchestra there. It's everything from R&B to jazz to folk to whatever it is that I do, whatever we want to call that!
WCT: You've had a pretty long career spanning over 50 years, and you've released a plethora of albums. I'm curious what your experiences have been in that time.
CW: So glad to be working, period. We had to invent ourselves. First, we had to invent the delivery system because it didn't exist.
There were, of course, and always have been gay men in the arts industry that did not use that as their platform. They were mostly desperate to fit in and not be discovered because it was dangerous. Somebody like Rock Hudson: everybody knew, rumors abounded, but still he kept [secret] until the very end and there was a lot of his life that, like many gay artists, had to be left behind, or had to be cloaked in this kind of quasi-normality that was defined by somebody else.
So we defined our own normal. Just be yourself, love who you want to love. … The only reason I think we're here is to love one another.
WCT: Have you seen Olivia Records as a catalyst for giving a platform to gay and lesbian musicians?
CW: Oh, yeahabsolutely. It just wasn't there. We invented it, and there's of course the technology changes to where nobody needs a label now. You can just put everything on a thumb-drive and hand it to your public. None of that existed. Technology-wise, [it's] not so long ago, but how fast things changechanged the delivery system.
So we were that platform for many artists: a place to grow, a place where we had women who would show up if you put a flier on their windshield. At least for me, the music I make is for the human condition. There's not so much gender in there as it is philosophy, as how to exist and live in this world as a good human being. We need to be looked at as part of the human race, and not as these separate people who are ghettoizedalthough once you're in the ghetto you can make amazing music, we know that, that the obstacles in life can become gateways.
WCT: Could you talk a little more about, looking at when you first started out back in the 1960s and '70s, the differences and similarities that you see today for gay and lesbian artists?
CW: I do see that the past is there now pretty strongly and artists can take it as they wish. They don't have to fear the same things that we did in our time, [although] in some cases I guess you do because violence is violence and hatred is hatred and that increased. Sometimes I think freedom is an illusion and we have to take it every day, to be a free as we are. You can't assume that everything is free, because it still has to be made for everybody. If I want it for myself then I have to say, "I want it for you, too." Because do you have the luxury to only care for a certain amount of people, or do you work really hard on loving everybody? Having that be a real thing, [to] become the change you wish to see in the world.
And that's my goal. I want this world to get along… I think art is necessary, I think music is necessary in the world and so in that respect I have the greatest job in the world.
WCT: What advice would you give to young LGBT musicians who are just starting out?
CW: Probably first thing is: Don't expect to be on the big stage right away. Play for everything. That's the way I did it. Come up the hard way. It's honest. … Take the journey and take a long time, sing everywhere, perform everywhere for everyone. It's easy to preach to the converted, it's difficult to play a bar, or an eating establishment where you're just background noise and you don't feel like a star. Well you're not there yet!
I was born almost solely pledged. I knew how to do it but I chose the hard, honest path and I haven't ever regretted that. Get good at your work, get good at your art, practice, practice, practice.
And practice relating to people when you're up there. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors that goes on where you dress in costume or you appear in ways kind of like drag. They clothe themselves in the form of somebody else, which doesn't interest me as much. What I'm interested in is when people appear as themselves.
WCT: And that goes back to the honesty?
CW: That's right. I'm just not good at it! [Laughs] I have no ability to wear costumes, because I like who I am so much. That's my other piece of advice: You've gotta be well to do this. Because there's great sickness in the world. Music is the best there isa song can turn a heart.
See Cris Williamson with Barbara Higbie and Teresa Trull at the Unitarian Church of Evanston on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m., with tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3612727 .