Folk songwriters tell universal stories.
Wielding the pen like a great tool from a bygone era, folk writers participate in a time-honored American tradition. This is the music that fought against wars, celebrated new love, and captured every other hill and valley of the human condition in-between. The Hudson Valley is not a strange setting for these storytellers to reside; Beacon’s adopted uncle was the legendary Pete Seeger, after all. As Peter drew on the Americana spirituals that came before him, so William Lawrence draws upon his many lyrical heroes of yore.
Lawrence’s story is uniquely tied to this region. One of his most notable musical collaborations, touring as the drummer for the popular folk-rock band The Felice Brothers, started on a Hudson Valley farm of all places.
“I was working on this farm in Millerton that my friend was managing, and he was pretty close with those guys. I started hanging out with them, we became friends, and after about a year of spending time with them they needed a drummer, so I stepped in,” Lawrence reveals.
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He officially joined The Felice Brothers in 2016 and spent a few years on the road before recording the band’s 2019 album Undress. That same year Lawrence wrote many of the songs that would fill out his third studio effort to date, Fool for You. James Felice contributed piano on Lawrence’s latest record, joining a host of other artists.
Fool for You is a true product of pandemic times, not in its lyrics but in its very makeup. Lawrence gathered an eclectic group of musicians, many of whom he had worked with in the past. Ian McGuire produced all of Lawrence’s records at his studio in Pine Plains, and this project was no different. Donny Amidon of Mail the Horse — another band Lawrence has toured with — offered up guitar work. From all reaches of Dutchess, Ulster, and Columbia Counties, Lawrence acquired artists for woodwinds, violin, bass, and the most difficult seat to fill, drums.
“I’ve heard Brian Kantor play in a number of different contexts, and I knew he’d be awesome,” Lawrence says. “I’m very particular about who I get to play drums on a record.”
With a band assembled, the next step was the recording process. In previous endeavors, Lawrence kept studio sessions small, laboring over songs alone. After some early tracking, it was apparent that this production would have to be different; a global pandemic made recording with up to nine musicians in the same space impossible.
Like a game of musical telephone, songs went from one artist to the next as they added their parts in all sorts of home studios. Lawrence ducked under a blanket to strum his guitar and sing smoothly into the microphone before passing the “baton” to Kantor and the others. It’s not uncommon to record songs track by track, but coordinating parts over the phone and through emails isn’t typically par for the course. Even so, these restrictions enabled a deeper collaborative process to transpire, since Lawrence and company reflected on each and every note.
“It was the most people I’d ever had work on a record, and we had the time and space to really dissect and discuss everyone’s parts….trying to give everyone as much creative liberty as possible takes the music to a place you’d never be able to take it on your own,” Lawrence notes.
Meticulous revisions, constant experimentation, and extreme focus produced an album with cohesion and unified sound. Strings underneath Lawrence’s sweet yet melancholic voice transport listeners to another time. His songwriting has been compared to James Taylor, and on this album he reaches both the warmth of Neil Young and the complexity of Leonard Cohen. Full of love-struck dreams, Lawrence casts aside some of the weariness of his previous albums for an experience that is distinctly more hopeful.
That happens when a person gets married, which Lawrence did. His celebration of love demonstrates that deep appreciation for what one has can be more intense than remorse for what one has lost. Twangy waltzes and hazy folk hummers fill the album with a soft, pondering joy.
“This kind of melancholic loneliness that we all might feel at some point, that’s when I usually reach out for music, taking a negative feeling and turning it into something constructive,” Lawrence says. “With a lot of these songs, I was trying to find the words to celebrate getting to a point where I can look back on the times where I wasn’t as happy.”
The title track “Fool for You” tells stories of outlaws and fools, hopeless to resist the person of their dreams. A hokey-sweet video accompanies the tune, showing scenes from the Old West playing out as fantasies. Vintage sounds extend through other tunes like “Jukebox,” which was inspired by Lawrence’s real-life meet-cute with his wife. Through hazy ballrooms, dive bars, and vintage jukeboxes, Lawrence finds dignified beauty in the archaic, weaving parts of his own past into an embellished story in which anyone can imagine themselves.
Some of his songs feel like they’re told by a person twice his age looking back on where he is now. Nostalgia surrounds almost every aspect of Lawrence’s sound and writing. Keeping “one foot in the past, and one foot in the present,” Lawrence immerses himself in the classic, not only studying his folk forefathers of the ’60s and ’70s, but admiring sounds from all over the world.
Working with other songwriters has been especially valuable for Lawrence in developing this record.
“I’ve generally just spent a lot of time playing as a support member and other people’s songwriting projects. I’ve made a lot of friends who write music…and they’ve been just as influential on how I think about songwriting,” Lawrence says. “[Producing this album] was painstaking work, but also a great way to stay connected to all of these people that I’m used to seeing and making music with.”
Fool for You is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and on CD and vinyl.