An Interview with Saul Williams - Canadian Music Week, Toronto - March 22, 2012

By Mark Millard

Saul Williams is as fascinating as they come. Actor, writer, poet and musician, Williams is a man of infinite forte; truly exemplified over the past few months. After releasing the follow up to Niggy Tardust (his work with the renowned Trent Reznor) titled Volcanic Sunlight, Williams promptly saw the February premier of his new film Aujourd’hui. He’s also primed to release his fifth book Chorus: A Literary Mixtape in September.

In Toronto as part of Canadian Music Week, Williams took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Mark Millard about Volcanic Sunlight and Aujourd’hui, as well as the importance of being a well-rounded individual.

Mark:  It’s been a very busy but exciting year. What’s the general vibe with Saul Williams early on in 2012?

Saul:  It’s pretty much how it always is for me. I’m excited about being alive and about having the opportunity to share ideas. I live within the idea of somehow shifting media so that it feeds us rather than drain us, you know? I feel lucky enough to have grown up at a time where, for example, the hip-hop I grew up with instructed me; it taught me so much. It didn’t just teach me how to fly a bird down south or cook up a brick (Laughter). It taught me some really interesting points that I still identify with and being a fan of that, as well as a fan of punk rock and a fan of the possibilities that exist in music culture, youth culture and art culture, they can always have an effect on society at large. Like I said, I’m really excited to contribute to that and primarily I’m always hoping people find whatever I’m doing useful for others in their individual path and journey.

Mark:  Let’s talk about Volcanic Sunlight. With your previous release Niggy Tardust you worked with Trent Reznor, which was amazing; his signature was certainly evident throughout the record. This time around you worked with Renaud Letang. I find with his music, Feist being a good example, he certainly utilizes the signature and style of the artists themselves…

Saul:  Which is why I really wanted to work with Renaud, because he’s a real producer who really, like you said, aids the artist in bringing out their signature sound. And it’s often times a lot of artists he works with are people who come from groups that are trying to find their individual self. I kind of felt that way when I entered that project with him and I went to him with my demos already completed and I felt like one of the strongest things I could do after Trent was to do something I just really felt like hearing; Without any other signatures involved. It was the same thing I did after I did Amethyst Rock Star where I worked with Rick Rubin, my second album I worked alone. Because it was important for me to just do what I felt like without someone over my shoulder pushing me in one direction or another; even though I’m really grateful for the opportunities that I had for people to be over my shoulder pushing me in directions, but at times, it’s also important to spend time with self and figure out what you’ve learned and contemplate what you’ve learned and demonstrate what you’ve learned in your own work. So the Saul Williams album, like Volcanic Sunlight, are two examples of more so where my head is as opposed to who I’m collaborating with.

Mark:  Has this process of working with a renowned producer and then stepping away to work somewhat liberally and independently helped you develop as a songwriter?

Saul:  Immensely. I learned so much working with Trent for example. I really learned a lot about song format, which is something I really tried to learn from the days of Rick Rubin when he was encouraging me to learn about song structure. I remember the first time me and Rick would share music and certain things; I asked him about Jeff Buckley who I was in love with. I was like, what do you think about Jeff Buckley and he says, “I like his voice but I don’t like his song structure.” At the time I was like, “What the hell does that mean? You don’t like his song structure – it’s Jeff Buckley dude!” (Laughter) With time, though I never agreed with that statement because I do like Jeff’s song structures, I was able to participate in that conversation more through learning about song structure, you know? Because you listen to my first album, it’s pretty much poetry over beats. It’s long verses no chorus’ or vice versa, it’s just me having fun without utilizing the structure. My second album I was really studying structure more. Volcanic Sunlight is really me deeply imbedded and playing around with song structure and I think I’ve learned a lot because I’ve chosen to work with some great people, like Trent and Rick, or maybe it’s because of my background in theater; I know the power of a great director. Regardless of how good an actor you are, if you’re with a great director, you’re going to pull out something wonderful. And that’s the same with a great producer with the context I work in.

Mark:  I understand you also played a lot more on this record than in the past. How might that change the dynamic of the song?

Saul:  The difference is I’ve been writing music since my first album, but up until now, I would have musicians come in and replace what I played. With Volcanic Sunlight, we loved the feel of my demos so much that we pretty much decided to keep everything. We then wanted to add on top of it, but to keep what was in the demos. So that’s how I ended up playing so much on Volcanic Sunlight because we kept everything I played when I was home alone writing the songs. But we added real horns and live drums on top of my programming, which brought a lot of extra energy to it. But it feels good; it feels like I’m evolving and growing, which is cool. If it didn’t feel like that over the course of time I’ve been working on music, I’d be a little scared.

Mark:  To build off of that: At this point in your career, what does the album Volcanic Sunlight mean to you?

Saul:  It’s kind of an album I made for my friends. Like Amethyst Rock Star I made for the excitement of the opportunity, and with the urgency of what I felt needed to be said if I was indeed going to be given a stage or a network to reach a lot of people with. Saul Williams, my second album, was really me having skateboarders in mind; writing music for skateboarders. Niggy Tardust was supposed to be this beautifully orchestrated middle finger to the idea of genre. Volcanic Sunlight, I wanted to reflect my music collection. I wanted it to reflect what I liked to listen to from Brazilian Music to African music to polyrhythmic drums. I really wanted it to reflect what I’d listen to in my house, because like I said; I don’t really listen to myself, whereas with other albums I was trying to fill a void as to what I wish I could hear or what I wish was out there. With Volcanic Sunlight I really had nothing to prove and was really just trying to create something that existed beautifully within my home, so that I could walk into a room in my space and if I heard (sings a beat), I’d be like, “Yeah, I would listen to this song.”

Mark:  You strike me as the kind of individual who loves to experience the world around him, and ultimately, reflect and learn from those experiences; a student of the world if you will. That said, you recently learned a new language for your film Aujourd’hui. Vous avez appris le francais.

Saul:  Oui.

Mark:  Just how tough of an undertaking was it to learn a new language?

Saul:  Well, I was already living in France for a year when I got the offer to do this film and so what it did, it intensified my study of the language. And really as someone who writes, it’s such a great benefit to learn other languages because I had already learned Portuguese as a teenager and now learning French, one thing it does; it enhances my understanding of English. And the other thing that it does, because you’re also embedded in a different culture, it enhances my understanding of how much of what I do or expect from other situations, comes from my culture versus’ what comes from me, you know? And so learning the language for the film and just for life for me was a beautiful process. But also just being embedded in the culture, learning some Wolof and being able to spend a couple of months in Senegal and all that, and being an African American where we don’t really know what African country we come from or what have you (most of us), Africa becomes this sort of dreamscape for us; like, “I wonder if this is where I’m from?” It’s a gift to have the opportunity for us to spend time there and from a first hand perspective, see what the style is like and what have you. So then it’s language, culture and all of these things coming together.

Mark:  Tell me about Paris et la bon-vivance! How has this changed you as an artist or quite simply as a person?

Saul:  I think the coolest thing about living in Paris for me has to do with the fact that I moved there from LA. So being in Paris has essentially reengaged me with the importance of the art itself; beyond networking and beyond the compromise of work marketability or anything like that. It’s connected me with just the importance, the strength, the power and the beauty of art itself and it’s made me want to create work where I’m less concerned about the marketability and all of these things, because a lot of times artists compromise before they even get asked to compromise just because they’re second guessing what’s going to work and what isn’t going to. Before you know it your whole relationship and your artwork has changed. So after spending 10 years in LA, and before I was in New York where I’m from obviously, and now being in Paris has really just strengthened my creative identity and made me really happy to call myself “an artist”. It’s given me the space and in some ways, the isolation to just focus in on the things I want to do; from filmmaking to writing to music.

Mark:  For those who don’t know since it just recently premiered, what is the film Aujourd’hui about, and what can you tell us about the character you play?

Saul:  The name of my character is Satché and it takes place in a fictitious village in West Africa where the dead come to choose one person to go back to the land of the dead within, per generation. That person is essentially called “the chosen” for one day because they find out on the morning they’re going to die. And then they know they’re going to die peacefully in their sleep that night. And so for 24 hours they represent this thing in their community where everyone is extremely thankful because they know they’re gonna win a lot of modern day amenities because of this ancient idea of sacrifice where they’ll get a new school, a new hospital and all these things. So they’re all really thankful and this guy is like a celebrity for a day so there is that celebratory idea mixed in with the reality of a wife and family who are all just like, “I’m gonna miss you, what the hell?” And this is a guy who emigrated from the United States and lived there for 15 years only to come back. Everybody there was like, “Why would you come back? It’s all of our dreams to go to the US and do whatever, but you came back. Why would you come back? If you hadn’t, you couldn’t be selected; you wouldn’t be dying.” So it puts him in an interesting situation to explain, or rather not explain, why he chose to come back. And just seeing the last 24 hours of his life, what he chooses to do; it’s beautiful because it’s peaceful and you really get to see a lot of just everyday life. We shot it in Senegal, but in the film itself we don’t really reference it, or where we shot it.

Mark:  And you’ve been to Senegal before, but what was the experience like for you this time around; seeing it from perhaps a different perspective?

Saul:  The first time I was there was as a tourist with my mom. This time I was there really with a bunch of Senegalese people, going into houses and eating with people. Everyday life is full of looking for work or transportation what have you; but eating together, having tea, the importance of the simple things whether you’re rich or poor are the beautiful aspects of the every day life, and simply seeing how the meals are prepared and sharing a big plate of food with a group of people, or everyone eating with their hands or with forks and spoon but altogether from the same bowl, It was really all about the communal aspect of sharing that was wonderful for me, really wonderful.

Mark:  What do you hope for viewers to take from this film?

Saul:  There’s so much to take from that film. Some people describe the film as being a meditation from dying because it’s true; the film in many ways is about that. But it’s also more a meditation on gracefully, peacefully, simply. And then it’s also for many of us over here, an eye opener. Because as I said, it’s an opportunity away from the National Geographic’s and all the “Please give money” videos; just seeing some real day in the life stuff in West Africa. And I think for audience members that know me as an African American, I think it might be a little thrilling to see me in these villages and market places and just all of this stuff as I was doing it I felt I was giving whoever was seeing it an opportunity to live vicariously through me and to give some people their first trip to Africa away from the Hollywood crazy idea you would normally see. And that’s what I’d hope to deliver, to break away from some of the ideas that you might expect. It’s beautiful I’m really happy with it.

Mark:  Lastly, you have quite an eclectic music taste. If I were to place your iPod on shuffle, what might I hear?

Saul:  I actually had my iPod of shuffle this morning and what came up was Om Kalsoum, the Egyptian singer. Little Dragon I listened to today, as well as Gang Star. I think I listened to PJ Harvey, some Childish Gambino came up; Lil’ B, Lil’ Wayne and some stuff played by Vladimir Horowitz, some George Benson came on and some Cameron; the Flamenco guitarist. I think I heard some Congo Tronics today; Maybe some A Tribe Called Quest as well.

Mark:  I find it interesting you mention someone like Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino; a well-rounded artist himself.

Saul:  Of course.

Mark:  How important do you think it is to be a well-rounded artist in this day and age?

Saul:  I think it’s more important to be a well-rounded individual, whether you classify yourself as an artist or not. If you are an artist, I think that’s cool but that doesn’t mean you have to go into all these different art forms. We have the capacity to do a lot with our cameras, our phones, our recording devices and our computers and all that so we can all dip and dive into that. But I think it’s just as awesome to become a master at one thing as well; it doesn’t matter. But I think in life, becoming a well rounded and harmonious, synchronized individual is wonderful regardless of what you’re doing. If you’re a school teacher or engineer, or if you work at a café, I think it’s important to take more than what’s given to you from the media or what have you, and to wonder into the bookstores and read stuff you’ve never heard of by writers who write in other languages or come from different cultures to listen to music that’s not necessarily in your mother tongue or that might not be your style; just try things out and do it for the fun of it. It’s like years ago when I first started making music I was like, “I want a pair of leather pants.” And then I got them and was like, “I can’t wear leather pants.” (Laughter) I don’t like people who wear leather pants on special occasions; I didn’t want to wear them unless I wore them every day. So for a year I wore them every day like Jim Morrison style, forced myself to make them feel like jeans for me so that I didn’t feel like I’m walking around, you know? So those little challenges you give yourself, it’s not necessarily a vegan example but it’s an example of how we push ourselves and challenge ourselves to become or inhabit the space that we choose to and break away from our fears or our comfort zones and become as you put, more well rounded.