Van William has spent every summer of his life working on his father’s commercial salmon fishing boat off Kodiak Island, Alaska – a job he loved and a job that influenced every part of his life. When he wasn’t fishing, he was growing up in the small coastal California town of Cambria, learning to write songs and eventually touring the world by the age of 20 – leading a few different indie rock outfits including Port O’Brien and WATERS. He always knew he could fall back on fishing, until earlier this year when his father announced he would be retiring and selling the boat after 49 summers in Alaska. This coincided with the love of his life ending their 6 year long relationship. The two events sent Van reeling.
“I had always genuinely considered taking over the boat,” explains William. “Music has always been my passion, but as a realist who also loves the physical labor and intensity of commercial fishing, I could never really know which career path would be more fulfilling or what I would be better at.” The decision was made for him and his sudden and profound losses forced him to focus on what matters most, resulting in his remarkable solo debut Countries.
Anchored in Van William’s love of melodic songcraft and infused with melancholy, Countries doesn’t belong to any specific style. It’s American Heartache, music that stirs up forgotten memories and feels eternal and fresh, as it pulls the past into the present as a way of navigating considerable loss.
Countries feels immediate, reflecting how Van William had no other option than letting his feelings spill on the page. “I was freaked out, but part of that freak-out was this renewed sense of drive and purpose. I had to take stock of where I was at musically. My previous projects no longer felt honest in their pursuit and style. This cataclysm of events shook me back into feeling present with what I want to do and who I want to be as an artist. I don’t know if I would’ve got there without it.”
Van William’s tumultuous year can be heard on Countries, an album that also exudes warmth, mirroring the intimacy of its recording. After writing the record in seclusion in the Sierra Nevada, he decided to head to a studio in Stinson Beach, Marin County, California with a few close friends—including his co-producer Brian Phillips, Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith, POP ETC bassist Chris Chu and keyboardist Tam Visher— creating a homespun atmosphere whose coziness can be heard on the album. This was the only way this album could be recorded—confessional songs delivered with the support of confidants.
Van William was well aware that he created Countries during a period where his own country was roiled with tension, realizing that his own stories carried a wider sociological dimension. “I started to think of the idea of two people in a relationship acting as separate countries. Different countries that start as two separate entities but throughout history, their borders change and morph into each other. They’re constantly trying to figure out how to get along, and that felt like so much to me like my experience with my last relationship.”
Such parallels surface clearly on “Revolution,” a song about a couple at odds on how to solve their problems that can also be read as a political rallying cry. Thanks to harmonies from the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, “Revolution” carries a delicate sense of heartbreak, a sentiment that also echoes on “The Middle”—a sensitively etched portrait of a relationship’s second act—and the lush “Skyward,” which floats upward on its sweet strings. But Countries doesn’t strictly dwell on sadness. “Fourth of July” camouflages its yearning for emotional freedom in an effervescent melody, “Cosmic Sign” offers a ray of hope in its celebration of the wide vistas of America, while “Never Had Enough Of You” rumbles forth with a barnstorming majesty reminiscent of early 70’s Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
Countries may also recall the burnished ache of acoustic Young but in its melancholic forgiveness, the album suggests such modern touchstones as Beck’s Sea Change, and like those masters, Van William has the skill to turn his own heartbreak into something rich, resonant and true.