I was brushing my teeth the other night when I had a “GREAT IDEA” about how to intro this interview. Writers: you already know how this went down.
I had been spending a lot of time with these hazy childhood memories of Paul Williams on The Muppet Show, his most famous songs running through my head. Something clicked. YES! I finished brushing my teeth, washed my face, got a drink of water, sat down at my desk and it was… gone! It was like someone had wiped that area of my pre-frontal lobe clean.
I racked my brain. Was it something about his unlikely stardom? No… What about how he champions aspiring songwriters as President and Chairman of the Board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)? No, that wasn’t it either. Was it something about that guy who made that documentary about how he thought Paul Williams was dead? Nah, but that’s a great story. Okay, it had to be something about him winning the 2014 Album of the Year Grammy with Daft Punk. No, I couldn’t find a thread. I was furious with myself. The “GREAT IDEA” was gone.
Then I remembered something from talking with Paul. I put my head back and I drifted down into that region of near-sleep where dream thoughts percolate and vanish when you hear a noise and you come to. My dog barked, and I opened my eyes.
Paul Williams would say that this is the most important part of the creative process: letting go and being optimistic that the right thing will come, even if it’s not the thing you thought you wanted. Even if what you end up with is nothing like what you pictured (and then spaced out on) while brushing your teeth, sometimes it works out all right.
My germ of a “GREAT IDEA” wasn’t meant to be. And that’s okay, because Paul Williams says so. Williams had so much more to say, of course; we talked about his fascinating life, his love of helping people (he’s a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor as well), and his passion for showing a digital generation the true value of music.
You’ve said that you started writing music as a way to “journal” your experiences from very early on. Do you remember what first inspired you to express yourself in that way?
You know, I’ve always said that songwriting is a gift. I started out wanting to be an actor. But I was [also] one of these tiny little kids who sang “Danny Boy” for his dad. Well, when I was thirteen, my dad was killed in a car wreck. At that point, it’s like music disappeared out of my life. I quit singing, and all I wanted to do was be an actor. At the time, my mother shipped me off to live with an aunt and an uncle that I didn’t know in Long Beach. My mother was told she couldn’t afford both of us, so she kept my little brother and so I was shipped off. At that point, I wanted to be an actor. Obviously, I wanted to be somebody other than myself at that time.
But when the acting career fizzled when I was around twenty-seven… I’d done a couple of movies I did—I did one called The Loved One with John Gielgud. It’s a very interesting picture about the funeral business. Then I did a movie called The Chase, and I thought that was going to be a big break for me; I had a few lines in it. But when it was released, I saw that my part in the movie was cut out! So, there I was with no money, depressed, and no career; the phone stopped ringing, then they came and took the phone out…
All of a sudden, this little guitar I had became the cheapest therapy in the world. As soon as I picked it up, I started writing. I guess there was some piece of me that felt like I’d done it before. I didn’t think that at the time, but looking back I do. And then, of course, the first time you play a song for somebody—especially a young lady that maybe said that didn’t want to go out with you—and suddenly her head tilts to the side and she says, “Oh, that’s really nice!” And you think, “Okay, something major just changed!”
Beyond the joking, the fact is that when I started writing songs, I finally felt like I was home. It was absolutely home.