An Interview with Saul Williams
In his newest album, Volcanic Sunlight, Saul Williams sings about his heart, city streets and embracing the underbelly while enjoying the light. Shedding what he calls "the political narrative", Volcanic Sunlight is a joyful glimpse into "who I am and what I think…how my friends experience me, how my family experiences me." Since moving to Paris in June of 2011, Williams finished recording Volcanic Sunlight, filmed a movie in Senegal and started understanding the anatomy of good wine. We talked to Williams about how his surroundings help him to create, especially the "rustic and raw" Paris penthouse that he's renting.
You've moved to Paris. Why Paris?
I decided to come to Paris really almost on a whim. I was living in L.A. and I had to move. Before I found a place I had to go on tour and my first stop on the tour was in Paris, and I bumped into a friend from New York in Paris and I told him I was going to be moving when I got back to L.A. and he was just like, "Yo, you should come see my place because I'm moving to Australia. It would be awesome if you took over my place. You should move here."
You sent an amazing photo of your writing desk. The first thing I noticed was that the walls around it are blue. Does blue have a special meaning for you or was it painted by the previous tenant?
No. it was already like that. I love the color of the blue. There's something about blue that even though it's just a small little cave, there's something about that blue that makes it the opposite of claustrophobic. There's something super open about that space. And it's funny, because it’s really one of the only places in my house that is not windows. I live on the top floor of the building and 80% of the space is covered with windows. There are 22 windows in my apartment, and then I have the entire roof, so mostly what I see from here is sky. So I was interested in seeking out one place to write, although I can't say I do all my writing there. I write a lot in bed as well.
Do you write mostly in your house or do you go out into Paris and write also?
I write mostly in the house. My days of being outside, writing, were more so when I lived in New York. When I started writing I was very much interacting with people while I was writing. I would write on the Metro…A lot of my first poems were written in nightclubs and I would just write when a song was on that I didn't like or as I was dancing. Without looking at the paper I would be writing. It used to be fun for me. It was like dancing of the mind, too, because the music – I got lost in it and it would charge my imagination and I'd think of crazy shit like, you know, Basquiat dressed as Hendrix on Halloween and I wouldn't want to lose it so I'd be writing on the dance floor.
Up here, I write a lot in bed. I've got a beautiful view from my bedroom.
Have you seen your work change as the environment that you're writing in changes?
I remember it being clear, the change in my writing, when I moved from New York to L.A. I remember that in New York I would write these dance things with these very coarse diamond-like phrases like And I know G-d personally, in fact He lets me call Him me. And I would have these poems that I guess were kind of long but also were jam-packed with these ideas. And when I moved out to L.A., what was once 3 pages now became 10 pages. There were more flowers in the writing…When I got to L.A., the first major poem I wrote, Said the Shotgun to the Head, took me 4 years to write.
Where did you write it? Did you write it inside the house or out in public somewhere?
When I lived in L.A., I lived in a beautiful Japanese pagoda-style house in Laurel Canyon. My house was surrounded by 19 families of bamboo. It was private. There was a big fence so that I could sit out there and have the illusion of being in the middle of the countryside. I called it "The Hermitage". It looked like a tree house; most of my friends called it my "tree house".
So it gave you the time and space to write a piece that took 4 years to write.
What is it about Paris and the environment you've created there for yourself that's supporting you writing these fantastic pop songs?
I live in the center of Paris with one of the only accessible roof tops. Like this past Sunday, Japanese "Elle" rented my apartment for the day so that they could shoot on my roof. Usually once a month I rent the roof out and I'm able to pay part of my rent because it's rented by movies or commercials and what have you.
So the privilege of my space is that not only am I in Paris, I'm looking over Paris sort of like a bird perched on some mountain top. I have a 360 view of Paris from my roof which look down into the streets, look down into the alleys, look up over it, and because Paris has this…I grew up in New York and so I am used to the idea of the city and a city that has a lot of international commuters and what have you, but the thing about New York is that it’s in America and people come to America and they're open to the idea of America. They don't necessarily always keep the things that distinguish them with the culture that they're from. Where here, I see Senegalese dressed as Senegalese, and I live on the cusp of Little India and Little Turkey.
I notice that your personal style is a lot more expressive. You're doing more with clothes and accessories and makeup.
I think it's a reflection of my comfort with myself. How I dress on the outside now is a reflection of how I've always felt on the inside. Maybe I had on jeans and was imagining I was wearing red pants. Now I'm wearing the red pants [laughs].
It's something I was super conscious of from the beginning. Unlike some people who are fascinated with poetry, it was very clear to me since I was a child that I was preparing for life in the world of "entertainment". I knew I wanted to be an actor; I was doing theater from the time was 8 or 9 years old…I loved being in plays. I loved making music. I loved the creative process. But I also like colorful people. As time passed, I realized that the people that I enjoyed were the people who had the courage to be themselves. My style started changing a lot when I was on tour with Nine Inch Nails, actually. Because when I was touring with Nine Inch Nails someone would show me photos of us on stage, and I'd look at me and I'd be like, "Huh. That looks so boring."
And so the first thing I did was I gave myself a white Mohawk so that the next time I saw an image I was like, "OK, that looks more interesting." So that's why actually Niggy Tardust ended up a colorful peacock of an experience.
Does that translate to the style of your surroundings?
Where I live is a huge part of my work, and it always has been. I spend a lot of time thinking about that because I grew up in a kind of bizarre house. I grew up in a house that was built by an architect named Alan Wright. Alan Wright built much of early New York. He built Madison Square Garden. He built the arch in Washington Square Park. He built a lot of Madison and 5th Avenue penthouses there. And he built a house for himself in 1905 in Newburgh, NY, which is where I grew up…and this house was magnificent. It was crazy – my parents had bought it for $28,000 because it was at a time where the city was crap and the house was cold and beat up. So my parents bought it for cheap and that's where I lived. It had 28 rooms, 9 fireplaces and it was in the middle of the ghetto. So it was this crazy house I grew up in, and that's where I started writing. That's where I started exploring music. And my bedroom was round and I would stay up late at night looking at the walls, looking at the shadows on the ceiling. The architecture of that house stays with me.
From that point on, almost every place that I've lived had to have some sort of character. It's almost like I was spoiled by that experience. And so now, I do work out of home and so that's the excuse I make – my home is my office or my studio so I'm willing to pay a little more instead of for a separate studio. So there's always got to be some sort of character.
What kind of elements in a home do you like? What really gives something character?
Nooks and crannies. The thing that's, like, the winning element of this house really is its rustic kind of raw sensibilities. It's covered with bright colors but it's pretty raw and the main thing is the windows; that we commune with the outside; that we're taller than everything. I wake up; I see clouds as if they're my next door neighbor. At night I see stars and lights for miles.
So it gives you access to imagery to write about from inside your home. Would that be right?
Either that, or it doesn't obstruct the imagery that's going on inside. It's not so much that I'm looking outside and writing. I'm doing more looking inside and writing. When I do look outside, the way that the lights play with the sky and the windows and all that…like right now, at this very moment, is my favorite time of night. It's 6:00 here and the sun is setting; it's purple outside; there's a green light that I'm looking at that I have on my dresser. So maybe it's blue outside and the green and purple blend together making this purplish kind of thing. It's crazy in here in terms of light. And yeah, that with music and a bottle of wine – that's a book of poetry, that's a song, that's something. I always enjoy it.
What percentage of the day when you're home in the house are you doing that kind of creative work?
Really the majority of the day. I started a routine: When I lived in L.A. I was full time with my daughter, and so I had to work normally when she was at school which would be between 9 and 3, and then when I'd come home from picking her up at school the normal routine of single parenthood – playing, cooking, bath time, read, go to bed. And so then I'd probably have my life back in terms of creative life around 10 PM. And then maybe, like, from 10 to whatever it would be a different type. From 9 to 3 it would be a type of working and then from 10 to the middle of the night let's say I could be less sober [laughs].
I understand. Do you mind if I ask what your favorite intoxicants are?
One, I am all for the legalization of marijuana. And I like good wine.
You have plenty of good wine in Paris.
Oh, yeah and it's cheap. And here I'm learning. Like, I've never understood wine. People used to say, "Ah, this one is dry and fruity," and I was like, "I don't know. It tastes like wine. What do you mean 'it's dry'?"
What are you working on now? I see that you have a tour coming up.
The next thing that I have coming up and out is I shot a film this past summer in Senegal…It was really my first major role since my first film and it's called Aujourd'hui, which means "today" in French...it's just been selected for the Berlin Film Festival and we première at the festival on February 10th.
Right now I am really transitioning back into my film work and my acting work, which I left alone for a few years. After I did "Slam", it was such a powerful experience for me I didn't really feel compelled to just make money acting. I love acting so much that I couldn't just see it like a 9 to 5, and take a job because of its money and I'd get to play the funny Black guy against the handsome white guy. It just wasn't a good fit for me. So I wrote books and made music to pass the time and now I am starting to feel the film bug again.
Catch Saul Williams on tour this February and March at venues across the US. Also, he recently edited a poetry anthology, Chorus, which will be released by MTV Books in September.