Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Photo: Kathryn Vetter Miller / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Sorceress
Jess Williamson

Mexican Summer

15 May 2020

"The witch has gone mainstream," according to Jess Williamson's Facebook post. Indeed, the social and political climate has spawned an occult revival leading individuals to find solace in tarot, astrology, or Reddit communities such as r/WitchesVSPatriarachy. On Williamson's new album Sorceress, released from Mexican Summer, she reimagines the occult as source power, a buoy of hope among the tumult. Sorceress addresses the magical effects of empowerment and self-awareness as Williamson trumpets the need to discover inner strength despite the personal and sociocultural detritus.

On the album's title track, she realizes the embodiment of belief is imperfect, "Yes, there's a little magic in my hat / But I'm no sorceress." Williamson's understanding of sorcery is not the gimmicky repackaged ideology conflating belief with capitalism as found at Urban Outfitters. On "Wind on Tin", Williamson sees the danger in an ideology losing its magnitude once capitalism takes it over. Instead, she revels in the limitations of belief and humanity. When she hears the sound of wind on tin, she wonders if she's hearing God. She implies that if the sound is what you want to position as a divine entity, then so be it, as long as it's authentic. Williamson believes capitalist consumption is disingenuous, and so is any action caused by hypocritical religious doctrines. She asks on "Rosaries at the Border" how the United States, erroneously dubbed a Christian nation, can enact the violence and horror at the Mexico/US border. She decries the inhumanity and throws marvelous shade when she says, "Forgive my nation, they know what they do."

The witch's graceless aging process is an explicit rejection of gender norms. It is the witches' agency and control of her own body that delineates the terror emanating from the witch image. Aging, specifically society's negative response to a woman aging, underscores Sorceress. In "Ponies in Town", Williamson questions, "Am I aging well? Am I just an aging well? Every day we get a little further on the trail." Similarly, in "Gulf of Mexico", she realizes she doesn't want to participate in drunken beach debauchery or rely on Tinder to find her next lover. Instead, she embraces her aging body, the lines on her face, and concludes, "I'd rather be at home." Williamson allows herself personal fluidity yet knows society lacks the same elasticity, especially with gender expectations.

On the album's press release, she poses the questions, "what is an aging woman in this society? What is a childless woman?" In "Ponies in Town", she continues to wonder how her miscarriage redefines her as a woman at both the individual and societal levels. "Gulf of Mexico" answers her query: "If we wanted to be mothers, we're out of time for being alone / Now if we're being honest, I'd rather be the crow." Here Williamson disputes constructing women as solely maidens, mothers, or crones. Considering the witch identity influence, Williamson unpacks the overlap between the archetypes, and Sorceress exhibits the sterility in foisting a singular identity on a woman.

For Williamson, magic is parallel to the wisdom derived from self-awareness. In "Infinite Scroll" she is invited to a former lover's wedding. Despite still clearly caring for him, she smartly decides not to go. 'Infinite scroll' is a reference to the online technology enabling social media platforms to constantly add new content at the end of the page à la Twitter and Instagram. Williamson's connection and separation represent the endless scroll. However, her emotional growth interrupts the infinity. She remembers "swearing love can't die when I believed that" but then considers her current person and says, "You'd be proud of how I'm living now". This acquired wisdom is Sorceress' foundation.

Much as Williamson charts her psychic growth, Sorceress also musically waxes. Whereas Williamson's folk roots are evident, she also incorporates a myriad of contrasting genres. "As the Birds Are" melds '70s funk with Joni Mitchell's vocal aesthetics, while "How Ya Lonesome" pays homage to the '90s pop-country. "Smoke" is emblematic of Williamson's ability to garner power from her voice and guitar. The track employs lush multi-layered instrumentation, creating a bittersweet dynamism. Elsewhere, the instrumentation is piled on. For instance, the whipping sound on "Sorceress" highlighting the lyric "I can't tame a lion" is corny while the chirping crickets are distracting. The latter is a low-effort attempt in redressing the pastoral folk energy masterfully portrayed in "Love's Not Hard to Find".

Williamson's wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

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