Cole Williams was once described as a cross between Grace Jones and the girl next door, an unlikely combination that only makes sense if your neighbor is one of the most accomplished up-and-coming musicians in New Orleans.
A Brooklyn native, Williams moved to the Crescent City in 2014, and within two years was performing onstage at the Jazz Fest. Her local profile rose further when she began hosting WWOZ’s New Orleans Music Show, ushering in 2017 with a playlist that included legendary soul queen Irma Thomas, the Hot 8 Brass Band and avant-garde cellist Helen Gillet—all of whom will, like Williams, be playing main stages at this year’s French Quarter Festival.
As for the other side of the equation, Williams happily acknowledges her love for Grace Jones, the early ’80s musician whose deeply distinctive voice, avant-disco production and elegantly idiosyncratic image made her one of the most intriguing figures on the early New Wave scene.
“I’d always listened to songs like ‘Pull Up to the Bumper,’” says Williams, “but I really got into her more recently—I would say the last eight years—just through friends telling me that I remind them of Grace Jones. We also share a similar story: Her family grew up in the same part of Jamaica that my family is from. We both had strict religious upbringings. I just think that we come from the same tribe, and so there’s going to always be those similarities.”
So much so, in fact, that Williams gave her mixing engineer a copy of Jones’s most recent album to use as the sonic template for Believe, her forthcoming release on Louisiana Red Hot Records, a label that’s also home to Dumpstaphunk, Chubby Carrier and the New Orleans Suspects.
While the self-described Punk Empress of African Rock is clearly fond of the prominent synthesizers, gated reverb and other sonic paraphernalia of ’80s pop, Believe is anything but one-dimensional. Various acoustic elements, from African percussion to a traditional horn section, are woven into a mix that perfectly complements Williams’ impressive range, gorgeously layered vocals and artfully crafted pop hooks. In its best moments, the album brings to mind classic Prince or latter-day Janelle Monáe. The artist also tips her hat to Terence Trent D’Arby as she quotes a line from “Sign Your Name” during the chorus of the album’s title track.
While Williams usually writes, arranges and produces her own material, she’s never lost sight of the early soul and gospel music with which she grew up. In 2017, she released a slightly modified cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” changing the refrain from “I know a change is gonna come” to “I know you know a change is gonna come,” and closing with a self-assured “It’s right here, right now.”
“I think that, because I’m from the Church, I always have optimism,” Williams says. “I believe that it might just take that one person who says ‘I don’t want to be treated this way and I don’t feel that people that look like me should be treated this way,’ and then comes the civil rights movement. Or that one person who says, ‘It’s my body, my choice.’ I just believe that we don’t really emphasize just how important one person can be to our getting away from that mob mentality. So when I say ‘It’s right here, right now,’ it’s like I’m talking to myself, to empower and inspire myself to keep moving forward.”
Williams says she also continues to be inspired by her adopted city’s music scene, and the degree to which it’s welcomed her in such a short period of time. “In New York, you have all these different scenes but, to be honest, there’s not a lot of overlap. But down here, there definitely is. One of my drummers is part of the jazz scene, but he also plays my music. And I know musicians who are part of the singer-songwriter scene or are in punk bands, and you’ll go see them and there’ll be this horn player sitting in with them. It’s like we’re all connected by the music.”
So what will it take to bring New Orleans the same level of media attention that helped turn her native Brooklyn into a music mecca?
“We have a lot of musicians, but there’s not a big music industry here,” says Williams. “I started out as a songwriter in New York, and I remember going to Sony Studios, to all these production studios, to Warner/Chappell and Universal. And we don’t have those down here. I think that once we get our own Warner Brothers New Orleans, our own Universal Music New Orleans, our own Blue Note New Orleans, that’s what’s really going to put us on the map. I think that’s what will make us recognized as a music industry town, and not just a town that has some of the best musicians in the world.”
Sunday, April 14, 2p
GE Digital Big River Stage