This Kathryn Williams article was written by Fay Lenehan, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Hazel Webster. Lead photo by Tony Ioannides
The 50th anniversary of literary classic, ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath in 2013 spurred a commission from the Durham Book Festival to the very talented Kathryn Williams’, requesting a small collection of songs based on the works of Sylvia Plath. Williams originally completed 5 songs for the original event, but afterwards was left feeling compelled to continue exploring the unheard voices of characters in the novel. Eventually, 5 songs became 9 and in June 2015 she released ‘Hypoxia’, her 12th album.
Williams describes how she did not want to just put Plath’s words to music and instead delved much deeper into her writing. Some songs on the album come from the view of protagonist Esther Greenwood but Williams also wrote some to provide an insight to the feelings of other characters like the completely gorgeous ‘Cuckoo’, coming from the perspective of Esther’s mother. Opening with “My little girls gone mad, and who will they blame but me”, Williams portrays the despair, embarrassment and frustration of the character.
I was fortunate enough to catch Kathryn Williams perform ‘Hypoxia’ and conduct a Q&A afterwards, as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. Held in the gorgeous Hallé St Peters, a grade 2 listed deconsecrated church, watching the performance live was truly a magical experience; so much more emotional and powerful than listening to the recorded album. Williams is captivating to watch with a beautiful singing voice, bold yet still soft and delicate. Her supporting band was equally as fantastic and despite being made up of just 3 other musicians, they somehow managed to seem much larger.
The boldness of Plath’s story has been interpreted beautifully in this album and the live performance was incredibly simple but endlessly effective. Kathryn Williams is not an artist that needs gimmicks to be fantastic and all the simple components of the performance together, backed up with a wonderful band, soft and dreamy lighting, and a gorgeous venue made for a truly exquisite performance.
In the subsequent Q&A, Williams discusses how it was incredibly difficult to write to a character and often felt like Sylvia Plath was a ‘ghostly collaborator’ of sorts. Despite this, she describes how ‘Hypoxia’ became an immensely personal experience and indeed Plath’s writing tends to have this effect, with many people all over the world identifying with ‘The Bell Jar’, so it’s little surprise that this bleeds over into the album.
I could have sat and watched her perform the album 3 times in a row and not have become distracted, it was truly captivating. Williams describes she was keen to express to the world that she wasn’t trying to “ride on the back of ‘The Bell Jar’s’ fame” but there was no danger of this as anyone who listens to the album can instantly hear that it is a truly magical interpretation and seeing it performed live was all the more powerful. A unique performance from a truly underrated artist.