The neon glow of Get Tight Lounge is set to vibrate to the rhythm of an old friend on June 9th. One of Richmond’s best live acts, DJ Williams, is returning to his musical roots, gracing the lounge with his versatile tunes and soulful strains in a special 20th-anniversary show that promises to be as electrifying as the day he left. Now a seasoned performer, Williams is also dropping his most personal album yet, Soldier of Love on June 29th, a compelling distillation of his musical journey thus far, and a testament to his commitment to his craft. We caught up with him a few weeks ago while he was playing New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Where are you right now?
I am in New Orleans. I’m actually down here for New Orleans Jazz Fest. I’ve been here for about a week.
That’s amazing– have you played Jazz Fest before?
Yeah, I’ve been coming down here every year for a little over a decade now.
Oh, that’s dope man. Well, my first question for you is, just to go through the basics, who are you and what do you do?
Well, my name is DJ Williams. I am a guitar player, singer, songwriter, and producer from Richmond, Virginia, and a touring musician as well. I started the DJ Williams Projekt in 2003. Then I started a rock-soul band called Shots Fired in 2013. And I’ve been touring with a San Diego band called Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe since 2011.
Are you originally from Richmond?
No, I was actually born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and lived abroad in West Africa for a little chunk of my childhood, then I lived in Richmond.
Gotcha. And have you been playing guitar your whole life? When did you pick it up?
No, I started guitar later in life, I’d say probably around 16 or 17– sometime in high school. But I started studying classical piano when I was four years old, while I was living in Jersey.
When did you get your foot in the door in the Richmond music scene?
I dropped out of Middle Tennessee State in 2002. I left Nashville and moved back to Richmond. I decided that I wanted to be on stage. So I started hanging out around the Richmond music scene and started piecing together guys that I wanted to start a band with– that’s how we started playing residency at this place called Cafe Diem every Tuesday. Our first show there was on June 3, 2003. That’s where I really learned my chops as a growing artist– it was in that venue every Tuesday for almost a decade.
Yeah, didn’t you guys also play at Cary Street Cafe a lot, too?
Yeah, we did. There was a really cool scene happening there at the same time.
You guys would just jam for hours.
For sure. There were all these jam sessions everywhere. Like at Bogart’s Back Room– I don’t know if you remember that spot– Devil’s Workshop was there every Monday. Then we had our thing on Tuesday, and they had a reggae thing on Wednesday at Martini Kitchen. Every night of the week, we were always out supporting all the artists in our scene.
Yeah, I remember Bogart’s Back Room– that was the best. It was kind of a jump-off for, I don’t know, half the bands that are in Richmond now. So, what did you like about the Richmond scene when you started?
Well, I don’t live in Richmond anymore– I left in 2015 and moved to LA, but I’ll go back a little bit for you. What I loved about the Richmond scene was that it wasn’t a city that had a music scene that was based on one sound. I grew up going to Twisters for Less Than Jake and all these great punk shows, but there was also my sister, who’s 10 years older than me, and she would always bring me out. She was sneaking me in when Dave Matthews was doing their Wednesday residency at that place– Have a Nice Day. Then, if you go down the way, there was a great club scene on Gray Street, or maybe Bio Ritmo was playing in a smoky bar.
Everybody was really different in their craft. There was a Richmond scene that wasn’t based on one genre of music and there’s a sense of community that I think everybody had. Everyone supported each other and fed off of each other’s art. I was immediately attracted to that. I wanted very much to be a part of it when I was growing up in that city.
Yeah, and I would say you were a big part of it. You kind of built a legacy. I remember when you moved to LA, because you had a huge party, and everybody saw you off. How is LA?
I think I’ve got to have to start with the reason that I went to LA. I felt like I had hit a wall in Richmond and I didn’t feel like I was being challenged, if that makes sense. I was sitting in a scene and I had a lot of work, but it felt like it was just in one city. I’d been playing with Karl for a while, but I was still living in Virginia and that band was based in San Diego. I loved San Diego but didn’t want to move there. Los Angeles seemed like it had something going on that could challenge me, but also a scene that I could be inspired by at the same time.
There was something there that seemed unattainable, and I wanted to put myself in a situation where I could really test myself to see if I could make it in this industry or not. So I dove headfirst into that LA scene, and it was really great. I met a lot of really great players and got to play with some of my heroes, and just the networking I could do out there was pretty incredible.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but you also went from an instrumentalist to a frontman.
Yeah. And I’m still doing it now, but I think I was on this search to find my voice and find out who I really was as an artist. I was trying to mold myself into whatever the real DJ Williams was instead of trying to appease everybody else around me.
And how has that been? It feels like you’re touring a lot now, right? You’re going to a lot of different places.
Yeah, I’m still touring with Karl but definitely transitioning into touring a lot of my own music and being a frontman for a new evolution of where I’m going as an artist.
Do you want to speak a little bit on that– the evolution of your music?
Yeah, that definitely started at the beginning of the pandemic. I was in Denver at the time and wasn’t sure what was happening with our industry, so I actually went back to Richmond for a few months. I put together a small studio and started to teach myself how to use Logic and record on my own. So I still got to have that creative outlet.
I put a drum set in the corner, and a bunch of instruments in the room, and I put out the Short Stories record. That was the first record I’d ever done as a true solo artist, outside of the Projekt, or outside of the Tiny Universe, and a light bulb went off. I was like, “Oh, this is not as hard and technical as I built it up to be in my head.” It set off a spark of trying to be more of a songwriter and more of a producer. I really started to gather those skills so I could move forward and do more of that on my own.
Did the pandemic curve or influence the subject matter that you were talking about in your work?
Oh, for sure. Yeah, I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of artists about this, but that whole time period made everyone go inward and really take a hard look at themselves and where they were in life. I think that’s why we have this resurgence of all this music coming out now, it’s kind of the product of everyone having to just sit with their own thoughts for three years.
Yeah, absolutely. And then on the other side, everybody wanted to hear new music and connect with people after being isolated for that long.
Yeah, we’re human beings who are made to have that connection. Especially as artists, our job is completely entailed in the gathering of human beings and connecting with other human beings. And when that’s stripped away from you, it’s really heavy and hard for a lot of people.
It must be especially hard for performers. I think anybody that does creative work knows that it’s a process of vulnerability and connection. It’s a back-and-forth or reciprocity. And then to lose access to being on stage and connecting with people that know your music, or want to hear your music, that must have been really hard.
It was. I kind of went into a little bit of a depression there for a minute, drinking super heavily, and then completely did a 180 and went 100%, sober for well over a year, just to try to find some semblance of balance, you know? Yeah, it was both ends of the spectrum.
You have such a fan base here, and it’s really exciting that you’re coming up on your 20-year anniversary, and you’re going to have a show on June 9th at Get Tight Lounge. What’s your relationship like with Richmond now?
Yeah, at Get Tight Lounge. I very, very much preach RVA wherever I go. I just needed to break my ties with Richmond because, like I said, I always need something new. I like to explore, and I didn’t want to just stay in my hometown. As soon as I moved to LA, even when I decided I wasn’t gonna stay in LA, and I moved to Denver– I’ve been in Colorado for five years now– there’s no permanence in anything. That’s what I’m trying to say. But all my roots, the way that I found music, and how I grew up around music, all started in Richmond. I very much still have pride in that city.
And I’m back in Richmond almost every other month, or at least every quarter if I can because my family still lives there. I love to come back and play music with the people I grew up playing music with, and I’m still inspired by the city. I’m loving watching, from the outside looking in, how the city is growing in the arts, in the hipness, and in the attention that it’s getting from the outside world. I still am and always will be very proud to be from RVA, and I will keep coming back as much as I can. For me, it will still be home– forever and always.
I think that’s awesome. Of course, I feel the same way. What do you have coming up that you’re excited about this year?
I’ve got a new record coming out on June 29th called Soldier of Love. It’s been over a year in the making. I’m really excited about this album because it’s probably the most honest and truest piece of work that embodies who I am, that I think I’ve ever made. I signed with a new label in Colorado called Perception Records, and they have given me the best team I’ve ever had. They have given me every resource to do something that I’m really proud of, so I’m really stoked for everybody to hear this music that’s coming up this summer. I’m also going to be touring a lot starting at the end of summer through the fall and winter. Look out for that coming up soon.
It’s called Soldier of Love. Is it a love record?
It’s a labor of love. So like I said about being honest, this is my first dive into writing songs that are actually about my life, about people in my life, and about my vulnerabilities and insecurities– they’re all in this album. And I’ve kind of shied away from ever getting that personal with my music– it’s the first time I’ve done it. It’s been a great learning process, but it’s also been a great healing process for me.
Jake Leventhal helped produce this record, and he got things out of me that I didn’t even know I had in me as an artist and as a person. I’ve never had a producer like that before, so it was a first time for me.
I’m 41. You know, I’m not old, but I have definitely learned and matured a lot, not just as an artist, but as a human being. I feel like I’m just now, at my age, finding my voice in music, and this record is a nod to everything that’s inspired me in the 20-plus years that I’ve been playing music. I just laid it all out. It’s got elements of rock, notes of hip-hop, and shows my love for Curtis Mayfield. It’s all these things I’ve gathered and found out how to release in my own way, in my own voice. That’s the labor of love. That’s why it’s called Soldier of Love.
I think there are some parallels in our thinking, and the next time I see you, we’ll have a beer and talk about it. I’m excited to hear that record.
Yeah, we’re dropping the first single one week from today. It’s called Black Man and it’s literally about growing up as a Black man in America and trying to make it in the music industry. The first two lines of the song, which open up the whole album, are,
“Take me to another land, where freedom knows my name.”
ed. note: Since our interview DJ Williams has dropped singles “Soldier Of Love” and “Black Man”.
Give DJ Williams a follow at @djwmusic