Though singer-songwriter Cris Williamson is being honored this week with a three-day residency at Berklee College of Music, she can still recall a time when her work remained considerably underappreciated. “People listened to [my music] and said, ‘Well, that’s just beautiful music. We don’t know what to call it though. If we don’t know what to call it, we can’t sell it.’ I was abandoned,” Williamson says.
With a lack of support for her musical endeavors, Williamson took the self-motivated route and became a pioneer of independent music. “I like it. It’s freedom. You don’t have to depend on the big boys—and they’re boys, all right,” she says, alluding to the male-dominated mainstream music industry that unsuccessfully manipulated and ultimately rejected her in the 1970s.
Highlights of Williamson’s trailblazing music career were shown last Wednesday at a free screening of “Radical Harmonies,” a Dee Mosbacher-directed documentary depicting the inception and growth of the rarely publicized women’s music movement. “Like a lot of women’s work,” Williamson said, “it went unseen but not unsung.”
In 1973, the singer’s talent and vision prompted her peers to seek financial and artistic independence from the industry. Her suggestion of an all-female record label culminated in Olivia Records, the first company of its kind. The unprecedented success of Olivia Records’ artists and those of similar labels led to the first female-only concert events, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which debuted in 1976, predating Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair by two decades. Wednesday’s screening was followed by a public panel discussion featuring Williamson, Associate Professor of Voice at Berklee Didi Stewart, and Rhiannon, a performance artist also prominent in the women’s music movement.
During her residence, Williamson will attend classes and students’ performances, but she plans to strike a balance between the roles of teacher and student. “It doesn’t interest me to be the person who owns arcane knowledge and keeps it to herself…as if that were an advantage,” she says.
“I’ve always had the desire to be a teacher. There are teachers that can just strike you down... I don’t think that’s useful,” Williamson says. Inspired by a fan who asked her to write a song about abuse, Williamson regularly offers songwriting workshops, advising her students to “come from the personal, [and] aim for the universal.” She’ll be conducting a similar workshop for Berklee students.
Before being contacted by Berklee, Williamson had been “filling up the well,” collecting material for future work. “I’m writing my memoirs, whatever it is I’m able to remember,” she says. Still, she’s glad to offer her wisdom to students.
“I’m feeling very honored to be there,” she says. “I just have my head down, working most all of life and every now and then you raise your head up and people go, ‘We love what you do, will you come do that over here?’ [I’d] love to.”
Regarding the current music scene, Williamson says, “I’m not listening much to anybody right now. I’m writing a lot… I need to hear what’s going on in my own head.”
Even so, she can’t ignore the sweeping changes that her efforts in the women’s music movement initiated. “I think that women standing up for themselves has crept into music,” she says.
She also realizes that several boundaries remain in the way of musical liberation for women. “Sex sells… so they say. To me, it just kind of looks ridiculous,” she says. “It’s always been there, it probably always will.”
Yet she remains hopeful about the future of women in music. “Women have supported my work for many years now, and my work has supported them. That, at least, is a fair trade.”