Heart to Hart: Emma Williams
Emma Williams is a girl drummer (c’mon somebody!!) and incredible songwriter hailing from South Africa.
Newly engaged to a fellow “down-under” mate Jeremy (Jez) Fowler and a key part of the newly forming worship expression from Expression 58 Church in Glendale, CA, I thought it would be awesome to hear her story and listen to some incredible stories of God’s faithfulness and goodness!
Stephen: So, Emma: Let’s start at the beginning. When would you say you first “became” a songwriter?
Emma: I have a theory that all kids come out of the womb as songwriters but then somewhere along the way a lot of them learn not to write songs anymore. Thankfully I somehow missed that memo! So I don’t know if I ever “became” a songwriter, although I have definitely grown into it over the years. I have a memory of when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, and all my friends came over for my birthday party so I taught them a song I had just written and we all sang it non-stop for hours and hours. It wasn’t a very good song, but they were generous friends.
Stephen: Is that your earliest memory of writing a song?
Emma: No, I have some from earlier… The first song I have a record of is from around age eight. But – okay, here’s an embarrassing story for you – I remember when I was about six or seven years old, I walked into a store with my mom and a Spice Girls’ song was playing (it was that ‘Wannabe’ song – “So tell me what you want, what you really really want”... You know the one). And my little eyes shot open and I turned to my mom and yelled, “Mummy they’re playing my song!” She was surprised and kind of shrugged it off, but I was absolutely mindblown – for one reason or another I was convinced that I had written that song, and somehow the Spice Girls had stolen it from me! Pretty bizarre, I don’t know how I got that in my head! But I was so convinced.
Stephen: So you’ve always been writing songs, then. Have they always been any good?
Emma: Oh my goodness, definitely not! I always thought I was pretty great, which maybe is a good thing because it meant I kept going, but I recently looked back on some of those early songs and cringed so much! I think the most awkward part of them, looking back, is that I was writing about things that weren’t real to me – I was just copying the songs I heard on the radio, even though I was a kid and had never experienced any of the things they were talking about. Copying is a good way to learn, but I am really glad I’ve moved on from that!
Stephen: What would you say you value most in a song?
Emma: Right now? Honesty. If you had asked me a few months ago, I probably would have said clever lyrics, or a concept that made me think a thought I’d never thunk (?) before. I still value those things, and I absolutely adore words. I think it’s just where I’m at right now; I’ve been on a journey the last few months of learning to let my heart express itself, however clumsily, however simply, and I’ve been writing probably my favourite songs of my life so far! They just feel much more me.
Stephen: That’s interesting. So do you think it’s a case of using your heart instead of your head?
Emma: I think it’s both. I studied songwriting at college, and there were times I was up at two in the morning, writing a song that was due in a few hours, and I’ll admit my heart was probably as disconnected as it could’ve been in those moments – I just wanted to get the job done. And sometimes it’s like that, and I’m thankful for the skills and tools I can use to write a song about anything, anywhere, anytime. But personally, those songs don’t do much for me. You can always tell when something is manufactured, or when it comes from a real place. The best place to be is where the skill and all the tools are so second-nature that you can write from your heart, and it still actually sounds good! All that being said, there are so many exceptions. Is there a right way to express yourself? Everyone’s process is so different!
Stephen: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Emma: “Don’t rock the boat”.
Stephen: And the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Emma: Trust yourself.
Stephen: If we had to take a look at your Instagram feed, what would we find? Who inspires you?
Emma: You know, funnily enough I don’t follow a lot of songwriters – or even a lot of musicians. I’m a pretty visual person, and often when I’m writing a song I’ll be watching the music video for it in my head. So I follow a few music accounts, but the rest is photography, travel & nature, fashion, illustration… oh, and any of those christian meme accounts, those things crack me up!
And he’s not on Instagram, but Holy Spirit is 100% my biggest inspiration.
Actually, I guess he is on instagram. He just doesn’t have his own account.
(Lowkey I once designed an instagram account for Jesus in my spare time. It was cool; I think he liked it).
Stephen: So when you’re not writing songs (or designing instagram accounts for members of the Trinity) I heard you can be found behind the drum kit?!
Emma: Yes! Surprise! Haha. I studied both songwriting and drums at college, and do both professionally now.
Stephen: That’s awesome, girl drummers rock. And I heard you were a part of a very special project lately, do you wanna tell us about that?
Emma: Well, this is all top secret (not really) but I am a part of the worship team at Expression 58 in Los Angeles, the church started by Shawn Bolz. We just recorded our first live worship album and I was so honoured to be the drummer on it! It was a really beautiful experience because you know, we’re just family. It was just family getting together and writing songs and playing our hearts out. It was so much fun; and we’re excited for it’s upcoming release!
Stephen: I know you’re not new to recording sessions – how did this one compare to others you’ve done in the past?
Emma: For a start, it was exhausting! Haha! We had a two hour run-through right before, a few minutes break, and then went right in to record the whole album! My arms felt like jelly after the first song and I remember praying that God would literally give me strength to keep going. It’s my own fault – I always hit too hard and wear myself out too quickly, but it’s difficult because I get so excited I can’t really contain myself! Thankfully I made it through in one piece. It was probably the most fun recording I’ve ever been a part of, and at the end we all just kind of collapsed in a sweaty heap together. The best part was doing it as a family. It wasn’t a performance. And the church was there too, worshipping together with us with these songs that are ours. It was electric. I’m really excited for everyone to hear it. I think it will be magical.
Stephen: A live album recording sounds pretty intense – how do you stay in the moment under pressure?
Emma: I honestly just try and remember to look at Jesus. I’m always asking, “Show me what the angels are playing in Heaven”. Sometimes I get distracted, and then it’s easy to become self-focused, and then I find myself really tightening up and feeling the pressure. But when I look at Him I realize – there’s no pressure! It’s just for Him! And I feel this crazy passion overtake me, the kind that gives me the courage to take risks because it’s safe to fail. It becomes all about Him, and His overwhelming love for the people in the room. So I play for that; to release Heaven, to release breakthrough.
Stephen: I love that. As creatives I think it’s so important for us to feel safe to fail. Do you have any big failures you want to tell us about?
Emma: Haha! Sure. Oh my, so many… I mean there’s the obvious, dropping/breaking drumsticks, playing an awkward fill… these things are pretty common. One time at a worship conference I started a song waaaay too slow. It was so bad it was unredeemable, and the worship leader turned around and gave me a ‘cut-throat’ sign to make me stop! Ahh I’ve actually done that a lot of times, starting a song at the wrong tempo, but that one was particularly bad! But yeah, actually nothing terrible other than that… perhaps I should be taking more risks!
Stephen: Oh man! And what have been your biggest musical highlights?
Emma: Ah, so many fun things! Touring with my best friends is right up there… Playing drums at the South African music awards was pretty wild… and winning a SESAC award for songwriting just felt so satisfying. But the biggest highlights are probably those magical moments where the whole band is so in sync and going for it together, or you’re writing with people and somebody pulls a line right out of Heaven… the small moments, the tiny victories, they’re what really keep me going.
Stephen: Playing drums at the South African music awards, that sounds awesome! How was that?
Emma: It was cool! It was really fun to be on TV and know that my family was watching at home. I mean, it’s a lot smaller than the GRAMMYs and all those awards shows but it was still a great experience and I learned a lot.
Stephen: And you just got engaged to Jeremy Fowler, a fellow artist and songwriter. Congratulations! What has that been like for you creatively?
Emma: Thank you! Oh, I feel like I can divide my life into ‘before Jeremy’ and ‘since Jeremy’ in pretty much every way, and that includes creativity. We’ve only had a couple of songwriting sessions together so far, but from the beginning he has been the easiest person to write with. Wow, it just flows! It’s unreal. It’s the least I think I’ve ever had to “try” when writing. And we believe it’s really important to create from a place of rest – as Jeremy says, “Songs carry their DNA from conception” (or something like that). Basically, if you go in to write a song with an agenda, or in striving or whatever, then all of that will be written into the DNA of the song and released through it, no matter what the words are. Or at least that’s what we’ve found! So we are learning to ‘Catch the Wind’ when it comes to writing (and living!) and let Inspiration take the lead. It’s so much more fun, and more productive, than trying to make things happen in our own effort.
Stephen: That sounds amazing! Tell me more, I’m intrigued; how do you ‘catch the wind’?
Emma: That’s the question I’m asking! I don’t know if there’s a formula for it. I think it comes down to timing and trust. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes songs really do write themselves and they just need someone to hold a pen and capture them – that’s what catching the wind looks like to me. Sometimes I’ll feel the desire to write, but I’ll also feel a small tug in my heart that I actually need to go and sit with the Lord. Usually if I ignore the tug and go to write I don’t end up with anything I like. But if I lay down the writing and go spend time alone with God, it’s usually after those times that I’ll just sit down at the piano and turn my voice-recorder on and then a whole song will just come out. But obviously it never looks the same twice, so I can’t make a formula out of that. I guess just being aware of Inspiration, of walking closely with it, and knowing the timing, and trusting that things will fall into place. Oh! And identity is HUGE. It’s so hard to create something authentic if you don’t know who you are! If I write to impress someone I have failed from the start, and usually end up more frustrated than anything else. But I could go on about this stuff for days! I probably have more questions than I have answers; but this is one of my favourite discussions.
Stephen: I was going to ask for parting words for the next generation of songwriters, but I think you might have just said them?
Emma: Yes! Be who you are! Write whatever comes out of you! And if it’s bad, just keep going; writing is like a tap which you might have to run for a little while before the water gets hot.
Stephen: To keep up with Emma, follow her on instagram @musicbyemme