Before Emmet Otter, Williams had never written Americana. “I didn’t know there was an Americana,” he says. “I’d never really been exposed to it. And yet [those songs] are writing down the pike of that kind of music.
“I’m a big believer in old souls, multiple lives,” he explains. “I’ve always had this sense of a higher power, even before I got sober. There was a connection I couldn’t explain. So I sit down and I’m writing, When the mountain touches the valley, all the clouds are taught to fly,” he sings from Emmet Otter’s tender ballad ‘When the River Meets the Sea’. “I mean, that’s an old-world hymn.” It’s true—the song is less concerned with the special’s ostensible theme of Christmas; more with finding peace in death’s release before returning to life anew. “I think my roots are about things other than place,” he says.
On annual work trips to Ireland with ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, for whom he’s president and chair), Williams finds himself slipping into the local accent within a week, “just by osmosis”. It’s a childhood crutch for the recovering “construction brat” who’d gone to nine schools by the time he was in ninth grade. “Wanting to fit in, not wanting to get branded an outsider,” he developed “a tendency to do that in a bunch of ways”.
As an adult, he says, “I drank and used drugs because it made me feel like a big deal. I was there and I could do anything. If you pare it down, keep cutting back, you get to where I was shipped off to live with my aunt and uncle when my dad died,” he says. He was thirteen then, but younger still—little more than a baby—when he was afraid he’d be given away to the garbage man. “Part of me probably drank to deal with the fear that I was in the way, not really welcome in somebody’s life,” a sentiment that conjures schoolboy Scrooge, spending his Christmases alone in an empty classroom.
Williams jokes about his “co-dependent anthems” and “Pick Me Up and Love Me, Mommy songs”, but one of Christmas Carol’s most moving and memorable scenes rests squarely on the resonance of his breakup refrain, ‘When Love is Gone’. Memorable, that is, for those who get to see it.