Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Cris Williamson thrives!


Women's music pioneer Cris Williamson: "I love the couple of hours on stage when anything can happen, and often does." Photo: Jane Higgins
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Fans of Cris Williamson have two opportunities to see the legendary lesbian folk and rock singer at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage. If you like her classic love songs, check out the program for her Valentine's show, "Love is Love" on Feb. 10. If you'd rather see her perform a brand-new show, she'll be back at that venue on March 25, with details available after her February show.

We called Williamson at her Seattle home, which she shares with her longtime partner and manager Judy Werle, to ask about the shows, as well as how life has changed as she enters her fifth decade performing. In many ways, said Williamson, her professional life is much the same as it's always been since she first began recording at 16, when she produced her first album. "Rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing," she said.

Williamson became a household name among lesbians during the 1970s, when the then-20something schoolteacher recorded "The Changer and the Changed" for Olivia Records, the first woman-owned record company.

"My work back then became known as 'women's music,' which was created, performed and marketed specifically to women," she explained. Today, Williamson added, that recording remains "one of the best-selling independent releases of all time.

"In the 70s, when Olivia was born, we started our own system for women's music. The existing system didn't have much room for women in it," she said. "I love my job. That part also hasn't changed. I love the couple of hours on stage when anything can happen, and often does. I love travelling that emotional, watery journey in the vessel composed of music and words."

Cris Williamson at the Women's March. Photo: Courtesy Denver Times

For most of her career, Williamson has performed in a wide variety of venues, including churches, festivals, music clubs, concert halls, and cruises. "Each audience is different," she said. "But back in the day, we'd tell one lesbian about a concert, and that was all that was needed to fill the house."

More recently, with the dwindling number of venues for live performance, and the competition from "the world of streaming," Williamson said it's a "lot more difficult" to make a go of it doing live music. "Please don't take this as a complaint," she said. "All industries change, and you either adapt or find another occupation."

Williamson's music has had a ripple effect, she points out. "My lyrics are in books and thesis papers, and my albums are part of the curriculum for women's studies courses." With more than 30 albums to her credit, Williamson still spends the year touring the world, adding new material at each stop.

The main difference today, she said, "is that we worry a bit more about filling the house. It's hit-and-miss, and we often don't know until just before the performance how many people are going to turn out." Clubs are also more cautious about booking shows, she said, with businesses struggling and "hustling really hard to get 300 people in a room."

Williamson travels alone, connecting with band musicians she knows at each destination. All the arrangements are made by her manager, "but unfortunately it's usually just too expensive for us to be able to travel together."

At her upcoming trips to the Bay Area, Williamson will stay with friends, as she always did in the "early days." But back then, she said, fans would often make chicken soup and bring it to her before the performance. "It became a welcome routine," she said. "We'd send down our recipe, including the ginger and the garlic, and fans would be happy to make it for us and bring it over."

The travel today is "more grueling," she said. But "I still love it. I'm such a road dog." While road trips often mean getting up in the middle of the night to get to the airport in time, the gigs on cruise ships still retain their glamour. On April 2-9, Williamson will be among the entertainers on Olivia's 45th annual cruise, sailing from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan, Puerto Rico on a new ship, "The Celebrity Summit," with the first American woman captain at the helm.

"I am so looking forward" to the cruise, she said. "Performing with old friends, and hopefully seeing many people I've known for decades. What could be better? And we have a captive audience. We know people are going to pack every show."


Cris Williamson, "Love is Love," Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison, Berkeley, on Feb. 10. Tickets ($30 + fees): Info:


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