Kathryn Williams is at a writers’ retreat in Devon when we catch up. “I’m in a bubble of loveliness at Arvon, teaching songwriting for the week,” she says in soft Northern tones that blend her native Liverpudlian with those of the North East, where she’s lived since studying at Northumbria University in the 1990s.
The teaching began when renowned Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford asked her to co-tutor with him. “I was very scared,” she says, “but I actually found out I was quite good at it because it wasn’t all about me and I cared about the people, it was just really lovely.” Since then she’s done it with Tom McRae and Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers and is currently working with David Ford. Other events around the UK have been shared with Boo Hewerdine and Roddy Woomble.
“I don’t usually do more than one a year because it’s quite intensive, and it should be special, but it’s one of the most rewarding things I get to do,” she says, explaining what tries to instil in her fellow songwriters is a sense of faith in themselves. “We create a nice, safe, gentle and kind environment so that people feel they are able to open up and create and trust the people around them to hear what they’re coming up with each day.”
The day we speak coincides with the release of Williams’s first box set, a lovingly assembled collection of 10 of her studio albums – including Little Black Numbers which was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2000 – with a further 10 discs of rarities and a book of lyrics, all adorned in her own artwork. “Hilariously I’m having a launch party for my box set in a barn with 14 people in Devon,” she chuckles.
The box set has been “a labour of love for about four or five years”, she says. “It was about two years getting it all together because I had all the stuff to listen to and sift through for the bonus albums and work out a plan. I had a lot of talks with the label [One Little Indian]. When I got the rights back to the early albums from the major labels they said, ‘Maybe we should do a greatest hits?’ and I was like, ‘It would be really nice if we did an anthology up to now of my solo albums and give something new to the fans’, so that’s where it started.
“It was going to be 10 albums and one bonus CD, then the more I thought about it and researched about it, I was like, ‘Actually I’ve got really loyal fans who all have my albums so how can I make this a special thank you back?’ I thought if each album had a relating bonus album of stuff that they could only get in the box set and it was completely new to them then they could buy the box set and be 10 albums up on something they’ve never heard and then with a book of lyrics and a book of memories. To me, if I was a big fan of someone, that would feel like a really lovely gift back for 20 years of loyalty.”
Discussions about the practicalities of the design led the 45-year-old singer-songwriter to Fei. “He works a lot with Damien Hirst and he’s unbelievably picky and amazing,” Williams says. “He said, ‘If you’re going to have it that personal and special it should be your paintings and it should be you doing the writing’. Then we talked about the look of the albums, so I line-drew on each of the albums so you could see which album it was on the CD but it all had a palette and then the same with the bonus CDs, there’s a sketch on each of the CDs to mirror. It just went from there, really, and kept going and going and going.”
After painstakingly putting everything together, the manufacturers shipped it to the UK “packaged in plastic before all the glue was dry, the first run was not good enough,” she says. “But throughout, all of the fans who pre-bought the record have had a lot of interaction with Ben from the record label, saying ‘please hang on, thank you for being patient’ and from all the pre-sales, which have actually covered the cost of the whole making and manufacture of the box set we’ve only had one person who’s complained about the time it took, which is amazing and once again shows me that I might not have the most amount of fans in the world but I have got the nicest.”
Williams’s sifting process led her to several gems that on reflection she feels should have made it onto the original albums. “Especially on Crown Electric,” she says. “The bonus album on Crown Electric has got probably some of my favourite songs from the whole of the studio sessions. There’s a song called Under The Covers and one called Sorrow Flies. There’s absolutely loads of songs. I think we did 18 or 19 songs for that album and we couldn’t put them all on. There’s one called Same Page as well which I wrote at a Chris Difford writing retreat which came from one of his musings about memories of being a child and going on this train journey.
“Then there’s funny bit of daft songs that we used to do on tour that I’d found on live records and remembering doing a gig in Grenoble in a Spiegeltent and then quite emotionally as well when I was going through tapes I found one that just said ‘Kath and Em’ in my gran’s handwriting and it was a little tape recording of me and my sister at four years old singing songs into the tape recorder. So the start of the bonus album on Dog Leap Stairs has got me singing Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
Kathryn Williams: Anthology is out now. She plays at Everything Good Goes, Tadcaster on September 18 and The Greystones, Sheffield on September 19. www.kathrynwilliams.co.uk