Hayward Williams thought he was about to die in an airport. Returning home from an Australian tour, the American singer and songwriter was tired and gaunt. As he fought his way through the terminal in San Francisco, it seemed as though he might miss his connection home to the Midwest, and then something started to feel very wrong. “My heart was racing, and I was feeling nauseated and dizzy, like I was going to pass out,” Williams recalls. Later, as he sat in the emergency room with an IV in his arm, the doctors delivered their diagnosis: “Exhaustion.” What really happened to Williams will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever had an honest to god, clinical panic attack. What brought it on may have been nothing unusual. “I was getting married in 20 days, and that’s a big life change. I began to realize that I was going to have to grow up, maybe”.
Yet something both mental and physical changed within Williams at that airport. Panic metastasized into fear of panic - the self perpetuating terror that he might, at any moment, collapse in terror for no good reason. It crippled his stage show. “I would have to isolate myself before a show, spend most of my time trying to hold back catastrophic thoughts”. To avoid vomiting on stage, he started playing all his songs tuned down and at half speed, so as not to tense his diaphragm. He recalls, “If this is how I am now, how can I continue to do my job, the only thing I’m qualified to do?” He entered therapy and started a course anxiety and depression medications. They eased the panic, but altered his creative personality, and left the question: who are you when you’re no longer able to be your native self?
The slow, doubt-stricken, but steady process of learning how to think, feel, write and perform again is the backdrop of THE REEF, Williams’ first new album since that day in the airport. “I could count back from zero / I could take off from the start / Is it just like falling in love? / Will I know my part?” he sings in the haunting title track. Other songs explore his long history with anxiety. “‘High Street’ is about how I hate being at parties and around a lot of people”, he says of the album’s ironically raucous opener: “You know me, I’m at your feet / Put that foot toward the door”. “It’s about how I always try to convince Kathleen [Williams’s wife] that we should leave early”. The next track takes Williams into even more vulnerable territory. “‘If I Go Under’ is a call home more or less, saying, ‘This is me, this is how I’m feeling.’ I felt like I was going to drag her down with me,” he says. The plaintive refrain asks: “If I go under, will you go under with me?” Fans of Williams’ soulful voice won’t be surprised to hear him finally inhabiting straight-up soul territory in the new songs and arrangements, complete with layered horn sections and call-and-response backing vocals from the sibling duo of Matt and Kate Lorenz (Rusty Belle).
Recorded live to tape in a whirlwind two days of sessions at Sonelab Studios in western Massachusetts, THE REEF blends a Van Morrison-esque R&B with the loose energy and charm of The Faces, all underlined by rock-solid grooves. Produced by critically acclaimed songwriter and veteran of the Americana circuit Jeffrey Foucault, and featuring Billy Conway (Morphine) on drums and Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T) on bass, with Williams, Foucault and the Lorenz siblings sharing the singing, THE REEF is built not around leads but around the interaction of voices with rhythm and texture. “We didn’t want a lead guitar”, Williams says. “We thought we could add one later if we really needed it. But then we realized that Matt and Kate’s voices were the lead instrument, the thing the held each song together, and that was more exciting”. Live-tracked in one room, with each song captured in the course of only a few takes, THE REEF pulses with an electricity of feeling, an authenticity of moment vanishingly rare in contemporary recording. At center is the naked vulnerability in every weathered crack of Williams’ voice, cast out on the reef, calling out.