Kenneth Williams, Engineer & Musician – Black History Month (Part 1)
By Liam Klenk
Kenneth Williams is a versatile artist and technician. He is a passionate guitarist and song writer. At the same time, Kenneth does live sound reinforcement, broadcasting and recording (Front of House and Monitors). He also takes care of concert tours and venues as a production manager. Kenneth loves what he does and literally blew me away with his inspirational ponderings and his contagious positivity. Not wanting to cut any of his words, this ended up being an interview in two parts.
Here is Part One for you all…Kenneth Williams in his own words:
Like many, I’m just at home at the moment. Right now, I am writing with Norman Brown. He’s like George Benson 2.0. Norman is a BAD MAN!!! We’ve written quite a few songs together.
I understand a lot of people have suffered financially during this pandemic. I’m fortunate that I wasn’t one of them. For me, this was a time full of creativity and reflection.
Usually with the hurried nature of our job we don’t get the time to decompress and figure out what we want to do and where we want to go. We just go.
We’re just busy, busy, busy checking for the next thing.
Now, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’ve been in my production studio every day. It’s been a good time.
The last gig I did was in February with Erykah Badu. I am her production manager and front of house engineer.
I remember, March 18th, 2020, I had everybody ready with tickets and hotels. But we didn’t know if we were still going to have shows that weekend.
One of the guys was on his way to the gig. We had to cancel, and I had to call him at the airport to tell him he had to go back home.
From March 2020 until now I did one screening event. And the rest of the time, I’ve been working from home. I’m sitting here in my studio now. Working on a song and loving it.
The most important thing, first and foremost with everything, is honesty.
For my work that means to get the mixing as true to the artist’s vision as possible.
This period of enforced down time due to the pandemic has been so eye-opening. About situations, people, work, and everything else.
Just simply having the opportunity to sit back and not necessarily have to be anywhere.
It gives you a certain clarity that you will never have when you’re running.
It’s like being in a war. When you are on the battlefield, you don’t have time to think about strategy. You have to react to what’s right in front of you.
This last year has given me the opportunity to think about things I want to do and things I don’t want to do.
I am very fortunate that during this time there were also people I’ve drawn closer to within the industry.
I am a musician as well. And that’s one of the things about the music industry… all of us who work in it, we tend to gravitate towards each other. Even as far as our associates and friends go. Because work ends up being a big part of our life.
When people who are not in the industry ask, “Are you working this weekend?” What I think immediately is, “Honestly I haven’t worked in about thirty years.” This is the dream job for me. I get to hang out and be around some of the greatest people. I get to mix music, travel around the world, and I get paid for it.
One of the things I am proudest of, even though I haven’t won a Grammy yet, has been having songs placed with different artists.
Also, I used to be chief engineer for the Sammy Davis Junior Foundation. I’ve got an award from the Stevie Wonder foundation for mixing him during an event honoring Smokey Robinson as well.
Another thing that makes me proud is getting recognized for making a concert sound good.
For the most part, we as audio engineers are in the shadows. But what I love is when some random person comes up after the show, not knowing who did what, and says, “Wow, that sounded great!”
For me, it’s been a dream come true. To have the honour to sit with Ronald Isley, for example, and listen to him tell stories about recording and Ernie Isley talking about how he came up with a particular song. Or Al McKay from Earth Wind & Fire.
And of course, Erykah Badu, an amazing artist as well as an amazing woman.
It’s been a dream.
Erykah has said some profound things that have impacted my life to this day. Just to be there and witness her artistry has influenced the way I do certain things now, engineering-wise and in life in general.
There is nothing wrong with having a very static performance. Some artists have a set. They do that set to the letter. And they go around the world with that same set. People enjoy it and they get basically the same experience in each place.
Erykah does whatever she wants to do. We never have a set list. She always has had capable people around her who can flow with her.
I definitely want to give a shoutout to her production team. Kenny Nash, Evan Lineberry, Darius Medina, Mike Skinner, Jonathan Munoz, Marcus Jessup, Cold Cris, Katrina Craft, and Gavin Gamboa who is an amazing classical pianist. Also, Mike Knight, of course, Erykah’s tour manager.
And I’ll say, being at home now has made me reflect more than ever on how fortunate I am to have my wife. Just the fact that she understands what I do. And how I do it.
I’m never hesitant about when I go or when I come back, or about anything else. She understands that music is my life.
I am just fortunate. That’s what I’ve taken from these whole Covid downtime months. The time to reflect on all my blessings.
I got into this whole thing because I was a song writer and a guitarist.
This brought me to LA.
I had just gotten out of the army where I was in the 36th Army Band. Right after this experience, I craved some privacy. I didn’t want to have a roommate. But the rents in LA were high. So, I thought the best thing to do is to buy a motor home. If I buy one and a motor bike, then I can pretty much live anywhere. I lived in that motor home on the streets of LA for five years and had a ball. Once though, I got broken into and ALL my guitars were stolen.
I wasn’t homeless. On the weekends I went to the beaches. It was my choice to live the way I did. And I look back on it now, wondering if I hadn’t lost my mind, living on the streets of LA!
While I was in the motor home, I went to school at MI, the Musician’s Institute.
During that time, there was a changing of styles. At that point R&B and pop music weren’t really using guitarists. But I did get to play guitar on Everlast’s first single. It was kind of a cover of My Sharona. It had this loop in it that they didn’t want. So, I ended up playing guitar to mimic the loop. Chuck Plaisance hired me to play guitar on their recording session.
A good friend of mine who is now my manager, Ken O’Neill, was a student in LA at that same time. Ken knew I wrote songs and said, “You need to meet Norman Brown who is a Grammy Award winning guitarist.”
He brought Norman over to my motor home. Norman listened to some songs and decided, “Let’s start writing together!” So, I started writing songs with Norman. And I am still doing that to this day. You can actually hear my motor home generator on some of our demos, haha.
Another musician who was really important for me was Byron Miller, the base player of George Duke. He was the guy who took me and my partner Brian Rio Lawrence around LA. And Byron got me my first song placement.
I’ll forever be indebted to Byron for that.
Byron is now doing his solo jazz thing and is known as Psycho Bass.
Funny how things go. Norman Brown called me one day and said, “Ken, I want you to go on tour with me.”
I am like, “On tour doing what? You don’t need another guitar player.”
“No,” he said, “I want you to come with us and be my monitor engineer. Ken, the way you do things in the studio is amazing, I know you’ll be great at it.”
At the same time, the guys I was writing with kind of slowed down and weren’t doing any work. I told my girlfriend Edie Meadows Williams, who is now my wife, that Norman had called and wanted me to do monitors.
And she said, “Baby, you should go.” Since you got that package to Gary Gersh you guys haven’t done a thing. This might open up some other opportunities for you.”