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As Raw As It Gets: How William DuVall Bared His Soul

Friday, 29 April 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Having walked plenty of musical miles in a variety of shoes, in 2019 Alice In Chains singer William DuVall finally took the solo plunge courtesy of ‘One Alone.’  With only his acoustic guitar for company, and without a thought for unnecessary embellishments such as backing vocals, it’s a disarmingly frank affair full of bare-boned, gripping and expressive confessionals that are unlike anything he’d done in his previous three decades as a dedicated ‘band guy’.

Even before replacing the late Layne Staley in Alice In Chains back in ‘06, DuVall had already made a name for himself on a number of musical scenes. From being a young hardcore upstart with Neon Christ to fronting hard-rockers Comes With The Fall, as well as stints in, among many others, punk act Bl’ast and glam merchants Madfly, he’d certainly paid his dues before rising to greater prominence alongside Jerry Cantrell and company.

A singer, songwriter and guitarist with so much to offer, it’s perhaps surprising that it took DuVall so long to release a record under his own name. But with Alice In Chains on a break and no immediate plans to record a second effort with his supergroup Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, he belatedly took the plunge back in ‘17. Even if he didn’t realise it at the time.  

Having written 'Til The Light Guides Me Home for another artist whose identity remains a closely guarded secret, he subsequently recorded a demo of the track that was so special his sound engineer suggested he might want to keep it for himself. That song paved the way for an equally visceral batch of stripped back cuts that were predominantly captured in a single day. Unsure about what to do with those songs, DuVall sat on them for a good couple of years before he eventually dug them out and set about finishing what became ‘One Alone’.  

With the singer finally about to tour the UK and Europe, and fulfil a run of gigs here that were postponed due to the pandemic, we caught up with the dude from Washington DC to chat about his songwriting philosophy and crafting the musical and lyrical landscape of ‘One Alone’.     

You’ve said ‘One Alone’ represents ‘The very core of who you are as a singer, guitarist and songwriter.’ Can you expand on that? 

It’s because it’s so reductive. Just one guitar, one voice for the entire album. That reductive quality and straightforwardness of presentation leaves you no choice but to reveal the core of who you are. That situation is as raw as it gets. The presentation itself dictates that. You have nothing to hide behind. There’s no other instrumentation. You can’t hide behind volume and power and all the typical devices. You’re left with yourself and an acoustic guitar to get the point across.

In the past you also stated that you’ve always had your own ‘sonic philosophy and language.’ What is that?

It’s hard to put too fine a point on exactly what that means. It’s probably similar to any other musician or artist who has certain trademarks, or a certain world view, that seems to form a through line, a continuous line, through their body of work. There’s a way I process information, turn it around and put it back out. There’s a way of voicing chords, constructing melodies and harmonies, using words. There’s a certain rhythm to the riffs I tend to write and gravitate to. Those are the things I mean.  

In my case there’s also been a lot of musical input over a lot of years. I’ve absorbed a lot of music and have done from an early age. I started out at eight years old listening to Hendrix. I was listening to everything from Funkadelic to Ornette Coleman to The Stooges from the time I was 11. I’ve seen a lot of gigs. I’ve been a record collector for 40 years.  You’re probably gonna develop a certain language and that’s what we’re all doing, all the time. We’re listening, processing and then turning it back out into the world. And I’ve had a pretty wide bandwidth to do it.     

In terms of that wide bandwidth, you’ve traversed a number of styles over the years as a member of many different groups. But when did your own identity as a songwriter and musician begin to take shape?

It’s always evolving. I had the beginnings of a certain take on songwriting and riff writing as early as my latter teenage years. At that time I had a group called Neon Christ and we grew out of the early hardcore scene. That was the first time I had a sense that what I was doing was singular to me. I wrote all the tunes, the music and the lyrics, and the way I was trying to approach that was by trying to expand the language of hardcore. We started out as a thrash band but then, within the year, quickly evolved into other stuff that mostly never got properly recorded and never got released. People still knew it in the underground scene because they would trade live tapes or whatever. That was the first point I knew something was going on that was my own and it’s been developing from there ever since. 

After your sound engineer said you may want to consider keeping Til’ The Light Guides Me Home you wrote and recorded a further eight songs that day.  Can you explain how you managed that in such a short period of time? 

It was just a matter of ‘Hey, the mics are set up, I’m here, the time is booked. I might as well lay down a few more things.’ There were a handful of songs from the catalogue of my band Comes With The Fall that I thought might present well as solo acoustic renditions. So I started there and it was that simple. There wasn’t any grand plan or Lewis and Clark like expedition into the unknown. It was more like ‘That went down quickly and it seems to have come out pretty well. So how about The Three Wishes?’  

I used to knock that around at parties. The Three Wishes was recorded for the self-titled Comes With The Fall album. When we moved to Los Angeles from Atlanta in early 2000 we were playing anywhere that would have us and that was when we met Cantrell.  During that period Comes With The Fall would go out to parties around Hollywood. Sometimes the guitar would come out and it would turn into a bit of an impromptu performance thing. 

We didn’t have our gear so it would just be me with an acoustic guitar and I’d have to figure out how to do these songs in that way. Reworking some of the early Comes With The Fall songs for solo acoustic presentation started then. Fast forward to that session you were referring to and I just looked back to that time period and said ‘Hey, I always used to do The Three Wishes this way, totally different than the way Comes With The Fall did it, I think I’ll record that acoustic version now.’ That’s how it went.     

With the songs having been created so quickly, did you have the theme of the record in mind at the time or was it more like a stream of consciousness approach where you just let the lyrics come without thinking about it?

There are a handful of songs that were virtually written in one sitting. Til’ The Light Guides Me Home was one that was more or less playing like a finished record in my head and I had to grab a guitar fast enough to catch up with it. The Veil of All My Fear was written in a similar way. It happened pretty quickly and I was in a hotel room and just, boom, there you go.When you’re lucky enough to have that happen you mustn’t squander the opportunity because it’s all too rare. Any songwriter will tell you that’s a treasure.     

When you had the record done and listened back to it, did you learn anything from any of the lyrics or were you surprised by anything that came up?

Most of what it has to teach me will take a long time to learn. It’s not only to do with the music itself, because if you are a musician by vocation you go through your life processing the events largely through music. That’s a given. You’re so close to it all the time that you’re doing your work and processing everything as it happens, so are a bit too close to take any kind of objective big picture lessons from a lot of it.

In terms of the ‘One Alone’ album, you’re talking about a career benchmark because it’s the first album I’ve released under my own name after decades of being a band guy. That, in itself, makes it unique. And the fact it’s as solo as a solo album can get. Releasing a record like that, at this juncture in my life and career, is an eventful thing for me. So the lessons this whole process has to teach me are multi-dimensional.

The music has something to teach me and performing these songs night after night has definitely taught me a lot about how to get inside them a different way. There are certainly artistic lessons being learned and will continue to be learned. But that album has shown me a lot of other things as well, from a business standpoint to my relationship to my audience. There’s a lot to process there.

William Duvall Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat April 30 2022 - GLASGOW King Tut's
Mon May 02 2022 - LONDON 100 Club

Compare & Buy William Duvall Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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