Everything the Saul Williams says and does is both poetic and musical. Words flow naturally with an emotion and elegance reserved usually for various temples of worship. His latest prayer book, Amethyst Rock Star (American/Island/Def Jam) opens a stained-glass window onto the divine wellspring that he draws his seemingly endless inspiration from.
Let’s talk about the space you’re in right now creatively, in terms of the moves you’re making, the record, the films, the books. Where is Saul Williams in terms of where you see yourself artistically?
Well, I guess, artistically, I’m at a place where I feel the words are starting to come alive in me again. What I mean by that is there is a time of reaping and a time of sowing, a time of reading and a time of writing. And I’m entering a new writing phase. What that means is, really, is I’ve been writing a lot of new songs and I’ve been thinking a lot about this next album, that just exists on tapes at my house and in my head. That’s where my head has been, really. I usually try to stay a step ahead. It’s not even a thing I’m trying to do, it’s happened organically. This album is practically three years old to me. But the music has been coming. So I feel like I’ve had a rekindling of the love of poetry. There are two books of poetry I’m working on right now. It’s all writing, whether it’s writing poetry or writing songs. The only thing that’s changed for me between now and four years ago is that I’m more prayerful now, consciously more prayerful now. I can’t say that I got caught up in anything, but I did get depressed with how things were happening, surrounding this album, with the dates being pushed back the label change [Rick Rubin's American Records, Saul's label, pulled up its stakes from Sony and moved to Island/Def Jam]. It seems it almost felt worse when it was doing really well in Europe, and I didn’t know if it was gonna come out here in the US. Like, “Is it never gonna come out here?” And now it’s been out less than six months and I feel blessed and great. But I realize that I can’t attach myself a project like that again, where I think like “This is my baby.” No, it’s not. I have two actual babies. So the albums or books are not my babies [laughs]. And I can’t make that connection anymore. I feel like I’m an independent artist signed to a major label. And I decided to do this because I felt like I could walk through this stuff and not get burned. And I didn’t want to cower to the powers-that-be, simply because I recognize the powers of being. And I know that the powers of being will make the walls of this building fall like Joshua and Jericho, you know what I’m saying? And I’m actually not talking about Island/Def Jam, because, believe it or not, I’ve had a great time at Island/Def Jam. I haven’t had any negative experiences here. My negative experiences initially go more so when we were at Sony/Columbia. And the process was just harder, just like when I was writing poetry initially, I didn¹t have to confer with anybody before I went onstage or before I put something in a book. I just did what I did. And so, dealing with a producer and all that is just like, a challenge, having to confer with someone, like, “Well, what do you think?” Even as a signed artist, you have to send demos in before you get clearance to go into the studio. It’s an interesting balance, but I think that I’ve found my balance. I’m now pushing through.
What has it been like making the transition from taking something that you had been once expressing freely and without restriction to negotiating the machinery of an entity that has ultimately has a different modus operandi?
What I’ve been learning mostly is about the power of association, in a sense. I’m learning who to surround myself with. Right now, I’m going through a major shift, business-wise, where I have a new manager, a new lawyer, all this stuff. And its no fault of the other people I was around, I just realized that all the people I was around before had similar energy to me. They were all moving from their heart, diplomatic and what have you. And I said, “You know what? I need someone who moves from their heart, but can bark!” Let them be ugly so I can still feel that freedom to be who I am, and let them do what they do naturally and let what they do naturally not be what I do naturally. So learning various business aspects, that has been a new light that has shone in to help me still keep that sense of balance and freedom and expression for myself. First of all‹this is the other thing‹I don¹t have to have this, you know what I’m saying? I can be comfortable. I was comfortable in Brooklyn writing poems on the walls of my bedroom, reciting for whomever heard. I felt like an amazing artist then. And not because of who was listening or how it was promoted or how it was marketed, but because I felt connected to my spirit and felt as if I was channeling something that was greater than me. And that is all I hope to maintain. And what happened, when we were dealing with all this other shit, was that I was put in a position to have to worry too much and fight too much for all thisŠparaphernalia. And even when you think in those terms, that’s egotistical terms. If someone is gonna say to you, “Well, you deserve this,” let them say it. I don’t wanna be in there, “Well, I deserve this.” Because I don¹t even operate off an “I” principle in that sense. I’m operating off the “blessed vessel” principle. That’s what I’m gonna operate off of. When I say, “I don¹t have to have this,” it’s like, I have found such a great satisfaction in being connected to that creative energy, that that is what feeds me. And all else is just, “Wow.”
Let’s take about the album, Amethyst Rock Star. You mentioned the album being about three years old-
The album was recorded in January 2000.
We’re at 2002 and you’re already talking about the next batch of material you’re trying to put out in the world. How do you maintain a connection to the older work?
I maintain a great connection to it, primarily because I believe in it so strongly. I look at my first book, The Seventh Octave, as a collection of prayers that I have to read consistently, in increments, to remind myself of myself. That’s not me writing from a place of achievement, it was me aiming for a place being. So, in the same way someone might turn to a Van Zandt book to remember themselves every morning before they start their day. I turn to those things. Those things speak through me. The idea of, like, “Through meditation I program my heart to beat break-beats hum bass lines in exhalation.” I’ll have that with me the rest of my life. And sometimes I forget and I remember it, like, “Oh, my God, that’s right. I nearly forgot. I need to chant today. I need to pray today.” Because that’s how it’s gonna happen, through meditation.
A lot of creative people go through different processes and sometimes distance themselves from older work because they aren’t in the same headspaces anymore.
Look at Prince who half the time will not perform old songs, like by the time of Sign O’ The Times albums, he didn’t even wanna talk about Purple Rain. People would be talking about “Hey, perform something from Purple Rain!” But that’s a different type of artist, a different type of process. And, who knows, I may do something like Kurt Vonnegut did. Vonnegut, science fiction writer, up until the age of 50 wrote all of his novels with recurring characters. And the book that he wrote when he was 50‹for his 50th birthday‹he wrote “Breakfast of Champions,” in that he killed off all his old characters because he saw them as crutches. So he had to start new. And who knows, may be I’ll do the same. Right now, everything is connected. I quote a bit of The Seventh Octave in “Slam.” And quote a bit of “Slam” in Amethyst Rock Star and I quote a bit of Sˆhe in Amethyst Rock Star. Keep it all tied and interconnected, because I love that. I love the connections to be made in the same way that I love reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, talking about Celie, and then Possessing The Secrets Of Joy, realizing that there are recurring characters in there. Like, “Wow,” that’s amazing.
In other words, it’s all part of the greater whole.