Anniversaries are a time to ponder the past, to celebrate the present and to plan ahead for the future.
For Aaron Williams — the Glen Ellyn native singer-songwriter who has spent the last seven years putting the Chicago-area music scene in the spotlight with the annual Homegrown Arts & Music Festival and running numerous showcases in the suburbs and the city — nearing the five-year mark of the release of his “The Art of Electricity” album is giving him a chance to look back at where he’s been and look ahead to what’s next.
The 2014 release, available both in a six-song EP streaming on Spotify or for purchase on CD Baby and a nine-song full-length on CD, captured a moment in time when he was promoting other artists but was also fully focused on his own music. He’s celebrating that time with the release of several videos produced in part in 2016 with Matt Psenicka and Williams’ wife Ashley, videos that have never seen the light of day.
Also expect a documentary chronicling the band’s time working under notable producer Johnny K at Groovemaster Studios, whom he met during his studies at Columbia College.
“When it’s being filmed, you’re taking it really seriously in the moment,” Williams said, “but you don’t realize how precious it is until 5 years later.”
“The Art of Electricity,” his third album and his second with the Aaron Williams Band’s (featuring Daniel Wonsover and Kris Ahrens), was already in the works before Williams joined forces with Johnny K. For it, Williams dug back to his earlier days in music for inspiration.
“I went back to my influences from the post-punk era, college rock era, music I really loved that influenced this album,” he said. “I went back to my previous self to get inspired for this album, that era in time of Nirvana, The Cure, Descendents, R.E.M., Tom Petty, even classic rock stuff that influenced that era.”
The album, some of which had already been recorded, got a makeover under the tutelage of the producer.
“Johnny’s wizardry was in making my songs work,” Williams said. “All the parts were there, but he taught me how to make the puzzle work. … He taught me to think lyrically.”
Under Johnny K, Williams revamped song structures, rewrote some of his songs and, in one case, removed a reggae interlude. “That’s when the songs went from 5½- or 6-minute opuses to 3½-minute punch-you-in-the-face hooks,” he said.
Another strength Johnny K emphasized was in using lyrics as a way to sock people with the point right away and to make the story more obvious.
“I like being abstract,” Williams said. “I don’t get to the point on purpose because I want to leave it up to interpretation. I like the mystery. But that’s the ’90s at work in me.”
While Williams’ “The Art of Electricity” leans into a variety of topics, buried within it is a three-part love story — “Feeling Okay,” “Ash” and “Lightning Bolt.”
“When you close your heart and have a preconceived notion about falling in love, that’s the most fertile ground; when you’re focused and you have a set goal,” he explained. “That’s just when Ashley came into my life.”
When Williams met his future wife, Ashley, the song that eventually came to be about her, “Lightning Bolt” was written but didn’t have lyrics.
“‘Lightning Bolt’ is about Ashley, very inspired by Ashley, the spark of love she and I had when we met,” he said. “She was my lightning bolt.”
The rest of the album works its way through navigating obstacles, pursuing goals and facing down resistance and Williams’ thoughts on the treachery big business holds over art. But most importantly, it addresses the universality of people’s needs.
“We’re all feeling the same things, but we just interpret them through our own cultural differences,” he said. “We all want to be loved and relevant, to make a difference in the world.”
Williams is doing just that. Spreading his love of the local scene, he hopes to shine a spotlight even further next year, with some new music, potential involvement with TV and film soundtracks, a new musical project and new showcases in the works. Also watch for further developments at next summer’s Homegrown, where he says he’s definitely raising the bar for next year.
“Music is a spiritual thing for me,” he said. “To lift yourself up is to lift all of us up.”