Walking down Third Street Promenade, a crowd is gathered in the middle of the street on a Saturday morning—a typical sight to see in Santa Monica. As you approach, you try to see what the fuss is all about—perhaps a dance crew or a living statue—but no, not this time. You just walked into the soulful musical stylings of Chelsea Williams.
Williams stands in her sun hat, paired with a sundress, a light jean jacket, and her acoustic guitar slung over her chest. A speaker and a table with a collection of albums for sale rest beside her. Tourists and locals passing by can’t help but stop to listen to the mesmerizing folk singer-songwriter. As the crowd thickens, Williams continues to play effortlessly, smiling at each person who stops.
It wasn’t always this natural and easy for Williams to gather a crowd. It took time, practice, and a musical upbringing to take her to where she stands today. So how did Williams get to be one of Santa Monica’s favorite promenade acts? It started with the musical influences of her grandfather. Back in Columbus, Ohio, Williams’ grandfather was making music ever since she could remember.
“He played the standup base. He used to hold square dances and play the country and blues kind of stuff in the basements of churches,” Williams said.
Besides her grandfather, her mother, too, played a role in Williams’ music career. When she was still fairly young, she and her family moved to LA so her mother could pursue songwriting.
“I was always around her when she was writing songs. She played the guitar and sang, and her friend had a studio in his garage so…I have a lot of memories falling asleep listening to them record,” she said.
When her mother bought Williams’ sister a guitar, it wasn’t too long after that she was taking lessons herself and writing songs — spending hours locked in her room practicing and writing. At the age of 16, she decided to pursue music as a career and was performing at a lot of open mics and was doing solo gigs. Soon, Williams needed a steady income and her music wasn’t enough — that is until a friend told her about performing at Third Street Promenade. The two of them decided to take a shot on the streets of Santa Monica.
‘The first time I went down there, I didn’t make that much money and I didn’t really get any crowds, but it was a good place to perform,’ Williams said.
Because there was no audition requirement, Williams would go there anytime she wanted, and eventually, it started picking up.
“…it started becoming my main source of income. Now I go out there four times a week,” she said.
And it’s no surprise, with a flawless voice comparable to singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, accompanied by the soothing sounds of her acoustic guitar. Her music ranges from folk to americana to pop.
“People ask me all the time what I would categorize the music as, and I never know what to say, you know? It’s hard to say because there’s not a specific genre that I’m going for. I kind of just write songs and sing them,” Williams said.
Her latest album, Dreamcatcher, includes cover songs like “Love Sick Blues” and even a version of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” as well as music of her own. One track in particular that means a lot to the singer-songwriter is the title track, “Dreamcatcher.”
“I had kind of gone through this big evolution because…a couple years ago, I signed with a major label record company and kind of had not a bad experience, but not the best,” Williams said. “I pretty much got shelved and I was kind of crash navigating in that big world, and so after leaving the label I was a little bit lost and didn’t really have a direction. And so that’s kind of where that song came from—it was me forcing out those feelings.”
She recently signed with a new label and hopes to release the new album early next year. In case you want to hear her sooner than that, you can catch Williams on the promenade, usually weekend mornings. She also is in a band called The Salty Suites, which performs all along the West Coast.