How does one describe those precious moments in life when we are able to transcend our small daily self-interests, and can somehow hold onto those rarified breaths of the deeper human experience? Radiant, the new Wild Ponies album, out May 13 on No Evil Records, explores those moments with alternating delicacy and raucous abandon. At times, it’s as though Telisha is sitting right beside you, fingers on your shoulder, whispering in your ear. Seconds later it’s hard to believe this full, confidently reckless sound is coming from only four players (Telisha Williams, Doug Williams, Megan Jane and Fats Kaplin).
When you lay every fear and foible, every hurt and healing out for the whole world to see as Wild Ponies did on 2013’s Things That Used to Shine, the album’s follow-up surely can’t be faulted for cutting a little bit loose. That’s certainly the case with Radiant, the rough and tumble new release from Wild Ponies duo of Doug and Telisha Williams. The set bucks and rumbles through 11 songs that pull from all manner of sources, poetic tweens, Catawba trees, homophobic politicians, dying small towns, and tarot cards. The tie that binds them all together is the thread of moments and memories, of cycles and seasons, that make up a life well-lived.
For Doug, Radiant is about stepping outside of the Wild Ponies bubble. It’s about “trying to look at the world around us and how we relate to it, trying to find some empathy.” For Telisha, though, it’s also about simply stepping outside of her own skin. “When I listen to Shine, I hear the struggle. I hear the transition of a victim pushing, pulling, letting go, standing up, and shouting. It’s intense for me, and it’s been intense for some of our fans,” she explains. “This record sounds more stable and secure in some ways, and fresh and exploratory in others. I don’t think I could’ve gone to these same places if I remained in child victim- and survivor-land. There’s an acceptance and love for myself that I didn’t have before and that allows me to reach deeper within myself, and to reach out and connect to my community in ways that I wasn’t able to in the past.”
On Radiant, the Wild Ponies community includes songwriters like Amy Speace (“Born with a Broken Heart”), Sally Barris (“The Night We Never Met”), Jeff Barbra (“Mom and Pop”), and Amelia White (“Big Blue Sun,” “Home Is Where the Road Goes”), along with the aforementioned tween, Mariah Moore, whom Doug and Telisha met through volunteering with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Words & Music program. The pair were so struck by the imagery of the then-12-year-old’s lyrics that they finessed them a bit, until her co-write emerged as the centerpiece — and title track — of Radiant. Telisha says of the various, sometimes unusual collaborations, “I have to admit, there’s probably a little defiance in all of this. Bucking the way things ‘should’ be done: ‘You can’t put a song you wrote with a 12-year-old on your REAL record!’”
She continues, “A good song is a good song, whether it’s written by a 12-year-old or an 80-year-old. We just want to make good art, and that usually means bending some rules.”
… which is where the catawba tree and tarot cards come in. The two songwriters had been working on what would become “Tower and the Wheel,” a tune that was partly inspired by an old tree on Doug’s grandparents’ farm. “I’ve known that tree my whole life,” he offers. “It knew my mom and my grandparents even way back before that. And, when my grandfather bought that farm, that tree was already really old. But she’s still there, strong as ever. That really is where we’d tie the horses, and where we’d pull the porch chairs around in the shade and the dirt and play songs, where Telisha and I cut our wedding cake. That’s a good place to look for perspective. It all turns, and it’ll all fall… but maybe not today.”