Kathryn Williams’ ability to fly under the radar — despite releasing six critically acclaimed albums, one of which earned her a nomination for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize back in 2001 — is so well developed at this point that she could probably teach Air Force recruits a thing or two. At this, the first Stateside performance in her decade-long career, she exhibited plenty of the quirky charm that has contributed to the devotion of her cult following but surprisingly few of the gnarled edges that may keep the mainstream at bay.
Drawing largely from “Leave to Remain,” which was issued last month by the L.A. indie Cheap Lullaby, the Newcastle-based singer-songwriter only occasionally allowed her voice to rise above a tremulous whisper. She didn’t need much volume, however, to convey the slow-burn sensuality of “Glass Bottom Boat” or the conflicted “Room in My Head,” in which she warns a lover about the locks on her doors while simultaneously hoping said paramour produces a pick to gain entry.
Williams sticks largely to traditional folk constructs — she has been compared to Nick Drake for the fragility of her compositions — but she’s willing to let her freak flag fly in subtle ways, like the skittish finger-picking she applied to “Stevie,” her ode to British poet Stevie Smith, who was said to have been a major influence on Sylvia Plath.
Like those women, Williams touches on themes of loneliness and mortality, but without lapsing into unrelenting darkness. Rather, on songs like the Laura Nyro-esque “Blue Onto You,” she painted her characters and her scenes in a chiaroscuro that illuminates them with a wan beauty that proved hard to resist.
Williams plays the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles tonight.