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BACK DOWN TO EARTH: Just back from touring Europe with Sleepy Sun, Rachel Williams swoops into the Crepe Place for a Birds Fled From Me show this Saturday.

Love Bird

Former Santa Cruz singer/songwriter Rachel Williams admits she's obsessed. And what's wrong with that?

By Adam Joseph

DO I SOUND all right?" Rachel Williams asked the audience at a recent show at Fernwood in Big Sur. The crowd's noisy affirmative made the self-conscious singer/songwriter blush like a schoolgirl caught passing a note.

It's hard not to become smitten with the fair-skinned, freckle-faced Williams when she performs. Her pixieish stage presence is awkward, but in a charming way. And although most of her songs are about love, Williams, at 23, is wise beyond her years. Whether she's rocking out with the Santa Cruz–based psych-folk outfit Sleepy Sun or meandering through the willowy tunes of her solo project, Birds Fled From Me, she is an irresistible artistic force.

For Williams, who lived in Santa Cruz for five years (she now divides her time between Los Angeles and San Francisco), playing the Crepe Place this Saturday night will be a treat. "Santa Cruz is such a romantic place," she says.

I catch up with Williams at the San Francisco Airport after she returns from visiting friends in Chicago. In a day, she'll leave for Amsterdam to kick off a month-long European tour with Sleepy Sun.

Worn out from traveling and still recovering from the flu, Williams talks about music and her love of falling in love through flutters of nervous giggles and coughing fits—and occasionally goes on long-winded, starry-eyed tangents about past boyfriends. She digs bands like Cat Power and the Cranberries but says her true musical inspiration comes from her parents, who are both piano teachers in the Santa Barbara area.

"I've pretty much been performing my entire life," Williams says. "I never thought I'd make money as a musician, but it's the only thing I truly enjoy doing, so I have to do it."

With the growing success of Sleepy Sun and the strenuous touring schedule that goes along with it, Williams always makes sure she has time for Birds Fled From Me, which takes its name from a line in a Pablo Neruda poem. "Sleepy Sun takes up a lot of my time, but it's really important for me to do my own thing," she says.

In 2008, Williams released Birds Fled From Me's debut album, Deeper Lurking. The highly personal 12-track LP is garnished with sweet guitar, piano ballads and a voice that's a marriage of Joan Baez's and Bjork's.

Williams also incorporates looping effects into her music, which enables her to play both rhythm and lead guitar parts. Her musical compositions are simple but poignant, and her lyrics don't hide behind metaphorical smoke and mirrors. They simply reflect on finding love and losing it.

"Love is a girlish plague of mine," Williams says. "I get all wrapped up in falling in love with brilliant people and then end up getting depressed about it when it doesn't work out. I'm so fucking gullible."

On "Oh, My Love," a keyboard mimicking a harpsichord accompanies Williams as she sings about the beautiful pain of past romances. "My shield was taken from me, my hair was cut under trees/ And what they did to my heart, too dim and dark to speak."

Deeper Lurking is one of those heart-on-the-sleeve albums, like Beck's Sea Change, that remind us we're all living and breathing human beings. Williams says she is slowly working on a follow-up album, and love will probably be the premise.

"Love is something that everyone can relate to," Williams says. "The weird things that happen in life all revolve around romance."

BIRDS FLED FROM ME plays Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. New York folk-minimalist John Houx opens. Tickets are $8. (831.429.6994)

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