The voice of Anna-Lynne Williams begins The Bluebird of Happiness, Williams’ third album as Lotte Kestner. Whispering, the Seattle songwriter counts off “1-2-3, 1-2-3.” Then she plucks out a simple melody and sings, in a forlorn and winsome voice that continues unabated throughout the album, “Love if, love if you love me, why do you make me miss you so?”
It’s a mournful ballad of unspoken abandonment called “String.” Midway through, the singer’s overdubbed vocals swarm the simple, insistent melody, her echoing pleas swirling before dissolving into vapor. Like the rest of The Bluebird of Happiness, the song is delicate, made of the simplest instrumentation and focused almost entirely on the pathos in Williams’ solitary, searching voice.
Williams recorded the album in Seattle and Vashon Island bedrooms with a small handful of collaborators. She duets with Damien Jurado on the standout “Turn the Wolves”—in which Jurado offers an echoing rejoinder within the bloodletting of a ballad. On “Cliff,” Williams sings about tottering near the edge while violin, flute and cello combine with her Wurlitzer to weave a waltz. Williams’ voice, over which she has uncanny control, provides pleasant surprises throughout the album while never pulling it out of its deep introspection. “Bury me at sea,” she sings on the title track. “Beh-ee-ah-ah-ah-uh-ah-ry me at sea.”
Williams doesn’t always work alone. The slight musician with the stunning voice emerged from Orange County in the late ’90s with collaborator Matt Brown in the dreamy indie pop band Trespassers William. She and Brown moved that project to Seattle in 2004. Williams’ voice was soon in demand: She appeared on tracks by the Chemical Brothers, Au Revoir Borealis and Anomie Belle. Last year she and Texas-based songwriter Robert Gomez wrote and recorded Machine, an experimental folk record released under the moniker Ormonde.
Often when Williams records solo, she’s with other songwriters in spirit, performing spare renditions of previously recorded work. Her 2007 debut as Lotte Kestner, a moody collection of mostly original folk songs called China Mountain, was highlighted by a cover of Interpol’s “Leif Erikson,” a version that thawed the icy tune without sapping it of its dread. Williams followed that up in 2011 with the properly titled Stolen, a full-length album consisting entirely of covers of indie rock hits by artists including Jurado, Bon Iver and Vic Chesnutt.
Bluebird continues the tradition with a cover of Beyonce’s chart-topping pop song “Halo” at the album’s midway point. Williams makes the song her own, slowing it down considerably, but maintains its pop essence. Unmoored by her own material, she shows off a little during the ascendant chorus, allowing her vocal to stretch upward into the stratosphere before coming back down for a soft landing.