By now, van life (or #VanLife) has become as much a part of the Millennial milieu as beards, vinyl, artisan tinkering, craft beer, Frasier, Juuling, etc. We’re an odd bunch, to be sure. And our persistent digging up of dated, obsolescent trends/ephemera of the past is certainly mockable. And though it could be argued that van life was a practical response to tight credit, bleak economic landscape post-Great Recession, the Pinterest-worthy, Instagrammable nature of van life was primed for derision from the jump. (A recent article in The New Yorker noted, “There are so many images of vans parked in improbably beautiful places—the middle of a lake, the edge of a cliff—that there’s an Instagram account called You Did Not Sleep There, devoted to collecting the least believable ones.”)
Yet, for every 10 Instagram careerists who’ve built out their vehicle as a backdrop for product placement, there’s someone like musician Nicholas Edward Williams, whose van is a heuristic extension of the life the he’s chosen. The 34-year-old’s been touring the world as The Whetherman, playing his earnest, soulful roots music everywhere from intimate clubs to festival stages off and on since 2007. Essentially Williams had already been living in vehicles, he says, so the upgrade to a 2006 black Freightliner Sprinter, which he’s nicknamed “Black Betty,” was the next logical step.
Aside from an extended stint in Costa Rica, Williams and his wife have been calling the wood-paneled interior of Black Betty home for the last few years, putting 85,000 miles on the vehicle’s turbo diesel engine while touring the country on the strength of the latest Whetherman project, This Land. Now, with a new home in Nashville and a new-ish stage moniker, we thought it a good time to catch up with Williams and chat him up about how Jax’s fave folky has had an authentic go at #vanlife.
How long have you been living in (out of) Black Betty?
We have been living in Black Betty since October of 2015. We had a seven-month stint in Costa Rica last year, and just last week moved out of the van and into an apartment in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
What intrigued you about living in a van? How’d you decide to make the move?
Well in some ways it was just the next step. I’d been living in a few different vehicles prior to obtaining the van, touring around for music. The reason I initially moved into a vehicle was because I wanted to save as much money as I could while touring. That turned into a realization that there was a new lifestyle I was embracing, which I haven’t had the perspective to see with new eyes for the last four years. I never set out to do it for as long as I did, I just figured it was what I became good at, what I was familiar with. The thought of living a ‘normal’ life by all American social pressures has never, does not, and will never interest me, no matter if I’m living in a van or on a farm.
What was your approach to the build out? How did you decide what was essential and/or functional?
Having lived in vehicles on my own, I knew how to make it work. My wife and I both have experience building with our hands, so it was really about our limitation of timing. If we had a month before jumping into it, the process would’ve evolved a lot slower and things would have been more intentional from the start. But inside, this van has had many different lives and appearances. What’s essential/functional is the same in any household: Having good sleep, a way to cook good food, a home-like vibe, space for ourselves and guests to hang, energy efficiency, privacy when we need it, and being in a flat spot (maybe not everyone needs that).
What’s the best thing about your pad?
The open floor plan and the vibe. It’s very laid back, and not cluttered. When we were looking at vans and motorhomes that were already built out, they get so boxy and restrictive. We wanted to have real wood, soft colors and throw our spiritual vibe at anyone who came in, with a garnish of nag champa.
It seems like for what you’ve been doing musically for the last few years–solo performances, house shows, festivals–that a van would be ideal. Have you found that van life is practical for what you’re doing?
Absolutely, for what I’m doing, it’s practical. Additionally, there are infinite ways to build the inside out. We’ve seen families of three and four inside the same size, we’ve seen one person and a dog, we’ve seen loads of climbers and bikers who make loads of space for their equipment and need very little else, we’ve seen hoarders. That’s one very interesting thing, if you pull into any space and see another built-out Sprinter Van (preferably someone who has done it themselves, the ones who buy the pre-built are usually old folks or rich folks who don’t take to the lifestyle I’m describing too much) you will instantly meet, and want to swap tours inside to see what the other has done. It’s happened all over the country, and it’s totally a commonly known thing. The great part about vans, especially sprinters, is that they’re fully customizable.
You’re now performing music under your given name. But it’s more than a different name. Your music is shifting, too. Can you talk about what’s new or different about the music you’re writing now?
Eleven years ago I started a moniker that forever shaped my musical career and my personal life. In October, I shifted away from that project mainly because of a very real feeling that I have given it all I have. If you listen back to the first album, and walk through the next seven, you’ll hear a steady progression of vocal confidence, cultured songwriting, genre shifting and composition upgrades. I’m extremely proud, but I’m a different person, with different musical aspirations. The thought of putting out another Whetherman album wasn’t exciting, though the thought of a new record with my own name out there, for the first time, said something important. I listened to that voice and have become a student of the guitar again, and a student of America’s rich tradition of folk, blues, and Appalachian music. The material I’m writing now is a bit of a throwback, a mix of piedmont and country blues picking, more storyline folk songwriting while maintaining vocals that are coming from my soul. This music is more intentional than music I wrote under the old project, still allowing the creative flow to generate their momentum, but (hopefully) coming from a place of historical relevance to great composers of the past that influenced much of the music we know and love today. I have a great deal of respect for that legacy, and continuing to keep those songs alive, both by playing them outright as well as my own creations in their likeness.
This interview originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 9, Rad Pads.