Music News & Reviews

After 32 summers fishing with his dad, Cambria songwriter says goodbye to Alaska

Cambria native Van William huddles against the Alaska cold during the last summer fishing with his father aboard The Shawnee.
Cambria native Van William huddles against the Alaska cold during the last summer fishing with his father aboard The Shawnee.

Songwriter-singer Van William, a Cambria native son, says his recently released music video and the new songs he performs are deeply, profoundly personal.

A set of companion biographical videos tell the back story for his latest EP release, “Revolution,” the eponymous cut on the EP and the matching black-and-white music video about it.

He says the music is a reflection of who and where he’s been, and his life’s successes, upheavals and heartbreaks, which — as is the case for most folks — helped to shape the person he is now.

However, many people have trouble talking about something so powerfully private, let alone writing and performing songs about it.

William, 32, appears to have navigated well in those tricky waters.

When the first companion video was released on Sept. 25, he wrote in social media postings to friends, “I’m very excited and proud to share this video piece about my last trip up to Kodiak Island working on my dad’s boat … and my new project ‘Van William.’”

He said his summers spent in Alaska have “always been a huge part of who I am,” but “I’ve never been able to share much of it with anyone other than my immediate family. This video highlights how life feels up there and how heartbreaking it is to say goodbye to my years as a commercial fisherman.”

History

North Coasters know William as Van Pierszalowski, the rather shy 2003 Coast Union High School grad who had played baseball and rocked the house as Kilroy in the school’s production of “Kilroy Was Here.”

As early as the age of 9, he agonized over his career choices of commercial fishing or “being a rock star.”

Eventually music won, for eight or nine months of each year.

The young man became frontman for the band Port O’Brien, named for the Uganik village and Alaska cannery location where his parents met in 1969.

Later, Pierszalowski formed the new band Waters, which went on to perform on the national stage, including on the Conan O’Brien show in 2015 and as the warm-up act for such primary performers as Weezer, Tegan and Sara, and Matt and Kim.

Earlier this year, when Waters went on hiatus, Pierszalowski changed his stage name. (FYI: William is his middle name.)

When you spend every summer on an island in the middle of nowhere (with) your mom and your sister and your Star Wars toys, you’re going to wind up a little weird.

Van William

He is performing solo now. He’ll open for First Aid Kit’s Nov. 1 performance in London and will tour with them all over the world in 2018. The popular Swedish duo performs on the “Revolution” cut on William’s EP and music video.

But through it all, William kept fishing with his dad. Until now.

Alaska

William has spent nearly a third of his life, one summer at a time, on Kodiak Island with parents John Pierszalowski and Barbara Nowlin and his sister Sophie. (She’s now a faculty program coordinator for Oregon State University in Corvallis.)

William recalled that “when you spend every summer on an island in the middle of nowhere” with “your mom and your sister and your Star Wars toys, you’re going to wind up a little weird.”

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Cambria native Van William holds up a salmon caught during his last summer fishing in Alaska with his father aboard The Shawnee. Courtesy photo

When he was about 15, he began working crew for his salmon-fisherman dad.

But summer 2017 was their final season.

John Pierszalowski, 66, is retiring after 49 years as an Alaska fisherman. William said his parents will join the ranks of retired Cambria residents.

He estimates he and his dad caught about 300,000 pounds of salmon this summer on The Shawnee, a 48-foot seiner that is the family’s most recent commercial vessel.

It is now for sale.

The video and album

To deal with so many conflicting emotions, William did the spoken-and-sung biographical videos about his crewing experiences and how it feels to have that alternate career path come to an end.

He worked with renowned photographer Silvia Grav to video and document the final father-son summer on the sea.

The first video, nearly six minutes long, includes footage of Alaska, plus William and his dad on the boat, the dock and elsewhere on Kodiak. That video and the other two biographicals also show a young man wrestling with changes outside of his control, and his musical tribute to the background that helped form him.

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John Pierszalowski, here aboard The Shawnee, spent 49 summers fishing in Alaska. This year was his last, and he will now retire to Cambria. Courtesy photo

Those summers taught him “relentless concentration and focus for up to 20 hours a day every day,” William said during a phone interview, and “the ability to get along with a very small number of people in a small space for a very long time. That helps me a lot now when I’m on tour (as a musician).”

See the video at www.vanwilliammusic.com, which includes links to the “Revolution EP” cuts, which also can be found on Spotify, YouTube and elsewhere.

William expects to release a full album in 2018.

The website artistwaves.com said the EP is “filled with numerous variations of art. Yet, its combination of visuals and soothing acoustic-based songs are just part of the story.” The Pierszalowskis’ final season on the boat “was a defining time that resulted in the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter.”

What’s next

The changes in William’s life this year have been emotionally wrenching, as has been the realization that every experience and life itself are “on borrowed time,” he said.

The music and video “are deeply tied to my experiences on Kodiak,” William added. However, “the fact that my life up there is ending while this project is starting feels right in every sense.”

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