“In a Different Place Now”: An Interview with Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams
Lost Highway

She has toured with icons like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, recorded with legends like Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, been named America’s best songwriter by Time magazine, and put together one of the most impressive bodies of albums this side of rock ‘n roll. But suggest to Lucinda Williams that it’s an honor to speak to her and she responds with baffled silence, a dismissive scoff, and then a simple, drawling “Okaaay”.

That speaking to her is, indeed, an honor is a fact that can’t be lost on her, but Williams doesn’t let on that she knows. Instead, she slides right into conversation, peppering her responses with you know‘s, (as if you two are old friends and you actually do know), clipping the end of her sentences with a southern chuckle (even her laugh drawls), and occasionally asking if you’ll hold on while she talks to her husband, manager Tom Overby (“Tom’s going out to have lunch with one of his music industry buddies … I asked him if he could go change his shirt because he has the same shirt on he had on yesterday.”).

But not only does Lucinda Williams come across as friendly, but also as incredibly happy. This is not only somewhat of a surprise, but a nice one. Read through Williams’ interviews from past years and scores of them refer to finding inspiration from horrible relationships and tortuous splits, her consistently spot-on breakup songs the result of consistently having fresh emotional wounds. Her newfound happiness, no doubt, has much to do with her recent marriage to Overby, though Williams is quick to assert that being happy will not strip her songs of her trademark grit.

“Everybody was so worried about how being married was going to affect my songwriting,” she acknowledges. “But I tell you, I wouldn’t be married to Tom. If that had been an issue, I would have figured that out already. That was a big test for me.”

And it was a test that Blessed, Williams’ new album, proves she passed with ease. While she still knows how to write songs about bad boys and broken hearts, the album also sees Williams addressing new topics — such as war — and approaching old ones with a maturity unseen on her previous releases. Though the difference between Blessed and Little Honey, her 2008 album, is evident, Williams explains that the shift was a natural artistic progression, not a conscious effort.

“I wasn’t consciously doing that. I never do that consciously. It’s just kind of whatever I’m writing at the time. I guess I was looking — not looking for different things to write about — but now that I’m married, that part of my life is in a different place now than it used to be. It’s actually allowing me to kind of open up more.”

Rather than taking offense at the suggestion that Blessed is more mature than some of her earlier albums, Williams takes the observation as a compliment, acknowledging that experience and the wisdom it brings can’t help but affect an artist’s craft.

“It’s just a different thing,” she says, referring to her songwriting now compared to that of earlier albums. “Everything is going to be different at different times in your life, you know, depending on where you are at that time. You want to feel like you’re growing as an artist. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m still very vital and creative. I definitely see the difference in my writing, between Car Wheels and now.”

A recurring theme on Blessed is death, a topic Williams has written about before, but one that colors the tone of the entire album. If there’s an overall message to be found in Blessed, it’s that everyone has to grapple with the unsettling reality of death and, as a result, find meaning in the everyday blessings of life. No, this isn’t a dark album — there are also songs about finding love and enjoying the experience of life — but this is an album shaped by the balancing forces of loss and, ultimately, compensation.

One song from the album that has garnered considerable attention is “Seeing Black”, which addresses the confusion and anger one feels in the wake of a suicide. Williams was inspired to write the song by the death of fellow songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who took his life on Christmas Eve of 2009 after struggling with being a quadriplegic for nearly three decades. But while his suicide was the catalyst for the song, Williams is adamant that she didn’t write it as a direct response.

“As soon as you attach someone’s name to something,” she notes, “it becomes about them. But it’s not really about him per se. It’s just … when I found out he took his life, it was real sudden. And I’ve explored that theme before in ‘Pineola’ and ‘Sweet Old World’. This was just kind of an exercise in that. But I was very emotional about it. I didn’t know Vic very well, but any time you hear about, you know — he’s one of us, a songwriter and singer and we were mutual admirers of each other’s work. I talked to him a few times and, of course, he wrote a song called ‘Lucinda Williams’.”

Even as she discusses the song, Williams struggles to convey the emotions brought on by Chesnutt’s suicide. “It was just so sad and everything,” she says, before trailing off into contemplation. “You’re always a little bit sort of angry … not angry, that’s not really the right word.” Not finding the right word, Williams again drifts off into silence, perfectly making her point in doing so.

Williams recently experienced the death of another person she held in high regard, both as a person and a professional. On her birthday, January 26, country legend Charlie Louvin succumbed to his battle with pancreatic cancer. Recalling the times she spent with Louvin on the road and on stage, Williams can’t help but gush with admiration.

“Charlie was just full of vim and vigor. He was a tough guy, a tough little guy, you know? There was this one time when we played in Kansas City. It was on an outdoor stage and it was real windy and he had his set list on the stage and it kept blowing away. And he finally got flustered, grabbed his pocketknife out of his pocket and — boom! — just stuck his pocketknife down to hold his set list on the stage.”

Williams remembers another side of Louvin, though, one shaped by the 1965 death of his brother and musical collaborator, Ira Louvin.

“Sometimes he [was full of] sadness,” Williams recalls, “because he lost his brother so many years ago. When we were sitting on the bus after the show that night, he said, ‘When we were driving up here on our way to Kansas City, we passed the very mile marker where Ira had been killed in a car crash.’ He knew the exact spot. He sat there and told us this and there was such sadness in his face. You know, somebody his age … He was like walking history.”

No surprise then that, wedged between the dueling forces of love and death, Williams decided to write a song about war, something she has been hesitant to do on previous albums. The challenge in writing a song that addresses war, she explains, is in exploring the topic without sounding preachy, polemical, or political. Enduring protest songs are the ones that focus on the actual human impact of war and not on an overtly controversial message. In that regard, they aren’t really meant to protest at all, but depict: if the artist can convey the reality, the listener can’t help but react.

“Those kind of songs are really hard to do,” she concedes. “Phil Ochs was able to do it, [and] of course Bob Dylan. But there were also those more gentle ones, like the Pete Seeger song ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’. I mean, that’s a great song. And it was considered a protest song at the time and it’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone / Long time passing’. So that’s something that I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. I wasn’t thinking of it that I wanted it to be a protest song, but I was certainly trying to make a statement about the horrors of war. But I wanted to take it and put it in a more personal, family, human aspect.”

In the past, Williams has been depicted in the press as a control freak, an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who fixates on details so much that she’ll take the better part of a decade to make an album, nix people she has enlisted to assist in the making of an album, or both. For example, the recording of her breakout album, 1998’s Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, was marked by scrapped sessions, strained friendships, and replaced producers — all, allegedly, because Williams wanted to get the album unreasonably right.

If that portrayal of Williams was correct then, it certainly is not now. As she speaks about her approach to songwriting, it’s clear that she is much more intuitive than meticulous, letting her muse lead the way when — and if — it visits. Perhaps, through the experience of repeated success, she has learned that she can trust her own instincts; perhaps she has simply learned to relax. Either way, Williams seems like an artist in tune with her own creative instincts, not one at war with them.

“Sometimes it’s like writing in a journal or something,” she says, referring to the process of birthing a song. “It’s stream-of-consciousness, almost. I just put some thoughts out there. It usually begins with just a line I come up with or something like that. Or sometimes I’ll write a couple of verses or something, just some thoughts, like when I’m getting ready to go to bed or maybe when I very first wake up and I’m laying there thinking. And I get up, go grab a pen, and just whatever it is, put it down on paper right away so I don’t forget the idea … I don’t sit down and apply myself every single day, all day. That just kind of comes when I have the time.”

Williams’ relaxed approach towards writing and recording is due, in part, to having found the perfect creative foil in her husband. Overby is a record industry veteran, used to paying attention to the small details that often escape wild-eyed artists. Knowing that her husband will take care of such details, Williams is free of their burden — and free to keep her focus on the music.

“My approach to writing and recording and everything is very organic. Tom worked at a record company for a long time doing marketing, so he’s very conceptual. So we make a good team. For instance, when we go to put the songs in order, the sequence, I just don’t want to do that, but Tom’s really good at putting it all together. And sometimes I’ll go, ‘That’s a crazy idea!’ Like it was his idea for me to do that cover of [AC/DC’s] ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top’. I went, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t even like that song!’ I didn’t even know it, you know? He said, ‘Well, we just need another rock song on the record.’ And I’m going, ‘Who cares? Let’s just put the record out. It doesn’t matter.’ He’ll look at that. He’ll look at the whole picture and see how the record is balanced with all of the songs.”

After having spent so many years on the fringe of the music establishment, Williams now finds herself in the odd position of being a role model for aspiring artists. Her career serves as an example of how to do things the right way — ironic considering that Williams is a success despite the music industry rather than because of it. Asked about being such a role model, she has no secrets to share other than to keep the focus on the music, fame, and fortune be damned.

“I started so long ago as a solo singer-songwriter with just my voice and songs and that was my strength. I always knew in the back of my mind, ‘Well, if I lose this one record deal, my whole world isn’t going to fall apart and something else is going to happen. I’m just going to keep going.’ Part of it is just the patience factor — you know, hanging in there. And the era I came up in was about getting out there and playing in front of people. That’s how you build up your fan base and once you’ve got that core base, you’ve got it. Then it’s just a matter of the industry catching up with you. I think that’s kind of what happened with me.”

When asked what she thinks about being in the same group as the songwriters she has admired for so many years — songwriters like Dylan and Petty and Young and Springsteen — Williams has to force herself to reply. “It actually blows my mind to think that maybe I’m in the same group,” she whispers, as if a simple acknowledgement of the scale of her talents is blasphemy. And then, after more baffled silence, she breaks into that gorgeous southern chuckle.