"In a Different Place Now": An Interview with Lucinda Williams

In her first ever interview with PopMatters, Lucinda Williams explains how her latest album, Blessed, was shaped by the dueling forces of love and death.

Lucinda Williams


Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2011-03-01
UK Release Date: 2011-02-28

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.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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