Finding Southern Comfort in Nashville: An Interview with Joy Williams
Releasing her second solo album since the Civil Wars called it quits, Joy Williams begins the next chapter "in the book of my life that is bittersweet on a level that I can hardly articulate".
3 May 2019
Once a Northern California girl, singer-songwriter Joy Williams is all grown up now, the 36-year-old mother of two children, occupied with the usual household chores like doing laundry and getting dinner ready in the midst of reinvigorating her solo music career. Yet the former member of wildly popular Americana duo the Civil Wars who survived a surprising and highly publicized split from professional partner John Paul White, feels comfortable being known these days as a Southern girl.
After recently returning from an extended stay in the West Coast state where she spent her childhood, she feels right at home in Nashville, having lived there off and on for 18 years. Williams exudes Southern charm and solace ahead of the 3 May release of Front Porch, her second album since resuming her solo career. (PopMatters reviewed the record earlier this week.)
Seeing her local grocery store options grow from one Piggly Wiggly to two Whole Foods, Williams revels in a town that has become "unrecognizable" since she arrived in the Music City. Even dealing with what she calls "champagne problems" — for instance, "the traffic blows" — she paints a pretty picture while describing what her own front porch looks like during our 18 March phone interview.
"Currently, there's a sidewalk chalk from my six-and-a-half-year-old [son named Miles] on it, on the front porch that he's drawn on, there's two beaten-up little kid bikes and a Razor scooter on the front, there's a dusty mailbox that I probably need to wipe off and there's four rocking chairs on the mat that used to say 'Bonjour'," Williams said cheerfully. "And now my new mat says, 'Howdy'."
Welcome to Williams' ever-changing world. As soft-spoken as she is during this interview and as serene as her beautiful new album sounds, life has been anything but quiet for Williams.
Circling the wagons
A major North American tour scheduled for the winter and spring was suddenly postponed, as Williams took to social media on 15 February, shortly before the planned opening show on 25 February in Phoenix.
"I am so sorry to have to say this, and shocked along with the rest of you. But, due to a difficult and blindsiding personal matter, I am unable to travel and tour with my children at this time. I feel a lot of sadness over having to cancel these shows," she wrote. "Right now, though, I need to circle the wagons, be there for my babies, and regroup as I make steps to adjust to a new reality I didn't foresee.
"Thank you for your support, your patience, your love, prayers and for respecting my family's privacy during this difficult time. I look forward to going back out on the road and seeing you all when the time is right.
"Please stay close. I am keeping to my release schedule and will have new songs coming your way in the Spring. This music holds important truths for me that continue to evolve, even as life takes different turns. I hope it does the same for you."
Asked near the top of this interview what the status of the tour was, she said then, "At the moment, we're just still having to wait on the timing of what the tour is going to be able to look like. My life is shifting a good bit, so I'm needing to prioritize with my family and then hit the road. It'll be great."
Then, after hearing a follow-up question, Williams revealed that she and Nate Yetton, her husband since June 2004 who became manager of the Civil Wars, had "decided to part ways".
Out of respect for the family privacy she requested in her statement, no further details about the breakup were sought or provided, as Williams stayed focused on some of the subjects that bring her the most happiness.
Besides engaging in a nuts-and-bolts discussion about the album, though, she also spoke candidly about how recording while pregnant affected her in the studio, a heartfelt tribute to her late father, and those glory days with the Civil Wars.
Joy Williams performs as a member of the Civil Wars in 2011. / Photo: Michael Bialas
Williams went back to California a few years ago to make her previous album, 2015's Venus, and cared for her dying father Roger Williams, a former pastor who had been president and CEO of Mount Hermon Christian Camps and Conference Center. A two-year battle with cancer ended in September 2014 at his Mount Hermon home, north of Santa Cruz. He was 67.
"So it was like once my dad passed away, I just thought, 'Why am I here? I don't even want to be here anymore,'" said Williams, whose mother Rachel and sister Sara still live in Santa Cruz. "But it was a strange and wonderful thing for me to say, 'You know, I think I want to go back home.' And I meant Nashville, which is a surprise even to me. … I think it's OK for me to finally call it home."
A couple of years removed from the Civil Wars, who last toured in 2012, Williams admitted she went in another direction with Venus. Singer-songwriter Matt Morris, a one-time Mouseketeer who worked hit-making magic with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, was executive producer
"I knew that I needed to make Venus," said Williams, a former contemporary Christian artist. "I needed to sort of cleanse my palate. And I think I was dealing with a little bit of fear that I didn't want to make something that sounded too much like the Civil Wars."
While proud of that solo record, Williams finally decided to return to her roots music.
"That sound is also in my bones," she said. "Just as much as making something as electronic and modern as something like Venus. … I'm also glad to know now that I can feel confident and standing on my own two feet and say, 'But I do really feel at home, feel the most at home, when I'm making music that sounds more akin to the Front Porch.'"
She quickly laughed, realizing her use of the word "akin" that "just popped out", proved that a youngster from the Bay Area can actually establish herself as a Natural Woman with a Southern accent.
"Santa Cruz, is not even Southern California," she pointed out. "But somehow I think they all play well in the sandbox together, too."
A musical relationship with new playing partners also began to develop.
Not kidding around
Williams ran into Kenneth Pattengale while attending a high school graduation party thrown by Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly for one of his children. She knew Pattengale, one-half of the witty and wonderful Milk Carton Kids duo, from her Civil Wars days, but after not seeing him for a while, decided to reconnect over paper plates and finger foods.
They discussed Williams' ongoing search for an album producer, with her wanting someone fine-tuned in harmonies and willing to record live as much as possible.
"And Kenneth just started getting this … he starts getting this side grin," she recalled. "And I knew he was up to something. And he said, 'I'd love to put my hat in the ring for that.' And I had to apologize to Kenneth later because I didn't know he had been already producing records."
After meeting for two hours at Cafe Roze on the east side of Nashville, then another two hours at her home, Williams offered, "He was in my kitchen saying, 'We have to do this. Like you know we have to do this, right? Like this is it. Like this is totally the path,'" And I was like, 'Yes, it is. This is totally the path.' And it was. It really was."
What surprised her the most about Pattengale wearing a producer's hat was "how much he allowed me to lead," she said. "And I think in the music industry in general and being a woman in general, having a desire to create in a certain way, you really have to have somebody that is very sure of themselves and able to be collaborative because a collaborative spirit is exceedingly important to me. …
"And Kenneth really allowed me to step forward and I could also say, 'Kenneth, am I getting overwrought with this detail?' And he would say, 'Yeah, you are.' And there's just … the honesty of the feedback was so great. His knowing so deeply intimate harmonies that can weave in and out of two voices, he has as much passion about that as I have. … And we were laughing most of the time."
Pattengale also introduced Williams to New York singer-songwriter Anthony da Costa, a guitarist who became her "right-hand man" during two months of rehearsals and while recording. Other major players (along with Pattengale) on the album include Scott Mulvahill (upright bass), John Mailander (fiddle), Russ Pahl (pedal steel) and Caitlin Canty (vocals).
"It was like finding a whole different musical family that I didn't know that I'd been missing," Williams said.
Poppy and the Preacher's Daughter
Recorded at T Bone Burnett's House of Blues Studios in Nashville in early 2018, months before she gave birth in August to Poppy, her daughter named after Williams' father (the grandkids called him Grandpoppy or Poppy), 15 songs were completed in five days, 12 of which made the cut for Front Porch.
"I don't have, like, unicorn-and-rainbows pregnancies," Williams said. "My pregnancies are like I'm sick 24 hours a day. ... But even sick, I would say that it was still my most enjoyable time in the studio that I have ever had in my life. It was just so easy and fun, filled with laughter, and I just sat on a stool and sang these songs front to back. And I think you can hear that effortlessness of the recording process. …
"I think part of the gift of the unending nausea of my pregnancy in the studio was that it made me exceptionally instinctive. So I went off of my gut a lot. I didn't have the energy to overthink it or to be overly precious about it. And I joke with my friends that I'm a recovering perfectionist. And something about feeling more compressed because of being pregnant made me care less about things sounding pristine. I just wanted things to sound real. And I think I'm feeling that in my life overall, and have been for the past few years. It's not, 'How pretty can I make it?' It's what's really going on here and how can I access that and enjoy what's happening around me regardless of how things change shape, and move with that as opposed to resist it."
Finding co-writers for every song on the album, including "dear friends" Liz Rose and Natalie Hemby, Williams, determined to include more women in the process, also worked with Emily Shackleton and Caitlyn Smith.
"I just felt safer that way this time around, emotionally and otherwise. And I felt like I was able to access some different emotions that I might not have otherwise," said Williams, who also utilized "wonderful men" such as Jon Randall, Angelo Petraglia, Paul Moak, Trent Dabbs and Cason Cooley.
Williams knew from the start that her father's presence would grace the album. The song didn't even have a title when Williams began working on the precious "Preacher's Daughter" more than two-and-a-half years ago.
"I wanted to write about him but I had a songwriter at one point tell me that you're probably not going to be able to write about him for a few years. And I thought, 'Well, that feels … is that totally true?' And that songwriter was right. It took me that long to be able to distill down the things that I wanted to say. And I love how that song turned out."
Written with Rose and Hemby, Williams, whose shimmering vocals remain the heart of the album, added, "I still can't make it through the bridge when I sing it live without shedding a tear or two. But out of love and celebration for the dad that I had. I felt really lucky that I had one of the good ones. Not perfect, by any means, but neither am I, so what the hell."
Williams believes that the celebrating will continue to live through her children, whose fingerprints are on "almost every song I write in some way, shape or form". She wrote "Sweet Love of Mine" off Venus for her son Miles, but these days he's singing "Preacher's Daughter", including the lines Williams said he loves at the end of the bridge: "And the day that he passed on / I lost a little piece of God / But I see his smile in the songs that I have now."
Her daughter Poppy, Williams pointed out, was born a day before Roger "Poppy" Williams' birthday, which happened to be the scheduled due date.
"I like to think it was my dad somehow cheering her on to have her own day," Williams said, her gentle laugh adding the appropriate touch to that sentiment.
Photo by Michael Bialas
Beginning of the end
Reminded that she was pregnant with her first child while on a 2012 tour with the Civil Wars, including a sold-out show I saw that May at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, Williams laughed, remembering that occasion for its mile-high location. Her son arrived about a month later.
"I have a picture of me sitting in the back with my legs crossed and an oxygen mask," she said. "Yeah, I think a lot of people at times have said, 'You're crazy for doing things … going on the road or making a record when you're pregnant,' but, like I said, I think there's, for whatever reason, when that happens to me, I get more inspired to move with the surge of energy and the surges of emotions, there's a creativity that comes. Even without me necessarily knowing it. It just seems to be how it happens for me."
That creative spark appeared to especially ignite the Civil Wars, who would be celebrating their 10th year of existence if — as many of us still wish — they were still making music together.
Williams declined to comment further on the professional split with White, also married with children, that officially became permanent in 2014, saying, "I think I have articulated that in the past, and that that conversation has paled in comparison to the new that's coming in my life, and the music that I'm really excited about."
The Facebook message that rocked all of Americana on 6 November 2012, following a London performance, was signed Joy Williams & John Paul White.
"We sincerely apologize for the canceling of all of our tour dates. It is something we deeply regret. However, due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time. We thank each and every one of you for your amazing love & support. Our sincere hope is to have new music for you in 2013."
While on "indefinite hiatus" until making a follow-up announcement in 2014, the Civil Wars did release one last album in 2013, including a song ("From This Valley") that helped earned them their fourth Grammy. "Dust to Dust", which Williams and White co-wrote, and "The One That Got Away" were two of the 12 songs on the self-titled album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Regarding what went wrong, Williams said in a 2013 New York Times article, "It wasn't one thing. It was a lot of little things. Each of us wanting something separate."
In a 2015 interview with Anna Sale on wnycstudious.org, Williams called the split "a creative divorce". And her quote heard 'round the world of roots music — "I wanted one thing, and he didn't want that" — remains open to speculation and interpretation.
'When they were good … '
Confirming that she doesn't keep in touch with White and avoiding the subject of his solo albums, including The Hurting Kind that was released in April, Williams was receptive to discussing what the Civil Wars did for her career and the many bucket list moments she experienced: "Like getting to talk to Paul McCartney backstage at the Grammys, getting to perform on the Grammys, meeting Bruce Springsteen and having a great conversation with him, getting to tour with Adele and … getting matching tattoos [with her] on the bus after our first tour together."
A partnership filled with chemistry, tension and creative differences began innocently at a songwriting workshop in 2008 followed by the first Civil Wars show in 2009. Getting accepted by fans and the industry — accentuated by a gold record, Taylor Swift's admiration and those Grammys — supplied affirmation that their hard work paid off.
"To finally have people get excited to that degree about the music was a total and absolute joy," Williams said. "And a part of a chapter of what I hope is a long book that I will be in. Because it's a chapter in the book of my life that is bittersweet on a level that I can hardly articulate. But the good memories are so, so good."
The first time I saw the Civil Wars perform was on a Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, when the incredible Day 3 lineup also included Carolina Chocolate Drops with Rhiannon Giddens, Missy Higgins and Jackson Browne.
Only a few months after the release of their critically acclaimed Barton Hollow, Williams and White wore their trademark formal attire, the best-dressed pair in a sea of T-shirts and shorts. Looking like two charming sophisticates on their way to a black-tie ball, they traded one-liners and, as I said then, weaved their voices "around each other's tighter than a loving couple's embrace."
Repeating to her a line she said near the end of their 70-minute set — "Someone just gave us rock horns at a folk festival, and that made me so happy" — Williams let loose a spirited laugh, sounding as tickled as she seemed that day.
"Oh, man, those were such good times," she reiterated. "When they were good, they were so, so good."
Why or how their collaboration worked might be as puzzling as the reasons that it ultimately dissolved.
"I don't think that we had any idea that we were well-timed within the sort of cultural attention around that type of music," Williams said. "I think that was helpful. You know, that was the era of Mumford and Sons. We weren't trying to time anything. There was nothing overly intentional about what we were doing. We were just writing songs that we enjoyed. But I think … that being able to play with the sort of archetypal male-female role and write in a way that was very dramatic and full of ethos and pathos and all the other 'oses' that you could write about, I think that it really sort of connected in a way that we could never have planned."
In discussing musical partnerships with Pattengale, what appeared to be as clear as a bright morning day to Williams was that, "It's very hard to be in a duo. … We would be able to talk really openly and honestly about the pluses and the minuses of that. And if one person says, 'I'm out,' you're out of a gig. So there's a whole different kind of dynamic when you have a duo. And I'm so proud of the music that I made within the duo of the Civil Wars. And I'm proud of the music I'm making now."
With her music roots and her children firmly planted in Nashville, expect those chairs on Williams' front porch to keep on rocking.
The Civil Wars' Joy Williams (left) and John Paul White perform at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival / Photo: Michael Bialas