Lucinda Williams Is Not Afraid to Explore Uncomfortable Spaces

Chrissie Dickinson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

“My writing reflects how I’m feeling at any given time,” Williams says. “Now that I’m older, I’ve suffered those losses and my songs are going to reflect that.”

Lucinda Williams is no stranger to grief. The acclaimed singer-songwriter lost her mother in 2004. Her father, the poet Miller Williams, succumbed last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Those difficult events shadowed Williams’ recent life and served in part as emotional inspiration for her latest release, “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”

“My writing reflects how I’m feeling at any given time,” Williams says in her granular twang, calling from her home in Los Angeles. “Now that I’m older, I’ve suffered those losses and my songs are going to reflect that.”

Her new album takes its title from Interstate 20, a 1,500-mile highway that stretches from Texas to South Carolina and runs through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. That long strip of road holds early memories for Williams, from her nomadic childhood recollections of growing up in various Southern towns to her early years as a traveling musician building a career.

Today Williams is busier than ever. She’s recently back from Australia, Europe, two music cruises and a trip to New York for an appearance on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Her current tour has Williams booked for multiple-night runs in several cities. She’ll be accompanied by a well-oiled backing band featuring her long-running rhythm section of drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton. Guitarist Stuart Mathis, who did a stint in Jakob Dylan’s band the Wallflowers, will also be joining her.

Williams has plenty of new material to draw upon. One of the harrowing highlights of “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is “If My Love Could Kill,” a song about the emotional impact of her father’s debilitating disease. The genesis of the song occurred several years ago when Williams visited the ailing Miller Williams at his home in Arkansas. Sitting together and drinking wine at the end of the day, her father made a stark admission.

“He just said matter-of-factly, ‘Honey, I can’t write poetry anymore,’” Williams recalls. “I was shocked. I started sobbing. I fell apart. I couldn’t believe it. There was my father, sitting right next to me, and his whole identity had been erased.”

After his death she found it cathartic to write a song that gave voice to her tumultuous feelings. In the lyrics, she longs to kill the disease that “robbed me of your memory / robbed me of your time / made her way into the symphony / of your beautiful mind.”

“That’s what ‘If My Love Could Kill’ is about,” Williams says. “I was so angry I decided to personify the disease itself, because the disease is a thief. It’s a murderer.”

Miller Williams was a literature professor who earned a serious reputation as a poet. In 1997, he was featured prominently in the national spotlight when he read one of his poems at Bill Clinton’s second presidential inauguration. Early in his career, Miller Williams moved frequently for work and taught at a number of colleges before joining the English department at the University of Arkansas in the early 1970s.

During her father’s work assignments in southern towns, the young Lucinda soaked up the atmosphere. She started school in Macon, Ga. Soon after she tagged along with her father when he went to visit his friend and mentor Flannery O’Connor at her home in Milledgeville, Ga. The iconic American author influenced both father and daughter.

“My dad said Flannery was his greatest teacher,” Williams recalls. “She was one of the first people to encourage him to pursue writing poetry. When I was a teenager, I read all the Southern Gothic stuff — Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. That informs my songwriting.”

Her father’s approach to writing also had an impact on Williams’ style.

“My dad was always very emphatic about the importance of the listener,” she says. “You have to respect the listener. Get outside of yourself as a writer and imagine that you’re listening to what you’ve just written. Make it so people don’t have to have a master’s degree in literature to understand the poem. That’s how my songs are. I approach songwriting from that perspective.”

Williams grew up steeped in a world of books and music. She recalls the literary parties her father and other poets in the community would host for visiting writers.

“I had been at those parties and let me tell you — they rivaled any rock ‘n’ roll party,” she says with a laugh. “The poets were hard drinkers and smokers, which is why most of them are gone now. They would stay up ‘til all hours of the night talking about literature and jazz. I soaked that up. I met a lot of amazing writers. At some of those parties, my dad would say, ‘Honey, go get your guitar and play some songs.’ The poets would encourage me. They’d say, ‘Just keep going. You’ve got a lot of soul.’ They knew I wasn’t totally developed yet, but they could hear something.”

Williams’ new album is co-produced by her husband and manager, Tom Overby, a former executive with Universal Music Group. The two were married onstage in 2009 during a show in Minneapolis. The funny and touching nuptials are preserved for posterity in a YouTube video.

Williams says even she was initially surprised that she fell for Overby. “If you had told me that I was going to (be with) a record company guy — the enemy — I would have said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Because all my boyfriends were these rock ‘n’ roll bad boys. They were all younger with motorcycle boots and chains. Then I meet the record company guy.”

The two hit it off despite being on opposite sides of the business.

“We were both in music, but in different arenas of it,” she says. “We found we had a lot in common. We appreciate a lot of the same things. He’s highly intelligent. That’s the erotic appeal for me — highly intelligent bordering on genius. That wasn’t the case with most of those bad boy rock ‘n’ rollers.”

The two are partners in life and music, traveling together and collaborating on projects. Williams says she’d always hoped to find the ideal relationship that would allow her to continue to flourish as an artist.

“It took me a long time to find the right person I could live with and still create,” she says. “I always had this dream that there had to be that person, my soul mate. Deep down inside I always believed it could happen.”

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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