July/August 2012
Lucinda Williams - Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Lucinda Williams

[Singer, Songwriter]

“When the muse hits me, or the mood, or whatever it is, I get my guitar out and I empty it out.”
Reactions to Lucinda Williams’s first demo, from L.A. and Nashville, respectively:
Too country for rock
Too rock for country

Lucinda Williams’s songs are like a catalog of intimate sufferings, mostly of the romantic kind—suicidal poets, unfulfilled loves, long, sad drives across the South—which she represents in meticulous detail. And there’s always an edge of determination to her thoughtful, scratchy voice, whether she’s singing with anger or utter desperation; you feel the energy of a torrent pushed through a pinhole.

Born in Louisiana in 1953, Williams grew up sitting in on the poetry workshops and lectures of her father, the poet Miller Williams. She spent a few decades traveling around the country, playing in bars and on the street, and developed a following before her first commercial success, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), which was her fifth album. Since that time, she has released six more albums, has been named “America’s Best Songwriter” by Time magazine, and has been nominated for Grammy Awards in country, pop, folk, rock, and Americana.

A few years ago, Williams married her manager, Tom Overby. The marriage took place onstage after a concert in Minneapolis. (“We had this idea of getting married, and I asked my dad, ‘What do you think about that?’ My dad said, ‘Hank Williams got married onstage.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’ And I said, ‘OK, well, that settles it.”) Since then, she has been pursuing a wider range of topics in her songs, and is currently working on a song about the execution of Texas inmate David Lee Powell, whose sentence she attempted to commute.

—Madeleine Schwartz

I. THE LEAVES FALL AND THEY FALL TO THE GROUND

The Believer: How did you figure out how to use your voice?

Lucinda Williams: When I started out playing guitar and singing, I was about twelve, going on thirteen. The role models for me back then were the folk singers. They all had these high, really nice voices and ranges, like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, and then later, of course, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. I decided early on that I was going to learn how to write songs really, really well, because I didn’t want to have to compete as a singer. I didn’t feel that it was my strong point.

It wasn’t until I discovered Bobbie Gentry—she was one of the first singers who had more of a low, raspy voice, and I really connected to that—and then when I discovered some of the blues singers like Memphis Minnie and some of the other Delta blues women singers, with their scratchy, different kind of voices, that I started finding other role models to identify with. I remember being at a restaurant with Emmylou Harris one time, and a couple of other people, and there was someone singing light opera, and I turned to Emmylou and said, “Oh, listen to that range! I wish I could do that with my voice!” And she said, “That’s the beauty of your own voice—you’ve got your own style. You just need to learn to work with your limitations.”

BLVR: What were you like as a child?

LW: I was an indoor kid, you know. I liked to stay inside. I did my share of hopscotch and cartwheels and climbing trees and that kind of thing, but for the most part I liked to do indoor stuff like drawing and writing and reading. I started writing little short stories and poems as soon as I learned to read and write. I think I was six years old. And then when I got to be eleven, twelve, and into my teens, I was just listening to records all the time, and I got a guitar. I started to take guitar lessons when I was twelve. That just became my whole world. I used to listen to records and go to music stores and look for songbooks, and I still have this big collection of songbooks. I would try to find the songs in the songbook that were on the albums, because I couldn’t read music. So I would learn the words from the songbooks and learn the melody from listening to the records, and sit with my songbooks and learn songs, you know, before I started writing and all.

I started dabbling in writing when I was thirteen or something. The first song I remember writing was called “The Wind Blows.” I didn’t realize the double entendre at the time. It was very much like Peter, Paul, and Mary, kind of a folksy song. It was like,

The wind blows and it blows through the town and people in the town hear it blow.

The wind blows and it blows through the town and people in the town hear it blow.

And then:

The leaves fall and they fall to the ground.

Na na na na na na na na na…

BLVR: Were you getting a lot of encouragement?

LW: Well, you know, I was getting encouragement from my family, especially my dad and his friends and stuff. I was too young to go play in bars or anything. I was just sitting around the house. My friend and I played. I think there was a talent contest at our school, and we got up and sang some songs. I had quite a bit of drive and ambition of my own, something that kept pushing me forward.

BLVR: What was it pushing you toward?

LW: I wanted to be able to do it for a living. That was my big dream. Not necessarily to be famous or anything. I just thought, Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to work a day job? My dad encouraged me to go to college and get a degree, because he wanted me to have something to fall back on, because he was publishing books of poetry but he was also teaching creative writing. Anyway, I went to the University of Arkansas and started there and dropped out and went for another semester and dropped out.

My major, when I started there—I didn’t choose music, I chose cultural anthropology. I don’t know why. At the time, I wasn’t interested in formal music training, I guess. In between semesters—this was 1971 or 1972—I went down to New Orleans, and I got offered my first regular gig at this little tavern in the French quarter called Andy’s—they were open all night. I think they opened at three and closed at three in the morning. It has since burned down. It was just for tips. Back then you could do pretty well just for tips. It was pretty easy to sustain yourself as a musician because rent was cheap.

Anyway, I was asked if I wanted to do a shift two or three nights a week—I think it was in the afternoons—from four to six. It was a real small place, right on Bourbon Street, so they had a lot of walk-ins. You’d sit on a stool, you got a couple microphones and put a jar there. And boy—I was all excited. I was just walking on the moon! This was what I wanted to do! I called my dad and said, “Dad, instead of coming back to school, I want to stay down here and do this.” And he said OK. That was probably one of the big early turning points, maybe the turning point.

II. “THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH ME”

BLVR: I wonder, were you ever worried about not achieving success? It took you a long time to break into the music industry.

LW: Once I set myself on that path, that was it. I was real good at being in the right place at the right time—I followed my instincts.

I went out to L.A. late in ’84. That was the next big breaking point. I didn’t know anything about the music business before then. I didn’t have a manager, a lawyer, a booking agent, a band. I was just playing with whoever was available, usually just me and a guitar player. When I came out to L.A., that’s when I had my first exposure to the music industry and record labels and all this kind of thing. I started playing around in some places, and then a band starting forming around me and some agents started sniffing around. But they didn’t know what to do with me, because, as I would find out later, I fell in the cracks between country and rock. There was no Americana, there was no alternative country. All that kind of stuff that now there’s a big market for and a whole genre around—

BLVR: How were people letting you know this?

LW: I had gotten what they used to call a “development deal,” where they would give you a certain amount of money to live on for six months, and you would do a demo tape. In this case it was for Sony, or for CBS Records, whatever it was called, before all the labels started merging. The head of A&R, he took an interest in me. He said, “I want to give you a development deal, and we’ll pay for you to go in the studio and make a demo tape of your songs. We’ll set it all up.” Here I was on top of the world, thinking, Wow, here I don’t have to work a day job for six months, all I have to do is write songs, and, you know, make a demo tape, and I’ve got a little apartment, and I thought, Boy, I’ve made it now! Because the whole premise was that I would go and make this demo tape, and he would then take that tape to his colleagues, and they would then decide whether they would give me a record deal.

It was during that time that I wrote most of the songs that were on the self-titled album, like “Passionate Kisses,” and “Crescent City,” and “Changed the Locks.” Those same songs are those that were being bandied about and listened to by different A&R guys at different record labels, so I went in and did a demo tape, and they turned me down. The reason was, they said, “At Sony records here in L.A., it’s too country for rock, and so we sent it to Nashville,” and Nashville said, “It’s too rock for country.” There you have it.

Here I had this demo tape and it was pretty good; there were some good musicians on it and everything. It started getting passed around, and I continued to play in little bars. I had one meeting with this guy from Elektra Records, and he said, “I think you need to go back to the drawing board and work on your songs some more.” And I said, “Well, why’s that?” And he said, “Your songs are just not formulaic enough. None of your songs have bridges.” What he was talking about was the formula way of writing a song, which is verse, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, verse, chorus, or something like that, and he said, “None of your songs have bridges.” Well, a lot of my songs didn’t have choruses, for that matter!

Of course, I was somewhat devastated and pissed off. But I was just pissed off enough not to listen to him. He left, and I went, and right away I pulled out a Neil Young album and listened to it. I looked at it and studied some of the songs that he’d written. Bob Dylan also. And I looked at it and said, “Screw that guy! Look at these songs! This Neil Young song only has two verses, there’s no bridge.” I went back and reconfirmed what I already knew, and I just stayed with that. Because I knew these guys just weren’t hip enough.

BLVR: You’ve said in the past that your career was hampered by men telling you what to do.

LW: When you say “men telling you what to do”—I mean, that’s true, but what you have to remember is that the music business was and still is predominately male-dominated. It could have been a woman telling me what to do and I wouldn’t have, you know… I feel like people talk about this a lot, and I sort of get credit for being the strong woman standing up to these guys or whatever. But I don’t really like giving myself so much credit. I am strong, but I think at the time it was more a stubbornness than anything else, and a fear—I had this abject fear of being overproduced. I did not want to sound commercial. I did not want to sound slick.

There was an event that occurred, when I did that second Folkways album, Happy Woman Blues. I was out in Houston with some guys I’d been working with there. We went in and cut it in, like, three days. We didn’t have a drummer—just a couple of guitars and a bass. We were working with this guy—it was called SugarHill Studios—and I went back into the studio on the last day to listen to what we had. The guy who was engineering it—he was kind of a combination producer and engineer—he decided to have a drummer come in while we were all out of the studio, and he put drums on the track! Without talking to me or anyone! I absolutely just couldn’t believe it. I walked in and he turned it on and said, “Listen.” And I was like, “What did you do?” And he said, “I thought it needed some drums. Doesn’t it sound good?” And I was like, “That’s not the point!” He thought he was doing me this big favor, you know? I was completely floored. Not to mention I felt manipulated. That was my initial step into the manipulative, controlling arms of the music industry and recording. I think it put me on the defensive. I couldn’t always explain what I wanted to do in the studio, but I knew what I didn’t want.

III. “I PUT MY CRACKED LEATHER SHOES ON”

BLVR: You are very good at writing about sex—about liking sex and wanting it.

LW: Yes! I’ve always been adamant about that. I have to credit my upbringing to this. It never occurred to me not to ask for or want something, or not be able to have something, just because I was a woman. I was encouraged to have a career—not necessarily to get married and have kids and stuff. I was surprised when people first started hearing my songs and they were kind of like, “Wow! This is so sensual.” Like that song “Essence,” you know? To me it was kind of a natural thing. It’s probably because I grew up around poets and novelists and my dad wrote poems about everything—from a cat sleeping in a window to a car wreck he passed on the highway. I learned not to censor myself: that was one of things I learned in my apprenticeship, my creative-writing apprenticeship with my dad. I didn’t study creative writing formally, but I learned as much as you could just by watching him, and sitting in on his workshops at the house, and hearing him teach, and all of that. He taught me about not censoring myself. He taught me about the economics of writing and editing. He’s a great editor.

BLVR: Are you surprised when people tell you your songs are sensual or sexy? I was reading a description of one of your concerts. As soon as you started playing, everyone started making out.

LW: [Laughs] I hear that a lot, yeah. When we were in New Orleans, and it was during Jazz Fest, we did a gig at the House of Blues. This was not too long after Hurricane Katrina, so it was kind of a strange energy in the crowd. At any rate, we played “Essence.” We found out afterward that this girl—she wasn’t making out with someone, she was basically making out with herself, let’s put it that way. She was touching herself. Somebody in the crowd called the cops, and the cops came. She must have been on some kind of drug. She must have been on Ecstasy. So anyway, that was pretty wild.

BLVR: What other works were you learning from, besides your dad’s?

LW: I loved contemporary short stories and Flannery O’Connor. I ate her stuff up. I was pretty young—fifteen, sixteen. Her stuff was so descriptive. You could just see it—a picture of what she was talking about. I loved that kind of writing, that very descriptive, realistic writing. I learned that instead of just saying “I just left this last town,” why not say the name of the town? Describe the town. Don’t just say “I put my shoes on today,” say “I put my cracked leather shoes on.”

BLVR: You met Flannery O’Connor when you were little, right?

LW: I vaguely remember it. I was only four years old. She was one of my dad’s mentors. We were living in Atlanta. She was in Milledgeville, Georgia. She invited my dad over, and he brought me. She lived in this big old house. She was so disciplined with her writing. She would write from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. She would draw her shades, and if her shades were drawn that meant she wasn’t finished writing and we had to sit out on the porch and wait for her to finish. Then her housekeeper came out and let us in. She raised peacocks, and they were running all over the yard. My dad says I was chasing the peacocks.

BLVR: Do you have a routine like that?

LW: I’m not disciplined like that. I collect ideas and lines. My mind is always going. I am always jotting down lines, and stream-of-consciousness stuff. And I keep everything in a folder. I have a lot of songs from the last songwriting sessions, from previous songwriting sessions, songs I wrote that I have to go back and work on some more, and then bits and pieces of lines and ideas. When the muse hits me, or the mood, or whatever it is, I get my guitar out and I empty it out. I just start going through things to see what’s going to happen.

IV. LIFE DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT

BLVR: How do you know when a song is finished?

LW: It helps to have someone else to play it for, who you trust, which in this case is my husband, Tom. But I feel like I usually know. Sometimes I know if I cry. If it’s so emotional for me, that I get so far into it… It’s so cathartic when I’m writing, most of the time. It’s therapeutic and cathartic and everything, and I’ll just be overcome with emotion and I know right then: OK, there might be some editing that needs to be done, but I’ve got the crux of the song. I’ve got it. Because I’ve reached that place—I’ve gone inside and reached that place. Then I just need to clean it up a little bit.

BLVR: What place is that?

LW: That place where it hits me—so I know it’s going to hit other people—where I reach deep down in my psyche and pull stuff out. Like if I’m writing about my mother’s death or something, you know?

One time, a long time ago, this young songwriter was asking me, he said, “I want to be a songwriter. I want to do what you do. But I don’t know how to do it. Tell me how you do it.” And I said, “You have to be willing to dig way deep down in yourself, and go and look at those demons and monsters and things and stuff that happened. Just go down in there. Because that’s where the wealth of material is.” And he said, “I don’t think I can do that.” I’ll never forget that moment. He looked at me with this look in his eyes, and he said, “I just can’t do that.” And I just said, “Well,” you know? That was a very sad moment. I’ll never forget that. He knew what I was talking about and basically he was saying, “I can’t do it. I’m too afraid to do that.” It had never occurred to me that someone would be too afraid of doing that.

BLVR: You never get afraid?

LW: No, god! I have to. It’s my survival. You just have to get in there and deal with all that stuff, unless you just want to write about sunshine and flowers, and unrequited love.

BLVR: What do you think of the idea that artists need to suffer before they can produce good work?

LW: I think we start suffering as soon as we come out of the womb. I think that people tend to stereotype. When they think of suffering, they think of abuse—physical abuse, emotional abuse, poverty, that kind of thing. There’s different levels of suffering. I don’t think that it has to do with how much money you have—if you were raised in the ghetto or the Hamptons. For me it’s more about perception: self-perception and how you perceive the world.

BLVR: People associate suffering with your work, so much so that they’ve started distinguishing your last albums as “happy albums.”

LW: That’s just such a misnomer: the idea that all of a sudden, overnight, I met Tom and we got married and now I’m happy? Life doesn’t work that way. Life goes on and you still—I’m glad I met Tom and I love him and, you know, but I’m still an artist, and I’m still writing about different things. I still suffer and feel pain and everything. There’s a lot of other stuff to think about and write about besides unrequited love. There seems to be this misconception that because I’m not running around with a bad boyfriend, that now that I’ve found one person, what am I going to write about? That this is my “happy album.” And it’s just absolutely ludicrous! It just shows a lack of awareness. It’s just so pedestrian. Believe it or not, people went so far as to suggest that I might not be able to write songs anymore because now I am married. I tried to explain again that there are other things to write about besides boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy breaks up with girl, girl is sad. What about my mother’s mental health and her whole life and my life? I carry that stuff around me like an albatross around my neck. A therapist told me one time, “You’re carrying her baggage; you’ve got to let go.”

This is the stuff. That’s what keeps me going. I have to write. I’ve written a couple of songs about my brother who’s suffered from mental illness, which I am convinced is genetic because my sister has it, too. Another therapist told me I had survivor guilt, because I am the eldest of three and I did survive, and I’ll never quite know why, except that I was real close to my dad, and bonded with him and drew a lot of strength from that, and from writing.

BLVR: How will you be writing about this?

LW: I’ve been trying to write a song about my mother, about when she was growing up. She had quite a childhood herself. Her father was a fundamentalist Methodist preacher and chewed tobacco, and she grew up in a fairly repressive kind of environment. This was being a woman in Louisiana in those days—in the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’30s. She had four brothers. She was emotionally, if not somewhat physically, abused. Yeah, she had a rough time. Her mother had mental illness. Passed it down to her. It got passed to my sister and my brother. Somehow I managed to survive.

BLVR: It must be difficult, then, to have to try to reach into someone else’s memory instead of your own.

LW: I want to reach back into my own childhood, too. I’ve got a lot of songs already about myself—stories surrounding me and my beautiful loser men, you know? I want to write about children. I’ve gotten some songs started about children, about child abuse. I want to write about that.

V. THE SUGARCOATED COUNTRY GIRLS

BLVR: Do you think you are responsible for the creation of an Americana niche within music?

LW: I guess by default. There were other people doing it besides me, but I think the success of Car Wheels had a lot to do with that, probably. I remember I was living in Nashville when they were establishing this Americana Music Association, and they were trying to think of a name for it. I, along with a lot of singer-songwriters who had been doing this, were responsible. I mean, I don’t want to take credit as far as the market goes. I think they were thinking, We need to find a home for this kind of music within the record industry so it doesn’t fall through the cracks.

BLVR: What’s your opinion of the country-music scene more generally? Do you listen to what comes out of Nashville?

LW: I don’t listen to it at all. I’m not a fan. Occasionally, something will slip out that I think is pretty good. But I don’t like the production, I usually don’t like the songs, the whole thing. It’s too slick. It’s just not good country. It’s not country in the sense of what I think country should be, like the old style, like Loretta Lynn and a lot of the Outlaw Country, like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. It’s more bottled-up and marketed in a certain way. They’re aiming to a certain audience, I guess. It’s just not something I want to put on and listen to at home. It’s not rough enough around the edges, at least the stuff that gets successful. I’ve heard stuff that’s come out of Nashville that’s cool, but it has trouble competing with the sugarcoated, fluffy, pretty, calendar, country girls.

BLVR: Where does this problem come from?

LW: A lot these artists aren’t writing their own songs. They’ve got all these people cowriting. They’ve got all these people moving to Nashville from Connecticut and Long Island, and sitting down with three or four people and writing songs. You don’t have that personal, gut-experience feeling when you’re listening to a song that’s been written by three or four people. That’s the writing machine that goes on in Nashville now. That takes away a lot of the soul. The artists I look to—Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Elvis Costello—those are artists who’ve become successful and big stars and maintained their integrity, you know? An individual writing a song about his or her experience.

I think in the world of rock music or whatever it’s called—anything outside of Nashville—there’s a lot more freedom within that industry to do whatever you want to do. Nashville tends to fall into this cookie-cutter syndrome. All the records are trying to sound the same. All the people coming to Nashville, who didn’t know anything about country music, they’re all coming to town, saying, “Hey! I’m going to write a country song! I’m going to jump on the bandwagon. There’s money to be made here in this country-songwriting business.” And the artists who were a little different and a little edgier—the industry didn’t support them. They have a tendency not to support the music that sounds like the older country stuff. I don’t know why that is.

BLVR: Right, and your work does not fall into that cookie-cutter syndrome. One of my favorite lines from one of your songs is where you’re talking about seeing a guy you find attractive, and it’s not on a beach or anything—it’s in the supermarket buying tomatoes.

LW: And that’s what you don’t hear in modern-day country music. It would be on the beach.

BLVR: What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about a song of yours?

LW: My birthday was January 26. I had all these messages in my email and on Facebook and on my fan page—these sweet, lovely messages and birthday wishes. A couple of times, speaking of my song “Sweet Old World,” I had a couple of people say that they had thought about suicide and had changed their minds—that the song made them change their minds. That’s pretty intense, huh? I was playing “Unsuffer Me,” and I think this woman called out from the audience, “Thank you, Lucinda! That song saved my life.”

Madeleine Schwartz has contributed to the New Yorker online, among other publications.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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