Lucinda Williams Interview

Lucinda Williams Interview Unedited TranscriptConducted over the phone lines from New Orleans, Louisiana and The Desk at The Clemens Estate, NJ – 2/22/09

From the Bayou to Bakersfield, Austin to Boston, from the high plains ballad to the raunchiest riffs and the echoing twang of an all-night hootenanny, Lucinda Williams has covered every geographical/musical base available to her. In a remarkable 31-year career that has defied label, her songs have traversed every emotional barrier with the steadiest of musical compasses. Her voice, graveled, strained and dripping of warm honey, strips bare the pretenses of performance at every turn. She is an American original, a country rocker with the soul Lucinda Williamsof a poet rising from backstreet city grit. Her intimately crafted records from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to Essence to her latest, Little Honey (released within a year of her last effort, West) never disappoint while also skillfully chopping through the roughest lyrical terrain, making fertile otherwise barren territory. Williams, like all great authors, painters, photographers, and composers, acts as our constant guide, the world-weary traveler seeking a home, and we are always privileged for having come along for the ride.

The ten-time Grammy winner and her band, Buick 6 are rolling into Montclair New Jersey this week, and on the way, I had a chance to chat with her about the making of Little Honey, its subsequent tour, and her magnificently original and always inspiring songwriting.

James Campion: Hi Lucinda, How are you?

Lucinda Williams: Hi!

Thanks for giving me a few minutes on your Sunday.

That’s okay.

How’s the tour going?

Great. We just did three nights in a row in Dallas, Austin and Houston and it’s going great. Houston was really good, the best attendance we’ve had there in years and years. So that was really encouraging. Are you in New Orleans now? I see that’s on your next stop. Yeah, we’re here today and we’re playing tomorrow night at the House of Blues. I hadn’t realized it’s the night before Mardi Gras day.

That’s right.

That should be pretty crazy. (laughs) The House of Blues is always pretty wild anyway and now it’s going to be Mardi Gras week and it’s going to be like…(laughs) But we’re looking forward to it.

I’d like to talk about the new record. We’re really enjoying it over here. It’s wonderful. Thank you. It’s odd for any artist to release new material in back-to-back years, and I was just getting into West, dissecting the songs and living with them, and then Bang! here comes Little Honey. Is it simply a case of an overspill of creativity or was there something particular that inspired you to write so much new material right away?

Yeah, a lot of the songs that are on Little Honey were ready when West came out, and we were actually going to put out a double CD thing for West, because we had enough material for two, but we weren’t able to do that, so we just kind of divided the songs up. So Little Honey is kind of like West Volume Two…(laughs) with the addition of a few new songs. But the majority of the songs I already had for West, so that’s why that happened.

The record has a very first-take, loose, almost in-studio figuring it out vibe, in the Bob Dylan vein of here are the chords, one-two-three…go! Yeah. Is that an accurate description of the recording process for Little Honey?

“I like to leave things open for discovery, whether it’s in the studio or on the stage.”

Yeah, well it just kind of happened that way. I think it’s just a combination of the time between West and Little Honey I formed a new band, and we’ve been out on the road playing together. So I was recording in the studio with the road band, and any time you go into the studio with your road band there’s going to be more of that feel, more spontaneity and everybody’s comfortable with each other and so you’re going to have more of that “Yee Ha! Let’s have a good time!” sort of thing. So there was a level of comfort on this record that I probably haven’t experienced as much as any other record, partly because of that, but also it’s the same studio I recorded West in with the same engineer, Eric Liljestrand. So a lot of stuff was familiar territory, and I think everybody was a little more relaxed in general, and we gave ourselves permission to take chances and be real spontaneous. We wanted to have that feel end up on the record, like the false start on Real Love. I mean, nobody sits and plans that out. It just happens when the band is playing and we left it on. A lot of that stuff happens in the studio, it’s just a matter of deciding if you want it on the record. (laughs)

Does that level of comfort and familiarity translate to the live performances? In other words, when you go into the studio and its more of a live feel, I might assume that when you take the songs out they have an open-ended feeling of being able to continue to evolve with each performance.

Yeah, sometimes. There are certain instances, like now, Doug Pettibone is gone from the band and we have a new guitar player who’s replaced him, Eric Schermerhorn, who has just joined the band, so of course he’s going to be putting his own stamp on things. I mean, you know, for the most part, once the songs have been recorded and we have rehearsals and we go out on the road, I don’t tell any of the band members really what to play for the most part. I just kind of allow the band members to do their thing. There’s a certain guideline; you have to follow the song, but there’s always going to be some little neat surprises. They’re usually kind of small ones, like some nights we’ll reach a certain thing on a song and all sort of look at each other and say, “Wow that was really cool!” (laughs) I like to leave things open for discovery, whether it’s in the studio or on the stage. We’re always learning new songs, like just the other day during sound check before the show in Austin we worked up a Guitar Slim song called The Things That I Used To Do, this classic old R & B song, and I sang it that night and then we did it again last night in Houston, and of course it was better because it was the second night I’d done it. So we’re pretty spontaneous as far as working up material and trying new things.

Getting back to the record, two of my favorite songwriters are on it, Elvis Costello in the duet for Jailhouse Tears and Matthew Sweet added background vocals on a few tracks. I want to talk about Matthew Sweet first. I consider Sweet one of the most underrated pop and rock and roll songwriters working today.

Oh, I agree. Totally. I was completely taken with him. I knew who he was, but I’d never worked with him or spent any time with him, but I’ve decided he was the Brian Wilson of today. He arranged all the vocal harmonies, particularly on Little Rock Star, which are pretty complex. We sent him the tapes of the songs that he sang on with Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), and he wrote out all these harmonies and all these lush, beautiful vocal arrangements and showed up at the studio with all this stuff already written out and arranged. I was blown away. I’ve never had anyone go to such lengths and be so involved in a technical way before. I was really impressed with how he worked.

How did your duet with Elvis Costello on Jailhouse Tears come about?

Little HoneyWell, he was one of the people we were thinking of and we had a list of people and we weren’t sure we were going to get Elvis because of his schedule and everything, but it just so happened that he was in town working on something for his own record, so we were able to grab him. We had to hook up with him around eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. This was after Tom (Overby – Husband/Manager) and I had been at a Grammy party, ’cause it was the week of the Grammys last year. So we literally just…we had the track cut already… and we just ran in and hooked up with Elvis and Elvis and I did the vocals together. It was real…(chuckles) very spontaneous.

It’s a wonderful duet. It reminds me so much of say a classic country duet like Johnny Cash and June Carter on Jackson.

Yeah. That’s kind of what it’s supposed to be, yeah.

I was turned onto Elvis like most people who love him in the late Seventies, but my favorite record of his is King Of America from 1986, which has this carefree, country, Americana feel that I always thought was reflected in your best work. I’m not sure if you’re a fan of that record and that’s what brought you to Elvis for this duet, but it’s weird how that came together in the song.

No, I was…I am! That’s funny you said that, because Elvis asked me several years ago to do one of those Crossroads shows (CMT Network) together. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those, they’ve quit doing them, but they would have two different artists on, and they’d have them sing songs together and talk and they asked me to do it with Elvis. So I had to learn a couple of his songs, and the song I did as a duet with him on the show was Poisoned Rose.

Oh, gorgeous song. I would have loved to see that.

I know. I love that, and I hadn’t even…Of course I was armed with all of his albums when I was getting ready to do that thing (chuckles) and I was listening to all of them, and that was the album that there were some songs on there that I thought were a little bit different than some of his other ones. That was the one song that really stood out. I hadn’t heard him do it before. I thought it was really unusual.

That makes perfect sense. I could absolutely see you singing that song.

Yeah. Yeah.

Your dad being a poet must have influenced your view of the written word as a powerful tool of emoting, so I have to ask about your literary heroes or influences and if they weave their way into your lyrical ideas.

“All of my songs, I mean…I’m in there too. (laughs) You know?”

The main one would be Flannery O’Connor. I read all of her stuff when I was a teenager, fifteen, sixteen years old. I just really grabbed onto it. She was very influential in my writing. In fact, the last couple nights we performed a version my song, Atonement and I talked to the audience about Flannery O’Connor and that Southern gothic and particularly her book Wise Blood, which really influenced that song.

Eudora Welty was another one, just that whole genre, the local color; it dealt with the South and that sort of dark side of life.

Flannery O’Connor to me is what Diane Arbus is to photography. (laughs)

Right. (laughs)

You know what I mean?

Yes, beautifully said. Excellent analogy. You can’t turn away, despite its shocking nature. There’s beauty to the darkness.

Yeah. That’s true.

I was thinking about the literary aspect to your songwriting career lately, even your performing career; for instance you performed your albums in their entirety in New York and Los Angeles a few years back, right?

Yeah, starting with the Ramblin’ album going straight through.

That kind of pulls the veil away from those records being anything other than almost novels unto themselves, as if hearing those songs in that order matter more than simply throwing your latest and best work together to release, promote and tour. Or is that thinking it out too much? (laughs)

No, not at all. It was great. I realized the whole idea of revisiting the songs the way they were done on the records, for one reason a lot of times I don’t get to perform every single song…there are a lot of songs that get left out of most of the shows I do. So it was an excuse to go back and do a lot of those songs that I don’t get to perform very often. You know, I got to revisit my early songs and see if they still held up. (laughs)

There are a three particular songs on Little Honey that denote the idea of celebrity or stardom or artists struggling through or with the creative process, for instance Little Rock Star, a touching conversational ballad, Rarity, a beautiful track with a wonderful horn arrangement, and It’s a Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock & Roll, the old AC/DC song.

Yeah, well, Rarity was actually written during the West period and was supposed to be on West and was carried over. Little Rock Star was one of the newer songs that I wrote while I was recording Little Honey; but I’d been working on the idea for it. A lot of times I’ll start a song and take a while to finished it – but there’s a connection, certainly those two; although they really deal with the different things. And then the AC/DC song was actually Tom’s idea (laughs). He suggested it towards the end of the album. We were looking for a good old rock and roll song. He thought it would be cool to do a cover. We had a lot of possibilities and that was one of ’em. So we worked it up and it was just kind of one of those after-the-fact coincidences for the most part that we saw that there was a thread running between Rarity, Rock Star and Long Way To The Top. None of it was thought out ahead of time…

Sure. But it’s a nice trilogy. It works.

It is. It is. It really does. Yeah.

I’m thinking specifically now of Rarity, who is the subject behind that one?

Lucinda WilliamsThere was this singer/songwriter by the name of Mia Doi Todd. A friend of mine introduced me to her music several years ago. She was out on a little independent label and I was really taken by her writing, particularly her lyrics. She’s just really, really brilliant. I like her voice too. It’s very kind of Suzanne Vegaish, sort of a non-singer kind of voice. And her songs are like poems. I’m not often that taken by contemporary songwriters. So a couple of years later I came across one of her records and noticed that she’d been apparently signed by a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group and I thought, “Oh, this is great. The world needs to hear this person.” You know how when you discover a person like that and you want to champion them? So I was really glad to see she was going to get more well known and everything and then the next thing I know she’d been dropped from that label and was back on another unknown independent label, so I thought well…there you go, another brilliant artist falls through the cracks, under appreciated, underrated and so on and so forth. And that’s what the song is about. I was thinking about her, but I was also thinking about myself when I was back trying to get a record deal and trying to get signed and going through the whole thing with the major labels and all that kind of stuff. So I kind of just put it all together. All of my songs, I mean…I’m in there too. (laughs) You know?


Even when I’m talking about…if there is another subject that inspires a song like Little Rock Star I think the writer has to always been empathetic with the subject. I think that’s true of any art form. To get back to photography, I mean the photographer has to be empathetic with whoever he’s shooting or whatever…you know, you have to put part of yourself in it in order for there to be an honesty there. I think that’s why the audience connects so well with my songs.

I’m reminded of Randy Newman when I think of putting empathy into characters, no matter how dark, no matter how deranged or off the tracks his characters are, when he is singing, you can feel he gets them and you are suddenly inside them as well.


Speaking of Randy Newman, is there a songwriter you admire now or have always admired, because you mentioned not ordinarily being blown away by any contemporary songwriters. How about ones from the past that influenced you the most and maybe still do?

“I’ve never been just a folksinger.”

Well, before when I said contemporary songwriters, I meant new, younger songwriters. There aren’t that many that I find myself saying, “Wow, this is really great!” But certainly one of the main ones would have been Bob Dylan. I started with him at twelve years old and I was immediately taken with the way he used language. Traditional music and contemporary writing blended together made a lot of sense to me. With my dad being a poet and growing up around contemporary Southern writers, but I was also greatly influenced by the traditional folk songs and all of that. I had the John and Alan Lomax Folk Songs U.S.A. that every kid had back in the mid-sixties and I’d sit around and sing all those songs out of there like Banks of The Ohio and listen to Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and at the same time I was influenced by the contemporary Southern literature that I was soaking up, that was around me, and so when I first heard Highway 61 Revisited, that was the first Dylan I heard, I just went, “Wow, he’s taken these two worlds and blended them together!” It’s like Allen Ginsberg meets Woody Guthrie or something, you know? (laughs) And it totally made sense to me. When I was twelve years old I didn’t understand every single song on that record, ’cause it was pretty complex, but I certainly got it. I got something. And I said, “This is what I want to do.” It had a profound impact on me. You know…?

I do know.


It shows in your work in a great way. I have one personal final question, as a fan; my favorite song of yours is Steal Your Love. I absolutely love that song.

Oh, thanks, thanks.

I think it’s a superb piece of irony, the rhythm and the direct sparseness of its performance is contagious. Can you recall anything particular about the writing or recording of that song for me? If I say Steal Your Love, what do you think of first?

Uh, well, when I was doing that record, the record itself, and even when I was writing that song, it was very liberating for me to be able to write a song like that and just let it go and let it be, without feeling like I had to fill it up with so many words and everything. Essence was the first record that I did following Car Wheels, and I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do. At the same time, again, to make the Dylan connection, his Time Out Of Mind album had come out right about that same time, and I was thinking, “Wow this is such an interesting parallel with his career and his different albums – his earlier ones were more narrative and kind of complex and everything – and now he’s doing this more stark album that Daniel Lanois produced and I just loved it. So there was this kind of thread going on; I was sitting there trying to figure out what I was going to do next after Car Wheels, because everyone kind of identified me with the more narrative songs, the country/rock, country/folk thing. I also was working with Bo Ramsey at the time and he really influenced a lot of the songs on that record. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he’s worked over the years mainly with singer/songwriter Gregg Brown. Bo has a couple of his own albums out too. His stuff is blues influenced, but it goes beyond that. It’s just this kind of swampy thing, you know? So when I was writing, and not just Steal Your Love, but Are You Down? I was thinking at first, “Am I going to be able to get away with this kind of writing?” where the music just takes over and I just kind of…And I would never had done that before. Working with Bo, his whole approach is simplicity. Aquarian CoverHe’s the master of simplicity. Graceful simplicity, the less notes the better, the less you play the better; and then hearing Time Out Of Mind and seeing that same approach…I remember reading reviews where Time Out Of Mind got dissed because, and I think it was the Nashville paper, ’cause that’s where I was living at the time, said something like, “This isn’t Bob Dylan at his best!” and “What kind of lyrics are these?” And I remember thinking, “Let him go, let him have fun, let him breathe. Let the songs be what they are. Every song doesn’t have to be That’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” and I applied that to what I was doing. I saw a parallel there and also Bo’s music influencing me; his whole take on things, the sparseness, as you said. So I just gave myself permission; it is what it is. At first I thought, “God, what are my fans gonna think?” And I did get some criticism after Essence came out, cause it was so different from Car Wheels. But I’ve always been into different styles of music, it wasn’t that one day I just decided, “Hey, I’m gonna do this other thing.” I’ve always listened to different kinds of stuff. Like now I listen to Santo Gold and Thievery Corporation. I’ve never been just a folksinger.

Oh, yes. Obviously; country, folk, rock and roll, blues, all that’s in there.

It’s all connected, I think.

Car Wheels is brilliant, but Essence is my favorite record of yours.

Thank you. I appreciate that. A lot of people say that now. When it first came out people were kind of, well, some people were kind of like “Uhhhh”, but then I think it took awhile and it kind of grew on people and now it’s a lot of people’s favorite record of mine.

It’s like Exile On Main St. Hardly anyone liked the thing, they couldn’t “figure” it out, but now everyone not only loves it, but it routinely makes the top two or three rock and roll records ever made. (laughs)

Right. Yeah. (laughs)

Well, thanks for the time. I truly appreciate the opportunity to chat.

Oh, you’re welcome.

The wife and I are looking forward to coming out and seeing you in Montclair, New Jersey next month.

Good. It’s been a long time since I’ve been over there.

Well, thanks again for all the great records and songs and keep up the fine work.

Thank you.

You be good and safe out there on the road.

Okay, bye.


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