As we look at separate albums from Joy Williams and John Paul White this week (READ THOSE REVIEWS HERE), a chance to remember how their unlikely partnership as The Civil Wars flowered gloriously – one sublime record; one very good one; a swag of Grammys – but ever so briefly.
In this interview from 2013, as the second album was released, while White stayed mum, Williams tries to explain how the end was already upon them but it didn’t need to get ugly. Or uglier.
That the Civil Wars had their self-titled second album hit number one last month when they long ago stopped talking and probably don’t really exist as a band any more, is rather odd.
But then odd isn’t unusual for the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. And that’s not even a reference to their debut album, Barton Hollow, winning Grammy Awards for both country and folk. Yes, for the same songs.
The truth is they probably had no reason to be in the same room, let alone the same stage, given, as White said last year, “any yin and yang comparison you could make, that pretty much fits us”. She was a vegetarian from the west coast, he was a meat eater from the deep south; she was a Christian pop singer who liked wine and Fleetwood Mac, he was a southern soul/rock man who liked whiskey and the White Stripes.
Three years ago, both had come to country music to restart careers, as writers rather than performers and they were brought together in a kind of professional “meet cute” in a Nashville publishing house. They were there ostensibly to write a hit for some or other plastic country act but quickly they fell into a natural arrangement of dual-voiced, intensely personal relationship songs, they chose to sing themselves.
Soon they were out on the road with songs which everyone assumed had to be about the other - despite their regular and mostly good-humoured denials - singing each night to each other about hurt and betrayal and thwarted desire and heavy sadness. “I don’t love you, but I always will,” was the key lyric in their breakthrough song, Poison And Wine. People couldn’t help but buy in, even before the three Grammys.
“We were going to live and die by the sword and decide selfishly,” White told me in May last year. “We’d done creation by committee, we'd done the solo artist thing, we’d done let’s make sure that everyone loves what we do. Instead we went at it the other way around and lo and behold that's what connected with people more than anything we'd done before.”
However, the connection to each other as they toured and kept writing (producer and guru Rick Rubin encouraging them to "write it in motion") faltered and then fractured. When Williams speaks today she confirms not only isn’t White talking to the media, he hasn't talked to her since they finished recording last year.
"Sometimes I struggle to put into words the reason why the band is on the rocks at the moment," Williams says with an obvious sadness that sits incongruously alongside her pleasure at the new album's success.
"I always desire to communicate in a way that is honest to people but also respectful to me and to John Paul, and that's definitely a fine line to walk when the other half of the duo has chosen not to be present,”
Even as we know that the songs on the first album were not written about each other, it's almost impossible to hear the songs on the new album and not hear in them some of the anger and bitterness seemingly directed at each other.
"John Paul and I always dabbled in the grey of nuance in the way that we wrote. There was autobiography, fiction and metaphor all woven in,” Williams says. “For people to feel it was autobiographical entirely wouldn't be true, that nuance is there. I feel it would be detrimental to the songs for people to try and slip a narrative arc over the top of every song on this album.
“This album covers regret, clarity, sadness and celebration and strength, in a flagon of grit and an ounce of heartache. Hopefully it's an album that when people listen to it, it will tear their heart out and sew it back up again at the same time."
While bigger and richer sounding than its predecessor, retaining its mix of highly accessible pop, country and Americana, the new album has the same emotional veracity and clarity.
"I think when John Paul and I seemed to lose that ease between us, I think the music was always the language we were left with and we could speak fluently to one another,” says Williams who is keen to remember some of the positives of their broken (for now?) relationship.
“I felt that together we did something that felt very visceral and organic at the same time. And when John Paul and I were in sync musically, singing live, it was one of my favourite things to do,” she says. “There's a lot of beautiful things about the entity of the Civil Wars that I keep in my backpack and that I will keep in my backpack and take with me wherever I go."