Pic by David McLister
A laudatory mention by Eilen Jewell in yesterday’s interview with the American singer/songwriter, reminded me that Lucinda Williams is a hero to many an artist and more than a few critics and fans.
That’s not just for the quality of her work and the weaving of lyrical and musical poetry, but for its frankness and willingness to sink its teeth into personal, political and social issues. And desire. Especially desire.
If any proof was needed of that I would recommend you go to her 2001 masterwork, Essence.
Speaking of which, in this interview from 2001, the southerner by birth and inclination Williams – who incidentally is one of the artists playing at the giant Willie Nelson festival in Luck, Texas, next month - explains that some things are so deeply embedded in her life, there’s no stopping them even if she wanted to.
Lucinda Williams has just woken up. Groggily. It is 2pm in Nashville and Williams, on tour with one of her most devoted acolytes, Kasey Chambers, is not one for calling it quits when the last note has been struck at the gig. She likes a drink and a good old natter. Her day doesn't finish until shortly before the rest of us begin ours. So, for the next 10 or so minutes conversation is punctuated with yawns. And the occasional mental blank as she shakes the night off. But fuzziness at the edges or not, she is polite. Gracious and polite, southern hospitality polite.
This 48-year-old Louisiana-born, bred-on-the-road woman with a reputation for mood swings and grand passions - falling deeply in love, falling bitterly out of it, buzzing with the satisfaction of penning another song, slumped in the funk of writer's block - is having a mellow day. So far. There's a new album to plug, her first since the 1998 Grammy-winning Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. It's called Essence and is again boiling down the bones and flesh of her passion for blues, country, rock and folk into its core elements. And boiling down lust and longing, ingrained regrets and heart on the sleeve declarations into lyrics that are close to poetry and closer to the truth.
Car Wheels… won its Grammy for best contemporary folk. It has sold nearly a million copies, outselling the combined total of the albums she's released since 1979 and has led to her being courted by a major label offshoot created to take the likes of her and young country/rock genius Ryan Adams.
Now for the first time in her life she's not scratching for money. But that doesn't mean she won't be touring.
"I believe in more the grassroots approach, to go on the road and build a following that way. Which is basically what I've done,” Williams says. “It's a lot more secure way to do things because that way you're not dependent on radio or a video channel. I have a fan base now that will be there no matter what I do and that's a good feeling." She enjoys being on the road, but even casual listeners to her songs would suspect there is something deeper at work. Travelling as a metaphor is a common device in her songs: roads leading out of town, out of harm's way or into another's arms.
Is this a habit from growing up in a typically American peripatetic way, from town to town in the Mississippi Delta, Georgia and other points south? Or is there something more primal about not being rooted to one spot? About leaving troubles behind?
"A bit of both. The fact that I moved a lot and enjoyed the movement, I enjoy the freshness of a new place, the adventure of it,” she says. “[And] sometimes you just want to leave something behind and just go somewhere else. I'm always feeling that `if I could just get out of here'. I'm feeling that way now about Nashville. I've been here since '93. "It is the longest time I've been in one town. I've been feeling [twitchy] for a while now. I don't know why. I've never really felt connected with [Nashville] that much. Culturally, I don't feel real free here. It's very suburban, very white; it's not very integrated. It's the south, but it's not the Deep South, it's not the Delta. I'm used to places like Louisiana, New Orleans, Texas and California. Those places are such melting pots.
“That's the way I approach [music]. I listen to psychedelic blues, rock music, I listen to blues and jazz and Bessie Springfield, Nina Simone, John Coltrane and the Doors, Muddy Waters. My music is a reflection of all the music that I listen to. It never occurs to me not to put on the same record a country song, a rock song, a folk song. I'd feel too stifled." Maybe it's time to move back to somewhere smaller. "Yeah, where nobody knows me. I feel like I'm living in a fishbowl here." Left unspoken is the fact that this stay in Nashville coincided with a five-year relationship with a bass player (she has a thing for bass players, even if they do leave or get kicked out eventually). They apparently separated last year, but maybe we have him to thank for songs such as the title track of Essence, and Right In Time, the opening song of Car Wheels….
Those two are the most recent of a career-long collection of some of the sexiest songs committed to tape, songs of pure lust, often delivered with a barely restrained growl. Sometimes it's not even songs about sex: there's just something in the voice that is pure longing. "Longing, more erotic. It's more about eroticism and longing, sensuality as opposed to sexuality, that's true," she says. We also get the sad songs, the I can't live in the same town as you songs. But they are the same coin, the before and after. This is a woman as comfortable singing about sensuality as loss. "Well, the two go hand in hand a lot," she says. "Unfortunately." It's been suggested that she almost searches out these peaks and troughs for their extremes and for their eventual deconstruction in song.
"The pain has already been established from a long time ago, so it's in there, there's nothing I can do about that. I don't set out to put more pain into my life; I've had enough to last me 'til the end of my days. It's just a matter of digging in and drawing it out [in songs]. I draw on that; I draw on earlier pain that's still there. " There's a perversity in being a fan of an artist like this in that you get so much pleasure out of the songs of pain and longing. "There's plenty more pain where that came from, don't worry about that."