(Photo by Danny Clinch)
A SONGWRITER IS THE SUM of her parts: family, location, experience, regrets, and joys. The daughter of a poet, a daughter of the South, Lucinda Williams, is also the daughter of a piano-playing woman who had the vibrancy of an arts lover and the deep scars of a survivor of an abusive family. One where unbendable faith ruled alongside a grandmother who “would pull switches from the hickory tree in their yard and whip us with them when she thought we’d done something bad”.
Along with a family history of mental illness and that love of music and the craft of words, Williams took something else from a mother who was often absent during her childhood and a father who told her “It’s not her fault, she’s not well, you can’t be angry at your mother”, compassion. As she talked about in part one of this interview earlier this week, “unless you have compassion you can’t really write about something very well”.
That is one part of the Williams mixture. The other, as has been obvious from her first album of original songs, 1980’s Happy Woman Blues right up to this week’s release of her new record, Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart, is Williams writes and sings about small (and small town) lives with care and attention to detail, coexisting with and enhancing the compassion. That is the kind of songwriting technique that requires a lot of work to learn, to master, and to maintain.
“I probably got a lot of that from my father, either by osmosis or … I don’t know, I never took creative writing, I never studied it, but it was almost kind of an apprenticeship with him,” says Williams today, perched above the lobby of a Sydney hotel where the busy-ness of guests and staff provide a constant hum behind her. “I would show him, when I started working on something, and he might make a suggestion here or there, and that’s how I learned.”
That’s a lot of trust and innate respect to have in someone.
“We had such a tight bond, from an early age, which I talk about in the book, with my mother’s illness. See, that’s something that I did want to write about. I decided years ago that I was going to start talking about her mental illness openly and matter-of-factly, because I was tired of this kind of taboo feeling that I was getting about it. I could tell as soon as I mentioned the words mental illness people just kinda ‘ooh’, kind of thing.
“Nobody wants to talk about it strangely enough. A lot of artists do [have those issues] and it’s no different to having any other kind of physical malady. I want to help change that perception.”
What has helped, certainly making it easier for her to go to those areas in the book, was that not only has she touched on it in her songs, but in recent years Williams has been frank about the origins of the songs on stage. Was it easier to go into those areas in her book because she had already been going there in her songs?
“It made it easier because I had been talking about it openly on stage around my songs.”
Interestingly, up to now Williams had always been a solo songwriter: her voice singular, her topics personal. But this record features several collaborations, firstly with her husband and manager, Tom Overby, and with her friend Jesse Malin, for whom she produced an album in 2019.
“It’s a whole different thing first of all, and I was reticent about it to tell you the truth, at first. But it’s kinda been liberating, opening me up to new possibilities and new ideas,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it for a long time because I didn’t have a good impression of songs that had been written by groups of people in Nashville. That was my first exposure to it, cowriting, and the songs aren’t very good I don’t think.
“But Tom, my husband, it turns out has some talent with lyrics, much to my surprise and delight. He had been interested in it when he was in school and I never knew. And Jesse and I worked on his first album. Tom and I helped to produce that album, and I helped Jesse with his songs then, and we realised at that point that we had a good rapport, so when I started working on songs for this new up Jesse would hop on a plane and fly to Nashville from New York for a few days.”
Was any of this interest in collaboration an after-effect of the stroke and how it limited her ability to perform, to play her instrument?
“It did because I couldn’t play the guitar and it kind of filled that gap. That was the initial reason for collaborating [with Malin], because I couldn’t play guitar and it was harder for me to write melodies for everything.”
Meanwhile with her husband it was a “more organic process” that unfolded as he started to show her some lyrics he had been working on. Something you suspect most writers dread hearing.
“I would think oh no, what have I got myself into,” she laughs. “I would sit and look at them and think, these are really good, so then I maybe added to them or use them in a song I’d already started. We were doing that and then we had these coming out of it all of a sudden. That made me happy and I was glad I could break through that thing of not wanting to do [collaboration].”
There is a potential downside surely in the fact that already living together, touring together, with him managing her business, and now writing together, every part of their lives were intertwined. There’s closeness and there’s claustrophobic.
“We’ve talked about that, thought about it, but it works though,” Williams insists. “The songwriting thing, which I was a little hesitant about it first, what helped me was seeing that Tom Waits and his wife collaborate on so many of his songs. I thought, well, they manage to do it and it looks like it’s working okay.”
Speaking of creative couples, Williams is joined on the album by husband-and-wife sets, Margot Price and Jeremy Ivey, and Patty Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen. One couple next generation fans; the other couple contemporaries of hers, and fans.
“Oh God, I know. I never thought in all my life that they would be contemporaries of mine,” she says of the Springsteens/Scialfas. “That’s been the biggest thrill. And artists like Elvis Costello being a contemporary of mine.”
I can confirm that Costello is as glowing about her if she is about him. So whose idea was to bring these kids-on-the-make in for the album?
“Tom has always been a huge Springsteen fan and there were two or three songs where he said, man I can really hear Bruce on this,” says Williams. “Jesse was sitting around with us and one evening he said, ‘well I think I can reach Bruce and I think he’ll be open to this, give me a chance to see if I can make this happen’. We sent the tracks and they went into the studio where they were – we were working in Nashville so it wasn’t practical for them to come to us – and they dived in and put their all into it. We didn’t tell them what to sing, just let them come up with their own ideas.
“And you can listen and tell, to me, the Bruce is really excited when he is singing and really putting a lot into it in New York Comeback. When we got it back of course we were all thrilled, and we got this great email from Patti and she went on and on in the email about how wonderful it was to do this tracks and how nobody is writing songs like this anymore. Yeah, it’s really good.”
Much like Springsteen, there is no sense that Williams is slowing down now that she is in her 70s.
“I don’t know what that means,” she laughs. “People ask me this all the time: aren’t you going to think about retiring and all of this. I don’t know what I would do. I guess I could just write songs but eventually I would miss performing. And it’s not about the money; it’s too hard, you have to want to do it because there isn’t enough money.”
So she still does like playing live?
“Oh yeah. I still get joy out of it, that’s what keeps me moving.”
If I sounded surprised asking that, having seen Williams play a number of times, it’s not always clear that she is enjoying the show. Not so much that she doesn’t like playing, but there’s long been a question about whether she is comfortable on stage: often her eyes set to a long distant horizon rather than directed down at the audience; her between-songs chat somewhat stilted.
“A lot of times I’m not, I’ve always been shy,” she confesses, and it hasn’t gotten easier since the stroke. “For one thing, it’s hard for me to play now. The first time I sang without a guitar, that was a big hurdle to overcome. I had to figure out what to do with my hands and I felt awkward. I’m getting past some of that, and maybe I’ll gain something I didn’t have before because of this.”
As her recent shows in Australia documented, that isn’t all talk.
“The energy between the audience and the performer, I mentioned that to the audience sometimes. I’ll say thank you for being here, your presence is a gift, because it really is,” Williams says. “And I’ve realised that more and more since I had my stroke, because it’s been so healing.”
Off-stage, healing in its own way, she has been going through, or at least husband/manager Tom has been going through, boxes and boxes of old audiotapes on which she had put ideas for songs or beginnings of ideas, some rough songs and some unrecorded songs going back to the 1980s.
We may yet get to hear them, if he has his way, though Williams isn’t wholly convinced yet.
“. Some of them are just simpler, is what it is. They are more naïve, or more youthful. Youthful and not sardonic or sarcastic or cynical yet. I’ve got this early, early song called Full Moon – and she begins to Seeing what sounds like a classic Lucinda Williams melody – ‘Full moon/You light up my night/Like a beacon lights up the sea/You shine so sweetly da da da daddum’. See, I would never write anything like that now. It’s very sweet.”
There’s nothing wrong with that.
“It’s funny I was in Nashville and had just moved there, and I went to Nanci Griffith one afternoon at this music club, Douglas Corner, and she was in there with a couple of other people and we started talking about songs. I don’t know how we got on the subject but she said ‘that song Full Moon, that’s the best song you’ve ever written’, and I was like, no it’s not, why are you saying that?”
Williams laughs about it now but it connected with Griffith, one of the finest songwriters of folk/country or Americana or whatever you want to call the genre she and Williams inhabit, so who’s to say she is wrong?
“That’s the thing, everything is going to connect with someone. So somebody might enjoy it, this early Lucinda.”
SECRETS AND LIES AND THE STORIES WE TELL: Read part one of this interview
Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart is out on June 30, on Highway 20/Thirty Tigers.
Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You is published on July 5, Simon & Schuster.