Catching Up With... Lucinda Williams
Whatever the subject matter, Lucinda Williams’ music has always dripped with the feel of the old, rural Deep South, but as I talk to her before the release of her 10th record, Little Honey (out Oct. 14), she’s at her home in Los Angeles, having just finished a conversation with online music portal iMeem about her 10 favorite protest songs. The times, they are a-changin'.
Paste: So, what was number one?
Lucinda Williams: “Masters of War.” That’s one of the songs on the list that I still do. We’re releasing a digital-only EP of protest songs that I recorded live in the past year while we were out on the road. I didn’t record them on purpose to put them out, but they turned out so good that we’re releasing them all. There’re four of them. One of them I wrote; it’s a new one, called “Bone of Contention.” It’s a pretty angry one. I recorded it in the studio, but I decided I didn’t want to put it on [Little Honey]. I didn’t quite like the version we recorded. But we were playing at Summerfest, and I went out for the encore and just blasted out an acoustic version of it. It really went over well, so we captured it on tape. And then another show, for an encore, we did “Masters of War,” “For What It’s Worth” and “Marching the Hate Machine,” and those apparently came out really good, too. We’re having them mixed and everything, so we’re going to release them during this very crucial time.
Paste: Had you written very much in the way of protest songs before?
Williams: You know, I haven’t. I’ve found protest songs or topical songs to be the most challenging types of songs for me. I find myself having a hard time not sounding either to in-your-face angry or too sugar-coated sappy, like “OK, everybody get together.” It’s just so hard to do.
Paste: I haven’t heard “Bone of Contention” yet. Do you think you got that balance between the two?
Williams: I think I got it down, you know? Yeah. It’s kind of written a kind of a blues, almost like ZZ-Top-ish, or even like Tony Joe White—you know that sort of swampy, bluesy thing that he does? Almost like [singing]: “You’re a bone of contention. You’re a bone of contention.”
Paste: Nice. When is that coming out?
Williams: That’s coming out, um, in October, two weeks after the release of the album [Oct 14].
Paste: Does the EP have a name?
Williams: Lu in’08, and it’ll have “Bone of Contention,” “Masters of War”-- which, of course, is Dylan-- the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” and “Marching the Hate Machine” off the Thievery Corporation album. The lyrics were written by Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips. Really cool song.
Paste: On almost every one of your previous records, with maybe the possible exception of Car Wheels, you sort of ease into each album with a softer song. On Little Honey, you blast into “Real Love,” one of your hardest rockers ever. Why’d you choose that one to lead it all off?
Williams: Well, it just kind of sets the tone of how I’m feeling right now in my private life and how I connect to the album and the album connects to me, although ironically enough, the majority of the songs on this new record were ones that didn’t end up on West. So I didn’t just write those. I thought I was going to put them on West, because I just wanted to get them out there and move on. But I wasn’t sure how they were going to work on a new album, like if I was going to be able to get into them, because I had written them like, a couple of years before. But I feel like we were able to breathe a new life into them with a new band, and having gone out and played some of the songs and tested them out on the road. So they seem like they were all just written for this record, even though a couple of them are really old. “If Wishes Were Horses” and “Circles and X’s” were first conceived, believe it or not, back in the mid-’80s. So those songs are about 20 years old.
Paste: Yeah, “If Wishes Were Horses” seems like it could have been on Sweet Old World or Car Wheels.
Williams: Yeah, actually. And it was just kind of sitting around for a long time, and I never really thought it would ever see the light of day. It’s just one of those early songs that I didn’t really think was good enough, I guess. Sometimes that happens with early songs that you like.
Paste: That’s funny, it’s actually one of my favorites on the album.
Williams: That’s what somebody else has said. It’s so funny. It just shows you how sometimes we can underestimate. We can get in our own way, because Hal Willner told me that too, when we were cutting the songs for West. The funny thing is when I talk about Little Honey, I have to go back and talk about West because the songs on Little Honey were songs that were going to be on West, because we had about 24 or 25 songs to pick from when we were putting the songs for West together, so the ones that didn’t end up going on West seemed a bit better together as a separate album. And we were going to try to put out a double album of West, so we could put them all out, because I wanted to get them all out then. I said, “I’m not going to want to relive these songs a year and a half down the road,” but we weren’t able to do that. So one group of songs ended up being West and then the other group of songs ended up being Little Honey, with the addition of some new songs that I’ve written. The later songs that are on Little Honey are “Honey Bee,” “Tears Of Joy,” “Little Rock Star” and “Plan To Marry.”
Paste: So “Real Love” was written for West?
Williams: “Real Love” was actually written for West. And I was just in a writing mode, and we were in the studio demoing. We went in with about 10 songs and just kept writing new songs. This was when I was just doing the demos, with my old band—[Taras] Prodaniuk, [Jim] Christie and Doug Pettibone. So we were just in there putting the songs down, just the four of us, and during the process is when I started coming up with all these other songs, like “Knowing” and “Rarity.” And I went back, and we discovered these really early, early songs, “If Wishes Were Horses” and “Circles and X’s.” I don’t know why but I just-- sometimes I when I get really into the writing mode, I’ll go and look, because I keep everything. I don’t throw anything away. I have all my old notes. Anything that wasn’t really finished, I keep around. So I went back and looked at those few songs, and, you know, I’ve been thinking for a while about revisiting really early material, just to see if there was anything there that might be worth saving. It’s been on my mind for a while, so those ended up being part of the West demos. And that song “Well Well Well,” it goes back a ways too. It was actually written for Sweet Old World, but didn’t end up on Sweet Old World. That was in 1991, so I’ve got an early, early version of “Well Well Well” on a cassette tape somewhere. All this stuff has been surfacing lately, reel-to-reel tape and old demos.
Paste: Well, it’s a very eclectic record. You go right at the beginning from the swampy rock to honky-tonk. And then, it just goes all over the place. Is that because you were kind of pulling songs from these different eras of your life?
Williams: Yeah, it probably is. And I was actually a little worried about whether it was all going to fit together, but Tom [Overby] and Eric [Liljestrand] have been assuring me, “Yes, it’s going to work, because that’s the nature of what you do. It’s real eclectic.” I’ve always done a little bit of that on my albums, but maybe not as much as I’ve done on this album. Even on Essence, I had “Get Right With God.” So there’s always been one or two that would sort of stick out. I’ve always kind of worried about that, though. I always worry about, “OK, are all these songs going to fit together?’ Like when we did “Little Rock Star,” I was concerned about that, because it’s so big, you know? With the horns and the harmonies and vocals, which I love, but I was worried about—is it going to overshadow some of the other songs? Oh my God! A mouse just ran out from the pantry!
Paste: Oh no! Yikes!
Williams: Sorry. I don’t know how they fly in and out, underneath doors. That’s amazing! Sorry, I didn’t mean to change the subject. I had seen this mouse, I could see it through the pantry screen door, and I just wasn’t going to open the door, and just now I saw the mouse run out. We knew we had some, or maybe one, I don’t know. I hope it’s just one, because I saw the tell-tale signs.
Paste: So do you feel settled then, to your life in LA there now?
Williams: Yeah. I love it here. We bought a house in Studio City up in the hills. And we share this house with all kinds of bugs and spiders—
Paste: And rodents—
Williams: —and lizards, because we have trees and all these plants everywhere, every plant imaginable. And the house backs up to this whole woodsy area, and yet we’re right in the middle of the city.
Paste: That’s fantastic. Did you miss Nashville much?
Williams: No, not at all. I feel much more comfortable out here.
Paste: Well, the album seems a lot happier in some ways. I know there are definitely places where it alternates between joy and sorrow, but do you feel like you’ve got your “joy” back?
Williams: Yeah, definitely. Even though some of the songs were written before I met [boyfriend/manager] Tom [Overby], so some of them are carried over from my life before Tom. But I still think, because of the nature of the band, of working together and everything… Like, “Real Love” was written before Tom, but it has this happy feeling to it. “Jailhouse Tears” was written about this other situation, obviously before Tom, but I think having Elvis Costello on it, it almost has sort of a wryness to it. So even the darker songs are not as much about me as they are about other people or surroundings, like looking at another situation, like “Rarity” or “Little Rock Star.” So it’s not as much that darker, introspective scene, the way West was. And that was a great album too, but it was just a different. I think I was just ready for this, and everybody else was, too. It just went in this direction and all the pieces fell together. We had a great team of people working in the studio with us. Like I said, Eric, the engineer and co-producer, worked with me on West. So we got to know each other then and worked really well together. Hal Willner was the co-producer with me. And then Tom was kind of the unofficial executive producer. And he brought a lot to the table, so when we went to do this record, it was obvious to everyone that we didn’t need another outside producer. We could just do it with Tom and Eric and me. Because Tom worked for so many years doing A&R and marketing, and doing some producing when he was working for Universal Music Group. So he understands the whole other side of things—the creative end of it and how all the other stuff works to. So he’s really good at sequencing songs and looking at the big picture and conceptualizing and coming up with ideas and all that.
So as we went along doing this record—I mean, I questioned a lot of things, as I always do, ’cause I get kind of nervous with the whole process of recording, you know. So there were some things that I thought, “OK, I don’t know about this.” Like the AC/DC song, which was Tom’s idea, but now I love it. But I was worried about, “Should we put it on the record? I don’t know. What are people going to think?” But everybody loved it. I’m excited now about making the next record because we’ve gone through all the pitfalls now of getting to know each other in the studio. And I’ve learned to trust him, and that’s just invaluable when you’re going to make a record. His ideas have proven to be great ideas. He’s proven himself over and over again. And that’s a thrill for me because now I know that if he has an idea, we’ll talk about it, but I’ll be more likely to go “OK, if that’s what you think, let’s go ahead with this,” instead of being afraid to try different things. But yeah, it was his idea to try the AC/DC cover, and stick that on at the end, ’cause he thought we needed another really good rock song—kind of like book ends.
Paste: Well, you’ve said before that you’re “at your best as a song-writer when you’re kind of feeling sad or depressed.” Have you surprised yourself writing these more upbeat, uplifting songs, and they’re turning out good?
Williams: No, I think that quote got taken out of context. I think what I was trying to say was—whatever the pain that I’ve been going through will provide material for a song. But when I sit down, when I want to write, I tend to need to be in a state of well-being, where I’m feeling like I can focus, and I’ve got the time to sit down and apply myself. But not when I’m actually in that state of morose anxiety or whatever. I’m not going to sit down and write when I’m like that. I might have ideas in mind, and I’m always writing, in terms of getting ideas and things popping into my head. I might be sitting talking with someone, and I might go “Hey, that’s a cool line!” And I’ll write it down and I’ll save everything. I just keep all this stuff in a folder, ’cause I’m not real disciplined, as a writer. I just kind of go with the flow of it. When I’m in a certain kind of mood, I might just work on a piece of something that pops into my head or I might go get my folder and look at some notes that I’ve written down, because usually I have about three or four things that I’m working on at once. But I have to be in a certain state in my head and have the privacy I need to absolutely sit down and apply myself.
But we’re always going to have personal suffering. That’s never going to go away. When your mother dies, you’re going to have personal suffering. When your father dies, if a close friend dies, your dog dies, your house burns down—we can’t control all of these things. So just because you meet the right person in your life and you buy a house and settle down, that doesn’t mean that your suffering is going to go away. So, there’s always going to be plenty of suffering around to draw on, to write about. Not to mention the state of the world around us. I mean, you know, if you can’t write a happy love song, then write a protest song, you know? I’m never going to quit writing, no matter whether I’m sad, depressed, anxious, happy, whatever. Because really the songs come from a different place anyway. I mean, somebody sitting there fat and comfortable, so what? They’re fat and comfortable. Does that mean the person can’t write a good song? I don’t know. It’s up to that person. Certain artists will put out a couple of good albums and then everybody says, “Oh, they haven’t put a good album out since that one.” And “What happened?” And then somebody will say, “Oh, I guess they got too comfortable.” You get too comfortable so you can’t write anymore?’ I mean, come on. Look at Bruce Springsteen, he’s still writing great songs. And Elvis Costello, you know?
Paste: How did the Elvis Costello duet come about? Whose idea was that?
Williams: That’s a good question because we were talking about trying to get him in to do it. We had some other ideas for some other people, but a lot of it just had to do with the logistics with people’s schedules. We were thinking about Jim Lauderdale. He was my first choice because I was thinking I wanted somebody with a more country kind of voice. But then Tom was saying, “Let’s do something different, that would be kind of more unexpected.” So he came up with the idea of possibly David Johansen, from the New York Dolls. Or maybe Steve Earl or John Doe or Tom Waits. Elvis’ name was on there, at the top of the list, and as it turned out Elvis was in town, working on his last album. He was just in town for a couple of days doing some work, and he was going to be flying out the next day. And then we caught him. He was overjoyed to be able to do it, ’cause he had heard the song before when I had done it live. He’s jumped on stage with me and sang with me before, and I’ve sang on one of his albums, so we’ve stayed in touch. It was a Saturday night, and he was going to be available at midnight. So we just, we went in, set up a couple of mics and cut the vocals, then he left the next day and it came out great. He loved it, so I’m really happy that he’s on there. His voice comes out and really makes a statement.
Paste: You said that you’ve been writing a lot and that you’re anxious to get back in the studio. And I’m sure you’ve got to give it some time and get on the road…
Williams: Yeah, we’ve got a big tour coming up, starting at the end of this month. Basically it goes through most of November. And then we’re taking three months off.
Paste: Any plans on doing anything with the protest songs? Any campaign-type shows?
Williams: I want to do some stuff like that if I can. I’m really concerned about this upcoming election, really, really, actually terrified, you know. The possibility of McCain and Palin—God! It’s so unreal.