Finding Her Honey
After nearly three decades of writing songs about life's dead ends and the men who've done her wrong, Lucinda Williams has finally released a record that critics have deemed her "happy album."
Wouldn't you know it, though, she's not actually happy about it being called that.
"Yes, I'm in a great relationship and in a great place in my life," Williams said, "but I still have plenty of things to be miserable or upset or disturbed about. It's not like I don't have bad days anymore."
Talking by phone from the road last week, Williams laughed as she pointed out that there's also plenty of misery on "Little Honey," the new disc, which she'll perform in its entirety Thursday at First Avenue (for a live webcast on LucindaWilliams.com) before returning for a regular show Nov. 5.
"Look at the song 'Jailhouse Tears,'" she said, referring to a duet with Elvis Costello. "It's written about a drug addict, alcoholic guy. That's not exactly a happy song. I've had people ask me, 'Are you still going to be able to write interesting songs?' And I'm like, 'Come on!' When was the last time one person fulfilled another person's every need?"
Williams' fiancé, Tom Overby -- who's from the Twin Cities -- is indeed filling many a role in her life and career. A former Best Buy music executive, Overby is co-producer of the new album and also her manager now. They met at a hair salon in Hollywood about four years ago.
Overby had gone to work for record distributor Fontana in Los Angeles, where Louisiana-bred Williams, 55, has lived for about a decade. He went to work for her following the death of her longtime manager, Frank Callari, last October.
Said Overby, "I told her I'd do it on two conditions: No. 1, if it all affects the two of us, she'd find somebody else. And No. 2, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it all the way and manage other artists, too. She said, 'Absolutely. Let's go.'"
As they handed off the phone to each other, both Overby and Williams laughed over the fact that most listeners and critics have surmised that he's the "soul connection" she refers to in the new album's first single, "Real Love," currently in heavy rotation at the Current (89.3 FM). Some of the song's gushing lyrics include "I've found the love that I've been looking for" and "Come on baby, we really got something."
"I hate to burst everybody's bubble, but 'Real Love' was actually written before I met Tom," the singer said. "Sometimes you can just meet someone somewhere one night and go home and write a song like that, if you have enough fantasy in your head."
Referring to another new song with a blissful tinge, "Knowing," Williams said, "I think it's interesting that I wrote them right before I met Tom. It's almost what I wish was happening. It was kind of a burst of fantasy. It was something I was feeling at the time, but looking back on it, it was more like a longing."
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She's right, though, that plenty of the songs on "Little Honey" feature the old, downbeat Williams that we've grown to love -- and who's earned three Grammy Awards and widespread critical praise over a quarter-century.
In addition to "Jailhouse Tears," there's "Plan to Marry," a poetic epic about love being a weapon against everything else, and "Circles and X's," about a romance growing distant.
"Circles and X's" is one of two tunes on the record that date back 15 to 20 years. The other, "If Wishes Were Horses," is another lament with the refrain, "If wishes were horses, I'd have a ranch." Williams remembered the track being around during her first marriage, a brief one in the mid-'80s with former Long Ryders drummer Greg Sowders.
"I don't know why, but for some reason when I was demo-ing songs and in that writing surge, I went back to those songs," she recalled. "When I really get into that [writing] mode, I get out this giant folder I have with bits and pieces of songs I've had for 20, 25 years. I just dump it out and start going through years and years of song ideas. Who knows? I might finish an old song I never finished, which is what happened."
Many of the other songs on "Little Honey" were written at the same time as the tracks on Williams' last album, 2007's "West." One of the best but probably the most sullen of Williams' nine records, "West" reflected on the death of her mother and the end of another relationship.
"I really wanted to get those songs [on 'West'] out and put them all behind me, because I didn't know if I'd be able to get behind these songs emotionally in another year's time," she recalled.
After "West," Williams put together a new touring band, dubbed the Buick 6, which includes her former guitar player Doug Pettibone plus guys who've played with the Eels and Tracy Chapman. The band added more of a rousing spirit to the new disc. Williams added a couple of freshly written tunes to the mix when it came time to record last winter, all leading to the disc's more uptempo vibe.
Among the newest songs is "Little Rock Star," in which Williams talks to an unnamed singer who's dead-set on self-destruction. "Will you ever know happiness, Little Rock Star?" she sings, "or is your death wish stronger than you?"
Williams said the song isn't about anyone specific but came from "a string of those kinds of artists" written about in the tabloids, especially British singers Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty.
"You could go all the way back to Kurt Cobain, or way back to Jim Morrison, but I was thinking more in terms of the contemporary ones," she said. "Amy Winehouse, I think she's so talented, and everything you read about her is just so dreadful and sad. And I knew Ryan Adams in his heyday, too. I'd been in there with all that big partying. I can see how you can go one way or the other. It is kind of coming from a long place saying, 'I do understand how you can slip into that downward spiral.'"
In the end, Williams did confirm that things are on the upswing in her own life. In addition to romantic contentment, she also admitted that -- after years of bumping heads and making waves in the music industry, especially around the time of her landmark 1997 album "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" -- she now feels satisfied in her career, too.
"I made sure a long time ago that everybody knew I was a stubborn artist and hard-headed," she said. "I knew that, deep down inside, I had the talent to back it up. You have to know that. So I made sure they understood I was going to do what I want to do, or I'll just walk.
"It probably made things happen a lot slower. I probably would have been famous a lot sooner. But I think it paid off in the long run."
Here's a condensed transcript of last week's interview with Lucinda Williams. It happened on a day off from touring, while she was hanging out with her fiance and manager, Tom Overby, a Twin Cities native and former Best Buy exec.
Q You're playing two shows here at First Ave, but they're two weeks apart. Any explanation for that?
A I'm not sure, really. I guess it's because we've got a break in between those two shows. The first one's near the end of the first leg, and then we have like 10 days off. So Tom and I are going to hang out there in Minneapolis, where his family and friends are. The other guys in our crew will fly home.
Q Have you been coming here more because of Tom?
A I've always loved playing there, but we haven't really gotten to hang out there much because we've been so busy. I met with his parents when we played the zoo this last time, this summer. We had a day off then and we had lunch with them.
Q How did you and Tom meet?
A We met when I was on tour for the "Sweet Old World" album, which would've been '91 or '92. He was working for Best Buy in Minneapolis. He remembers it, but I don't. It was some kind of a meet-and-greet. It was one of those, "Hey, how ya doing?"
Flash forward 15-some years later. I moved back to L.A. Tom had moved to L.A. to go to work for Fontana [a record distribution company]. You're gonna laugh at this: We re-met at a hair salon in Hollywood. I was there with a friend, and they were getting ready to close. The guy working at the salon is this real cool rock 'n' roll kind of guy who I had met at the Whiskey seeing Hank III, and he said he'd like to cut my hair. Tom had been having this guy cut his hair, too. Tom thinks the guy maybe set us up. I was there with my friend Shyla, who had known Tom when she worked at Giant. There was nobody else in there, and Tom walks in. He introduces himself.
We also had a mutual friend in Minneapolis, Bonnie Brown, formerly Bonnie Butler. She was a friend of mine from the early '90s when we first starting playing at First Ave. She was married to Danny Murphy of Soul Asylum at the time.
Q Any firm wedding plans yet?
A No. We've been so busy with everything. I was recording demos for "West" when we first got together, and it's been a whirlwind of activity since then.
Q You have been busy lately. This record is only coming a year after the last one, whereas it took you six years to put out "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." What's different about your process now vs. back then?
A You know, I was looking back on my schedule just recently. There was a year between when my mother passed away, which was March of 2004, and it was almost exactly a year later when Tom and I met. During that year is when I wrote all these songs. It kind of make sense when you look at it that way: My mother had passed away, and I was coming out of this other relationship with a guy who was having drug and alcohol problems, and he went to rehab. That was all happening around same time. The beginning of 2004 was pretty rough.
Every song that's on "West" and a majority of songs on "Little Honey" were written in that period. Only a few came up a little later. So "Little Honey" is almost like "West, Vol. 2."
I really wanted to get those songs out [on "West"] and put them all behind me, because I didn't know if I'd be able to get behind those songs emotionally in another year's time.
Q How did Tom go from being your beau to being your manager?
A Tom brought a lot to the table because he had been working in the music arena for so long. I was still working with my old manager Frank Callari when we met, but Frank passed away about a year ago. Tom was ready for a career change, so when Frank passed away, he was able to step in.
Q Any worries of mixing business with pleasure?
A No. We're just one of those couples who can do it. I know it's unusual. A lot of people were concerned about that, like my attorney, Rosemary Carroll, who's been with me since before the Rough Trade album [1988's "Lucinda Williams"], and tour manager Frank Riley.
Tom had to pass the muster, as they say. They both loved him after they started meeting with him, though. He was able to show them he knew what he was doing. He brings a lot to the table creatively.
Q Everyone assumes the genuinely gushing new songs like "Real Love" and "Tears of Joy" were inspired by your current relationship. Is that true?
A I hate to burst everybody's bubble on that. "Real Love" was actually written before I met Tom. That and "Knowing." Everybody thinks it's about him, but it was sort of a little temporary thing that occurred. Sometimes you can meet someone somewhere one night and go home and write a song like that, if you have enough fantasy in your head.
I think it's interesting that I wrote them write before I met Tom. It's almost what I wish was happening, so it's more like that. It was kind of a burst of fantasy. It was something I was feeling at the time, but looking back on it, it was more like a longing. It was kind of a schoolgirl crush.
Q Everyone's calling this your "happy album," as if you've never written a happy song before. How do you feel about that?
A Yeah, I don't really buy that. Yes, I'm in a great relationship and in a great place in my life, but I still have plenty of things to be miserable or upset or disturbed about. It's not like I don't have bad days anymore, or don't have things that bum me out.
I've always had ups and downs. The difference now is I have a more committed thing and people can tell we're like a real couple, it's a real thing.
I've had people ask me, "Are you still going to be able to write interesting songs," and I'm like, "Come on!" When was the last time one person fulfilled another person's every need. Go back and listen to my song "Rescue," it's true. That's a lifetime song for me. Love can't rescue you from everything.
Look at the [new] song "Jailhouse Tears," it's written about a drug-addict, alcoholic guy. That's not exactly a happy song. And "Circles and X's" and "If Wishes Were Horses," those were written like 20 years ago.
Q I wanted to ask about that. How do these songs come back after all this time and make it onto a record?
A I don't know why, but for some reason when I was demo-ing songs and in that writing surge, I went back to those songs. I keep everything until I finish it. When I really get into that [writing] mode, I get out this giant folder I have with bits and pieces of songs I've for 20, 25 years. I just dump it out and start going through years and years of song ideas. Who knows? I might finish an old song I never finished, which is what happened.
"If Wishes Were Horses" was pretty much done, but I always thought it was kind of too simple. But I got re-inspired.
Q One of the reasons "Little Rock Star" is so effective is because it's not judgmental. Was that a conscious thing?
A To me, it goes back to the song "Drunken Angel," which was also written about a musician who led a pretty self-destructive life, Blaze Foley [from Austin, Texas], who was eventually shot in an argument. I didn't know him real well. Around that same time, Townes Van Zandt died, who was Blaze's hero. Some people would say Blaze tried to keep up with Townes, which no one could ever do.
When I wrote that song, I didn't want it to be judgmental. Same thing with "Lake Charles," about another person who was self-destructive like that, another wild and woolly character.
I had been reading in the paper a lot about Amy Winehouse. There had been a string of those kind of artists. Now, that's all you read about in press. It's not just one thing -- Pete Doherty, he was just one of several I read about like that. But you could go all the way back to Kurt Cobain, or way back to Jim Morrison. But I was thinking more in terms of the contemporary ones.
Amy Winehouse, I think she's so talented, and everything you read about her is just so dreadful and sad. And I knew Ryan Adams in his heyday, too. And I'd been in there with all that big partying. I can see how you can go one way or the other. It is kind of coming from a long place saying, I do understand how you can slip into that downward spiral.
Q "Little Rock Star" and another song, "Rarity," are also about fame and surviving the music biz. Are you content on those fronts?
A I'm happy, yeah. There's not one great place to be. Once you get to a certain point, it's like that old spiritual adage. When I was younger, I just thought I'd be happy if I didn't have to work a day job. Then it becomes something else: If I get a record deal. Then you get a record deal, and it's something else. It's like anything else in life.
Tom and I just bought a house. Thank God this recession hasn't affected us yet. But I didn't grow up with much. My dad [poet Miller Williams] was a college professor. He has a new book that just came out. I love the title: "Time and the Tilting Earth."
I didn't want to make a video when everybody else was making videos. I didn't want to sell out. I was horrified at that. Certain things now, though, I'll say, "What the hell?"
Over the years, I've gotten more confident. I'm not so worried about fans thinking I've sold out if I make a video or, God forbid, if I get on the cover of Rolling Stone.