Whatever It Takes: Lucinda Williams
Over the last three decades, Lucinda Williams' reputation slowly grew to the point that she's now routinely cited as one of the best songwriters of her generation. Yet during that time, the building blocks of her songs have remained essentially the same: love, loss and longing. While her music has run the gamut from rock to country to folk to blues, the emotional tenor of her lyrics has almost always centered on anger, heartbreak or sadness. It seemed that the one emotion Williams' expressive, whiskey-soaked voice couldn't tap into was joy.
So it might surprise fans to learn that Lucinda Williams is officially happy.
"When I made my last album, West, my mother had just passed away and I was coming out of an abusive relationship with a drug addict who had to go back into rehab," Williams explains. "Then I met my fiancée and everything just changed for the better. I'm kind of a late bloomer, but everything in my life right now is the best it's ever been."
While anyone who has followed her career can't help but be happy for her, fans may also worry that the Lucinda Williams they've come to know and love may be a thing of the past. Certainly, her latest album Little Honey is the loosest album Williams has ever made, but it's still as gritty and soulful as ever. While it lacks some of the unity of 1988's Lucinda Williams or 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, both of which were near-perfect, it's a breath of fresh air from the relentlessly downbeat West. There's a freewheeling duet with Elvis Costello ("Jailhouse Tears"), an ecstatically upbeat roadhouse rocker ("Honey Bee") and even an AC/DC cover ("It's a Long Way to the Top"). Perhaps the biggest surprise is how well it all works. After all, any music fan came name dozens of classic songs that are sad or angry. There hasn't been a great happy rock song since "She Loves You," something that Williams tacitly agrees with when she observes that upbeat tunes are "really hard to write without moving into the mushy sugar-coated place you don't want to go. You have to keep a tiny bit of sarcasm in there. The best songs that do that are classics from people like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. It harder to do in this genre because rock ‘n' roll is all about angst and leather and studs."
Still, Williams had no choice but to try. Where most singer-songwriters say fans shouldn't read too much about their own lives into their songs, Williams admits that she's only really good at writing about one subject - herself.
"Bob Dylan is great about writing about people he doesn't know personally," she says. "He can take a story out of the newspaper and write about it, like ‘Hurricane.' For me, it has to be something I can reach out and touch. There has to be a personal connection between me and the person in the song. Not necessarily a personal friend, but at least someone going through something I've experienced myself."
As college students are learning every day in this age of Twitter and Facebook, there are downsides to making your life an open book. For Williams, it means that she's required to dredge up pain from her past every time she steps on stage. To some extent she looks at it philosophically - that's simply the lot of a working musician. But she also sees some emotional benefit to it, explaining, "It's like going back and looking at pages from a diary. We can choose to forgive, but we're not going to forget. You still have those feelings in you. Letting them out can prove to be very therapeutic. You also sing those songs to help other people who might be going through the same stuff."
Williams' personal life isn't the only thing that has changed over the last few years. She has also become a much more prolific writer. Where she had once been known for taking four or more years between albums ("I used to marvel at how I'd meet other songwriters and they'd have 2,000 songs they'd written. I'd have just enough songs to make the one album I was working on."), her last four records have come at a steady clip. She attributes the change to developing more confidence in herself and her music, and that newfound confidence allowed her to go through her old notebooks searching for lost gems. Two of them wound up on Little Honey: "Circles and X's," and "If Wishes Were Horses," both of which were written in the mid-‘80s. The inspiration for her journey through the past struck when she heard Laura Cantrell's version of her song "Letters," which Williams wrote around 1975 and recorded on a demo but never officially released.
Explains Williams, "She got a copy from a mutual friend and did a beautiful, really sweet version of it that made me think ‘Wow, she brought this early song back to life, maybe I should go back and review some of my old stuff.' I've got all these tapes of old little songs, but I never thought they were good enough to do anything with. I wrote the hook for ‘Circles and X's' in 1984 or ‘85 but never finished it. I guess it wasn't ready to be born yet."
Williams adds that part of the reason she was able to give birth to it now is that she's no longer as hard on herself as she once was. It's a strange comment from someone who has long been known in the music industry as a demanding perfectionist.
"I've always had this voice in the back of my head that says ‘I know this is good' but then it never fails that when I'm making a record, I start to question this and that," she says. "That's what the song ‘Fruits of My Labor' [from 2003's World Without Tears] is about. When am I gonna enjoy the fruits of my labor and stop worrying?
"But that's just me. It's not something that's ever going to go away, but I'm working on it. We all have our stuff we have to battle and if that's what it takes for me to write these songs, then so be it. Whatever it takes."