Lucinda Williams isn't exactly sure what's going on, but she knows it's good.
Night after night, she's watching her fans go crazy for her latest songs, even though the album "Little Honey" (Lost Highway) doesn't hit stores until Tuesday.
"I remember when I was playing the songs from 'West' before the album came out and people would be shouting out 'Drunken Angel' or 'Passionate Kisses,' but I would insist on playing the new songs," Williams says, calling from her Los Angeles home. "I would have to clarify things onstage and say, 'I want to play these new songs. I know you have an emotional attachment to the more familiar material, but hopefully you'll have an emotional attachment to these songs.' But now. . . ."
She pauses a bit, like she's replaying the recent shows in her head, before adding, "Now, I'm coming out and starting with 'Real Love' and people go wild. By the time we get to 'Little Rock Star,' people just go nuts."
She wasn't kidding. At Williams' recent show at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, when she and her band reached "Little Rock Star" in their set, fans began whooping, some taking breaks only to sing along. Although Williams has been hailed as "America's Best Songwriter" for the past decade since the release of her Grammy-winning "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album and has seen her subsequent albums climb higher and higher on the charts, the prerelease enthusiasm for "Little Honey" is new. (Last week, preorders alone pushed it to No. 5 on Amazon.com's sales chart.)
"Usually, I have to wait until the record comes out to see a reaction because they have to hear them first, and then they respond more and more and more," Williams says. "This one seems, right off the bat, to be creating a sort of excitement that I haven't felt in a while, probably since 'Car Wheels.' Now that people have gotten used to me doing different things and stretching out, I've kind of come full circle. Maybe they just kind of understand me more now. Or maybe I've just gained enough confidence."
Something is definitely different with Williams these days.
The hair is a bit bigger. The stance is a bit wider. And the way she chokes the electric guitar, it looks like she might whip it around by the neck and smash it on the stage, a la Pete Townshend, if the mood suited her. Which it doesn't.
Her buzzword is happy
At her recent New York show, Williams is singing happy songs of rock and roll defiance, songs where she gets her due, and so do those who have wronged her. When she lets out a yowl to follow, "Oh, my little honeybee, I'm so glad you stung me," there's a touch of Courtney Love glee, but none of the desperation.
"She's in a different place in her life now - a happy place," says Rita Houston, music director for New York's WFUV / 90.7 FM. "Lucinda's in love, and she's still writing pretty good songs."
Houston says Williams' single "Real Love" has caught on at adult alternative radio stations and has given "Little Honey" more of a boost than the lead singles for Williams' past two albums. " 'Real Love' is getting her a lot of attention out of the gate," Houston says. "It's really upbeat, and to me, it feels like a late-'60s, early-'70s AM radio song, which is a really good match for her."
Horns of plenty
Williams goes for a broad palette of sounds - rock, blues, country, gospel, even a bit of metal on her cover of AC / DC's "Long Way to the Top" - for the new album. She uses horns for the first time, which add new sonic textures to the meditative "The Knowing" and the music-business pep talk "Rarity."
"I always wanted to [use horns], but I was a little afraid of it because I didn't want it to sound too slick," Williams says. "I've grown so much since the days when I used to worry about that."
A significant part of that growth comes from Williams' fiance, Tom Overby, who is also a co-producer on the album as well as her manager.
"Tom's one of those guys who has 15,000 CDs and all this vinyl, so he's always putting different stuff on," Williams says. "So I'll listen to stuff that I've never listened to before. It's so good to do that as an artist because it just opens up your world. It's made me a lot more global. The stuff I listen to now is so different from what I listened to when I first started in music. I listen to Latin music and Brazilian and some hip-hop kind of stuff, like Gotan Project and Thievery Corporation. I find it fascinating."
Her lyrics are more outward-looking as well.
One main topic is the music industry, which she tackles in "Little Rock Star" and "Rarity." "Both of them had little mini events that kicked off the writing of the song, but they became much bigger than about that one person," she says. "In the case of 'Rarity,' there's an artist named Mia Doi Todd, and I was just really impressed with her - how poetic her songs were, how sophisticated her writing was, the beauty of her voice. 'Little Rock Star' came from observing different people in the press. It's not about Amy Winehouse, but the situation she's in. Before her, it was Ryan Adams, then it was Pete Doherty, now it's Amy Winehouse. A while ago, it was Kurt Cobain. I'm always part of these songs, too, because I look at these situations from an empathetic point of view; otherwise, I wouldn't be able to write about it." Those songs, as well as the touching ballad "Plan to Marry," are more topical than usual for Williams, yet another departure to differentiate the new album.
"I've been looking for different subjects to write about," Williams says, laughing. "I'm not going to be writing about unrequited love for the rest of my life."