For Lucinda Williams, songwriting is ‘the life force that drives me’
One of the more distinctive voices in American music belongs to Lucinda Williams, a singer-songwriter whose body of work has struck a chord with critics and Grammy voters and who has nurtured a loyal following since releasing “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” her first album, in 1979.
Now in her 60s, Williams is not slowing down. Her last two records were double albums. Before a week’s worth of sold out shows the Manhattan venue, City Winery, performing in support of The Ghosts of Highway 20, Williams sat down with PBS NewsHour’s Phil Hirschkorn.
Their conversation is below, edited for space and clarity.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Your sound is hard to label — country, folk, folk rock, country folk, blues, blues attitude, music gumbo. What do you call your sound?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Southern rock, country soul. It is hard to label. I mean I usually just say when people ask me what kind of music — if they don’t know anything about me or they ask me that, I’ll say, “Well, I’m kind of like a female Bob Dylan or female Tom Petty.” And they’ll go, “Oh, okay.” You know, there’s always the Americana. But now that doesn’t even really cover everything I do.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’ve won a country Grammy, a rock Grammy, a folk Grammy. Plugged, unplugged.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah, which is why I had such a hard time getting a record deal in the first place. The very thing that made it hard to get a record deal now has become my signature sound. They used to tell me my stuff fell in the cracks between country and rock, which now, of course, is what Americana basically is. But back then in the ’80s when I was first trying to get a record deal, there was no market for that. You had to be one or the other.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Your voice also reflects that range.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: It’s changed a little over the years at least to my ears from, certainly, your first album.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: It has. I like it better now. I think it’s richer and —
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Deeper?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Deeper and richer, yeah.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Rougher?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Maybe a little rougher too. Over the years, I learned how to write songs for my voice more, and I just learned a lot more about how to use my voice and how to work with my limitations, and not try to sing out of my range or, you know, try to reach notes I can’t reach.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Well, as the songwriter, you have that privilege, right?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah. But when I first started writing songs like “Passionate Kisses” sometimes depending on how my voice was doing on any given night, I might have trouble sometimes on that part that goes up.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Do you write every day? I mean, are you that disciplined about it?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: My brain is always going, and I’m always jotting down things. I might be sitting at a bar or anywhere I might be and hear something somebody says or something we’ll pop in my head, and I’ll jot it down on a lot of times on a cocktail napkin. I have a lot of cocktail napkins with lines on them. And I save everything. I put it all in a folder. And then when the muse strikes, I pull all that stuff out, bits and pieces. I’ve got 10 or a dozen songs or something right now that are almost finished. So I’ve always got kind of works in progress. But I don’t apply myself every day and get up at and say I’ve got to write between noon and whatever time. I don’t do that. I’m not disciplined about it necessarily. I had a therapist once describe it as “work,” because I was concerned, in the early years that I was going through a dry spell. And she said, “No, no, no. You just work on a J curve,” which means I might not write for a couple of months, and then, once I get into that mode, I might write ten new songs or something over a period of a few weeks.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: That seems to be what’s been happening the last couple of years with those two double albums, you’ve got around 40 new songs. I’m sure there’s more in a drawer somewhere. You’ve put out a lot of music.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: That really started probably in the last 10 years. After my mother passed away, which was in 2004, not too long after that, I was working on songs for the West album. And I actually had enough songs at that time for a double album. But Lost Highway [her former record label] didn’t want to release a double album, so really that productivity thing kind of started at that time.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You mentioned therapy. Is the songwriting therapeutic for you?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. It’s the life force that drives me. It’s cathartic and therapeutic.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Well, certainly your songs are full of emotions. A lot of raw emotions come through record after record, it’s not like, “Oh, well, that’s her emotional record, and this is her other record.”
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Right.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’ve got six or seven or eight albums in a row that are just sizzling with emotions.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: That’s because it comes from me first. I have to remind people of this. I’m an artist first and foremost in the same way that someone would be a poet or a novelist or a painter. I’m writing for myself first.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Do the words typically come first or the music?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I would say the words more often than not the words. Sometimes I’ll get a little line with a little melody thing that’ll pop in my head at the same time, and I’ll kind of use that as the base, the root of a song. But more often than not, it’ll be from lines I’ve written down and that I’ll put music to.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: A lot of your albums, the whole song cycle carries what some would call the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and acceptance. There’s a lot going on. How much of it is autobiographical?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: The majority of them are autobiographical, either about something I’m going through or someone I know. The story will center around someone I know. That’ll just kind of feed the song. That’ll be the seed of the song, but then, when it’s all said and done, a lot of the songs that started around someone I knew, but it could be about several different people. Like, for instance, “Drunken Angel” centered around a songwriter in Texas, this guy Blaze Foley, who’s now become larger than life. He was shot and killed in this senseless argument. It took me a while to finish that song, but now, it’s one of my most requested songs. But, of course, as I tell the audience a lot of times when I do the song, it could be about a number of different artists — Kurt Cobain, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt. I’ve always wanted to learn how in the same way that Bob Dylan was able to do this so well – read an article in the paper and write a song, build a story around it.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Well, you’ve gone there recently. You’ve done some political songs. “West Memphis” comes to mind [about the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three, on the album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.]
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yes. That was one.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: “Song for a Soldier” [on the album Blessed.]
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: The soldier song. Exactly. I’ve always wanted to push myself in that direction. Once I’m met my soulmate, my husband [Tom Overby], and we got engaged and married [in 2009], that was obviously a big change. I’m in the next chapter of my life. And I’m thinking, “Well, now’s the time to push myself to write about different things.” Because I can’t rely on forever writing songs about unrequited love. Those are the easiest kind of songs to write, you know — girls meets boy, boy meets girl, boy breaks girl’s heart, so on and so forth. And believe it or not, when Tom and I got together, my fans would ask me, “Well, are you going still be able to write songs?”
I was just so annoyed by that question and amazed and appalled that anyone would actually question. I mean, painters don’t quit painting. It’s my whole existence. But there’s this whole myth that they’ve gotten comfortable, or now they’re making more money they don’t have anything to write about. They’re not suffering anymore. Here’s how it works. I’m a human being. Humans suffer from the moment of birth. To be human is to suffer. It has nothing to do with how much money you have or that you’re married or not, if you have kids or not, whatever.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Well, it’s not like your new records are silly love songs.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I know, but it’s like I had to prove that I could still write.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: If you look at Sweet Old World through West and those earlier records, if I took all your songs and threw the lyrics into Word Cloud, I’d probably get top hits for “pain,” “tears,” “blue,” “blues,” words like that. Then Little Honey comes out.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I wrote that for my husband.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: “Real Love” and songs like that.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You seem to have the opposite problem.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I guess I’m an anomaly of sorts. And people just can’t believe it, and then there’s the other thing. The age I am . “Wow, how do you do it? Where do you find the energy? You’re still touring and still doing this?” You know, there’s so many myths.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’re the daughter of a poet. A poet has to read. A singer has to sing?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Right.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Is it true that when your father was still alive you would sometimes submit song lyrics to him so he could give you some feedback?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah. I would show him things. My father and I had a really special bond from the time I was born. He was really my rock, and so, I wanted his approval. I set really high standards for myself from an early age, because he set high standards for himself. And so I would show him my songs pretty much all the way through the Car Wheels album. I was finishing the song “Lake Charles,” and I showed him some of the lyrics. You know that line that goes, “Did an angel whisper in your ear?” And he said, “You’ve already got a song on this album with the word “angel” in it, “Drunken Angel.’” I really think it’s a mistake to use that word again in this song; you shouldn’t be repeating, you’ve got to come up with something else.” It was kind of this rule of writing in the poetry world anyway, I guess. And he said, “What about devil?” I said, “No, no, no, no, that’s not going to work.” And he said, “You can’t come up with anything besides ‘angel’?” And I said, “Dad, I’ve got to put my foot down on this one. It’s got to be ‘angel’.” And he said, “Okay, but that’s it. You’ve used up your quota of ‘angel;’ you can’t keep using it in songs all the time.” And I said, “Okay, okay.” There’s a line in “Drunken Angel” — “Blood flows out from the hole in your heart.” Well, the original line was — this probably seems really trivial to most people — “Blood flows out from a hole in your heart.” And my dad said, “Change a to the. The hole.”
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: So you gave him that consonant?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yes.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: By the time Car Wheels came out, and you had that extra level of commercial and critical success, did you show him less? Were you more confident to go forward on your own?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: When I had the songs on Essence you know, I had already written them and demoed them, and I sent them to him. And then, I talked to him on the phone. I said, “Do you have any comments to make about anything?” And he said, “No.” He said, “I think this is as close to poetry as you’ve ever come.” And I said, “Really? So does that mean I’ve graduated?” And he kind of laughed and said, “Yeah.” We had an apprenticeship in a certain kind of way, because I never studied creative writing in school or anything. I absorbed a lot of it, just in talking with him and, and that was how I learned really.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You say most of your songs in some way have been about you. And the new album is about Highway 20. You sing it’s a road you know like the back of your hand. Highway 20, or Interstate 20, that runs from Georgia to Texas.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah, right.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Atlanta and Macon through Louisiana.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Vicksburg, Jackson, Monroe.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Mississippi.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah. The seed for that kind of came from a couple of years ago when I first went back to Macon, and there was a fallen down venue we were going to play in, which was the old Cox Theatre in downtown where the Allman Brothers had played back in the day. And these people had refurbished it. It was open again and happening and flourishing. So I went back there and played. I was amazed and kind of taken, “Wow, hardly anything has changed here.” And I started, you know, remembering back. I had lived there, that’s where I started school. That was where my dad took my downtown to see this guy named Blind Pearly Brown. He was a blues slide guitar player, preacher, lead singer guy who would sing on the street. And my dad took me to see him when I was about five or six-years-old. And that was where my dad took me with him when he met with Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia. Even though I was very young, those were very pivotal experiences. And then as we were leaving Macon, on the bus, and I was looking out the window, and I started seeing the exit signs for these towns, and I said to Tom, “Wow, Vicksburg. That’s where my brother was born. Jackson, Mississippi. And then, later, I looked on a map and saw Monroe, Louisiana, one of the towns where my mother lived in and she’s now laid to rest. So, everything was about movement. Then the history of America being, Woody Guthrie, the hobos on the trains, Kerouac’s On The Road. Everything’s about moving and exploring. I think that’s just the nature of our culture.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’ve been on this roll — the Grammys, Time Magazine called you the best songwriter.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: For that year.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: I don’t know if they’ve revised it.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: That’s very humbling. I get almost embarrassed about it, you know, because it’s not like there aren’t other great songwriters.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Okay, very modest of you, but–
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: It’s very flattering, and–
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Does the acclaim ever get to your head?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: No. I you know that. You can tell by looking at me.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’re popular here in New York. You’ve played the Beacon, Radio City Music Hall, the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, large venues around the country. Do you prefer a smaller venue like City Winery to connect with the audience?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: If I had to pick one it would have to be sort of a combination of the two, and there aren’t too many clubs like that left anymore — venues like First Avenue in Minneapolis, where people are standing up right in front of the stage. You get that intimacy thing, but they’re lively and rocking and drinking. The Fillmore in San Francisco, those kind of 1,200-1,500 seat venues. But I like playing places like City Winery though too. I’ve played at the City Winery in Nashville and Chicago. And what’s cool about it is people are sitting down, but, they’re drinking wine. I’m not crazy about playing theatres where, everybody’s just kind of sitting and you don’t really know, “Are they enjoying it?” It took me years to learn how to kind of relax more onstage and engage the audience.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: When did you realize in the music industry that talent isn’t enough to have the success that you’ve had?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I realized that talent isn’t enough through other artists who I would discover and wonder why they weren’t more successful when they were so amazingly talented. They just wouldn’t want to tour, or they just didn’t have the drive or the ambition or something. I used to think if you had that much talent that was enough. But not everybody has the drive. It takes probably about 50 percent talent and 50 percent drive, I think.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You had to keep at it for a long time.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Right. I have the drive. I had a lot of drive. It really takes that.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You were, in a sense, a late bloomer. I mean, Car Wheels and that success didn’t come until your mid-40’s?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Right. I had been playing and doing my thing as soon as I was old enough to go out and play in bars and stuff, since the early ’70s.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: A lot of bands from that era are doing Greatest Hits tours in their 60’s, and you’re touring with new material. Still growing at 63?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Well, my grandmother on my dad’s side lived to be 100. And I remember my father said one time in the world of poets, nobody even takes you seriously until you’re, in your 60’s.
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: We can’t all be Adele and Taylor Swift or have the success that they’ve had at that age, right?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Right, and everybody has their time. Bob Dylan was writing amazing songs when he was 18 and 19. So was Hank Williams, but I wasn’t. So people ask me, “Are you bitter or do you wish you’d made it sooner?” I always say, “No, because I wasn’t ready yet.”
PHIL HIRSCHKORN: You’re enjoying this moment?
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Yeah.