February 20th, 2009 at 6:05 am
We’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get Lucinda Williams on the phone before. She’s a busy and popular woman these days, and she’s always making news. Just Tuesday, in fact, a new collaboration between her and M. Ward debuted on the latter’s newest release, “Hold Time.”
With her ties to the area, which include her father, poet Miller Williams, her decades-long career and her always ravenous fan base in Northwest Arkansas, we always thought she’d make a great interview.
Which is why we here at the Northwest Arkansas Times were so excited to get her on the phone earlier this week.
In addition to the story that we published today, we also pulled some of the highlights from the transcript of the interview, a wide-ranging, 30-minute-plus chat about her life in Fayetteville, her father, breaking it big, the impact of Bob Dylan on her career and so much more.
Click the ‘more’ link below to read the transcript.
Lucinda on her time in Fayetteville:
Kevin Kinder, Northwest Arkansas Times: I wanted to start by asking you about your time in Fayetteville. Did you live in Fayetteville for any amount of time?
LW: Yeah, we moved there after having lived in Mexico City for a year, and that was in 1970, and we moved to Fayetteville â71.
LW: And, I went to the University of Arkansas for two semesters, so, that was right around the time when I was kind of itching to pursue my, what I hoped would be, a career in music. I actually didnât choose music as my major when I started college there, I chose cultural anthropology of all things [laughs].
KK: Were you playing gigs in Fayetteville before you moved?
LW: Well, a little bit. Iâd play, you know, I remember there was some kind of outdoor demonstration thing or something on campus. You know, whatever opportunities presented themselves. I played at Georgeâs [Majestic Lounge], I think, one time, I played at the UARK [Ballroom], and those were about the only places to play.
KK: Youâre saying when you played these places it was in â70-â71?
LW: Well, that would have been, probably more, yeah, I guess starting around â71-â72 and â73. And then I moved, I took off, you know, went out to California, spent some time in Nashville and then came back, spent some time back at home, so it was kind of back and forth during those years, you know, the early â70s. And, ended up in Austin in â74, so I guess the early â70s. It seems longer than that, you know? [laughs] Also, I was always going back, I was always there, back for Christmas and so forth. But when I was living at home those first few years, and then I moved back home in the late â70s, because I was recovering from vocal nodules, so I moved back there for a while. So I was always kinda going back and forth.
KK: Do you still have a lot of friends here?
LW: Um, you know, most of the people I knew I guess have moved away. I havenât really stayed in touch with the people I knew back then. Now my friends are my folksâ friends.
About her latest release, October 2008’s “Little Honey”:
LW: When it was time to do âLittle Honey,â I already had a bunch of songs that I wasnât able to put on âWestâ [the album immediately prior to “Little Honey”]. And then I wrote some new ones besides those. âLittle Honeyâ is almost âWestâ Volume Two. Yeah, we wanted to put out a double CD of âWest,â but we werenât able to do it, you know, because I wanted to get them out then and just move forward, and have âLittle Honeyâ be all new songs. But it worked out well though, I think.
KK: Donât you agree there is a difference between the two albums?
LW: Oh yeah, definitely. I think there is a lot of difference. Tone, and mood, and the different musicians who played on them. When I did âWest,â I was changing band members and I had â¦ in fact, I think there are some similarities in a way between âWestâ and âEssence,â [her 2001 studio album]. It turns out that both Jim Keltner and Tony Garnier played on both of those records. Both of those records I was kind of in between bands. And âWestâ was recorded with a producer, Hal Wilner, which was the first record I had ever done with an outside producer, an actual producer. All my other records Iâve worked with musicians slash producers.
KK: Like Gurf Morlix.
LW: Yeah, like Gurf Morlix, Steve Earle and Bo Ramsey, Charlie Sexton. So âWestâ was the first one Iâd done where I had someone come in like Hal Wilner, and thatâs what he does, heâs a producer. Yeah, âWestâ is much, much different. By the time I did âLittle Honeyâ Iâd put a new band together, well, Doug Pettibone was still in the band, but I had a new rhythm section, and also gained a new guitar player, Chet Lyster, who had been in The Eels, he joined the band, and we toured a whole bunch and did the new songs live before we recorded âLittle Honey.â So, we had it really worked up. There is more of a live feeling, I think, on the âLittle Honeyâ album because itâs the road band.
KK: Sure. A lot of critics have said it [âLittle Honeyâ] may be your happiest album ever. Do you agree with that?
LW: [laughs] I hear that all the time. It amuses me, you know? [laughs] Iâve been trying to figure out why âLittle Honeyâ has been dubbed the “happy” album. I guess the only reason, you know, that maybe, I donât really know why, I donât know the answer, but maybe people pick up on a sort of, you know, a certain kind of joy [indecipherable]. Weâre having a good time in the studio. And, they assume a lot of songs were written for Tom [Overby, Williamsâ fiance and business manager], like “Real Love,” which wasnât the case. That was written before Tom. You know, it was supposed to be on âWest.â But there is this kinda âWeâre having a good time in the studioâ and we were. And I think also people just know Iâm in a better place in my life. Iâm in a good place in my life right now, and I think they associate, itâs more the association of knowing that Iâm with Tom, and Tom worked with me on the record, and, you know, Iâm in a good place, and we live in a house in L.A. which we bought together a year ago. They put all those things together, and then they hear the songs on the record, the first song, “Real Love” [now reciting lyrics] âI found the love Iâve been looking for,â and they say, “Oh, this is a happy album”[laughs].
LW: But the thing is, not all the songs are quote unquote “Happy” song.
LW: All of my songs, all of my albums, kinda have happy song and sad songs, I donât know. I donât even use the word happy when Iâm talking about a song. So, I donât know. I think itâs just the feel of the record. But, if you go in and listen to the songs, âJailhouse Tearsâ isnât necessarily a happy song. That was written about a prior relationship I was in with this drug dealing, now recovered, drug addict. Actually, the song âLittle Honeyâ is written for Tom, and âTears of Joy,â and âPlan to Marry,â and âLittle Rock Starâ was written later, after the first recording. But the rest of them were all kinda already âWestâ part two.
About letting herself go as a songwriter:
LW: So I felt like I had to, I felt like I was kinda competing with myself when I did âEssence.â I started to get stuck. And then, that was right about the time âTime Out Of Mind,â came out, Bob Dylanâs album, which I was real impressed with. Iâd followed his career since 1965, and I could see how he had gone through similar changes with his songs, and how he kind of relaxed a little bit, and just sort of had more fun with it, and didnât feel like every song had to be this epic narrative kind of thing. And he got criticized for some of his records because of that. But I though âTime Out of Mindâ kind of really influenced me when I was doing âEssence.â I loved the fluidity of it, just the openness of the songs, You know, that, and just, I donât know, I just felt like I wanted to free myself up a little as a songwriter. I gave myself permission to do stuff like âFeel Your Loveâ and âAre You Downâ and those kinds of songs. I wasnât sure how people were gonna react, but I did that. And I think that was kind of the springboard, you know? But Iâve always gotten, ever since âCar Wheels [On A Gravel Road],â a little bit of different kinds of feedback as far as how the song goes. Like âRighteously,â for instance, which is now one of my most requested songs. But when I first put in on âWorld Without Tearsâ I got all kinds of backlash for that song. So for me, as a songwriter, I feel like there is just more about giving myself permission, freeing myself up to try different things and be OK with it. The last interview I was just now doing, I was told that some of the critics had apparently, there is some backlash about the âLittle Honeyâ song, which I think is one of the best songs Iâve ever written, or coolest song. I love it. I love performing it. Itâs fun. To me, itâs like, it goes back to the blues stuff that I grew up listening to. Itâs just nasty, dirty blues kind of stuff. The guy who was interviewing me said that some of the critics said they thought it was a little cheesy, because I was considered such a quote unquote great songwriter, and all this, then how could I write a song like that? Like itâs too obvious. The lyrics are too, well, he used the word cheesy or something, and I said âOh my God.â He said, âDo you have any comment on that?â I said âYeah, I got a comment on that. They need to take their collective, intellectual head out of their collective ass.â You know what Iâm saying? You know, thatâs the thing. You starting thinking too much. I said, go back and listen to Robert Johnson, [again quoting lyrics] âSqueeze the lemon until the juice runs down my leg.â I mean, nobody said “Oh, man, thatâs so cheesy. Heâs a better songwriter than that.” When I said that to this guy, he said, “Yeah, I get it, but a lot of people still think of you as the tortured singer-songwriter or whatever.” And I said, “Well, that is part of me, but thatâs not all of me.” What about Iggy Pop, âI Wanna Be Your Dogâ?
LW: Nobody says anything about that. But he said, “Yeah, thatâs because heâs Iggy Pop.” I said, “Maybe I should change my name, then.” [laughs] But see, thatâs my point. I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to do what those guys do. Why shouldnât I be able to do that, like Iggy Popâs âI Wanna Be Your Dog.â âLittle Honeyâ is my version, my âI Wanna Be Your Dogâ song. But, “Oh no, you canât have that.” Iâm the tenderhearted singer-songwriter. Yeah right. Anybody who knows me isnât surprised at all about âLittle Honey.â Iâm still gonna write serious, negative, narrative songs or whatever, like âRarityâ and stuff like that. See, I would get bored if all I did was write the same kinds of songs all the time. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I never wanted to have to pick a style. Even when I was first starting out I always used all kinds of stuff in my repertoire.
On her dad, a previous performance in Fayetteville, and the surprise song she might play here:
KK: A few years back, you did the âPoetry Said/Poetry Sungâ [a collaboration that brought Williams and her father on the stage at the same time] with your dad. What was that experience like here, in your hometown, well maybe I shouldnât call it your hometown, but a town where you spent some time and your dadâs here, and you have some friends. â¦ What was that like here?
LW: Well, itâs always great to do those shows with him. And of course, being in Fayetteville and doing it, itâs real special. That was the place that I really, one of the places where I really honed my craft and cut my teeth back in the early â70s. That was when I really started thinking of myself more as a songwriter. When I was living at home, I was writing songs, I was able to show him the songs as I was writing them, and get constructive criticism. I was able to sit in on his poetry workshops, which were held at the house, in the living room, and meet all kinds of great poets and fascinating people who came through town and go to the poetry readings, and you know, the parties at our house afterwards, we usually held it at our house afterwards, either our house or Jim Whiteheadâs house, and just being around all that, it was worth everything. It was worth more than any formal education. It was like a built in creative writing course. My dad always acted as my mentor of sorts. It was kind of like an apprenticeship. Even after I left home I was still sending stuff that I was working on because I wanted to get his feedback. And, being back there stirred all these memories up, and all the good old days. Weâve had some other shows weâve done. We did one at Millsap College in Jackson, Miss., which is where he taught when my sister was born in â67, we did one there, and that was really special. We did one in Nashville at the Ryman [Auditorium], or no, it wasnât the Ryman. We did one there. I was just looking at this. Oh, it was the Belcourt [Theatre]. Iâm looking at the poster from it. We had all these tour posters framed and put on the wall. This poster is just great. Itâs this vintage photo, taken I guess in the late â50s, of this little girl on her dadâs back. Or his shoulders. Heâs holding her up on his shoulders. And it says “Poetry Said, Poetry Sung, Lucinda Williams and Miller Williams.” I mean, no matter where it is, the emotion for it comes with being onstage with my dad, and sitting there listening to him read a poem, particularly, âThe Caterpillar,â which is my favorite. I have a hard time not getting teary-eyed when Iâm sitting there watching him.
KK: Last question, Lucinda, and Iâll let you get back to your busy day. Will you do anything special here in Fayetteville because of the fact that your dad is here? Will you dedicate a song to him? Will you play some songs that maybe you wouldnât normally play? Anything like that?
LW: Yeah, Iâm sure I will. Iâm definitely going to play some songs that I know he particularly would like. I might. â¦ Who knows? I might do a version of âCold, Cold Heart,â Hank Williams. Actually, what would be really cool … Iâm glad you brought this up, because youâve reminded me. I was involved in a project where, Bob Dylan actually is behind this thing, and they found some Hank Williams lyrics that apparently music hadnât been set to yet, hadnât been written for. The music wasnât with the lyrics. They asked different songwriters to pick one of the sets of lyrics and put the music to it, and then record it and they were going to put it out. I donât know whatâs happening with this project right now. But, anyway, I went in and I did one. I took a set of his lyrics, and wrote the music and recorded it. Itâs really good. It came out really good.
KK: What is the song called?
LW: Itâs called â¦ let me think. I canât remember. [laughs] Maybe Tom might remember. I could e-mail you. I could find out and e-mail you. I canât remember off the top of my head. The reason is is because it was a couple of years ago, and for some reason, the project kinda got dragged out. But, that would really be a cool thing to do.
KK: It would.
KK: With Billy Bragg. That was great stuff.
LW: Yeah. That kind of thing.
KK: That would be cool. Iâd really like to hear it.
LW: I know. I need to work it up.