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 ’71.
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 didn’t 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. I’d 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 George’s [Majestic Lounge], I think, one time, I played at the UARK [Ballroom], and those were about the only places to play.
KK: You’re saying when you played these places it was in ’70-’71?
LW: Well, that would have been, probably more, yeah, I guess starting around ’71-’72 and ’73. 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 ’70s. And, ended up in Austin in ’74, so I guess the early ’70s. 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 ’70s, 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 haven’t really stayed in touch with the people I knew back then. Now my friends are my folks’ friends.
About her latest release, October 2008′s “Little Honey”:
LW: When it was time to do “Little Honey,” I already had a bunch of songs that I wasn’t able to put on “West” [the album immediately prior to "Little Honey"]. And then I wrote some new ones besides those. “Little Honey” is almost “West” Volume Two. Yeah, we wanted to put out a double CD of “West,” but we weren’t able to do it, you know, because I wanted to get them out then and just move forward, and have “Little Honey” be all new songs. But it worked out well though, I think.
KK: Don’t 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 “West,” I was changing band members and I had … in fact, I think there are some similarities in a way between “West” and “Essence,” [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 “West” 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 I’ve worked with musicians slash producers.
KK: Like Gurf Morlix.
LW: Yeah, like Gurf Morlix, Steve Earle and Bo Ramsey, Charlie Sexton. So “West” was the first one I’d done where I had someone come in like Hal Wilner, and that’s what he does, he’s a producer. Yeah, “West” is much, much different. By the time I did “Little Honey” I’d 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 “Little Honey.” So, we had it really worked up. There is more of a live feeling, I think, on the “Little Honey” album because it’s the road band.
KK: Sure. A lot of critics have said it [“Little Honey”] 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] I’ve been trying to figure out why “Little Honey” has been dubbed the “happy” album. I guess the only reason, you know, that maybe, I don’t really know why, I don’t know the answer, but maybe people pick up on a sort of, you know, a certain kind of joy [indecipherable]. We’re having a good time in the studio. And, they assume a lot of songs were written for Tom [Overby, Williams’ fiance and business manager], like “Real Love,” which wasn’t the case. That was written before Tom. You know, it was supposed to be on “West.” But there is this kinda ‘We’re having a good time in the studio’ and we were. And I think also people just know I’m in a better place in my life. I’m in a good place in my life right now, and I think they associate, it’s more the association of knowing that I’m with Tom, and Tom worked with me on the record, and, you know, I’m 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] “I found the love I’ve been looking for,” 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 don’t know. I don’t even use the word happy when I’m talking about a song. So, I don’t know. I think it’s just the feel of the record. But, if you go in and listen to the songs, “Jailhouse Tears” isn’t 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 “Little Honey” is written for Tom, and “Tears of Joy,” and “Plan to Marry,” and “Little Rock Star” was written later, after the first recording. But the rest of them were all kinda already “West” 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 “Essence.” I started to get stuck. And then, that was right about the time “Time Out Of Mind,” came out, Bob Dylan’s album, which I was real impressed with. I’d 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 didn’t 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 “Time Out of Mind” kind of really influenced me when I was doing “Essence.” I loved the fluidity of it, just the openness of the songs, You know, that, and just, I don’t know, I just felt like I wanted to free myself up a little as a songwriter. I gave myself permission to do stuff like “Feel Your Love” and “Are You Down” and those kinds of songs. I wasn’t sure how people were gonna react, but I did that. And I think that was kind of the springboard, you know? But I’ve always gotten, ever since “Car Wheels [On A Gravel Road],” a little bit of different kinds of feedback as far as how the song goes. Like “Righteously,” for instance, which is now one of my most requested songs. But when I first put in on “World Without Tears” 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 “Little Honey” song, which I think is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, or coolest song. I love it. I love performing it. It’s fun. To me, it’s like, it goes back to the blues stuff that I grew up listening to. It’s 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 it’s too obvious. The lyrics are too, well, he used the word cheesy or something, and I said ‘Oh my God.’ He said, ‘Do you have any comment on that?’ I said ‘Yeah, I got a comment on that. They need to take their collective, intellectual head out of their collective ass.’ You know what I’m saying? You know, that’s the thing. You starting thinking too much. I said, go back and listen to Robert Johnson, [again quoting lyrics] “Squeeze the lemon until the juice runs down my leg.” I mean, nobody said “Oh, man, that’s so cheesy. He’s 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 that’s not all of me.” What about Iggy Pop, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?
LW: Nobody says anything about that. But he said, “Yeah, that’s because he’s Iggy Pop.” I said, “Maybe I should change my name, then.” [laughs] But see, that’s my point. I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to do what those guys do. Why shouldn’t I be able to do that, like Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” “Little Honey” is my version, my “I Wanna Be Your Dog” song. But, “Oh no, you can’t have that.” I’m the tenderhearted singer-songwriter. Yeah right. Anybody who knows me isn’t surprised at all about “Little Honey.” I’m still gonna write serious, negative, narrative songs or whatever, like “Rarity” 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 “Poetry Said/Poetry Sung” [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 shouldn’t call it your hometown, but a town where you spent some time and your dad’s here, and you have some friends. … What was that like here?
LW: Well, it’s always great to do those shows with him. And of course, being in Fayetteville and doing it, it’s 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 ’70s. 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 Whitehead’s 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. We’ve had some other shows we’ve done. We did one at Millsap College in Jackson, Miss., which is where he taught when my sister was born in ’67, we did one there, and that was really special. We did one in Nashville at the Ryman [Auditorium], or no, it wasn’t the Ryman. We did one there. I was just looking at this. Oh, it was the Belcourt [Theatre]. I’m looking at the poster from it. We had all these tour posters framed and put on the wall. This poster is just great. It’s this vintage photo, taken I guess in the late ’50s, of this little girl on her dad’s back. Or his shoulders. He’s 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, “The Caterpillar,” which is my favorite. I have a hard time not getting teary-eyed when I’m sitting there watching him.
KK: Last question, Lucinda, and I’ll 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 wouldn’t normally play? Anything like that?
LW: Yeah, I’m sure I will. I’m definitely going to play some songs that I know he particularly would like. I might. … Who knows? I might do a version of “Cold, Cold Heart,” Hank Williams. Actually, what would be really cool … I’m glad you brought this up, because you’ve 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 hadn’t been set to yet, hadn’t been written for. The music wasn’t 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 don’t know what’s 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. It’s really good. It came out really good.
KK: What is the song called?
LW: It’s called … let me think. I can’t remember. [laughs] Maybe Tom might remember. I could e-mail you. I could find out and e-mail you. I can’t 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. I’d really like to hear it.
LW: I know. I need to work it up.