Interview: Lucinda Williams’ Graceful Simplicity

Lucinda WilliamsFrom the Bayou to Bakersfield, Austin to Boston, from the high plains ballad to the raunchiest riffs and the echoing twang of an all-night hootenanny, Lucinda Williams has covered every geographical/musical base available to her. In a remarkable 31-year career that has defied label, her songs have traversed every emotional barrier with the steadiest of musical compasses. Her voice, graveled, strained and dripping of warm honey, strips bare the pretenses of performance at every turn. She is an American original, a country rocker with the soul of a poet rising from backstreet city grit. Her intimately crafted records from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to Essence to her latest, Little Honey (released within a year of her last effort, West), never disappoint while also skillfully chopping through the roughest lyrical terrain, making fertile otherwise barren territory. Williams, like all great authors, painters, photographers, and composers, acts as our constant guide, the world-weary traveler seeking a home, and we are always privileged for having come along for the ride.

The 10-time Grammy winner and her band, Buick 6, are rolling into Montclair, NJ, this week, and on the way, I had a chance to chat with her about the making of Little Honey, its subsequent tour, and her magnificently original and always inspiring songwriting.

It’s odd for an artist to release new material in back-to-back years. I was just getting into West, dissecting the songs and living with them, and then, Bang!, here comes Little Honey. Is it simply a case of an overspill of creativity or was there something that inspired you to write so much new material right away?

We were actually going to put out a double CD for West, because we had enough material for two, but we weren’t able to do that, so we just kind of divided the songs up. So Little Honey is kind of like West Volume Two (laughs) with the addition of a few new songs.

The record has a very first-take, loose, almost in-studio figuring-it-out vibe, in the Bob Dylan vein of ‘Here are the chords, one-two-three…go!’ Is that an accurate description of the recording process for Little Honey?

Yeah. It just kind of happened that way. In the time between West and Little Honey I formed a new band, and we’ve been out on the road playing together, so any time you go into the studio with your road band there’s going to be more spontaneity. Everybody’s comfortable with each other and so you’re going to have more of that ‘Yee Ha! Let’s have a good time!’ sort of feel. There was also a level of comfort on this record that I probably haven’t experienced as much as any other record ’cause it’s the same studio I recorded West in with the same engineer, Eric Liljestrand.

So a lot of stuff was familiar territory and I think everybody was a little more relaxed in general and we gave ourselves permission to take chances and be real spontaneous. We wanted to have that feel end up on the record, like the false start on Real Love. I mean, nobody sits and plans that out. It just happens when the band is playing and we left it on. A lot of that stuff happens in the studio, it’s just a matter of deciding if you want it on the record. (laughs)

Does that level of comfort and familiarity translate to the live performances?

Yeah, there are certain instances, like now, Doug Pettibone is gone from the band and we have a new guitar player who’s replaced him, Eric Schermerhorn, who has just joined the band, so of course he’s going to be putting his own stamp on things. I mean, you know, for the most part, once the songs have been recorded and we have rehearsals and we go out on the road it’s set, but I don’t tell any of the band members what to play for the most part. I just kind of allow them to do their thing. There’s a certain guideline; you have to follow the song, but there’s always going to be some little neat surprises. They’re usually kind of small ones, like some nights we’ll reach a certain thing on a song and all sort of look at each other and say, ‘Wow that was really cool.’ (laughs) I like to leave things open for discovery, whether it’s in the studio or on the stage.