Listen to any of Lucinda Williams’ records over the years, and you’ll find plenty of heartache enveloping the tunes within—numerous meditations on loss, loneliness, doubt, and unrequited love.
But speaking on the phone recently from her California home, Williams was jovial and upbeat, chatting about the sunny L.A. weather and her desire to get household chores squared away before hitting the road again.
Perhaps domestic bliss suits Williams—for the past six years, the singer-songwriter has been happily married to Tom Overby, a former Universal music exec who now serves as her manager.
When I phoned Williams, she was preparing to head out on tour for the month of June, in further support of her most recent album, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, unveiled in September 2014. It marks the first release on Williams’ own Highway 20 Records label, after a long affiliation with Lost Highway.
The sprawling double record features the haunting track “Compassion,” derived from a poem by Lucinda’s late father, the celebrated poet Miller Williams, who passed away in January. The album’s title was lifted from a phrase in the poem.
This is a particularly fertile period for Williams’ songwriting and album output—after generating only five albums in the first 19 years of her recording career, Williams has now put out four releases in seven years.
In the sessions for Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, Williams and band recorded enough tracks to fill three albums.
“I’m more prolific than I have ever been,” said Williams.
Romantic tranquility might be partially responsible for this creative burst, which began soon after her engagement to Overby, whom Williams wed onstage during a 2009 concert.
During our conversation, Williams opened up about her songwriting motivations, the making of her double album, and the influence of her father. Now several decades into her career, Williams is clearly an artist that is still looking to accomplish new things rather than rest on her legacy.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone was a very ambitious project—many artists would shy away from making a double album. Was there any apprehension on your part?
Well, Tom said, “Get ready for some criticism,” because it’s a double album. But we just felt like it worked. We had so many great tracks and we thought we couldn’t narrow it down to just one album. Everybody involved agreed. But we knew at the same time, people might raise their eyebrows because double albums don’t always work. You get a lot of filler stuff. I think once you’re listening to it, you realize you just have to push it.
People didn’t make such a big deal about double albums back in the day. Like Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, nobody cared that it was a double album. He did one song for one whole side of the album, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” People would freak now if someone did that. I think we were looking at it from that perspective artistically. It just made sense and all fit together well.
The album has been out since late September, and you’ve been touring quite a bit. Are there any songs from the record that have become your favorites to perform?
Yeah, “Protection” goes over real well live. Of course, when you’re recording, there’s all these different musicians and then when we tour there are only four of us. So, we usually pick songs that we can strip down and they still sound good. “East Side Of Town” has really been making an impression. Which is kind of surprising, because I just saw it as a cool little song but not one that people would make a big deal of. In fact, “East Side Of Town” got nominated for an Americana Music Award. And we’ve been working up some older songs that I hadn’t played in a long time that are going over real well, like “Hot Blood” off the Sweet Old World album.
You have so much material at this point, it must be challenging to make up a set list.
I know. Tom has now taken on the official task of making up the set list every night. He puts a list together, then he shows it to me, and I’ll make a couple of a changes here and there. And there are some songs that stay in the set night after night—toward the end of the show, we build it up with “Joy” and “Get Right With God.” We’ll always come back for an encore or two. We usually play over two hours.
The song “Compassion” is a very moving, beautiful song. It’s the first time you turned one of your father’s poems into a song, is that correct?
Yes. And that’s another one too that just draws people in every time I do it. I perform it by myself, and you can hear a pin drop. It’s the first poem that I’ve turned into a song, and it’s something I’d been wanting to do for years and years. [I tried it with] another poem of his called “Why God Permits Evil,” but it’s a lot longer and more involved and I wasn’t successful in doing it.
We already knew we wanted to call the album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. We had all the other tracks done and everything was ready to go. And Tom said, “Is there any way you can take that poem and see if you can make it work into a song?” With that kind of added pressure, I tend to work well. I worked on it for two or three days, and I came up with that. It was such a short, concise poem that it was easier to do. Now, I’ve kind of figured out a pattern, and I’ve actually done another song with a poem called “Dust,” which we just recorded, and it came out great. It has Bill Frisell on it.
Is that song earmarked for your next album?
Did your dad ever try to incorporate your songs into his poetry?
No. He used to send me lyrics to turn into a song—he would write what he thought would be a good song, with verses and everything. And I used to show him stuff that I thought would be a good poem, and one time he said, “Honey, I think that one should be a song.” But he used to stay to his poetry and I stayed to my songwriting. But he got to hear “Compassion.”
What did your father think of it?
He was really pleased. He died on January 1, and had Alzheimer’s. The last time we were together was in August of last year, and I played some songs when we were over the house. I’d given a concert in town that weekend, but he couldn’t go, so I did a little house concert for him. He sat and read the poem first and then I sang “Compassion.”
I’m sure it was a very emotional moment.
Well, it’s a great piece of work.
Thank you. The other thing for me was where to put it on the album. We took a lot of risks this time around, doing the double album and making that soft song the very first one. Most people probably would have put it at the very end.
Do you tend to write songs while on the road?
Sometimes I’ll get ideas; I might not always sit and write. There have been times when we’ve been traveling and had some days off in a hotel room and I’ve written a handful of songs in those situations. I think I’m more relaxed in a hotel room sometimes than at home, where I’m thinking about the plumbing problems we’re having in the house or whatever. (Laughs) That’s why it can be hard when you come home, because there are all these other real-life things you have to deal with. But I’m always jotting things down—in bars a lot of times, on cocktail napkins. I have tons of stuff on cocktail napkins.
So, we might see those cocktail napkins in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame someday, with your handwritten lyrics?
I know that you lived in New York City briefly in the late 1970s. Do you have fond memories of that time?
Well, yes and no. I stayed a little under a year there, as long as I could take it. I just didn’t have any money, you know. It’s New York City. I had this idea in my mind of what it was going to be like, hanging out in the Village and stuff. And if I wasn’t street-wise already, I got there pretty fast. I’m glad I did it, but I ended up going back to Houston.
I really got there kind of a little too late. It was the post-folk thing from the ’60s, and it was the post-punk thing, and it was kind of a weird time. I did mingle around with different songwriters at Gerde’s Folk City. But I was just starting out. I got to know Mike Porco, the owner of Folk City, and he was real sweet. And he let me come in and open up for a couple of people. They had these hootenanny nights and stuff like that.
You had a pretty cool meeting with Bob Dylan at Folk City, didn’t you?
Yeah, I met him briefly at Folk City during that time. I was opening up for Tom Pacheco. Dylan had come in with this tall, beautiful black woman, who I think was one of his backup singers, and I guess his girlfriend at the time. He would drop in from time to time, because he knew Mike Porco from the early days and also knew Tom Pacheco. So he was in there sitting at the bar and Mike Porco introduced us. And Bob Dylan said to me, “Stick around, we’re going to go out on the road soon,” like he was collecting names. That was pretty riveting for me, being in my 20s, and he was my hero. I was completely mesmerized. But I hardly had any songs of my own at the time, I didn’t have anything to show.
You had the unusual career progression of first rising to prominence in your mid-30s. Do you think that helped you in any way, because you were more mature and prepared to deal with exposure and success? When it comes at a really young age, some people can’t handle it.
I guess. It’s hard for me to say, because I don’t know what it’s like the other way. But it might have something to do with my longevity or something. I’m kind of an anomaly. Because here I am at the age of 62, and probably more prolific than I ever have been. Especially for female artists, that doesn’t happen all the time. I probably attribute it to the fact that I was a late bloomer. By the time I started actively making albums and touring and stuff, I was in my mid- to late-30s already.
I don’t think of myself as too old to be doing this. I haven’t been doing this as long as some other artists have, because I started so late. I was playing music since 1972, but I mean as far as getting recognized and being a professional at it.
You mentioned that you’re more prolific now than you ever were, but is there anything you haven’t accomplished in your career that you’d still like to achieve?
I feel like I’m really on a roll, and I feel like my voice is as good as it’s ever been. I want to take advantage of this time that I’m in right now. Maybe do a blues album. And now we have the freedom to do what we want, because we have our own label, under the umbrella of Thirty Tigers. When I was on Lost Highway, for instance, my manager at the time and I talked about doing a blues album, and they said we can do one, but it won’t count as an album in my contract. And I wanted West to be a double album at the time—I had that many songs. I wanted to put it out as a double album and they said, “Nope, don’t wanna do that.” But now we can do those things, like put a double album out or a blues album or whatever.
To what do you contribute your recent prolific output?
It’s a combination of things. I think it’s just maturity and getting more confident. And it doesn’t hurt to have Tom gently nudging me, “God damn it, you’re supposed to be writing!” (Laughs) So it’s a combination of things. Getting married and all that really forced me to find different subject matter to write about, and just kind of opened some doors for me in that regard. I was always known as the queen of the heartbreak songs. Whatever age I’m going through, my songs are going to reflect that. I’ve suffered a lot of loss—my mother, my father.
How difficult is it to go to some very personal and sometimes dark places for that type of inspiration when you’re writing? You’re sharing those emotions with so many listeners. Is that hard?
Not really. I do it for myself first, and I find it very therapeutic and cathartic. That’s why I write in the first place. That’s what art is, self-expression. I kind of like to get heavy with it. I thrive off it. It’s so cathartic. I don’t know why some other people don’t want to do it, but I have to. That’s really how I stay sane.
Lucinda Williams appears at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, NJ on June 17; at the Music Pier in Ocean City, NJ on June 22; and at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY on June 25. For more details, go to lucindawilliams.com.