On her latest album, Good Souls Better Angels, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter taps into the darkness and light of life during uncertain times. (Interview + Album Stream)
This spring has been anything but dull for Lucinda Williams. In March, she and her husband Tom Overby had just moved into a new house in Nashville when a tornado came through, taking part of the front porch off and damaging the roof. The house is still—all things considered—in good shape, but as Williams puts it, “It’s been weird. I mean, we just moved into the house when the tornado hit, and now with this pandemic, it’s like… wow. It’s almost biblical.”
On her new LP, Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20 Records), the gritty singer-songwriter sounds as vibrant as she’s ever been, tapping into her influences like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in a way she has never done before throughout her illustrious 40-year career as a recording artist. Filled with societal scrutiny and ringing with protest, Good Souls Better Angels is perhaps Williams’ best work since her 1998 breakthrough album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.
Recently, AQ had the good fortune to chat with Williams at length about the new LP, as well her contribution to the Lost Girls soundtrack and how her writing has evolved over time.
This record feels a bit different for you in the sense that there is a lot of external observation as opposed to personal introspection.
Well, you know, I’ve been trying to do that more over the years, not even just for this album. At a certain point, to back up a little bit, when Tom and I made a commitment to each other and I realized, ‘Okay, I’ve found my soulmate and I’m going to be with this person the rest of my life,’ what came along with that, of course, was the realization that I can’t keep writing unrequited love songs for the rest of my life. I got to spread out a little bit and tackle some other subjects. The thing is, it wasn’t like I just woke up and said that—even from a young age, I always wanted to be able to write really good topical songs, but real good ones, the way Bob Dylan did with “Masters of War” and “God on Our Side,” all those great songs that he wrote like that. But I found it’s very challenging for me as a songwriter to write those kinds of songs. I think they’re harder to write—or they used to be for me, anyway. Whereas a love song, those are easy. It was kind of like that, as far as process, and it kinda grew…. Around the time Tom and I got engaged, believe it or not, I was doing interviews just like this and the person would ask me, ‘Well, are you worried that you might not be able to write anymore now that you’re engaged… now that you found the person that want to be with for the rest of your life?’ And I was just stunned, like ‘What? Am I just going to roll over and let my artistic self die?’ I mean, I guess that happens with some people, but then I’d have to get into this whole philosophical thing about, ‘Okay, let me explain what happiness is,’ and it would just go on and on. And finally, when I was writing the songs for the Blessed album (2011), that was when I wrote that song, “Blessed,” which is very universal. And other songs started coming out, like “Soldier Song.” That kind of thing began. I’ve always done that a little bit, but it was almost like a challenge because I was confronted with that thing of, ‘Oh, you know, you’re not a lonely artist now. You’re with somebody, so now you can’t write anymore.’ I’m an artist, first and foremost, that’s not going to stop. Then these new songs came about as a release and an expression of what a lot of us are feeling right now: pissed off, angry, and frustrated.
I go back to the Bob Dylan songs, the protest songs as we used to call them, and I was feeling a little bit of that feeling again, like I felt when we were in Vietnam and we’re having all these other, you know, big issues and changes happening. I started feeling that with other people a little bit. More artists were starting to try to write songs about that kind of thing again. It seemed like for years and years you just weren’t hearing those kinds of songs anymore. It wasn’t cool. Then all of a sudden it was cool again to write protest songs. That, combined with all the stuff is going on, I mean… it provided a spot for that again.
Do you think you would have been questioned about your ability to write songs now that you’re married if you were a man?
Oh, wow! Well, I’m not sure… probably not. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t either read about or known about people who did get married—men, artists, male artists—who got married, had kids, and their better work were behind them, so to speak. You’ve seen artists who you loved with their first few albums and then you ask yourself, ‘What happened?’ I don’t know…. I don’t think that’s a male/female thing. But, here’s the thing, it depends. I mean, if a man is married to a woman and they have kids, it’s going to affect both of them, you know? So you know, we could just talk about this subject—
Yeah, it’s an interesting one, and the other thing people ask me: ‘How can you still be doing what you’re doing? What drives you?’ You know, because of the age I am now, people just can’t get over it, you know? ‘Wow, the fact that you’re still doing this and all that,’ comes up a lot now, you know? I don’t know if it is because I didn’t have kids or what, but you know, there’s always been that myth of like, ‘Well that artist, whoever it is, is really good, but then he/she got successful, got a big house, made money, had kids, started a family.’ People want to figure it out. I don’t know what makes artists quit or stop or not be as good. I don’t know what that is. It’s the age old question.
Speaking of different artists, I read that you tapped into a Nick Cave-Leonard Cohen frame of mind when tackling the thematic darkness of Good Souls Better Angels, and you also spoke about Bob Dylan before. So if you can break it down a little bit, in what ways did those artists inform what you wanted to say yourself on this particular album?
Well, I would say more Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, because the truth is that Nick Cave wasn’t brought up until this album came out and people started hearing the album. And it’s interesting because he wasn’t one of my influences that I listen to all the time. But, now that I hear it, it’s almost like we were connected by something, because people are now mentioning him in the same conversations as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which makes complete sense. You know, I have to tell you the honest truth: I just wasn’t really aware or completely in tune with all of his writing. I knew about him, I heard some of this stuff, but he wasn’t somebody I listened to all the time. But, now with the stuff that I’ve just written, it just completely makes sense. People have brought him up before, but the thing is that they explore the biblical thing that we were talking about before. Some of the songs that come to mind are “Highway 61 Revisited”—”God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘Man, you must be putting me on.” Taking those biblical images and applying them—because the Bible is full of really interesting stories and it’s well written—it’s poetic. My dad was a poet and his father was a minister, so that was in the blood, that was in there. My father wrote about it as poetry. He has a great poem called “Why Does God Permit Evil?” You see it a lot in Southern writers and it’s just always fascinated me.
In addition to the new album, you wrote and recorded a track called “Lost Girls” for the Netflix film of the same name. Were you aware of [murder victim] Shannon Gilbert’s story prior to being approached about writing the song for the film?
Well, they sent me the film, and I had remembered something about the Long Island Serial Killer. I was aware of the story, but I didn’t know the whole story until I saw it closer up. You know, I’m a fan of true crime, so that was right in my wheelhouse when they approached me with that.
I grew up a half a mile away from where the bodies were found.
Oh my God.
Yeah. I grew up on the beaches of the south shore of Long Island, so I’ve read the book (Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery) and I’ve seen the film. In listening to the track, it feels like you really empathize with Mari (Gilbert, Shannon’s mother). Would you say that’s true?
Yes, absolutely. I felt like she was seen as part of the disenfranchised and not being paid attention to. I mean, I think it’s a classic story of girls who were killed who were sort of from the… I don’t know how you put it, but you know—the underbelly of society, or however you would describe that.
The forgotten, exactly. You know, it reminds you a little bit of my song “Born To Be Loved,” you know, that really fits with that. Also, my song, “Blessed,” where it mentions that: the forgotten and forlorn.
Good Souls Better Angels is rich with heated emotion, and observations of what’s going on in this crazy world, but the album is tied together with themes of hope and perseverance. What do you hope listeners take away from this album once they consider that balance of darkness and light?
Well, at the risk of sounding overly romantic, I think at the end of the day, I’m an optimistic person. You know, I get frustrated and angry just like anybody else and I have to get it out of my system, but I still feel like something bigger, something greater and vigorous is going to come from all this. I think a good sort of metaphor for that is if you would sit here in Nashville watching how people pulled together to help people help each other after the tornado, you know? I mean, strangers were just coming up on the street with their big flatbed pickup trucks and were picking up debris and everything. Nobody asked them to, but you know, there’s so much happening at the same time, that’s the thing. We have this viral pandemic. We have this completely incapable guy in the White House and we have got to clean this mess up. We’ve got to get Trump out of the White House. It’s just like cleaning up the aftermath of the tornado and finding shelter from the storm. I was talking about this very thing the other night, and I said, ‘I think it’s kind of a song from the Earth almost in a way. Like, ‘Okay, you’ve been fucking up the Earth too long and everybody’s going to stop right now.” Because you see little shining rays of hope, like people were talking about less pollution from having to do all this with the virus and everything. And Trump is looking worse and worse. So that’s a good thing, you know? [laughs]