WHATEVER IT TAKES Lucinda Williams

How the beloved
songwriter learned to stop worrying and enjoy the fruits of her labor.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Over the last three decades, Lucinda Williams’ reputation
slowly grew to the point that she’s now routinely cited as one of the best
songwriters of her generation. Yet during that time, the building blocks of her
songs have remained essentially the same: love, loss and longing. While her
music has run the gamut from rock to country to folk to blues, the emotional
tenor of her lyrics has almost always centered on anger, heartbreak or sadness.
It seemed that the one emotion Williams’ expressive, whiskey-soaked voice
couldn’t tap into was joy.

 

So it might surprise fans to learn that Lucinda Williams is
officially happy.

 

“When I made my last album, West, my mother had just passed away and I was coming out of an
abusive relationship with a drug addict who had to go back into rehab,”
Williams explains. “Then I met my fiancée and everything just changed for the
better. I’m kind of a late bloomer, but everything in my life right now is the
best it’s ever been.”

 

While anyone who has followed her career can’t help but be
happy for her, fans may also worry that the Lucinda Williams they’ve come to
know and love may be a thing of the past. Certainly, her latest album Little Honey is the loosest album
Williams has ever made, but it’s still as gritty and soulful as ever. While it
lacks some of the unity of 1988’s Lucinda
Williams
or 1998’s Car Wheels on a
Gravel Road
, both of which were near-perfect, it’s a breath of fresh air from
the relentlessly downbeat West. There’s
a freewheeling duet with Elvis Costello (“Jailhouse Tears”), an ecstatically
upbeat roadhouse rocker (“Honey Bee”) and even an AC/DC cover (“It’s a Long Way
to the Top”). Perhaps the biggest surprise is how well it all works. After all,
any music fan came name dozens of classic songs that are sad or angry. There
hasn’t been a great happy rock song since “She Loves You,” something that
Williams tacitly agrees with when she observes that upbeat tunes are “really
hard to write without moving into the mushy sugar-coated place you don’t want
to go. You have to keep a tiny bit of sarcasm in there. The best songs that do
that are classics from people like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole.
It harder to do in this genre because rock ‘n’ roll is all about angst and
leather and studs.”

 

Still, Williams had no choice but to try. Where most
singer-songwriters say fans shouldn’t read too much about their own lives into
their songs, Williams admits that she’s only really good at writing about one
subject – herself.

 

“Bob Dylan is great about writing about people he doesn’t
know personally,” she says. “He can take a story out of the newspaper and write
about it, like ‘Hurricane.’ For me, it has to be something I can reach out and
touch. There has to be a personal connection between me and the person in the
song. Not necessarily a personal friend, but at least someone going through
something I’ve experienced myself.”

 

As college students are learning every day in this age of
Twitter and Facebook, there are downsides to making your life an open book. For
Williams, it means that she’s required to dredge up pain from her past every
time she steps on stage. To some extent she looks at it philosophically –
that’s simply the lot of a working musician. But she also sees some emotional
benefit to it, explaining, “It’s like going back and looking at pages from a
diary. We can choose to forgive, but we’re not going to forget. You still have
those feelings in you. Letting them out can prove to be very therapeutic. You
also sing those songs to help other people who might be going through the same
stuff.”

 

 Williams’ personal
life isn’t the only thing that has changed over the last few years. She has
also become a much more prolific writer. Where she had once been known for
taking four or more years between albums (“I used to marvel at how I’d meet
other songwriters and they’d have 2,000 songs they’d written. I’d have just
enough songs to make the one album I was working on.”), her last four records
have come at a steady clip. She attributes the change to developing more confidence
in herself and her music, and that newfound confidence allowed her to go
through her old notebooks searching for lost gems. Two of them wound up on Little Honey: “Circles and X’s,” and “If
Wishes Were Horses,” both of which were written in the mid-‘80s. The
inspiration for her journey through the past struck when she heard Laura
Cantrell’s version of her song “Letters,” which Williams wrote around 1975 and recorded
on a demo but never officially released.

 

Explains Williams, “She got a copy from a mutual friend and did
a beautiful, really sweet version of it that made me think ‘Wow, she brought
this early song back to life, maybe I should go back and review some of my old
stuff.’ I’ve got all these tapes of old little songs, but I never thought they
were good enough to do anything with. I wrote the hook for ‘Circles and X’s’ in
1984 or ‘85 but never finished it. I guess it wasn’t ready to be born yet.”

 

Williams adds that part of the reason she was able to give
birth to it now is that she’s no longer as hard on herself as she once was. It’s
a strange comment from someone who has long been known in the music industry as
a demanding perfectionist.

 

 “I’ve always had this
voice in the back of my head that says ‘I know this is good’ but then it never
fails that when I’m making a record, I start to question this and that,” she
says. “That’s what the song ‘Fruits of My Labor’ [from 2003’s World Without Tears] is about. When am I
gonna enjoy the fruits of my labor and stop worrying?

 

“But that’s just me. It’s not something that’s ever going to
go away, but I’m working on it. We all have our stuff we have to battle and if
that’s what it takes for me to write these songs, then so be it. Whatever it
takes.”

 

[Photo Credit: Danny Clinch]

 

For a review of the
opening show of Williams’
Little Honey tour
go HERE.

 

 

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