Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Conversation With The Legendary and Prolific Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams is one of the most prolific and brilliant songwriters you are ever likely to listen to. Her Grammy-winning Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is legendary and is often regarded as a modern classic. But Ms. Williams has been consistently writing and producing a collection of impressive classics ever since. 

Her excellent new album, Blessed, will be released on March 1st, and will also be available as a limited edition 2-CD deluxe set. The 2-CD edition pairs the studio album with The Kitchen Tapes, which is comprised of her original demo versions of each of the songs from Blessed.

Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to speak directly with Ms. Williams. It was such an honor to speak with an artist that I admire, respect, and hold in the highest regard creatively. And until last week, I never thought I would ever have a conversation directly with her in a million years. 

Well, just to let you know, Ms. Williams was just as friendly and warm as I had imagined her to be, and it is truly my pleasure to share our conversation.

As a longtime fan of your work, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time for this interview. I also wanted congratulate you on your new album- Blessed.

Lucinda Williams: You're Welcome Chris. Thank you very much.

Well, I'd like to start with your transition from Little Honey to Blessed. Can you describe your experience from the last album album this one?

LW: Well, I took a year off the road for one thing, because I've been touring pretty much non-stop for five years prior to last year. And that really gave me some time to hang back and to write. I was also able to stay at home and take my time. 

People may not know this, but pretty much all of the songs on Little Honey were done when I went in to do the West album. Originally, when I put West out, I really wanted to put it out as a double CD.  I had all of these songs that I written at the same time, but the label didn't want to put it out like that.  I don't know, maybe it was for marketing reasons or something...

So that was a little frustrating for me because when I put out Little Honey, some of the songs were newer, but a lot of them were not. I really wanted to get them out and over with and kind of get beyond them so I could move forward. For example, a lot of people think that "Real Love" was written for my husband Tom, which is completely not true. I actually had written it before I even met Tom.

When I saw you perform in New York on your last tour supporting Little Honey, you spoke a little about how you recently got married. You even pulled your husband Tom out on stage at one point.  I always thought that "Real Love" was directly about that.

LW: Well, that's what everybody thought. Everybody assumes that and, you know, most of the songs were from the West period. For me, usually I get ideas for songs and write about whatever I'm going through at the time. Then I just go ahead and record them, put them out there, and move on.

So it was kind of frustrating having to split up Little Honey and West, because Little Honey was almost like "West Volume 2"  to me. With the exception of "Honey Bee", which I wrote for Tom, and "Tears of Joy". Those were newer ones, along with "Little Rock Star" and "Plan to Marry". But the rest of them were all from a couple of years before that.

I have to explain that because people say "Oh, well this is your happy album" and I always have to say "No, no, this song or that song is not really about Tom".

That's interesting to hear, because I've always thought that West and Little Honey sounded so different from each other, and I have always assumed that they were written at different times. 

When I listen to Blessed, it sounds to me like it draws from aspects of your writing reminiscent of Little Honey, West, Essence, and Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.

LW: I guess the thing for me, is that I finally got to get all of these songs that I had out, and it allowed me to finally move on.

The songs on Blessed are all current, new, and up to date songs. And I even have a handful that didn't make it onto the album, for one reason or another. I even have a lot of extra songs now, so I have been really prolific. And ever since I sat down to write songs for the West album, I ended up with a whole lot of extra ones, and the same thing happened this time.

When you began writing songs for Blessed, how did the album take shape?

LW: Well, I already had a variety of songs that I had started and was trying to finish. But you know, I'm always writing and everything is a work in progress until it's finished. 

Sometimes it's a brand new idea, or a brand new song, and other times it's an idea that I came up with several years ago and only have a few lines. All of my songs get finished at different times. Some of them were started a few years ago, and some of them are still not ready to get finished.

Like "Soldier's Song". I came up with the idea for it, but was not sure how to do it. When I write, I save everything in a folder and I never throw anything away. Maybe it's just a few lines, some verses, or just a melody. So when I sit down to write, I look at it all to see if something sparks. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. And if it does, I'll open it back up and start chipping away at it. There's also times while I'm doing that, and end up with a brand new idea. It just depends. Some I write really quickly and others take more time.

The main thing is that I am coming up with ideas and getting inspired, and that can happen anytime.

As for the idea, or a "theme" for the album, it's not at all a pre-conceived thing. I don't sit down and say "I'm going to write this kind of album" or anything like that.

So, it's really about what comes out?

LW: Yeah. What comes out, and then we record it and even record a couple extra songs. In my case that's what happened. I don't really know until everything is all recorded, and listen to it, then I decide what's going to be on the album. Sometimes there are just ones that don't quite sound just right. And who knows, maybe they'll make it onto the next album. Something like that. 

Lyrically, a lot of your work is autobiographical and/ or character-driven. I'm curious: whether you're assuming a character and jumping into their shoes, or when you're working on something completely autobiographical, how much of yourself do you allow to put in there? Is there anything that's off limits?

LW: No, no- I'm pretty much completely in there. Even when I'm writing about somebody else, I'm in there. I have to be. I have to know what it's like or I don't think I can write about it.

Of course, when I wrote "Soldier's Song", I don't know what it's like to be over there, you know. God, I can't even imagine... I mean, I try to imagine what it might be like, but for me, I try to imagine what it's like to be the wife of the guy over there, or the girlfriend. You know, missing that other person.

I got the idea for that song and the whole concept from two people at opposite sides of the world. He's thinking about her and thinking of what she might be doing at any given moment of the day. Kind of like that.

Well, I got the idea for that song partly from that song "By The Time I Get To Phoenix ". I kept thinking of the line "By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising".

Those kinds of songs I haven't done too much before, so on this album, I could feel myself branching out a little more outside of myself than before. Bob Dylan was always real good at that. Like that song he wrote called "Hurricane" about the boxer. He could just take an article out of the newspaper and write a song about it, and go completely outside of himself. Where as my songs are from me more directly, like about a break-up or something that I have actually experienced. So, reaching out has been kind of a great exercise in a different kind of writing for me in a lot of ways. 

Since we're talking about your writing process, what made you decide to pair Blessed with The Kitchen Tapes as a deluxe 2-CD edition? Why was it important to share the demo versions?

LW: Because they were so great. Everybody really liked them when I would play them for our friends. Also, because the way I write, I usually write and then record songs on a little tape recorder. 

But this time, I had this really amazing piece of equipment called a Samson ZOOM Q3. We even mentioned it on the album. I'm hoping to get an endorsement (laughs). But this thing is just the most amazing thing. I don't know how it works technically, but it's amazing to me that now we have these little things that have the adaptability to record things.

I was able to record things and even shoot videos. So Tom got me one of those, and I just put the songs down right as I was writing them, while trying to get as good of a version as I could with it. As I worked this way, I got pretty much a song a day down on it, for a couple of months.

So I'd be down in the kitchen and my husband Tom was in his office, and when I'd record one and walk it over to him, he'd say "Another one?". And I'd say "Yeah, I think so". But then he would burn it onto a CD and then we would listen to it through the speakers and we would both be like "Wow, this sounds really good". 

It was like one of those things where how they have all of this equipment now that you can pretty much make an album in your living room. That's kind of what this whole thing was like.

So we ended up with a batch of songs, recorded on this little thing, and we started inviting the guys in the band to come over and listen and everybody got really excited. And it was the first time when I was ever able to get the immediate gratification of things when I would write a song. Before this, I would just be recording on a  funky little tape recorder thing, but nothing I could ever really put out. These sounded so good that everybody started referring to them as "The Kitchen Tapes" so we decided why not call it that and put it out.

It reminds me of when I recorded a batch of acoustic versions of all of the songs for Essence with Bo Ramsey. The two of us went in and just put all of the songs down that would become Essence. It's funny because the people at Lost Highway were like "Wow, we should put these out like they are because they sound so good".

What was behind the idea of releasing Blessed with different covers?

LW: Well, that was really Tom's idea (laughing).

That's funny. It sounds more and more like the new album is more like a collaboration between you and Tom. How collaborative was the process of making the record?

LW: Well, the recording was definitely a collaboration between Tom, Don Was, Eric Leljestrand, and myself. Tom, Eric, and I did Little Honey together, and we were going to do the next one, but then we met Don Was about a year ago and we just really hit it off. 

So Tom and I were talking one day and we were figuring out where to record and all of that, and Tom said that he was a big fan of all of Don's production work, and he asked what would I think if Don came in and co-produced the album. And I said sure, I'm open to that. And when we got together and talked about it first. 

One of the things he said was that no matter what we do in the studio, that he would want my voice to be up front and to be the main focal point. He said he would want to hear all the words in the songs. And I said, "Well, he said all of the right things" (laughs). And then we went in, and we all worked together. 

I mean, I always work this way. It really always is a real collaboration in the studio. I want to hear everyone's ideas and talk about it- including Butch my drummer, or Eric the bass player. It's all very organic and I've always had that approach.

It's always wonderful to hear when an artist goes into the studio, and that everything is truly collaborative. It's just great to know that there's no finger pointing or ordering directions.

LW: I've worked that way before with certain people and I was miserable. And finally when I collaborated with Bo Ramsey on the Essence album, he said "You know Lu, making a record should be fun". It doesn't have to be a horrible or scary experience. And I said "Really?". And he said "Yeah, you just got to approach the right people". 

To me, it's like anything that you can do, should feel secure and trust people. I want to be able to try things out. 

Listening to you describe your willingness to collaborate and try new things reminds me of your duet with Elvis Costello on the song "Jailhouse Tears" from Little Honey. I have to admit, I was surprised to hear that he would be guesting as a guitar player on Blessed, and not also as a vocalist. What's the story there?

LW: Well, Elvis just happened to be in town. And we were so happy to have manged to get him in there. But it worked out, just barely though. He was just finishing up his album in LA with T Bone Burnett, and Tom suggested getting Elvis Costello in here to play some guitar on these songs. And I was surprised because I didn't think of Elvis as playing guitar like that.

And I'll tell you, he blew me away. I mean, I've never heard him play like that before. And we all love his guitar on the album. Elvis added such a "Keith Richards kind-of-thing" and it's something only a British guitar guy can do (laughs). And I don't even know exactly what that is you know (laughing)? 

For me, that was kind of like the crowning glory of the record when he came in and added that. Because we didn't want too much stuff in there, or to be added on. So we had Elvis come and do some guitar, and Matthew Sweet did some harmony stuff too, and these were really the only things that we added on. Pretty much everything else was all recorded live at the same time.

It's interesting to me to hear you describe your collaborations and your writing process, like listening to you describe Little Honey as being written during the West period. One thing I wanted to discuss with you is that I feel like every record you put out, there's always someone comparing it to Car Wheels.

LW: I'll never live that down (laughs). I was looking at a blog review recently, and the guy was talking about differences between the new album, and he said "I've liked a lot of her songs, but this is the first album where I liked the whole thing all of the way through since Car Wheels". And I was like, "OK, whatever". And then I read the line "If you're looking for the follow-up to Car Wheels, this is it".  I just don't get that at all.

I was just curious what you thought of those comparisons, and if that matters to you at all. I know for me, when I think about your records, there are definitely parts of each one that are so different, and when I read that same blog post you are describing, it made me wonder how much he has been really listening to your records since Car Wheels.

LW: (Laughing).

And in my opinion, it's not like everything has been a complete departure since then and that you're leaving aspects of Car Wheels completely behind, or that you have never done anything else like that since. It all seems linear to me, and that you're moving forward.

LW: Yeah (laughing) it's called "growing". I mean, of course I'm going to be different now than when I was when I was at that stage. My perception is different and I'm older now. I've had different experiences. And my songs are going to reflect that. My songs are a reflection of where I am at a certain time of my life. So, but as a general rule, I don't read the blogs and stuff. When I do, it's because I came across it by accident.

Knowing that we were going to be speaking soon, I just felt like I had to ask you about what, if at all, these kinds of comparisons mean to you. 

LW: Yeah. I see it as when people compare everything that the Rolling Stones have ever done to Satanic Majesties Request (laughing).

And that's the thing. I remember when Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind came out. I loved it. And then I read a newspaper in Tennessee, which totally smashed it and said that it didn't have very good lyrics for Bob Dylan, whatever that even means.

I've always thought of someone like Neil Young who can go and do a rockabilly album, then work with Crazy Horse, and then record an acoustic album that blows people away. I've always thought that that is what it is all about.

LW: You're absolutely right. That's what makes great records.

Well, thanks again for being so generous with your time Ms. Williams. I really appreciate it, and I'm looking forward to seeing you soon when you come to New York.

LW: I'm looking forward to that too. Thanks.

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