Interview I Lucinda Williams
Text: Iain Patience
Photo credits: Danny Clinch
Lucinda Williams may be in self-imposed lockdown but her spirit remains wild, free, raucous and rebellious. Thankfully, most would say. Catching up with Williams at home on the eve of the release of her 14th studio album, ‘Good Souls, Better Angels’, she throatily laughs and is clearly having a ball, despite the self-imposed confinement that Covid-19 has brought to the global musical fraternity.
After around forty years in the business, Williams is little short of being a true US national treasure, a musician who unceasingly holds the power to surprise, inspire and delight with each passing year. Indeed, in recent years her albums have truly grown in importance and strength, never slowing or slipping quietly form attention. With each new release, she seems to carve out yet another unexpected slice of extraordinary emotion and power. Both previous releases, ‘Down Where The Spirit meets The Bone’ (2014) and ‘Ghosts of Highway 20,’ (2016) were delivered on her own label and set the tone for her continued visceral view of life, love and pretty much everything in between. “Good Souls, Better Angels’ is another offering that continues that trajectory with absolute assurance and raw emotion at its howling heart but is released by Nashville’s leading Thirty Tigers label.
In some ways Williams blurs musical edges with every new offering – post-punk blues and Americana merge with disturbing imagery and fearless honesty giving her work a truly unique vibe and essential commanding significance. With three Grammys already in the bag and accolades that most would virtually kill for, Williams is never one to sit back on her lauded laurels but instead pushes on always working the road – and with her strident lyricism now complimented by her husband and manager, Tom Overby’s input and production help. Her trusted road-band, guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton, all add their assured flourishes to the new album which Williams describes as being: “Really pretty stripped-down. Ray’s studio has cool, old equipment and we’d been working on the road touring the 20th anniversary of ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,’ which Ray originally produced back in 1998, so when we got into the studio again it all came together in about two weeks. It felt like we were all on fire.”
So, I ask, is this lockdown hurting, preventing promotion of the new album and the usual necessary support tour-work? Williams thinks not: “Well in reality I’m here at home doing interviews, speaking to lots of journalists about it all, so maybe that’s even better! I’m doing a lot of press and that’s filling up time. I’m taking it one day at a time. I have downtime. Last year I was out on the road so much, so this does give me that downtime.”
And maybe, after it’s all over, after who knows how many months indoors with your husband and manager, and you’re free to hit the road again, divorce might be on the cards, I quip. Williams howls with laughter: “You’re a real funny guy,” she says.
Of course one of the wonderful things about Williams is the sheer impossibility, not to say pointlessness, of trying to categorise her music, or slip her into a musical box. Genres simply and genuinely dissolve when Williams, with her genre-stripping vocal delivery, roars round the next musical corner: Americana, country, rock and blues – all have their place, all tell a story, and all are included in her unbridled passion and power. This is a lady with stories to tell and a voice that soars above such pointless exercises. When I suggest this latest release marks something of a departure from her usual fare, Williams laughs and heartily agrees: “Yea, well I’m really happy with how it turned out. I went into the studio with much more than we recorded here. So I’ve some songs that are ready and will make it to the next album. They’re not all like these,” she explains, hinting at the darker nature of some featured on ‘Good Souls, Better Angels,’ songs that don’t just scrape at the surface of difficult themes but deeply slice into and expose them mercilessly.
The current incumbent of Pennsylvania Avenue takes a hammering; and Williams own, alarming personal domestic violence experiences are reflected in the lyrics too. When I express my horror at the domestic violence issues featured, Williams is frank and forthright: “It was me once. I found myself in that place, in one of those relationships. He’d drink whisky and become a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. There’d be this change in his personality, really terrible. It was as if he didn’t know who I was! I’ve written about him before, my songs ‘Jailhouse Jesus’ and Buttercup’ are both about that time, about him too. I was kinda nervous about including the song on the new album at first. We were in the studio cutting it and a real big, famous rock-star was there listening. He said he didn’t think I should include it. Maybe better to put it out as a ‘B’ side to a single, but not as an album track. I had a doubt in my own mind. But the others there were really supportive, so I put it on the album.”
Turning back to the album and its different feel from much of her previous output, Williams agrees: “We went into the studio with my road band. Usually I bring in others, musicians and singers, and I sort of harmonise along with them. But we ll talked about it, and didn’t do that this time. I think it really adds something to it all. I had a listening party in New York City and Jesse Malin told me the album had a sound, it was a cross between Howling Wolf and Iggy Pop. I loved that. It was exactly what I wanted, what I was aiming at,” she laughs again.
The entire production was ‘organic’ she confirms, never strictly or purposely planned: “I had an organic perspective for this one. I was in the studio again with Ray Kennedy – we worked together on ‘Car Wheels’ (on a Gravel Road). So I feel I’ve come full circle here with this one. Ray has this Nashville studio. I was asked to go along, check it out. And it was just right to cut something there. Although, originally, it was never the plan to record another whole album with Ray at the time. But when I got there into the studio, it was obvious right away. And with Ray engineering again, it just had that sound. He just knows what I’m looking for.”
Williams is pleased when I mention the raw, blues feel and vibe that is evident with the new release, and she confirms a love for that rough-edged, raw Delta sound, an admiration for blues legend, Robert Johnson, that has bubbled its way to the surface here: “I’ve always loved the imagery in Robert Johnson’s songs. Those really dark Delta blues are sort of biblical. I was inspired by Leonard Cohen – he dealt with that in his songs – and Bob Dylan and Nick Cave. The Devil comes into play quite a bit on this album,” she quips.
Parting company, I tell Williams we once met briefly at Scotland’s wonderful Celtic Connections Festival a few years ago. She appears to ponder the thought before chuckling and saying that she remembers the gig, had a great time back then in Glasgow, and she hopes our paths will cross again sometime soon: “I hope we meet up again, come and say hello, wherever, or maybe whenever, that might turn out to be!”
Website: Lucinda Williams