“Everybody always asks me what the theme is,” Lucinda Williams says, her drowsy Southern drawl punctuating her frustration at having this question put to her for what must be the umpteenth time. “I just go in and write the songs. And, I guess, whatever I’ve been dealing with at that time, that’s what’s going to come out.”
While she’s at it the three-time GRAMMY® winner and wife — in 2009 Williams married Tom Overby, her longtime manager — also squashes the seemingly popular notion that she must be in a miserable state in order to write a decent song. “I mean, it’s a good idea to have experienced different things in life,” she maintains, suggesting that she’s contended with enough pain and sadness should she need to glean such inspiration in the future. If there was ever any doubt, however, she’s surmounted it with her tenth and latest studio album, Blessed.
It’s her finest work in at least a decade and, what’s more, its songs are the product of a very happy woman.
Your songwriting, particularly the lyrics and their imagery, could be described as raw, unvarnished, even feral.
Wow, feral… I love that word. I never heard anybody describe it like that.
Is that just how you perceive things? Or, when you’re writing lyrics, do you have to scrape away at an idea before you get down to the core of what you’re singing about?
It’s probably just more what comes out.
Something like, “We don’t talk about Heaven / We don’t talk about Hell / We come to depend on each other so damn well”…
Well, that song, “Blue,” that song took a long time. I started that song years ago and finally finished it when I was writing the songs for Essence. That’s an older, older song that I had ideas for and just couldn’t seem to put it all together. So that song did take longer to write. Some of them are like that. And some of these [new] songs, like “Soldier’s Song,” I had the idea for quite a while back, a few years ago. The main thing for me is coming up with the idea for the song. Then I’ll sit down with it and work on it and everything. But I might just have a few lines. And some of them I’ll kind of chip away at here and there. It just depends on… I don’t know. They’re just not ready yet to be born.
Are you okay with a song taking years to write or does it ever drive you nuts?
Sometimes it drives me nuts. I mean, “Drunken Angel” was like that; and “Lake Charles.” That’s why I don’t throw anything away. I have a folder of scraps and pieces of paper with stuff, ideas for songs from the last 25 years; just little things, maybe early songs that I finished, but didn’t think they were good enough. But I keep everything until I’ve used the lines. I would worry if I wasn’t coming up with ideas, if I wasn’t inspired.
If all you had were the old lines…
Yeah, if I wasn’t coming up with new lines and new ideas… So I’m always thinking of stuff and writing it all down. I don’t sit down and apply myself every day, or even once a week. That just tends to happen in spurts, like when I’m getting ready to do an album. And I’ll get in that mode. Then I have to get everything out, just go through, see what comes up. And if it happens, it happens; and if it doesn’t then I just move on.
Is everything fair game for you to write about? Some songwriters are reluctant to give away too much of themselves in their songs.
I don’t understand that at all. I mean, if you start doing that then what’s… You’re going to limit yourself. First of all, most songwriters, all they do is write about themselves, as far as their personal relationships and unrequited love and this and that and the other. I would think it’d be the opposite challenge – to get outside of yourself…. Now that I’m at this point in my life where I’m with Tom it’s actually liberating for me to branch out and do that more. I always wanted to be able to do that more, but for me, though — and I think I can speak for most songwriters — those breakup love songs are so easy to write, as far as the inspiration and all that. One of the things my dad [poet Miller Williams] taught me about writing was, he said, never to censor yourself. And also he taught me about the economics of writing, learning how to edit.
Having grown up while living with your dad in an environment that encouraged writing, how did you come to acknowledge that you had something more than an interest in writing, but rather that you had a gift?
Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I really realized that, “Wow, I can do this,” until right before I did that album for Rough Trade Records [Lucinda Williams, 1988]. I’d been writing the songs that are on that album, and then people started recognizing; and I started getting some recognition when that album came out. That was really when — and I’d been doing it a long time before that, but — I finally went, “Wow.” I’d just been playing in bars and clubs and stuff; I hadn’t been involved in the music-business part of things. I’d just been writing songs.
Was there a transition to begin with? We’re you ever writing poetry and then switched…
I mean, when I was six-years old I was writing little poems and things. I started writing songs, I guess, when I was about 13 or 14, but I didn’t know if they were good enough yet or anything. And when I was out playing, in the ‘70s and all, I had a few of my own songs, but I was still doing a lot of other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s and stuff, just varied things.
But the Lucinda Williams album did help your confidence?
Yeah, and I just got better. The oldest song on that album, I guess I wrote in 1980; “I Just Want to See You So Bad,” that one. But the bulk of those songs were written when I first moved out to L.A. right around 1985. I got this little development deal with CBS Records, when they used to do that; they['d] give you money to make a demo. The head of A&R there heard me sing one night. So they gave me money to live on for six months, which, back then — I was living in Silver Lake, my rent was only $400 a month; this was before everything got real expensive — I was in heaven. I was in hog heaven. I had money for my rent and buy groceries, didn’t have to work a day job. That’s when I started writing all those songs, like “Crescent City” and “Changed the Locks.”
Before I recorded that Rough Trade album, I got interest from this guy at Elektra Records. We had a meeting. He said, “You’re on a good path, but you need to work on your songs some more.” And I said, “Really? What’s wrong with them?” He said, “Well, a lot of them don’t have bridges,” like verse/verse/chorus/bridge, you know. [Laughs] One of the ones that he said that about was “Pineola,” and another one was “Changed the Locks,” because they just did the same thing over and over. So he said, “You’re not ready to make a record yet. You need to go back to the drawing board, work on your songs some more.”
“Changed the Locks” is written in a poetic scheme, though, isn’t it?
Yeah, but he didn’t think that that was the way to write a song. Needless to say I was very disappointed and disillusioned. I immediately got out my Neil Young, Bob Dylan [albums] and I said, “Screw him, whatever.” And I just kept going. But I got turned down by everybody until the Rough Trade thing. So that’s why I still didn’t feel secure about my writing.
Usually what people were saying around that time [too], all through the ‘70s and early, mid-‘80s when I first came out here, they would say, “You’ve got a lot of soul, but you need to work on your stage presence.” [Laughs] I was always so shy on stage.
Did you ever consider being a songwriter exclusively without performing?
So it was always going to be you or nothing.
Yeah, because I like the feeling of singing. And when I first started out I wanted to be like — not sound like her, but — Joan Baez. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were my two musical heroes when I was first starting out. They were involved in the whole anti-war thing and I was too when I was a teenager in the ‘60s and all that.
You’ve often said that Flannery O’Connor was an early influence on your songwriting. You actually met her when you were a kid, right?
Yeah, but I barely remember; I was only four…. I got introduced to her writing when I was in my teens, probably 15 or 16.
That had to have shaped the way you then approached the language.
I just recognized a lot of what she was writing about from growing up in Southern towns and everything. I was really drawn to that whole Southern Gothic style of writing.
There was a lot of empathy in what she wrote.
Yeah, empathy for the forlorn and forsaken…
Your songs have that empathetic quality too, whether one like “Blue” or “Are You Down.”
My dad taught me a lot about that. I was always like that from the time I can remember. I was always one of those kind of kids. Like, I remember walking home from school when I was about eight or nine, saw this little bird. I don’t know if it was wounded or dead — I don’t know — but I picked that little bird up and walked all the way home with this bird. [Laughs] I guess I buried it or something. I would always make friends with the ugly duckling in class, you know, that kind of thing.
Back in ’02 when you played that show, CMT Crossroads, with Elvis Costello, you half-jokingly said at one point, “I do write country songs; I just don’t write country songs that get played on country radio.” Is that something you still deal with or does it even matter anymore?
It doesn’t matter anymore. I lived in Nashville for nine years. I didn’t go there to try to be a country… to try to make that happen or anything. This was after I’d lived in L.A. for six years. I had some friends who moved to Nashville and they said, “Oh, it’s cool. There’s this whole songwriting community.” John Prine was living there, and Emmylou Harris and Steve Forbert and Steve Earle. I thought, I’ll go check it out.
Now Steve Earle is living in New York.
I know, yeah. He finally couldn’t stand it anymore either. The industry, they were kind of rude to me a little bit because I had won the GRAMMY® for “Passionate Kisses,” but I didn’t want to play the game, which consisted of co-writing with all these people. I wasn’t into doing that. I didn’t need to co-write. I didn’t want to co-write. I tried it a couple of times and it just never worked for me. And they wanted me to go to all of these… They had this radio-seminar thing that they do at the Opryland Hotel. They have all these radio stations set up in the different rooms and the different suites. You go in and…
You’ve got to schmooze with them?
Yeah, schmooze with them and… They do, like, recorded interviews, which they play later on. It’s just to showcase different artists and stuff. They dragged me to one of those and, my God. I was doing this one radio interview for this station and the DJ said, “So, what’s your favorite Christmas memory?” Because they were going to play it during Christmas upcoming. I said, “Well, I don’t really have one.” And she said, “Well, just make something up.”
And they sit you in this little booth thing with a microphone. It’s called Fan Fair. I was sitting next to all the artists, and the fans can go up and talk to them, to you or whoever. And, of course, nobody knew who I was. So there’s nobody there. [Laughs] So, I didn’t want to get into all that; I hated it. And then nobody would cut my songs except people like Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless.
Have you ever considered writing with another great songwriter?
Well, I tried writing with John Prine when I was living in Nashville. We had a really good time; had drinks, had dinner, went over to Oh-Boy studios. It was when I was working on “Drunken Angel,” and I brought that out. He came up with a great line, but it was a great John Prine line. It didn’t fit with my style of writing, because he’s kind of humorous. So we just had a good time and everything, but we didn’t get anything done. I tried to write with Steve Forbert once. I couldn’t even get him to sit down long enough to pay attention. He just wanted to drink beer and listen to cool records. [Laughs] Because we’re all songwriters in our own right, the co-writing thing is a whole ‘nother animal. My songs are so personal. And the only time that I have tried co-writing I would show the other person a song that was already almost written, half or three-quarters of the way done. Maybe they might make a little suggestion or something, but…
It’s already got your stamp on it.
Yeah. I can’t imagine sitting down and writing a song from scratch with somebody.
When you’re playing a cover, though — you play songs like “Masters of War” and “For What it’s Worth” in your live shows — are you feeling that when you sing it?
Yeah, because otherwise I wouldn’t do it. That’s the beauty of great songs.
Please visit LucindaWilliams.com for more information, including upcoming tour dates. Blessed is available now, everywhere music is sold.