Q&A: The Optimism of Lucinda Williams

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Since the 1920's, when the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers first yelped ancient folk songs into Ralph Peer’s big old microphone, country music has been reinvented and re-calibrated a million different ways.  For the past 30 years, beloved troubadour Lucinda Williams has concocted her own kind of country: raucous, frank and centered on Williams’ signature rasp, which somehow contains the entire spectrum of human emotion (and, maybe, the entire bottom shelf of a bar). Williams, who turned 58 earlier this year, recently married her manager/producer Tom Overby, and seems to be settling into something that looks a lot like peace.  I spoke with her from her hotel room in Ithaca, New York, about her new record, Blessed, life on the road, that Americana tag and her affinity for…Tricky.

You’ve been touring for so long. Are you used to life on the road by now?

We’re in Ithaca, New York, and we just got hit with a ton of snow. It started snowing in Toronto, and it followed us all the way down to Ithaca. I saw on the news that parts of New England were hit with 30 inches. We’re staying in this big old country inn, and we feel a little stranded right now -- the restaurant is closed because the road is closed. Someone has to come get us later and take us to the venue. We’re the only ones here. It kind of feels like The Shining! Looking out the hotel window, there are just acres and acres of snow -- it’s beautiful, but it feels very isolated. It’s usually pretty uneventful. Nobody expected the weather to be like this so late in the year. Tom and I just live on the bus. [Laughs] I’m really fortunate that I’m able to have Tom with me, and that we can work together and travel together. That makes a huge difference.

At this point, are you beyond things like stage fright?

Oh, I get nervous. I have pre-show anxiety. But I use it to my advantage, so it’s more of an adrenaline thing. It contributes to the energy of the show.

The early word on Blessed is that it’s your most optimistic record, but there are some fantastic “fuck you” songs here.

It’s a different kind of album in that there’s only one bad boy song: “Buttercup.” The rest are more reflective. It’s just a woman’s perspective on life. I wasn’t thinking about any kind of concept as I was writing the songs. That’s always the case for me -- it just becomes about wherever I’m at at that time in my life. It makes sense for me to write these kinds of songs now because I’m married. You want to think that you’ve achieved something by the time you’re 58, as far as emotional satisfaction and all that -- you want to think that you’ve got some wisdom to share.

You’re in a happy, committed relationship. Do you think that changes the way you write songs? Did you ever worry that it might?

At the end of the day, I’m an optimist but it took me a long time to find the right person. Honestly, before Tom, as soon as I was with someone and started setting up house, I’d feel like a part of me was getting lost. I experienced that over and over again, and of course that sent me running out the door -- [I left] as soon as I felt shut down, creatively. I was always searching. I always wanted to have that kind of romantic, idealistic relationship that we all read about -- like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The sort of thing where one person fuels the other.

I think a lot of women who make art have a similar fear -- the burden of domesticity tends to fall on women, and that can be stifling.

For me, I just needed to find the right person. It took me awhile to figure out who that was. But that was the big test for me, definitely -- I got involved with Tom, and it was like, "Let’s see how this goes."

Your website has photographs and videos of people talking about what the word "blessed" means to them.

That whole thing has really mushroomed and grown into a project in and of itself. I wanted something on the cover that was kind of a William Eggleston, Robert Frank kind of photograph -- just soulful and gritty and real. We talked to James Minchin about it, and I think it was Tom who came up with the idea to hold up the "Blessed" signs. James found all these people -- strangers -- in Los Angeles and outlying areas, and discussed the project with them, and then they would write "Blessed" in their own handwriting and he would shoot it. Some of them wanted to start talking about it, about how they felt blessed in their own way. James had a buddy who could work for next to nothing, so they went out and started documenting these people.  We put it up on the website, and then the fans wanted to start talking about how they felt blessed, posting things on Facebook.

When you chose the title, did you know it could be so evocative, and that people might respond this way?

I didn’t. At first, we had a couple of ideas. We passed Blessed around the guys in the band, and they all said, "Yeah, yeah, we like that title." Buttercup was another idea, but everyone said no, no, Blessed. I was concerned at first, because I didn’t know what the connotation might be -- I didn’t want it to be that. But we thought that once people heard the song and saw the images, they’d understand what it’s about.

The instrumentation is a little tighter and a little cleaner here -- it’s more about your singing than anything else. Was that part of the plan?

We got Don Was involved, which was just a really great idea. I loved working with him -- we all loved working with him. One of the things he said right away was, "No matter what else we do in the studio, musically, I want Lucinda’s vocals to be at the forefront, and everything will revolve around that." I liked hearing that. It made me feel even more confident about working with him, because I knew he understood where I was coming from musically.

Matthew Sweet and Elvis Costello both guest on Blessed.

Matthew Sweet sang harmony with Susanna Hoffs on Little Honey, and I was so blown away by the work he did on that -- he’s a consummate arranger. I was real impressed. He came into the studio with everything scored. His voice is really good for layering on harmonies without being too recognizable, for lack of a better word. In this case, his voice worked exactly how we wanted it; We wanted to have a harmony there, but not have it stick out too much. He’s got a really good range and he can sing two or three levels of harmony on the same song. Plus, he’s just a really sweet guy and funny, and fun to be around. Elvis Costello just happened to be in town, and we’d worked together on a few different projects before. He was there finishing his album with T-Bone Burnett. We had the tracks pretty much done, and Tom said, “You know, I’d like to get Elvis in to play some guitar.” I was surprised, like, "Really?" Most people don’t think of Elvis just as a guitar player. But Tom said, “He’s amazing, he’ll just shred on these songs. Trust me.” So Tom sent an email to Elvis, and he wrote back and said, “Are you sure you sent this email to the right guy?” Because no one ever asks him to just play guitar! He came down and we had dinner, and went into the studio that night. He had three or four guitars with him, and we put the tracks on and just watched him go. He ripped it up.

How do you take care of your voice?

I sleep every night with a humidifier. The indoor air, it’s just so dry. I also do a little bit of voice therapy because I had problems with vocal nodules like 30 years ago, when I was in my 20's. That came from singing outside, singing without a sufficient monitor system and not knowing how to project my voice properly. So over the years, I’ve learned what not to do. One of the tricks my voice teacher told me was when I talk on the phone, to lie down -- I’m lying down right now. It throws your voice back up in your head, so you’re not putting pressure on your chest.

Critics sometimes have a hard time placing your music within a genre. How do you feel about being labeled as an “Americana” artist? Does it mean anything to you?

You know, I don’t really like labels that much. The problem now is that everything crosses over so much, so a label doesn’t tell you everything. When people first started making records, like back in Hank Williams’ days, if you said country, people knew what you meant. Or blues, or jazz -- those kinds of labels, the more traditional labels, worked. But then they started coming up with all this other stuff -- folk-rock, contemporary folk, alternative country, country-rock, Americana. I don’t really like getting pigeonholed in that, because everyone has a different concept of what it means. When I hear Americana, I generally think of singer-songwriter, acoustic bass. And I do so much more than that! To me, it’s more of a marketing thing. Before they came up with Americana, they didn’t know how to market me; My music fell in the crack between country and rock. And it still does. If you go in a record store, you can find my records in the rock section and the country section. Sometimes only the country section, but that feels more limiting. The way I describe it, I just say I’m a little bit country-blues, a little bit country-rock. [Laughs] I don’t know. We need an easier way to explain it to people who might not listen to a lot of music. You say Americana and then you go down the list: Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams.

There’s been something of an Americana revival lately, with bands like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. Do you listen to any of that?

I listen to everything as it comes my way but I won’t just go out and buy a CD as soon as it comes out. I’m fortunate that Tom is a big music collector, so he’ll go to Amoeba in L.A. and pick up a few things and bring them home. I have so much to listen to right now I can’t even keep up. But if I get in the mood, I’ll grab a bunch of new stuff and put it on, and sometimes I run across something that I really like. I like to keep my mind open.

Is there anything you like that might surprise people?

They probably think I listen to singer-songwriters all day. I don’t listen to that all that much, although occasionally something will blow my mind. But over the last several years I’ve really been drawn to music like Thievery Corporation. I love Tricky.  I love Brazilian music and Latin music. I don’t know, I guess I find elements of classic soul and blues in it. It’s real surprising, sometimes, once you get past "This is this kind of music." It’s still about a good song.