An Interview with Lucinda Williams

Apr 21, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Lucinda Williams is a premier female act in Country and American Folk music. She has been blazing the roads since the late ’70s and has not slowed down. She still appears at music festivals all across the country, even gaining international acclaim. Her most recent album, Blessed, is her eleventh studio album. Williams has been nominated for 14 Grammys, taking home three awards. In 2002, Time magazine called her “America's best songwriter.” —-

Lucinda recently discussed the many realms of her life, from her family to her personal songwriting process. Cincinnati is gearing up for a couple performances by Williams, the first coming this Saturday at the Madison Theatre in Covington.

CityBeat: You recently just had a Cincinnati connection. You worked with Over the Rhine, a local band, on their latest album on the song “Undamned.” Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and working with those guys?
Lucinda Williams:  I just love them. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of them until I was asked to come and sing on that song. Of course, I was completely blown away by their talent. We have gotten to be good friends with them since then. And they came and sat in with me when I played in Iowa City this year. I did a string of solo shows and I played in Iowa City. Bo Ramsey sat in. And they did that song “Undamned” and I sat in with them. They played in Los Angeles a while back and we went to see them there. Yeah, I’m a big, big fan now.

CBI love those guys and I have seen them several times here. There’s another lady here in town named Kim Taylor, and I don’t know if you have heard of her, but when I hear her music but I feel the same kind of vibe as yours. That’s someone else to look up locally. Your new album is Blessed, and I have been listening to it throughout the day getting ready. What does Blessed mean to you?
LW: I think the song, it’s kind of hard to explain that. It’s such an ethereal kind of thing. I mean, to me, the song just does it.

CB: You guys have been going out and taking pictures with fans and they’ve been giving feedback on what it means to be blessed to them as well, right?
LW: Yeah, it has kind of sprouted into sort of this movement. Some of it has been posted online I think, a documentary of the people who were having their picture taken. The photographer went out and found people on his own. We didn’t go with him or anything. And some of the people wanted to talk about it. So he went back out again with a filmmaker and they started filming people. So now it came out beautifully, this documentary with the song in the background. I don’t know how to answer that question.

CB: You talked in a recent interview about wanting to collaborate with people like Cee-Lo Green on songs like “Can’t Wish for Nothing” and it not working out. How do you go about deciding who you want to work with on a song or do people come to you? Do you think of potential people at the time you are writing the songs?
LW: Like, in the case, when we were recording Blessed, the song I was thinking of for him, we didn’t end up doing this time. That album he did with Danger Mouse, where he sings that song… I mean, the reason we were thinking of him, not the album that is out now but the one where he sings the song that’s really cool sounding and it’s called, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” It kind of sounds like an old soul song or from the ’70s. Matthew Sweet sang on the album with me. We brought him in because he had done some harmony singing on the Little Honey album. We didn’t have too many people, really come in and add, too many extra people this time except Matthew Sweet, who I had worked with before and Elvis Costello, who I had also worked with previously. That was Tom’s idea for Elvis to come in and just play guitar.

CB: He’s not really known for guitar playing.
LW: And he was surprised when we asked him to just come in and play guitar. And I was a little surprised when Tom suggested him for that. But obviously it worked really well. You just kind of go song by song and toss out ideas. When I am recording, I let everybody come up with ideas. It is not just me making the suggestions.

CB: Where did you record this one?
LW: At Capitol Studios

CB: Wow. There’s a lot of history there.
LW: Yeah, a very historical place.

CB: What are you listening to right now. What’s in your car or your iPod? Or your bus, I should say?
LW: Right before we left to come out, I was listening to a lot of stuff that people had given me. When I am on the road, a lot of people give me stuff of theirs to listen to. And I always listen to everything, at least to a couple tracks. So I actually brought some stuff with me. One of the relatively newer artists that I have been listening to, and I also sang on his record, is Amos Lee. We are going to do a few shows with him.

CB: I saw an upcoming tour with him posted.
LW: Yeah, we’re doing an upcoming tour with him. He’s great. Oh, and the Over The Rhine stuff. They sent us a whole package of some of their stuff on vinyl and some of the other CDs I hadn’t heard yet from before like Ohio.

CB: Some of the original stuff?
LW: Yeah. I really love that song, “Jesus in New Orleans.” Tom was saying, “You should cover that song.”

CB: One of the things I found interesting about your history that I could relate to is your parents divorced when you were little and your dad raised you. My father raised me, which was very abnormal in the ’80s much less the ’60s when it happened to you.
LW: Yes, that was real unusual.

CB: I can relate to that a lot. I was just curious about, I know you are really close to your father. How do you think that experience and traveling with him in the early days shaped your music and your songwriting?
: The fact that he is a writer, he is a poet, just that alone inspired me quite a bit. Growing up around writers and artistic thinkers and creative people, I had a lot of creative freedom in my life and I was encouraged in that way. He was kind of my mentor for my writing. I started writing at a real young age. Little stories and things. Then when I was in my early teens, I started trying to write songs. As I got older, and when I got actually really being able to do it, I would show them to him and he would critique them. So it was kind of a built in creative writing class. It was like an apprenticeship I guess.

CB: You guys are still really close. He still looks at your songs right?
LW: Yeah, well I don’t show them to him anymore before I record them. I did that for every album up until Essence. I asked him what he thought about the songs on Essence and he said they were as close to poetry as anything I had done or something like that. And I said, “Well does that mean I’ve graduated?” (laughing).

CB: I usually ask people if their parents were supportive of their music but yours is pretty self-explanatory. He was there the whole way. You’ve been doing this a long time, almost 30 years in the business. Any regrets along the way?
: Well, I guess not. Sometimes I feel wishful, this doesn’t have anything to do with my career, since I never had children. To be honest, I didn’t even start thinking about that until a lot later in life. But also I didn’t really find a person who I would want to have a child with until later in life. In other words, I never thought about, tried or anything. Sometimes I think, you know.

CB: I don’t have children either. I made that choice a long time ago as well, and I just think it’s not meant for everybody.
LW: Yeah, that’s how I feel. It’s whatever is meant to be. But I feel like I need to get a dog or something.

CB: When you are here on Saturday, is there anything you like to do in Cincinnati when you’re here, or are you going to do any guest appearances?
Lucinda: I don’t think we’re going to have any time. We’re going to be bouncing. We are in Indianapolis and we just got in today and we are off tonight. But starting with tomorrow, it’s pretty much three nights in a row and we’re off on Sunday then three in a row. But I love Cincinnati. I don’t know if Over The Rhine are right now. They’re out on the road tour. We haven’t heard from them.

CB: Maybe you can line it up for the July date when you come back July 15 at Riverbend. I read when you write songs you kind of sit at your kitchen table and you have your scraps of paper you have collected over the years. Has your song writing process changed over the years?
LW: It really hasn’t. I have always had this really organic approach to songwriting. I might think of a line or two here or there and jot it down. And I save everything. Then, when I get in the mood I sit down with everything. That’s pretty much how I have always done it.

CB: So where are you living these days?
LW: We’re in Los Angeles.

CB: I know you have moved a lot over the years. Any favorite place that you like to play live?
LW: Minneapolis, Minn., on First Avenue. Love playing there. I like playing festivals, too. Like the Beale St. Festival in Memphis where we are going to be. House of Blues in New Orleans, always a fun place to play and we’re going to be at JazzFest in New Orleans.

CB: That’ll be good. I’m going to catch you guys four times in the next few weeks. JazzFest and Beale Street and Saturday night. I am really looking forward to seeing you Saturday night. I saw you live 12 years ago maybe in Nashville. I haven’t seen you live since then, so I am really excited to photograph it this weekend and see you many times in the next couple months. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.
LW: I am really looking forward to the show.

CB: Is there anything else you want to say today to the fans in Cincinnati?
LW: Well, we have a great new guitar player in the band. A young guy. He’s just fantastic. His name is Blake Mills. I’m excited to be bringing him out with the band.

CB: Do you have any hazing or new-guy ritual to put him through?
LW: No, we’ll let the guys take care of that.