“Well, I’ve been through another heartbreak,” says a rather cheerful Lucinda Williams over the phone from her new home in Los Angles.
And while it seems that the 49-year old who was recently named “America’s Greatest Songwriter” by Time, has experienced more than her allotted portion of emotional damage at the hands of men—all beautifully captured in her admittedly autobiographical canon of songs—she seems genuinely excited about her current lot in life. She’s left Nashville and what she calls the “general ambience of middle Tennessee … square … suburban … safe” for a thriving roots music scene in L.A. In a year in which she didn’t even release an album, she was nominated for yet another Grammy (for “Lately,” her song on Red House Records’ 2002 tribute to Greg Brown, Going Driftless). And she’s about to release World without Tears, an album that stretches her enough to creep out from the shadow of 1998’s Grammy-award-winning masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
While 2001’s Essence was possibly her most reserved and sedate record of the last two decades, World without Tears is certainly her most eclectic. There are several trademark Williams ballads with sweet country gee-tar and her gravelly Mississippi drawl carrying as much passion and emotion as the best soul or gospel singers. But they’re interspersed with more adventurous tracks; songs like “American Dream” and “Sweet Side” are downright funky (though it’s much more a Chuck Prophet kind of funky than a Jurassic 5 kind of funky). “Righteously” is a frank and sensual plea to a beau: “Flirt with me don’t keep hurtin’ me / Don’t cause me pain / Be my lover don’t play no game / Just play me John Coltrane.” The Delta blues foundation of “Atonement” is drenched with distorted rhythm guitars, tin-can vocals and Southern Gothic hellfire-and-brimstone.
The disparate styles are held together by a core group of veteran players and the production of Mark Howard (engineer on such seminal albums as U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball). Whereas Essence featured 11 contributors (including guests like Jim Lauderdale, Ryan Adams and Gary Louris), World Without Tears was recorded live off the floor with Williams, Doug Pettibone, Jim Christie and Taras Prodaniuk. The quartet spent eight weeks in a 1920s mansion in L.A.’s bohemian bourgeois Silverlake neighborhood with Howard serving both as producer and engineer. It was a bit of a leap for the notoriously perfectionist Williams to consent to Howard’s live-take style.
“At first I was a little nervous about it,” says Williams. “I just figured I’d have to redo all my vocals anyway, or overdub them or do something like I’d always done before. [Howard] said, ‘We’ll worry about that later. Let’s just play the songs.’ And as it turned out—lo and behold—I didn’t have to redo any of my vocals. They’re all what I call ‘scratch vocals,’ live vocals, on every single song. I don’t know how that happened, but I guess miracles do happen. We started recording that way, and after a while we got comfortable with it. … I was able to just relax and sing, and it worked.”
Lean over the toilet bowl
And throw up my confession
Cleanse my soul
Of this hidden obsession
The two-year gap between albums is record time for an artist who only released two albums between Happy Woman Blues in 1980 and Car Wheels in 1998. Part of the inspiration can be attributed to the aforementioned break-up with her ex-bassist Richard Price. Williams insists that you don’t have to have your heart broken to write good songs but doesn’t deny that it helps.
“You have to experience whatever you’re writing about,” she says, “whether it’s heartbreak or abusive situations, religious persecution. You have to experience life. It’s just part of life and that’s just one piece of it. “
The daughter of poet Miller Williams grew up around poets who valued openness and vulnerability and who liked to stretch the limits of acceptability. It’s this legacy of transparency—along with an impish desire to “push people’s buttons”—that makes her music so personal and allows her audience to connect to the lyrics.
“In the world of poetry you don’t censor yourself,” she says. “You write about anything and everything—unless you’re Rod McKuen. I grew up around people [whose] main rule was, you don’t sugarcoat things. That’s a big no-no in my world. That’s why I never thought twice about it.
“We get in our own way most of the time. When I’m writing, I get out of my own way—I just completely open myself up—and that’s why it seems like people say, ‘Your stuff is so vulnerable.’ We should do that all the time anyway. If I don’t do it enough in other parts of my life, I do it when I’m writing. That’s when I’m probably the most tuned in to a higher consciousness, or God, that God-consciousness. … I open myself up. I get out of my own way. To me, that’s the only way to create.”
She also has the poet’s gift of finding beauty in the mundane. In “Ventura” she sings of making a bowl of soup, going out for some live music, taking the long way home—all tinged with a sadness from those who have wronged her and sense of guilt for those she’s wronged. And then a chorus of “I wanna watch the ocean bend / The edges of the sun then / I wanna get swallowed in an ocean of love.” She’s careful to distinguish her gift from her father’s, though.
“I’ve dabbled around with poetry, but it’s really two different things because you don’t have the music to support the lyrics. … In poetry the lyrics have to sing alone, and it’s a little bit different craft. My dad’s tried writing songs, and I’ve tried writing poetry, and we both decided we’re just going to stick with what we already know.”
When we lay among the stones
And watched the Druids dance
And walked along the rocky shores
Little Cindy Williams knew what she wanted to do at the age of 12.
“I got turned on to Bob Dylan in 1965—Highway 61 Revisited—and that was it for me. That was when I said, ‘OK, I get this. I don’t completely get it because I’m only 12-and-a-half years old, but I completely get the correlation between the traditional folk music, which his stuff was musically based on, and the literary aspect of his lyrics because I grew up around writers. … When I was finally introduced to that record, all of a sudden it brought those two worlds together for me, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do, I want to do this, I want to figure out how he did that.’ And I’ve been working on it ever since. So, there you have it. That’s my life in a nutshell.”
The non-nutshell version includes detours to Santiago, Chile, in 1963, and later a year in Mexico City. Despite missing things like peanut butter and jelly and Captain Kangaroo, those early years abroad shaped her significantly. One of Williams’ earliest musical influences was Chilean folk-singer Violeta Parra, and while she was in college—“for about a minute”—she was studying cultural anthropology.
By junior high, she and a friend would sit around singing folk songs and even played a concert at school: Cindy Williams and Rebel Price. Price recently sent Williams a recording of the duo singing Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Did you only want me
for those three days?
Did you only need me
for those three days?
Did you love me
forever just for those three days?
—“Those Three Days”
As we talk—more than three and a half decades after that junior high concert— Williams is getting ready to go out to a small club called the Hotel Café, a mini-art gallery and acoustic venue. She’s excited because Tim Easton will be playing, as well as her good friends Jonny Kaplan and Bryson Jones. Afterward, “everyone’s walking around the corner to the King King to see Keith Gattis … and Mike Stinson, and they’re just two of the best people playing around here.”
She goes out to hear live music with regularity, often joining the local roots-rockers on stage. She seems to be thriving off the Los Angeles music scene, and you can hear a reinvigorated Lucinda on World without Tears.
Freed of her romantic relationship, freed of Nashville, she’s turned the past into song, is enjoying the present, and looks forward to the future—particularly releasing the new album to the world and touring.
It’s certainly a sad record, but she says, “There is a sweetness to the sadness.”
And that’s the magic of Lucinda Williams. If we lived in a world without tears, how would these gorgeous songs move us so? Tears are the soul of her muse, turning heartbreak and struggle into pieces of comfort and healing—using simple but powerful imagery—four minutes at a time