A conversation with Lucinda Williams is never just talk. Okay, maybe it's girl talk and chitchat, but it's also an opportunity to catch up and reconnect with the Louisiana-born Grammy winner, whose formative years in Austin during the 1970s and 1980s have given way to her now sharing passionate kisses with industry veteran and producer/manager/boyfriend Tom Overby in Los Angeles. With hot press for her latest CD, Little Honey ("Phases & Stages," Oct. 24, 2008), Williams embarks on a tour of familiar places before heading off to Australia.
Austin Chronicle: Reviews seem to assign moods to your albums – West was about your mother's death, etc. Do you mind the focus on songs as autobiography?
Lucinda Williams: Well, the thing that comes up mostly is that this is the "happy" album, which is kind of a misnomer. I have to try and explain that first of all – happiness is relative, and yes, I'm in love, and I've found someone I want to be with the rest of my life. But when I was recording this album, I was in a different state of mind, even though Tom was with me when I was recording [2007's] West.
Let me back up: Most of the songs on Little Honey were written when I was writing the songs for West. I met Tom when I had a handful of songs and started the demo process with West. And as I was in there demo-ing, I was writing more.
All that happened in one year – my mother died; I found out my [former] boyfriend was strung out on heroin; he went in rehab; we broke up. And this flood of songs started coming out; "Jailhouse Tears" on Little Honey was written about that boyfriend. "Real Love" was written about a brief affair I had after that – before I met Tom. So the majority of the songs are before I met Tom, except "Tears of Joy" and "Plan to Marry." Those are written about Tom and me.
What people don't know is that when I went into the studio for West, I had enough songs for a double CD. We wanted to get all these songs out, be done with it, but the label didn't want us to do it, so we broke it down to West, all those songs we felt fit together.
When we went to do Little Honey, I had songs left over, which we re-recorded with the new band, and they took on a new spirit. They sound new and fresh. It's really kind of West, Part II. But people hear Little Honey and say, "It's a happy album, and all the songs are about Tom," and part of that is that I was having lots of fun.
AC: There's a playfulness to Little Honey. You let your guard down. You let people hear you talk and laugh, the glitch at the beginning ...
LW: A lot of that is the progression of me getting more comfortable in the studio and my personal life being in a better place – feeling better because I had such a positive experience recording West with our engineer, Eric Liljestrand. When I went to do Little Honey, it was a given we'd work with Eric again in the same studio, which had become a home for us during West. It was familiar territory.
When I did West, I had Hal Willner producing, and that was the first time I'd worked with a producer who wasn't a musician like Gurf [Morlix], Steve Earle, Bo [Ramsey], or Charlie [Sexton]. I had a little room I'd go in and do vocals, and it felt comfortable and relaxed.
AC: That ease comes across in the songs.
LW: Tom and Eric worked well together as a team and encouraged that spontaneity. It was Tom's idea to do the AC/DC song. He said, "You need a really good rock & roll song on this album," and I said, "Okay, I'll write one." But I didn't have one, so we looked at cover possibilities. I was looking at a song by Leslie West of Mountain, and Tom pulled out "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)." I said: "I dunno. I don't know this song, and I'm not sure about this," and he said, "Let's give it a shot." So, at the end of the night, we went in and tried it out.
At first I thought it wouldn't work. I thought, "It'll be dumb." Then the band went in and worked up a really cool version. It took a few times to get the phrasing down, but once I started singing it, I went, "Hey, I can make this my own!" That's the only time I'll do a cover of a song: if I can get inside it.
It's been a whirlwind of changes for me the last few years, but I'm in a good place in my life, and I think that shows. People pick up on that.
AC: Where did "Honey Bee" come from?
LW: Oh yeah, that was written for Tom, too. That's a new one [giggles].
AC: [Laughing] The boys love it as much as the girls. Every man wants his woman to think about him like that. King bees and honey drippers and all.
LW: I know! [Laughs] I wrote it as a sexy, fun song. I got the idea from all the Delta blues songs.
AC: You really tackle it vocally, with that growl you don't use except in songs like the Howlin' Wolf one you do, "Come to Me, Baby." It's in that tradition.
LW: And Memphis Minnie had that song "Bumble Bee" or something like that. We moved into our house a year ago this spring, and outside the kitchen windows are cone-shaped purple flowers. They were covered in bumblebees, and I was transfixed by them. I've since learned that bumblebees are disappearing, and now I've got this affection for bumblebees, this imagery with the honey and the bee [giggles]. The bee stings, but it also makes honey, and the sweetness of the honey, that parallel ... [giggles again]
AC: The sexual undertones!
LW: Exactly, yeah [chuckles]. Part of that is growing more mature and getting comfortable with myself as a woman, giving myself permission to do that kind of stuff. I've always had that in me, even when I was younger, in my 20s and 30s. You can see me tiptoeing to that in "Changed the Locks." There have always been songs like that: "Joy," "Essence."
Another thing about this album that's unique is that I went back to earlier stuff I'd written and never recorded, like "If Wishes Were Horses" and "Circles and X's." They were written in the mid-Eighties, right after I moved to L.A. from Austin. I went back and got them, and they sounded brand new.
You can hear the difference, though, in my writing style.
There's one from the early Nineties, "Well Well Well," that was on the demos for Sweet Old World and never made it on that record. What prompted me to go back and review my songs was Laura Cantrell coming out with "Letters." That was written in the late Seventies, when I was living in Houston, or maybe right after I left there. A mutual friend gave her an old demo tape. Lo and behold, Laura ended up putting it on her record. I heard it and went, "Oh my God!" I never thought that song would see the light of day, but the fact that she heard something in it ....
A lot of my early stuff I feel like I've outgrown. It's not as developed as my later stuff, not as sophisticated.
One time I was in a bar in Devil's Corner in Nashville, and Nanci Griffith was in there. She said: "I just love that song 'Full Moon.' That's my favorite song by you." I said, "You've got to be kidding." I didn't take stuff like that seriously until Laura Cantrell did "Letters," and I went, "Holy shit, maybe I should take a closer look at these."
I've started going back to my earlier albums, like the Rough Trade one and even Happy Woman Blues and especially Car Wheels, and asking myself, "What was it about those records that people are drawn to?"
AC: What conclusions have you come to?
LW: That it was maybe the simplicity and innocence of some of the songs. I was younger then and writing in sort of a folk-country vein. And after Car Wheels, I started branching out and doing other styles of music, which I was always into, even during the folksinger thing. The stuff I'm doing now, though, is what I've always wanted to do.
AC: It's the right music at the right time for the right audience.
LW: I didn't sit down and plan it that way. It just came natural to me. It's fascinating to realize I'm one of a handful of women my age out there doing this.
AC: It's tough to hit 50 and go, "Hey, I'm gonna chuck it all and be a rock star!"
LW: Yeah, and I think there's something changing in a positive way in our society regarding that. I was flipping through Rolling Stone and saw a piece on the UK's newest soul star, Adele. She's 20 and breaking big, and at the beginning of the article, she talks about how she wasn't going to get anywhere because she's a fat girl. "But it's obviously not an issue. I'm selling records, aren't I?"
I saw that and went, "Fucking right on!"
AC: For artists like you and, say, Patti Smith, your audience grows up along with you, so they're more accepting of your flaws. But you can't sell those artists to younger audiences. They just see them as fat and bald. They want something pretty.
LW: This is where talent wins out, like Patti Smith. She doesn't have to worry about that part of things, her marketing. That's a choice the artist has to make early in a career, though – to establish that. It might take longer, but if you have the talent and you're stubborn, there's something there for you.
AC: There's a gifted young songwriter from Austin named Suzanna Choffel. She's 28 and goes at it any way she can – tours, MySpace, contests, YouTube. She says that it's easier to get your product out than ever before but harder to get it heard.
LW: That's what was always great about certain towns. For me, it was Austin and Houston. Little music scenes that offered support. The problem with the Internet as a place for young artists to expose their music is they're not able to get out on the road and play, travel around.
That's what I did. I went wherever the music took me: Houston, Austin, California. Plus, I didn't have to worry about a 9-to-5 job five days a week to support myself. My rent was $85. When I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, I went to visit my mother in New Orleans during the summer. I discovered Andy's, a little folk bar. They offered me some nights and afternoon things – they were open till the sun came up – and different songwriters would take shifts, play for tips, and the tourists would come in. It was this cool little bohemian folk bar on Bourbon Street.
That was probably the biggest turning point of my entire career. I called my dad saying: "Dad, I just got offered my first gig, and I don't want to go back to school in the fall. I want to stay here and do this." And he said okay. I stayed with my mom for a while, and eventually I got a little shotgun apartment with this girl who was a topless dancer. It was $85 a month. We split the rent.
But you know, that's the thing. The economy makes it too hard to live like that now. Artists always ask me, "How do I do this?" And I say: "You gotta get out there and play live and develop a following. You can't just sit around your house and put out records on the Internet."
Lucinda Williams honeycombs La Zona Rosa Friday, Feb. 20.
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