This week marks the release of Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, the 11th studio album from Lucinda Williams. It’s a first in many ways – her first double studio album, her first on her new self-run record label, and her first to feature lyrics written by her father, poet Miller Williams. Williams spoke with AD via phone earlier in September about learning to expand her songwriting palate, using other songs to craft her own, starting the new record label and how you should get out and play in front of an audience all ready.
Aquarium Drunkard: The last time you and I talked, we talked a little bit about whether there was a theme to that album, Blessed. And you said it was difficult to answer, that you hadn’t really thought about a theme ahead of time. And maybe this is me projecting my own thinking onto your work, but this time it really feels like there’s a connective thread for these songs, especially built around the title track and your father’s poem. Was there a more conscious decision this time?
Lucinda Williams: Uhm, not really. [laughs] As far as the songs – we actually recorded about 35 tracks worth of material. This group of songs were picked to work together from those, so in that sense, yes, it was a conscious effort. The other ones will be on another album separately. But when I was sitting down to write the songs, I wasn’t thinking of a specific theme.
And the “Compassion” song [ed. note: which contains the album title phrase], I wrote that kind of at the 11th hour. I didn’t have it written. I’d been trying to get that done. I’d been wanting for years to take one of my dad’s poems and turn it into a song, but it’s a really hard thing to do. It proved to be really challenging. And the title [of the album] was decided before I had got that song. But I finally got the song done. It was something we wanted to see happen, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off or not. That was the last thing we cut.
AD: If you hadn’t been able to finish the song, the record would have still had the same name?
LW: Yeah. Interestingly enough, on the inside of [2007 album] West, we used the same quote from that song. It just seemed to be sticking with us and making sense. It was all just kind of a work in progress.
AD: In the promotional material, it talks about how you’ve been coming up with more material for each record than there is room for..
LW: I used to not do that though! [laughs] I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve become more prolific as I’ve become older.
AD: And you feel that the songs you didn’t end up putting on this one, you feel good enough about them that you want to put them on another album?
LW: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And the songs that we didn’t put on this record work real well together, too, as a separate thing. Those feature Bill Frisell more. Two of the tracks on this new one have Bill and my live rhythm section, Butch Norton and David Sutton. But the other record is all Butch and David and Bill. And those just ended up working better together. And that’s another different thing about this album. I used a different rhythm section. I either worked with Butch and David or Pete Thomas [of the Attractions] and Davey Faragher [founding member of Cracker]. They played on all of the tracks on this one except for a couple. We even used a couple of different bass players when Davey couldn’t make the sessions. We brought in [Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing] who played on one track and, of course, I had some of the best guitar players.
AD: Yeah, let me ask you about one of those. One of them is Stuart Mathis who was in the Wallflowers. I saw you on tour recently where he was playing with you and that band just had amazing chemistry, it felt like.
LW: Yeah, I’m real excited because he’s going to be a regular part of the band on these upcoming tours, when we start the official tour for this record in late October. Stuart was doing a few shows with us here and there, but he was able to commit to us for the full time.
AD: There does seem to be a thread of ideas like duality or just seeing things in a different way. On “East Side of Town” there is the narrator laying into a person because of how they look at another group of people and then there’s the line in “Stand Right By Each Other” where you sing “If you could see yourself the way I see you” – that sort of thing, about different ways of seeing.
LW: I think that just comes as a result of me getting older and hopefully wiser. [laughs] You know, maturing as a songwriter. My songs always reflect where my head is at at the time and what my perspective is. That’s the only way I can explain it, really. And I’m learning how to write about different types of things and different types of emotions, rather than the typical stuff songwriters write about which is unrequited love.
As I’ve gotten older and after Tom [Overby; Williams’ husband] and I got together and I’ve found myself in a satisfying relationship for the first time – and it wasn’t until I was in my 50s that we got together – things were going to have to change. My perspective as a songwriter was going to have to grow in order to stay lucrative as a songwriter. Just where I was at in my life gently forced me to open up a bit more. I like to think of it as a natural progression that I’m going through as an artist. I’m really an anomaly, you know, as an artist. Here I am at 61 and I’m in a committed, satisfying relationship and I’m more prolific than I’ve ever been. But that’s how I wanted it to be. I hoped for that, you know.
AD: I want to ask you about three specific songs on the record that reflect a bit about the different songwriting on the record. Tell me about “West Memphis,” the song about the West Memphis Three. What inspired you to jump into writing about that?
LW: I was really moved and inspired by the latest documentary that was done on that. Tom and I were invited to a private screening of it. It’s called West of Memphis. It came out a couple of years ago and it’s so powerful. I was so angry by the end of it, because it delves even more into the case and it was discovered that evidence had been planted and it was so completely a miscarriage of justice the likes of which I’d never witnessed before. You know this stuff exists all the time, but that’s the beauty of a powerful film. I was also asked to contribute a track to a compilation album to raise money for their cause. So they used my song “Joy” because it has the line “I’m going to go to West Memphis.” I also met the people who did the documentary and got to know them a bit. So it was on my mind.
AD: I also thought a lot about “Wrong Number.” It sounds to me almost like a Raymond Carvery type short story…
LW: Wow, thanks. That’s a compliment.
AD: [laughs] Well, I meant it to be. You’re given these bits of a story: there’s a wrong-number, the narrator is trying to call someone. Then she’s calling a motel and why are these the places she’s looking? And you’re left to fill in the gaps for the reasons behind all of this yourself.
LW: Yeah, I wrote that, once again, another song about my younger brother who I’ve written songs about before. He’s, for the most part, estranged from the family and we all miss him and wonder how he’s doing. It seems like almost every album now I have a song about him. I wrote “Are You Alright” [from West] about him and the older song “Little Angel, Little Brother” [from Sweet Old World]. But that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote that one. But it could be about anything.
AD: But that takes a certain set of skills to take something so specific and personal about your own life and be able to open it up enough so that I was sitting there thinking of something completely different. That’s a powerful way of writing.
LW: You know, like I said, I’m working at writing in different ways. Bob Dylan was probably my first, greatest hero as a songwriter and you know how he was able to take an article out of the newspaper and make this magnificent song about it. Like when he wrote “Hurricane.” Those are hard to do. To me, writing an unrequited love song, those are easy. Most songwriters will say that. But after awhile, there has to be other stuff to write about. So I’ve been pushing myself to do that more.
AD: The other song I wanted to ask about was album closer “Magnolia.” If it isn’t the longest song you’ve ever recorded, it’s really close.
LW: I know. Again, that’s the organic process. We just kind of let things go naturally. The process, the way I work in the studio – we’re all playing together. I’m separated in a vocal booth and I can see all the guys in the room. I start playing the song and they all fall in and we do two or three takes like that. And then it just kind of kept going at the end. Nobody said anything, it was one of those things. And then we got done, we listened and we went ‘wow, that’s really cool.’ But then we discussed ‘are we going to leave it like that?’ Most times people would edit it, thinking it’s too long. We went ‘no, let’s leave it. it’s great!’ It probably is longer than it is on the album. [laughs] We probably took some off. I don’t remember. But we have several tracks like that where it just kept going at the end. And we had to talk about things going a bit too long and editing it. And I don’t like fade-outs. I hate fading at the end of songs. I know on one track, David Bianco was trying to fade it, because that’s usually the easiest way to end it. But I said ‘no, no, I hate fades!’ So he would have to do some work on some of them to get them to end at the right place.
AD: It felt like it was very natural.
LW: Yeah, we were going for the feel of things. We didn’t sit down and rehearse everything beforehand and say ‘this is how we’re going to start it and this is how we’re going to end it.’ And when you’re working with great musicians like that – I don’t like to tell people what to play. If the feel’s not right, then we talk about that. But the most discussion was probably between Pete Thomas and me about finding the right tempo. We’d try to cut a song and we weren’t getting it. So we’d stop and I’d talk to Pete about how it wasn’t what I was looking for and I wanted it to sound like something else. And he’d play something from, like, “Son of Preacher Man” and I’d go ‘that’s it, that’s it!’ We used other songs, older songs, as a reference point. Then once we’d get the tempo, we’d go back in, do two or three takes and we’d have it. And that was pretty much the pattern for everything.
AD: You had one of your players graduate from being just a musician on Blessed to co-producing this new album, and that’s Greg Leisz. How was working with him as a producer?
LW: Again, that was just a natural process. He proved again to be such an elemental part of the whole thing. He was already on pretty much all of the tracks. He was there a lot in the studio and he had a lot of good feedback on things. He was able to communicate with the players. Over time, he became just the glue pulling everything together. We became a great team, Greg and Tom and me. We would look back at stuff and Greg would come up with ideas for the overdubs we did. He got the guy who did the horn part on “One More Day.” He’s just a great guy to work with. He’s such a consummate musician, but he’s also a really sweet, down to earth guy. I was really glad to have him involved.
AD: The new album is going to be your first out on your own record label, Highway 20. This is the first time you’ve been on your own in a sense.
LW: Yeah. It’s under the umbrella of Thirty Tigers. It’s the best of both worlds. We have great distribution, but then we have complete creative control. The A&R person who is one of the most important parts of Thirty Tigers is Kim Buie who worked at Lost Highway. She was there the whole time I was there. We were already real close and had worked together before. So it really feels like a comfortable home. And David Macias, the head guy at Thirty Tigers, Tom and I met him before we decided to sign with them. We both liked him right off the bat. We talked about working class songs and Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill and the Wobblies and all that. He’s not your typical record company guy. So it’s great. We really wanted to sign with him long before we did, but we had some other meetings with other labels just to see – like you always do.
That’s one of the reasons we have this double album out. Let’s break the rules, let’s put out a double album. Let’s put the title track first where you’d normally put it toward the end. We can do what we want to do now. Plus we own the masters, everything we record. And you know, I been on Lost Highway, which was a great home for me and was a great family, too. But this just feels that this is a great natural step after Lost Highway.
AD: Are there any plans for you to release other people’s stuff through the label or is this a home for your music exclusively for now?
LW: No, we want to do that. There’s a band who has been opening for us a lot on the road, the Kenneth Brian Band. Tom is managing them also and that’s an example of somebody we’d like to put out on our label. But the idea of that is so exciting to me. Because I’ve always loved going out – I’ve always fancied that I could be an A&R person. I love going out to see new artists and there’s always something exciting about discovering a new artist and telling people about them and trying to help them. And now we have a vehicle for that. The hardest part over the years, I’ve discovered, is finding one who is great who also wants to do the work. They don’t want to tour half the time.
AD: Do you think the rise of the ease of getting music out through the internet – which is a huge boon for smaller bands – that there is a negative side to that as well?
LW: I do, actually. The draw back is they don’t feel like they need to tour – I know it’s hard to tour without support. But getting out there and playing live and getting in front of people and building up their fan base like that. You still have to get out there, even if it’s just little clubs. They just put up all these roadblocks like ‘I can’t afford it and blah blah blah.’ It’s like, figure it out. I mean, I slept on people’s couches and stuff. I guess we didn’t have internet stuff, so it forced you to go out there. I think it’s good for initial exposure and all that, but you still have to combine that with playing live as much as you can.
AD: You don’t think there’s any one who could get away with not touring like Steely Dan did for all those years? [laughs]
LW: I don’t know. Maybe. I guess there’s always that exception. But that was a different time then, too. That’s when radio was a lot more open to artists. You pretty much have the internet and live audiences. I still think building up a live audience is important. To me, it’s like a safety net. If everything fell through for me, God forbid, and I didn’t have a record label or whatever, I could still go out and find audiences. You don’t have to depend on having a hit on the radio or whatever. words / j neas