Lucinda Williams: Lightened up and in love
The queen of heartache, who not many years ago bemoaned living in a "world of loneliness and wickedness and bitterness," now contends with a plague of worries that happiness may not become her—or at least the acclaimed songwriting that has made Lucinda Williams an icon of existential Americana.
"That's the most inane idea and question that's been fielded toward me since Little Honey came out and Tom and I got married," Williams fumed over the phone from her Los Angeles home two weeks ago. "You can see from the songs on this album that there's no danger of me not being able to write. I think people were concerned that my artistry was just gonna shut down now that I'm with someone."
That someone is Minnesota native and former Best Buy exec Tom Overby. The couple, taking a page from country legend Hank Williams, married on stage at First Avenue in September 2009. And Williams, who turned 58 in late January, has never been happier, emerging from a succession of unsatisfactory relationships that left her embittered, but also inspired memorable songs.
It's no accident that her new album, due March 1 on Lost Highway, is called Blessed.
She'll introduce some of the new material during two almost instantly sold-out solo acoustic shows at the Dakota, and a third, which was subsequently added. It'll be the first time Williams and Overby, also her manager, will be back in Minnesota since the wedding. They'll celebrate by welcoming many of the same people who attended the nuptials, as well as taking a swing down to Overby's hometown of Austin to see the house where he grew up.
Unadulterated bliss has rarely been Williams's purview, and she admits even she was concerned about the effect of new-found contentment on her writing.
"I've been in a lot of relationships where I did shut down," she said. "I worried about it, yeah. It was on the top of my mind." But, "I found myself writing, coming up with new ideas. That's when I realized Tom was the person for me. Because I'd always wanted to be in one of those relationships where you inspire each other."
That includes coming up with what Williams calls "true love songs, like between two people who love each other, not about loss or regret." Such as "Kiss Like Your Kiss," a vivid evocation of romance that concludes Blessed but first appeared in the HBO vampire series True Blood and is up for a Grammy. "When I wrote 'Kiss Like Your Kiss,' it just kinda poured out of me. I surprised myself actually. I went, wow, I've written a love song for Tom."
Freed from the compulsion to rehash fractured relationships, Williams has significantly broadened the emotional and topical scope of her songs.
"It's actually really liberating," she said. "It's allowed me to stretch out and look at different things to write about. The easiest kind of song to write is (an) unrequited love ballad. That's what I've been tryin' to break out of. There's no point for me to write a bunch of maudlin love songs anymore. That would be just ridiculous."
In fact, Blessed ranges from the lilting, genuinely touching "Sweet Love" to the acidic dismissal "Buttercup." "Soldier's Song" starkly juxtaposes the hell of war with the domestic minutiae of life on the home front. "Born to Be Loved" is a kind of lullaby for the downtrodden. And "Seeing Black" is a fierce rocker inspired by songwriter Vic Chesnutt's suicide, featuring a lacerating guitar workout from Elvis Costello.
In addition to a wider range, Williams has been on a songwriting tear in recent years, quickly amassing material for 2007's harrowing West, the glimmers of salvation on 2008's Little Honey, the more expansive Blessed, and yet a new batch of still unrecorded songs. After sometimes extended periods of sparse productivity, why is she suddenly so prolific?
"It's hard to say whether it's just this particular time in my life. Does that happen with age? Usually it doesn't with songwriting, but maybe I'm different in that regard. I can trace it back to the death of my mother in 2004. It was so traumatic. Meeting Tom not long after that. Pretty big changes in my life. Maybe that's it. It's gettin' older and wiser and better at my craft."
Williams's use of language and imagery reflects a literary streak inherited from her father, renowned poet Miller Williams, who recited one of his poems at Bill Clinton's second inaugural.
"My dad was my mentor. It wasn't an official thing, but I would sit in on his creative writing workshops and I would go to his readings. When I would write somethin' I'd show it to him, and he would give me constructive criticism. Before I put a record out I'd send him the songs and lyrics to get his approval, I would say, through the time of [1998's] Car Wheels."
Father and daughter are still close, but the revelation that resounds the loudest for Williams at the moment is that misery and great songwriting are not essential companions.
"The thing that's so inane to me is the idea that you can't be quote unquote happy and create," she said. "That's just a myth."
LUCINDA WILLIAMS performs on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 20, SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 21, and MONDAY, FEBRUARY 22 at the DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB; 612.332.1010
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