With her collaboration with Charles Lloyd and “Lu’s Jukebox” album series Lucinda Williams keeps innovating.
Lucinda Williams needs no introduction to Americana UK readers as her 40 years plus career could be viewed as a template for any aspiring americana artist covering as it does elements of country, blues, folk and rock’n’roll. Her commercial breakthrough album, 1998’s ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’, helped define americana as a genre and has gone on to feature in various best albums of all time lists, increasing its placings as the years have gone by. Williams has continued to release regular albums over the subsequent years which have helped keep the americana genre fresh, and she has gathered various nominations and awards over the years. Americana UK’s martin Johnson caught up with Lucinda Williams at home in Nashville over Zoom to discuss her Americana Music Association UK International Lifetime Achievement Award, the idea behind her recent successful series of tribute albums, ‘Lu’s Jukebox’, where she celebrates the music of Tom Petty, Southern Soul, Bob Dylan, classic ‘60s Country, Christmas and The Rolling Stones. Collaborations have featured regularly in Lucinda William’s career and she discusses how she met and subsequently worked with the legendary jazz musician Charles Lloyd, and the importance her poet father has had on her own songwriting. Finally, she lets slip her previous career as a sausage demonstrator and salesperson.
How does it feel to be given the International Lifetime Achievement Award by Americana Music Association UK?
It is just great, very humbling in fact. This will be a pair with my American version. It is a wonderful thing to be recognised.
I normally ask artists who they have been influenced by but you have your Lu’s Juke Box series, currently at 5 and soon to be 6. What are your thoughts on the series?
Haha, those have been really fun to do and they have gone over pretty well. We had to come up with something to help out during the pandemic, and part of the reason was to fill the time, we thought it would be really fun to do and people might actually enjoy it. One of my favourite things is to introduce people to the music I like and this seemed like a good way of doing it.
Which is your favourite ‘Lu’s Juke Box’ volume out of the six covering Tom Petty, Southern Soul, Bob Dylan, Classic 60’s Country, Christmas and The Rolling Stones?
I would have to say the Tom Petty one, ‘Lu’s Juke Box, Vol 1: Runnin Down A Dream: A Tribute To Tom Petty’, was really great to do, that one and the Bob Dylan one, ‘Lu’s Juke Box, Vol 3: Bob’s Back Pages: A Night Of Bob Dylan Songs’ are my favourites. Some of those catalogues are so extensive and brilliant that you have to pick the songs, and that can be very challenging sometimes, haha. The others were also really great to do as well, of course.
The recent Christmas one, ‘Lu’s Juke Box, Vol 5: Have Yourself A Rockin’ Little Christmas’, is not too merry is it with all the blues music covered on it?
I guess not, haha, but everyone has to do a Christmas album at some point, haha. I thought I would throw some blues Christmas songs in there.
‘Good Souls Better Angels’ was your last studio album. How representative is that of you now as it was released in 2020 just as lockdown started?
I think people have maybe changed a bit, but we still have a lot of the same issues we were dealing with before the pandemic, just in terms of love, and peace, and harmony and all that, throughout the world. We are still a ways to go with all that.
You have a newish President in America, how do you think he is doing?
He is certainly a much better choice than the guy we had before, that’s for sure. I like him, I think he is a good guy at the end of the day, but it is really hard to say how it is going to go. You have to have somebody in there, and I know that isn’t much and it sounds like the lesser of two evils, but I guess that is what politics is all about in the end.
Hopefully, we are coming out of lockdown now, but how did your band cope?
That was one of the reasons we started ‘Lu’s Juke Box’ to keep the band happy. We went out of town and did a few shows, and we took the same band you see on ‘Lu’s Juke Box’, so we have had enough things to fill in and keep everybody busy.
In terms of your own songwriting, how do you write your songs?
I’m working on a couple of songs right now, the lyrical parts of them. I’ve got the melody, and once I’ve got the melody it is close to being finished. I just have to make sure the lyrics are in there the right way. One song I’m writing now is called ‘Fade Away’ and it is about not fading away, haha, it is about not giving up.
That is certainly good advice. I think I read that your father was a poet. How much influence did he have on your own approach to language and lyrics?
He had a tremendous amount of influence on me. I used to show him things at times, you know when I had finished a song. I would show him the lyrics and then I would play it for him, and he would make suggestions from time to time. It was almost like having a built-in creative writing class. He taught, he was a Professor also, so that just came naturally and he would critique my work, and give me constructive criticism, which was invaluable, haha.
It is very hard to give constructive criticism and get the tone just right.
Yes, especially from the father to the daughter.
You worked with jazz musician Charles Lloyd on his ‘Vanished Gardens’ record. How did the collaboration come about?
I just love him, he is just so brilliant. Tom Overby, my husband and manager, knew about him and took me to see him when he was performing in Santa Barbara, which is not too far from Los Angeles. We drove up to see his show and went backstage, and I met him and we just kind of hit it off personally. He doesn’t like to shake people’s hands though, I guess due to the pandemic so he does the elbow thing. He is kind of like an old-school beatnik in a way, he has that vibe about him, and he has played with everybody. When you talk to him you hear that he hung out with Alice Coltrane, and she had this kind of spiritual retreat place around Malibu, I think. He used to go there and just hang out. He is pretty amazing, his history is really something to talk to him about, all the people he has worked with, and everything. He is also really funny, he is very sly and kind of charming but joking around.
So I went to see him play and met him backstage, and then I was going to be performing with my band not too long after that and so we invited him to sit in, and it turned out we knew a lot of the same songs already. I was going to do ‘Masters Of War’, the Bob Dylan song, and it turned out that Charles already knew it, and he knew all these other songs I had been doing as well, so he sat in and it was just phenomenal. I then sat in on his next show, and we kind of did that back-and-forth, and then it became time for him to make an album, and he invited me to come into the studio with him and do some stuff. So that is how all that came about.
As you have already said, he is a master musician with a great history, so what did you learn from him?
You know, I learnt a lot about space in music, and probably other people would say that if they collaborated with someone who was in the jazz world, like that. It is a really important lesson to learn, just not rushing the song, just take your time and not be afraid of having that silent space in between lines, or in between verses. You don’t have to fill it up all the time with this sound, that was one of the things I was able to take away from that.
Are there any plans for another collaboration between the pair of you?
I would love to, I really would love to and I think we probably will, yeah. He may be in his ‘80s but he looks really young, his skin is really smooth, and he is very musical.
What is your current relationship with your iconic album, ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’? How do you view it now, well over twenty years since you recorded it?
You know, I still relate to a lot of the same things. I kind of just look back and it is like looking in a photo album and looking at old pictures. It takes you back to that time, and sometimes it is a little bittersweet, and at other times I might feel a little wistful looking back like that. We just recently did a whole run of shows where I did all the songs from ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’, and before I did a song I would tell people about the song and go in-depth. I would tell people a lot of things they wouldn’t have heard before, and we showed some film clips and old photos of my brother, sister, and me when we were little. Sometimes that got emotional for me, but people really liked it because they liked to hear the stories. It is always a good idea to talk to the audience, and I had the opportunity to talk to them a lot more because it is a lot easier sometimes to just go out there and play the songs, and then that’s it and just walk off. It is so much better when you try and engage the people in the audience and bring them into your world.
Have you been tempted to release a current version of ‘Gravel Road’, maybe in a live version?
We’ve re-mixed and remastered a couple of the albums and put them back out, and well maybe we will, but I’m not the one to ask because Tom is the guy who does all that sort of stuff. He decides about things, and then he just runs it by me and if I OK it gets done, haha. That is how we kind of do things.
If he is your husband and manager I assume he has to do as he is told, haha.
Haha, it can get a little touchy at times, you know, you have to dance around things like in any relationship. But when you have both things going on, married to my manager, haha, but it works most of the time though, haha.
How is Nashville as I heard you have recently moved there?
We were here very often and spending a lot of time here anyway from Los Angeles, and we were always staying in hotels, which was getting to be a little expensive. So we started looking around for a house and we found a place, an older house in East Nashville which is an older neighbourhood. We still have our house in LA, though. They both have their pluses and minuses, both cities, you know. Nashville is a lot easier to get around in than Los Angeles, it is smaller, and just that in and of itself is just so different logistically from living in a huge city like LA. There are some great people here as well, there is a really good music scene. I’m not really into the commercial country scene, you know, and that is a whole different thing. You just have to ignore that part of it, haha, because it is here and it certainly not going anywhere.
I’ve spoken to quite a few people who call Nashville home and they are all keen to stress that there is a lot more to the city than Music Row and the tourist view.
Yeah, that music is not really country it is much more like country-pop or something.
You mentioned a new song you have been working on, is there a new studio album coming anytime soon?
Yes, we are going into the studio in the next couple of weeks and we have some time already reserved with Ray Kennedy, with whom I’ve been working. That is one reason to try and get some new songs finished, to put on this album.
Will you be using your road band?
We are going to use the guys who did the ‘Lu’s Juke Box’ series with me, and they are based here in Nashville and that really helps and makes things so much easier to facilitate things.
How do you know when you have finished a song and when you need to stop tweaking it?
It is just an instinct, a feeling, and it also really helps to have someone whose opinion you really trust, to listen and bounce ideas off of, and play your songs for. That person can be kind of the sounding board, and for me that is Tom. He hears the song and gives me constructive criticism, haha, like my dad used to do. Now I don’t have my dad here to help me with that, so Tom has to fill in, haha.
How do you cope with Tom’s constructive criticism?
I’m pretty good normally, but sometimes I will write this song and think it is really great, and then I play it for Tom and he calmly goes like yeah, that’s pretty good. That is kind of a drag, you know, like argh, but when it is all said and done, it forces me to go back and work more on the song and make it better. It is a challenge, and you just have to be open to that and then take it and do something with it. That is why they call it constructive criticism, haha, you are supposed to take the criticism and then be constructive with it, haha, you can’t just give up and throw the song away.
You have been an artist for 40 years now. What keeps you going and why do you keep putting yourself through the artistic mill?
I really kind of have to, it is just so built into me, it is such a part of me now, that I just feel this urge and this need to write songs and sing, and get on the stage and sing for people. It is just part of who I am. And the other thing is I can’t do anything else, haha, I have no other skills really. So if this hadn’t worked out when I first got into it I couldn’t have been a secretary because I never learnt to type, haha.
That was lucky because secretary is one of those jobs that is fast disappearing with new technology and working practises.
I did do a lot of other odd jobs though when I was first starting out. I worked in book stores, record stores and all that kind of thing. I even sold sausages in a supermarket, haha. I did one of those things where they have someone standing there with a demonstration in a grocery store where they give you a little taste of something. I did that because a friend of mine’s father had a sausage company, and he would hire different musicians to go in and you got paid something like $75 for the afternoon. You stood there and sliced up the sausages, haha, and then grill them on a little grill-thing, put them on a little plate with cheesecake and wait for people to come by. Hopefully, they would taste the sausage and then go buy some, haha.
What do you enjoy the most, is it songwriting or singing and performing?
It is always the sausages, haha. I don’t know, I guess it would be a toss-up between writing songs and recording songs. I love the recording process because it is really satisfying to go into the studio with just a little song I’ve just written, and just watch it grow into this thing, you know, with the band, and hear what the band does with it and how they interpret it on their own. I very rarely tell those guys what to do or what to play, I just let them go for it. So that is the fun part of it, watching the fruits of my labour come to life.
How do you record your vocals, because you have your own vocal style?
I use Ray Kennedy because he has these vintage microphones, different kinds, and he uses a certain mic with me, or sometimes he might switch the microphone depending on the style of the song, or how I am approaching a song. He will just come up and change the microphone for me, and he is just really good at recording vocals. That is one of the hardest jobs as an engineer, to get a good vocal sound, and I’m really picky about my vocal sound, so I work with Ray doing all of that. But he is really good at all that, you walk into his studio and he has all these guitars on the walls, vintage instruments, amplifiers and everything is from the ‘50s. That gives it a certain sound, right there, that warm sound.
I’m not sure whether this is a question for Tom, but you are working with Thirty Tigers and they seem to have a business model that works for a lot of different artists. What difference have they made to your career?
I’m a firm believer in independent labels, first of all, I really think they are the way of the future. I had such a positive experience with Rough Trade Records, that was the first really independent label I was on, and it worked out really well with them. Indy labels don’t always have the man or woman-power to send a bunch of people out into the field, they don’t have the ability to get a lot of albums into the stores, that kind of thing. The major labels just have more money to work with, and they have a bigger staff and everything is different that way. But regardless of that, Rough Trade still sent me over to Europe, I did shows over there and they supported me on the road, and that is a big deal. Thirty Tigers is similar in that way, and David Macias is great, the guy who runs Thirty Tigers. He is a really down-to-earth good person, he has really good taste in music, and he believes that all this can work. With major labels, you have to sell a certain number of records, and a lot of times an artist will get signed to a major and then they just get lost in the shuffle, and that is why it is so important to have independent labels to pick up those artists who might not have anywhere to go otherwise.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I love doing that, there is a guy I’ve just discovered, or at least someone introduced me to his music, and he came to see me play in New York and then I got some copies of his albums and he is called Steve Gunn. I love his stuff across the board, his voice, his songs, his records, his guitar playing just everything. I don’t know how to describe it other than it is really good songwriting, and singing, and there is just something about his voice that just pulls you in, or at least it pulls me in, anyway. Sometimes you can’t really describe what that is, it is just a thing that somebody has and he has that thing, that whatever it is, you know, haha. There is another artist I’m really fond of, and she is Sharon Van Etten, and I think she is brilliant. I recorded one of her songs recently on an album for her, she had different artists come in and do her songs, and so I worked with her a little bit in the studio. She is really, really good, I think, and such an amazing songwriter, I love her songs and her voice. We talked about Charles Lloyd so he has to be one even though it is a different kind of music. The music is similar as well, it is great music and he is a great artist, and I listen to a lot of different kinds of music including Chet Baker, John Coltrane, and then all the blues guys which is pretty much across the board, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, any of them and all of them I would recommend, haha.
Is there anything you would like to say to our UK readers?
First off I want to thank you all for this wonderful honour of the Lifetime Achievement Award, I am just so humbled and grateful and thank you all so much. I’m really looking forward to getting over there, performing over there because it has a special place in my heart. I’m actually a quarter English, so I don’t know if that counts, haha, the rest is a quarter German, French and Welsh, I’m a mutt really, haha. We are all mutts over here, American mutts. That would be a great name for a band.
Details of Americana Music Association UK’s 2022 Awards can be found here.
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