To borrow from one of her most acclaimed albums, there’s good evidence to suggest that Lucinda Williams has taken the gravel road rather than the easy road through both life and music. There has been a strong thread of raw emotion running through much of her work, which at times just sounds too honest and heartfelt not to be personal. Of course, it’s exactly that quality of emotional engagement that makes her the artist that she is. In her career, however, there is also the sense of a woman doing things her own way and too some degree Lucinda has embraced the role of the maverick outsider, content with the adoration of those prepared to cross the tracks to her side of town, but unwilling to play the mainstream game. But now, as Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone meets a great reaction there is finally the sense that Lucinda is happy and boy, has it worked wonders for her creativity.
More power to Lucinda, if she’s been on the road less travelled, it’s proved no bad thing, with a succession of albums that have helped define the very foundations of the Americana sound. Sure, at times we’ve had to wait for new instalments, with long gaps between records for one reason and another, but it seems no longer, as the latest album, the double CD and triple vinyl release of Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, weighs in at 20 tracks and clocks 104 minutes. Whilst that might spark a sense of quizzical realignment with a bounty overflowing, the truly amazing thing is that each song packs a punch and there is nothing that you’d call filler. There are simply no edit points, although admittedly it’s a record for those who favour expansive, top notch guitar work outs.
She acknowledges that she’s creatively in the most productive phase of her career so far and it turns out Lucinda really is on a roll and she tells me, “You know it started before the last album. When I recorded Blessed I had enough songs for a double album, but Lost Highway didn’t want to release a record that long.” She thinks about it for moment, her mellow drawl giving plenty of room for thought and concedes, “It’s probably been the best part of 10 years that I’ve been writing all of the time.” I’m naturally curious as to what prompted this and she tells me, “A lot of people are asking me that and I guess you can go back to before the West album when my mother died. I’d also been in this terrible, abusive relationship and I managed to get out of that around the same time, so you could say that those two momentous events were the catalyst.”
Lucinda certainly seems happy with her current lot, especially the reception for the new record, and a after a few minutes of conversation she is clearly relaxed. She confides, “I’m much more confident as a writer now, but then I’m in a much more comfortable place, being married to Tom.” Lucinda married Tom Overby, who had become both her manager and co-producer around West and the Little Honey album, in a very public display, on stage at one of her gigs in 2009. She laughs, “Of course the irony was around then, I was fielding all these questions from concerned fans asking if I was still going to be able to write songs. There’s this whole myth that you have to be miserable to be creative.” It’s something that she’s very happy to puncture as she continues, “The opposite is true and I’m in the best shape, in my life and creatively, that I’ve ever been in. I’m writing prolifically and my voice is in great shape too.” She laughs again, “I guess you could say I’m getting better with age.”
I ask whether the creative surge demands a certain methodology and she reveals, “I’m always thinking of ideas. I’ll be out somewhere, in a bar with Tom and I’ll have to grab a cocktail napkin and write something down. Or someone will say something and I’ll think, that’s a great line for a song. So I collect all of these ideas and I have all of these half written songs and things that I’ve already started, but I’ll always know when It’s time to sit down and start working on them seriously. I just get into a certain mood and that’s the trigger.” She admits, “I don’t do that part of it all of the time, but when I do, it might last for a week or ten days at a time and I’ll just leave everything lying out and get at it as soon as I get up, working all through the day. It’s an all or nothing situation in that way.” She laughs again, “Of course I don’t get up that early, so maybe I start about two or three in the afternoon and will work straight through ‘til 10 o’ clock.”
I suggest to Lucinda that it sounds like a lot of self editing goes on and she agrees, “That’s the important part and I’m not sure everyone does enough of it. It’s all very well to spout a lot of stuff out, but then you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and that’s definitely something I’ve become more confident about.” Listening to the album, I think that stands out. On the one hand it’s musically expansive, with plenty of room for the songs to breathe and on the other, it’s often pithy, sharp and keenly etched. The words are pointed and hit their targets with power and accuracy.”
I ask Lucinda about the recording process and she recalls, “We were in the studio around this time last year for a few months, but every now and then we’d have to take a break and head out and do a few shows.” She’s hazy for a moment telling me, “I don’t remember exactly how long it all took, although the basic tracks were all cut pretty quickly. But then I was still writing and finishing songs off while we were recording. For example, I had some lyrics I liked, but didn’t like the tune, so had to change that around and it became Burning Bridges on the album. It was stuff like that changing lines as we went along and so on.”
[pullquote]I like to keep a really organic feel when we record. I’d play the guys my demo, establish the tempo and just go for it.[/pullquote]The venue for the sessions actually has some history, but Lucinda paints a slightly different picture explaining, “We recorded it in this really worn down, working class area of North Hollywood in a studio called Dave’s Room. Dave Bianco owns and runs it and he’s a great engineer, really laid back and the place is really homely and comfortable and everyone had fun making it.” Again she pauses and reflects, on the sense the enjoyment that was had in making this as she continues, “A lot of people have commented that they can really hear that we had a good time. Most of it was done live with all of us playing together. Of course there were overdubs, which we added later, but I like to keep a really organic feel when we record. I’d play the guys my demo, establish the tempo and just go for it. I’d just let everyone do their thing.”
It says a lot about Lucinda’s trust in those around her and she confirms, “When you’re working with guys of the calibre of Tony Joe White, you really don’t have to tell them very much and I like working like that.” I ask Lucinda if everyone knew each other already and she confirms, “They’re pretty much all people that we were friends with, or in some cases, someone knew someone else and that’s how it all came together. We cut some stuff with Ian McLagan, who’s a friend and he flew in from Austin to be with us. But then Greg Leisz knew people like Patrick Warren who also played some keyboards and also the guys who added the horns. Then we had Stuart Mathis on guitar and he’s in the Wallflowers, so that brought Jakob Dylan into the picture and Bill Frisell was on my last album, so he’s a friend now. Tom and I would just talked about people who we thought would fit the songs and went from there.”
Lucinda talks about Greg Leisz in particular explaining his co-producers credit, “He’s such a great guy to work with. Tom and I got him in as a guitarist and pedal steel player originally, but he’s so good and kept coming up with ideas. We’d tend to do two or three takes of each song and then sit back. I like to ask the guys what they think and make sure everyone’s happy. Most of the time we all agreed, but Greg was really good at connecting with everyone and helping me to explain what I want. So it just seemed natural. Tom and Greg seemed to feel the same thing most of the time. I trust both of them and we made a great team, Tom, Greg, David on the board and me.”
One things was certain once they got going as she affirms, “We soon worked out it was going to have to be a double album. I mean we had all of this great stuff and there was no way we were going to be able to whittle it down. Take the ending of Magnolia for instance, it was just spontaneous, but we knew we had something that we had to keep intact.” Of course being your own boss helps and in that regard Lucinda has now set up her own record label Highway 20, ending a long and productive relationship with Lost Highway. While Lucinda is enjoying the fact that there’s no one else calling the shots, she’s also aware of the need to take care of business, but she’s sure, “We did a pretty good job and David gave us a great deal, so were really happy with that side too. It’s great to be in control.”
She also credits the team at 30 Tigers who are supporting her label set up and tells me, “It’s a really good set up and the A & R guy, Tom, I’m working with is the same guy I worked with at Lost Highway. But they’re all so supportive, David Macias has a great vibe there and they’re like a family.”
They all seem to have had their reward too. Earlier in the year they released Lucinda’s self titled album, which originally came out on Rough Trade. Repackaged with a host of extras tracks and live material included, the album hit the charts in the US, where it was critically reappraised and finally recognised as a lost classic. But as Lucinda says, “When that first came out the critics and the audience were only just getting to know me.” But it’s the response to the new album that she comes back to revealing, “The reaction has been extraordinary. I’ve had all of these people emailing me and telling me it’s a masterpiece. The reviews have been great too. I couldn’t be happier” (Read the FRUK review here).
Lucinda also explains that although the title Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone was chosen at the start, she was reluctant to tackle her dad’s poem Compassion, from where the line derives. As she explains, “It was the very last thing we did and I have to credit Tom for encouraging me. I just didn’t think I could do it, because you have to restructure the words to make it a song, but Tom felt it would just round things off. So I worked on it and got something I was happy with. We cut it with just me and guitar, always intending to add some extra instruments, but then Tom, Greg and David said we should leave it as it is. Then Greg suggested that we put it first on the album. I was surprised, but now I think that really works.”
But there’s more and in fact it amounts to a whole other album, as Lucinda reveals, “I wanted to say, we actually had enough for three records, but we’ve held some of it back. There are all of these tracks with Bill Frisell playing that all fit together, so we’ve saved them and they’ll come out as a separate record later on.”
I’ll leave that prospect hanging and having started with a play on one of Lucinda’s albums, rewind the clock even further to her early career and the second album she made. It was called Happy Woman Blues, a title that after 34 years is finally making sense. It’s the sound of her masterpiece Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Out now on Highway 20 Records
Available via: Amazon