Lucinda Williams: On Record

Check out Evan Schlansky’s extended interview with Lucinda Williams.

On this album, are the lyrics a product of automatic writing, or did you work on them and revise them a lot?
It’s funny, a couple of the songs I wrote a long time ago, like “If Wishes Were Horses” and “Like Circles for X’s.” Well, I had ‘em mostly written – “Circles and X’s” I never quite finished, but I started it, believe it or not, 20 years ago. “If Wishes Were Horses” I wrote about 20 years ago also, but never really did anything with it. And then “Well Well Well” was actually on a demo I had done when I was getting ready to do Sweet Old World. It goes back to ‘91. I don’t throw anything away; I keep everything. So when I’m writing, I can go back and look at stuff that I did a long time ago. So that’s what I was doing at the time. Some songs I wrote new, like “Little Rock Star,” “Tears of Joy” and “Honey Bee,” and some of them were these really old songs that I kind pulled off the shelf and dusted off and fixed up.

I was inspired by [singer and songwriter] Laura Cantrell. I have these really old songs that nobody ever heard before. I was really inspired because when she put her last record out, Humming By The Flowered Vine, somehow she got a hold of this real old song of mine called “Letters” that had never been out on anything. Maybe it was on some demo I did – I guess it was floating around. Somehow she got a hold of that song, and lo and behold, there it was on her record. I was happy to see it, but I was also surprised. ‘Cause I always look at that song as being a really, really early song, something I wrote 25 or 30 years ago, believe it or not. Like when I was in my twenties, probably, and just getting started and stuff. So it’s one of those songs you don’t think about any more. Like, whatever, that’s that song for that time, and it will never see the light of day. And there it is on her record! And sometimes when I run into really old friends of mine, from when I used to play in Austin, Texas, they ask me about these early songs, from when I was of that age, in my twenties-some people I know still remember those songs. So I started thinking about revisiting my early stuff, that’s kind of what lead me to go back and rediscover some of the songs like “If Wishes Were Horses.” I thought maybe I should revisit those songs, and give those songs a chance, too. Like, a lot of the stuff that was on my early albums, even my Rough Trade album and Happy Woman Blues, people still like those songs, you know?

It’s hard as a songwriter sometimes, to go back and appreciate some of the early stuff. But that’s what I was attempting to do.

I kind of go back and remember, I just sort of bring them up-to-date now, and when I’m singing ‘em, I’m singing ‘em for now, but I also remember the moment when I wrote them. So it’s kind of like lookin’ at an album of old photographs, and you look at yourself and say wow that was me then [laughs]. It’s an exploration, looking back and moving forward at the same time. That’s kind of what this new album is about.

So you don’t practice automatic writing?
I go through and edit and re-edit until I get it write, as I’m writing a new song. I don’t throw anything away, so I keep a folder of everything I’ve ever written. Once I’ve written a song and I’ve used all the lines, I’ll take it out. The only time I’ll throw those notes out is when I’ve used up all the ideas. But if there’s one little line from 20 years ago that I wrote down, I still have it. So the beauty of that is, sometimes when I have the time, and I’m in the mood, I’ll get all those notes out. Or I might be working on a new song, and I’m kind of stuck, and I need a line, so I’ll go back and browse through all that stuff. Something might pop up that I’ll be able to use now, whereas I might not have been able to use it before. So it’s always good to keep everything.

I’m always writing ideas down and then I stick ‘em in my pocket and put ‘em in that folder so I don’t loose them. Like, somebody might say something, and I’ll go, oh that’s a good line, and that goes in the folder too. It’s kind of an on-going process for me.

When you recorded the duet with Elvis Costello, “Jailhouse Tears,” did he change any of the lyrics around?
No, I wrote all the lyrics. He just sang them the way I’d already written them. It was great; he’s a sweetheart. We’ve known each other for a few years now. I sang on one of his songs on a record he’d done a few years ago, Delivery Man. He’s always been a big fan and really supportive, and he’s a great artist. He just continues to grow as he gets older, he’s still out there doing it, he’s still making great records. I really admire artists like that-Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, who’s a great inspiration too, and a friend also. It’s a real honor to have these guys kind of in my camp now, you know. Because they were who I was listening to when I was learning how to write.

So with Elvis, he happened to be in town for just a couple of days, and he made the time to come in and do that song with me. He had heard it before because I had been doing it live. And sometimes when we were doing the same festival, he’d jump up on stage and sing with me. He’s just one of those artist who loves to get out there and play music and be supportive of other artists.

You cover AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” on this album – did I read correctly that you weren’t a fan initially?
It’s not that I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t have any of their records, they weren’t really on my turntable on a regular basis. I was more into Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and Neil Young, and all the ‘60s rock bands, like Cream and The Doors. It’s funny, now that I’ve gotten older, I’m actually able to go back and appreciate more hard rock. Now I’ve gone back and listened to some of those bands. There’s so much music, you can’t take in every single thing.

I mean, I heard them on the radio, of course, and I always admired the guitar player and stuff, but it wasn’t the kind of music that I listened to on a regular basis, cause I was just into different styles of stuff. But it was really [Little Honey producer and William’s fiance] Tom Overby who said “You know, we need a good rock and roll song for this record, let’s try to think of a cool cover we could do, like an older song.” I would have picked this one song by this band Mountain. I was thinking more of that style, more of a blues-based rock band. And then Tom found this AC/DC song, and I said, I don’t know, you know? I didn’t even know the song. He said let’s just try it and see. He took it into the band first, they worked it out. And then I came into the studio later, at the end of the day, and I went in and said, “OK let’s give it a shot,” but I was still kind of resistant. And then I went in, they had the lyrics printed out for me – it took a little time for me to figure out the phrasing and everything. I took a stab at it and we ran through it a couple of times I guess, and I thought, “wow, I can do this!” That’s how we approach things, real spontaneous like that. It just goes to show you never know, you know? I wasn’t even sure if we should put it on the record, I wasn’t sure if people were going to like it-because I hadn’t done that before, on any of my albums. I very rarely do any covers. And if I do one, it’s usually one nobody’s ever heard before, like a Little Son Jackson song, something like that. I did a Nick Drake song with Tom a long time ago. And then on Car Wheels I did a Randy Weeks song that nobody had heard because it’d never been recorded anywhere, “Can’t Let Go.” He was in this band the Lonesome Strangers.

When I first moved out to L.A. in late ‘84, I opened a few shows for them. Randy’s got his own thing going now, he’s living in Austin. He’s a great songwriter. I love his stuff. I like to seek out material from other writers like that to do.

Did you write “Rarity” with someone specific in mind?
I was actually really inspired by this artist named Mia Doi Todd. She’s just a really, really brilliant songwriter kind of more in the underground folk pop thing I guess. She goes out and tours and stuff. I guess there was a situation that inspired the song, but of course all my songs are bigger than one person. But there might be a person or an event that plants the seed for the song, but then the song becomes bigger than that. But what had happened was, a friend of turned me on to her, a record she put out on a little indie label, and this was when I was still living in Nashville, before I moved back to Los Angeles about six years ago. And I really was just struck by her lyrics. Her voice was soft and moody sounding, and her melodies were great, but her lyrics really impressed me. I’d never heard of her before. Then I was in a record store in L.A. and saw that she had a record out on a subsidiary of universal, I think it was on hip-o, maybe. But obviously she had some major label distribution, and I went, yay, finally. She’s got a chance to sell some records and get better known and things. Next thing I know I read that she’s been dropped by Universal, and now her next record is out on an unknown little indie label, so that’s what spurred the idea for the song. Because I had seen that so often, and I’d been through that myself, to some degree, and seen it happen with a lot of really good artists: where if they don’t sell enough records, they don’t really get a chance. It’s the same old story that you’ve heard a million times. So that’s basically what planted the idea for the song.

We finally got to meet, she lives in L.A., and she had came in, and I recorded a song that was going to go on West, but we had so many songs that we couldn’t put them all on the record. We sort of ran out of time, budget, money, time to record all the songs. But I had a demo of it, she came in and heard the demo, and she was really touched.

I don’t get as chance to see her play very often, but she’s just one of those unusually brilliant songwriters who probably if she had a chance to do something back in the, if she’d been around back in the day, when people like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, writers like that were coming out, she would have probably stood a better chance in getting recognition. She definitely has a cult following, that’s for sure. That’s kind of the only way you can do it now anymore, if you’re just starting out. You have to build your own thing like that. I mean, I’m lucky, ‘cause I just barely got in by the skin of my teeth. But if I was just starting out now, I’d have a hard time. I’m lucky I got as far as I did! Just before the door slammed on me, before the industry kind of went to hell and a hand basket.

Time magazine called you America’s best songwriter. How did it affect your career, and how did it affect your psyche?
I’m sure it helped my career to some degree. All those accolades, all the positive press, it always helps. As far as how it affected my psyche, I remember feeling extremely honored, of course, but the thing you have to remember is… I don’t know if they still do it, but they would pick whatever songwriter it was for that year, or that decade. I don’t know exactly, but… Because my first reaction was, wait a minute! What about Bob Dylan, what about John Prine, what about Leonard Cohen? So what I was told was, they’re talking about now, for this specific time period. That made me feel a little more comfortable [laughs]. I felt a little humbled, to say the least. But that’s kind of my nature. I’m always kind of looking out for the other guy.

But I remember talking about it; they had Bob Dylan some other time. I mean all that stuff is a little, I don’t want to say hard to handle, but it’s certainly humbling, when you’ve been playing as long as I have, and things have taken a while to get to that point. And you never forget your beginnings. I don’t have a hard time keeping everything in perspective, you know? I probably have a hard time enjoying the fruits of my labor, and just being comfortable with it, just letting it happen, letting it be.

What’s the story behind the song “Come On,” from West?
That’s one where I was thinking, “Oh no, I don’t know about this.” And actually as it turned out, that was the one song that people went nuts over. Because I just looked at it like a silly little song, it wasn’t exactly like “Drunken Angel.” It wasn’t something that I worked that long on the lyrics or anything [laughs]. It’s sort of a playful look at those, kind of, hard rock songs, almost a parody on those kind of songs. Kind of like a parody of the hair bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, where the guy’s out front going (makes a caterwauling sound), the whole thing. The irony of it is, of all the songs on West, my attorney, who I’ve been with forever… she’s been with me twenty-something years, and she has great taste, very refined taste, and she heard the album and said, oh that song “Come On” is incredible. And I said, thanks, but what about the song “West”? What about some of these other kind of more refined songs? She said, “Yeah, yeah, they’re great, but ‘Come On’-that’s gonna end up being your anthem, an anthem for women everywhere!” Then the next thing I know I got nominated for a Grammy for that song for best rock vocal and best rock song. That is funny! It just goes to show you, you slave away and write these introspective songs that you spend hours and hours on, and then… I guess it’s just that rock and roll thing, people respond to it.

They’re hard to write, though-those kind of songs-for me. I find it a lot easier to do the more kind of waltzes and slower songs. But I want to learn to write; I’ve always wanted to write songs like The Doors “Light My Fire,” stuff like that.

I’m kind of a late bloomer when it comes to certain bands, but I just discovered Audioslave, the songs on that album [Audioslave] are just amazing! Everybody’s like, that came out so long ago, and I’m like, I missed it!


You’ve said that Little Honey is the most eclectic album you’ve done. How so?

All my albums have had a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This one probably has a wider stretch of material on one album-it has more country stuff, like Car Wheels had, with “Well Well Well,” “Circles and X’s” and “If Wishes Were Horses.” But then it also has r&b stuff like “Tears of Joy,” and it’s got rock and roll stuff too. But I’ve always been an eclectic artist in general. Maybe this album reflects that the best.

It seems like people are responding to this album in a way that they haven’t since the Car Wheels one, and I think that’s because I have more country songs on there. I haven’t done that in awhile-stuff that’s kind of straight ahead country.

I mean, people loved West, the last record, too, but it was a different kind of record; introspective and a little sad and dark, because it was right after my mother died. This record has more up stuff on it. It’s more rock and roll. The Car Wheels record was the one that really defined me, and people have compared all my records to that one ever since then. And I think I’ve come in a big full circle since Car Wheels. First there was Essence, I don’t know who you’d describe that one, but it was kind of different, and it was the first one after Car Wheels, and it kind of freaked people out a little bit. And then there was World Without Tears, and then there was West. People loved those records, but everyone always goes back to the Car Wheels one. That’s always their favorite.

With Little Honey, it’s like I’ve come full circle; I kind of see it as the best of everything, as far as styles go. It’s got blues, country, and rock. I don’t know what goes on in people’s heads all the time, I just make the record I want to make at the time. It’s hard to explain, really.