Don’t go looking for too many alt-country or Americana influences on Lucinda Williams’ latest album, Good Souls, Better Angels. Instead, she cites the Seeds, the legendarily punky 60s band, as an inspiration.
It’s a raw sound for a raw album, one that addresses these troubled times unflinchingly and with equal portions of grit and grace. In fact, just this week, American Songwriter gave it a rave review, calling it “a devastatingly in your face, take no prisoners presentation from Williams.”
In a recent interview, Williams told American Songwriter that she didn’t go into the studio with an intent to take the temperature of the world. “I didn’t have a preconceived notion, like ‘This is going to be this kind of album,’” she says. “But then we ended up with all these songs that were addressing what was going on and they all fit together. It became that kind of album and it just made sense.”
Williams says she was scratching an itch by taking on topical material, all while throwing down a gauntlet to any doubters. “We used to call them protest songs, like Bob Dylan wrote when he was first starting out, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin,’ ‘Masters Of War’ and all of that. That was always my big goal, to be able to do that. Those kinds of songs I feel, and I think a lot of other songwriters feel the same way, are harder to write than the unrequited love song. I met (husband) Tom (Overby) when I was in my 50s. I was thinking, well, this is a good opportunity for me to start looking for other things to write about. Because I can’t keep writing unrequited love songs for the rest of my life.”
“I would be doing interviews on the phone like this, and they would ask me, ‘Your fans are wondering are you still going to be able to write songs? Like where are the songs going to come from now you’re happy?’ It annoyed the hell out of me, like do I really have to explain this to people? There was always this kind of myth about the songwriter and how when you start getting more successful, you can’t write anymore. That might happen to some people but not me. That became a challenge for me. Like, Ok, I’ll show you.”
Williams and her regular band (Stuart Mathis, David Sutton and Butch Norton) tear into the album’s hard-rocking songs with abandon, perhaps because they were all feeling fed up with current events. “There was definitely a sense of when we were in the studio cutting this stuff like, ‘God dammit!” Williams says. “Everybody’s pissed off. We’re frustrated and angry. So it was definitely an outlet, doing these songs.”
As for the songwriting, Williams collaborated with Overby for the first time as a co-writer, although her husband worried about butting in to the process. “Tom has always been into creative writing,” Williams explains. “When we were working on this last batch, he would come up with an idea for a song. And he would have a title and he would have a couple of ideas for the verses. But he was always timid about it. He didn’t want to get in my space. He’d come up and say, ‘I thought of this idea. You know you don’t have to do anything with it. It’s just an idea.’ He would leave it with me.
Williams mentions the soulful highlight “Big Black Train” as a song that Overby originated. “He brought that idea to me and at first I said, ‘Another song about a train? And a black train at that? Like how many songs have been written about trains?’ And he said it’s supposed to represent depression, like a big black cloud. I finished it and it makes me cry now every time that I sing it.”
Overby also formulated the idea for “Man Without A Soul,” a blistering excoriation of President Trump. “Of all the songs on the album, that was the one that we went around and around about,” Williams says. “I actually said to Tom, ‘Honey, everybody has a soul. Even though it’s Donald Trump, I don’t want to say he doesn’t have a soul.’ To me that was the worst thing you could say about someone. Remember Neil Young sang, ‘Even Richard Nixon has got soul.’”
Williams also felt that the song’s subject was too easily identifiable. “I’ve performed the song a few times and Tom said, ‘Well don’t introduce it and say who it’s about.’ And I said, ‘Everybody knows who it’s about. I don’t have to say anything.’” (As we were doing this part of the interview, Overby walked in and told Williams, ‘It could also be about Mitch McConnell.”)
But Williams ended up thrilled with the song and the overall results of working with Overby on the record (he also co-produces with Lucinda and Ray Kennedy.) “It’s been liberating, having Tom involved, Williams says. “Tom was worried, and I was too, about the reaction, the ‘Oh, now your husband is helping you write songs’ kind of thing. Tom would even say, ‘You don’t have to put my name on it. That’s fine. I just want the song to be real good.” I said, ‘If you helped me write it, your name is gonna be on it.’ It’s worked out great. It opened up a whole other door of ideas. I think we make a good team.”
Williams also tackles other hot-button issues on Good Souls, Better Angels, as on “Wakin’ Up,” a no-filters look at domestic violence. “I needed to get it out,” she says of the song. “And I’d been working on some ideas for it. I thought that maybe it was going to be too much. But Tom was real open to it and all the other guys in the band and Ray Kennedy. Even after we recorded it, there was some discussion about should it go on the record or not. But everybody agreed that it needed to be on the record.”
“I have a history of pushing people’s buttons. I think that’s what art is about. I’m an artist, first and foremost. I’m not writing for the radio. I’m not writing for Music Row. I’m writing for myself. The craftsmanship of it comes into play. ‘Cause I’ve learned how to express what I want to express and get it out there and make it come across to other people at the same time. That’s the challenge. That line about ‘He pissed on me.’ Well, I’m sorry, but it happens. I know it’s intense.”
Williams says she has always believed such raw self-expression to be just as much her province as anybody else’s. “When I was younger, I would listen to different stuff and it was like, ‘Well, they get to do that. Why can’t I do that?’ It never occurred to me as a singer-songwriter that I couldn’t do the same thing like Jim Morrison of the Doors was doing or something like that. Maybe because I came out of a poetry background. Because of my Dad being a poet, being around poets and people like that. If you’re writing poetry, you write whatever you need to. You don’t worry about is this going to offend someone.”
Williams credits Kennedy for helping get the sounds that permeate the album. “You walk into his studio and he’s got all these vintage 1950s and 1960s guitars and these vintage amps. Some of these songs, I would be playing a 1950s guitar through a 1950s amplifier, and I would get this sound automatically. We said we have to keep this really simple and old-sounding kind of thing.”
To that end, Williams and her collaborators resisted the urge to include many overdubs, capturing a fierce, rough-and-tumble sound throughout the album. And even though she balances out the album with glimmers of hope in songs like the moving closer “Good Souls,” this is a piece of work that sounds as suited to address the current tumult as any, especially with such a confident and talented hand at the controls.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s so dark,’ Williams explains. “It’s not dark. It’s defiant. Because now the world situation, the calamity that we’re in and all that, is unprecedented. The person who’s the president is unprecedented. Now the pandemic is unprecedented. This is stuff you can’t really argue with.”
“I’m at a place in my career now when I can say what I need to say. People aren’t going to be freaking out. Maybe some people will. But I’ve earned the right to express myself.”