Role Models: The Civil Wars

Videos by American Songwriter

After playing more than 300 shows last year, bandmates Joy Williams and John Paul White are finally spending time at home, while Williams prepares to have a baby and the band works on new songs. We caught up with The Civil Wars several days after the Grammy Awards, where they took home two trophies, to see what keeps these road warriors fighting the good fight.

It’s been three years since you played your first show. How has touring changed for you?

Joy Williams: John Paul has someone on the road who only shines his shoes. It’s a full-time gig. He has a full-time mustache groomer now, too.

John Paul White: Actually, if you look closely, you’ll know that sure ain’t true. There’s nothing professional about my facial hair.

JW: Honestly, when we first started, it was John Paul, myself, and my husband, all piled into my Honda Element and driving from gig to gig. Now, we’re thankful to say that the workload has been so consistent that we’ve been able to hire a tour manager, a merch person, and a couple people to help with sound. It makes an exponential difference.

Are there any lessons you learned during the 2011 tour that you’re trying to put into practice now?

JPW: Yeah, pacing. We figured out that we’re not superhuman, and that there’s a direct relation between sleeping and eating properly and keeping our voices in shape. We’re as hungry as anyone, so we’ve had a hard time saying “no” to any offer. We are game for pretty much everything, but we’re trying to be a little more mindful about taking care of ourselves.

Both of you were solo artists before forming The Civil Wars, but neither of you played Americana music. What made you explore this new sound?

JPW: It was the partnership. This sound didn’t happen until the two of us got into a room together, and she started pulling things from my past, like memories of listening to my dad’s country records, and I started pulling from Joy’s background. She grew up with pop music, but also a lot of jazz, blues, gospel, and harmony-based West Coast stuff. Neither one of us had been taking advantage of those kinds of things in our respective solo careers, and playing this new kind of folk music was never spoken about. We just decided, “Let’s just make music as selfishly as we can – music that pleases us – and don’t worry about how it affects other people, because that’s something that we cannot control or predict.”

It must have felt so different, performing with another person after putting so much work into your solo careers.

JPW: For whatever reason, our voices match up like we’re brother and sister. Like we’ve been singing together all our lives. We don’t try to think about it too much, or wonder how we’re going to keep doing it. When we write a song, for whatever reason, certain parts pop into our head and we just sing them. There’s not a lot of talking about it.

I’ve noticed that John Paul plays guitar in a very percussive way. Is that something you’ve brought to the band’s sound in lieu of having an actual drummer?

JPW: It’s subconscious. I think my playing comes from years and years of listening to bluegrass music, because the mandolin player is basically the drummer in that genre. When we recorded “Safe And Sound” with T Bone Burnett, Jim Keltner was on the session. Joy and I did our typical thing in the studio, where we stand in front of two mics and perform the whole song live, then add stuff after the fact. Jim listened back to it and said, “Well, there’s already three drum parts on here. I’m not sure what to do.” I took that as a compliment – about as good a compliment as I could get.

Is there a new album in the works?

JW: A new album and new songs are definitely on our radar. We’ve written anywhere from seven to ten new songs as we’ve been on the road, and we’re both really excited about what’s been coming out of us when we do sit down to write together.


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