Early in a career that’s now spanned three decades, Lucinda Williams mastered the art of writing powerful stories. But her last two records, West and Little Honey, have displayed a particular rawness to go along with her believability—the pain experienced from her mother’s passing and a the end of a broken relationship.
At 58, Williams seems to be doing better—evidenced by the title of her 11th record, Blessed. Following a pair of heartrending records, Williams married longtime record-label executive Tom Overby, continued her longstanding tradition of collaborating with other artists and entered another prolific songwriting phase. Paste caught up with Williams just as she was about to embark on a long touring stretch, discussing her desire to collaborate with Cee Lo Green, working with producer Don Was on Blessed and how Vic Chesnutt inspired one of her new songs.
: In your last interview with Paste, you mentioned that the songs for West and Little Honey were written at the same time. Your current press release explains that your upcoming record Blessed emerged at the end of a “really big writing streak that gave me enough to make two albums.” I’m guessing that means that Blessed will be followed by a similar album?
Williams: When I went in to make West, I just came up with enough for two albums. I wanted to put one double album out, but we had to split them up…This was a different situation. I do have other songs, but some of them are not quite finished yet or they didn’t come out right when we were tracking or something.
When I finished West, I was frustrated because I had enough songs that were finished that I wanted to put out at the same time and I wasn’t able to. This time, we got the songs done for [Blessed]—the next songs will be on the next album. You what I mean? It’s not like I want to put them all out right now.
: Does that mean that there will be a shorter timeframe between Blessed and the next record, or will it be a few more years before that one comes out?
Williams: Maybe, yeah. You never know. I have this one song that we cut in the studio. I decided I wanted to do something else with it. Sometimes it’s a matter of… I wanted to try and get Cee Lo [Green] to come in and sing on it or something like that. It’s kind of a ‘get right with God’ kind of thing. It’s called “Can’t Wish For Nothing”—I wanted to do a gospel kind of thing, or kind of hip-hoppy thing. I don’t know what you want to call it.
But we couldn’t get a hold of him—there was some other stuff like that didn’t quite work out, that weren’t quite ready that we’ll put on the next album with a little different flavor to them. All my songs are different like that. It just depends on what I have the time that I go in to make the album and what works. I don’t ever think about that stuff ahead of time. I don’t ever have a conception or anything like that—a lot of people ask me what’s the theme of the album [laughs].
: You’re beating me to my next question [laughs]. Well then, if you didn’t have a preconceived theme or concept specific for Blessed, what was going through your head around the time you were writing this whole batch of songs?
Williams: Well, some of them were older songs, there’s a song that I… wrote and put on the shelf because I didn’t think it was good.
: Which song was that?
Williams: It’s actually a demo tape I did in 1983—it’s called “Jazz Side of Life”—I wrote for a friend of mine…I thought it was a good song that needed some work…that’s one of the ones that will probably be on the new album. Sometimes they’re really old songs from a long time ago because I keep everything. Like “If Wishes Were Horses” was one of those really, really old songs.
: Where any of those old songs on Blessed?
Williams: No, these were not ones completed like that. You know, I keep every single line and thought and idea in a folder. Some of those—they’re just bits and pieces from over the years. Like “Soldier’s Song,” I had some lines written down from who knows when. That’s a new song. I’m using a few lines to just get me started.
When I’m sitting down applying myself writing, when I’m in that mode, I get all that stuff out. Just set it all on the table and kind of just see what happens. Just go. Other times, I’ll just get a brand new fresh idea out of the blue. Those are the times when I’m doing other things like laying in bed getting ready to get up or getting ready to go to sleep and have some ideas and write it down. But when I actually sit down and finish a song is more when I’m in that mode before we go into record. It just depends.
: What kind of role has your husband Tom Overby played in all of this over the past few years since you got married?
Williams: He’s my personal manager, overall manager. We have a separate business manager… It’s a good team…Tom also has worked in marketing and production and A&R at record labels for years and years and years—He was at Fontana in Universal Music Group when we met. He was looking for a career change, and [former manager] Frank Callari and I were starting to part ways and then Frank died suddenly. It all sort of happened right around the same time.
Tom started getting into producing with me during the West album For instance, Tom was the one who suggested Hal Willner for producer on West. He was the executive producer on West, Tom was. On Little Honey, it was produced by Tom and Eric [Leljestrand] and myself. And this time…
: It was Don Was, right?
Williams: Yep, Tom suggested bring[ing] Don Was in. That worked out just really well. It was a perfect match.
: Tell me more about working with Don Was. What was that like?
Williams: We knew each other a while and everything. We [initially] ran into each other this time last year at a MusiCares tribute concert to Neil Young…Don was in the house band and I was invited to sing—different artists did different Neil Young songs. We were hanging out backstage and I was going over the songs with Emmylou [Harris]—I did one with Emmy and Patty Griffin…Don came around and we started to talk. Tom picked up on this chemistry and he already loved Don as a producer.
Later back at home, we were planning going into the studio and Tom brought it up and said “what do you think about bring Don in to co-produce?...So we met with Don a couple times… he just jumped at the opportunity to do it. I loved his personality—I was a little shy around him at first because of who he was and everything. But then as I got to know him, we really hit it off and became the best of friends.
He was very easy to work with in the studio. He would sit in the room with the band while they were recording and be in there with them…usually when the tracks were going down he was in there. It just gave me a feeling of real comfort and security to have his set of ears in there. If he liked it, I knew it was great. I’ve listened with Tom to some of the albums he’s done… one of my favorite albums of all time is [former Replacements leader] Paul Westerberg’s 14 Songs that Don produced… So I could see that he was very well rounded through what he’s done. One of the things he said before going in was “the most important thing is that I want everything to revolve around Lucinda’s vocals. I want her voice to be the main thing [present].”
: Do you think that working with Don made this album more focused around your voice than with past records?
Williams: That’s always a priority when I record anyway. But [Blessed is] the best sounding record I’ve ever done. Once we got it all recorded, we knew we had something really great. So the next step was mixing and mastering. This is where Don [would make] a suggestion and we said “yes, let’s try this.” That’s why we got Don in there. We didn’t want to make the same record over again.
: Some of the stories behind the songs on Blessed really caught my attention. I heard that “Seeing Black” was about Vic Chesnutt—can you tell me about that one?
Williams: Yeah, it was inspired by him. I should have said that instead of saying it was about him. It was inspired by his suicide, which happened during the time that I was writing. It was so sudden and shocking and stunning and sad.
: I take it you were a big fan of Vic’s work?
Williams: Yeah, yeah. Definitely…I was thinking about the death when I was writing it. [But] it transcends whom I was writing it about obviously.
: Elvis Costello also contributed to that track as well.
Williams: That was Tom’s idea again. Elvis happened to be in town, finishing his album with T-Bone Burnett. Tom sent him an email… we had the tracks done but Tom [wanted] a little more crunchy of a guitar-thing on a couple of these just to give that final [touch]. Tom said “I want to bring Elvis in to play guitar.” I said, “Really? Wow. I never though of Elvis as that kind of guitar player.” Tom said, “He will shred on these things. He’s an amazing electric guitarist.” And he is. I had never heard him play like that before. Most people think of him coming in and singing on stuff.
So, Tom sent him an e-mail; it’s kind of a funny story. Elvis emailed Tom back and said “are you sure you sent this to the right person?” So he came in one night and brought in a few guitars, set up in the control room and just wailed. He played on “Buttercup” and “Seeing Black.”
: In terms of you collaborating with other artists, who have been some of the most memorable musicians that you’ve worked with? It’s a long list to say the least.
Williams: [laughs] It’s a long list…I would have to say of course Elvis, singing on his records and him singing on mine [Costello has contributed to multiple Lucinda Williams records]… I did this recent one on Amos Lee’s last album [Mission Bell].
: Tell me about that one some more.
Williams: To be honest, I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t really know anything about him. I was asked to sing and he was a big fan and wanted me to sing on this one song. This was when I was in the studio so they just sent me the [demo]. He wasn’t actually there…I put a harmony down. Later, Tom and I got a chance to go see him play live here—he just blew me away…So now I’m a huge fan of his.
: And now that you’ve contributed, he had a #1 record on the Billboard 200 charts!
Williams: I know! It’s great. And then the other interesting one was M. Ward’s album [Hold Time]. I was in the studio recording the Little Honey album and he sent the tapes in and sang on it. When I got the tapes back, I loved the track. It’s cool because when we’re out on the road in different towns, one of them will be able to come up and sit in.
: Is there anyone that you haven’t collaborated with yet that you would like to work with in the future?
Williams: Well… maybe The Black Keys, I don’t know. Bob Dylan. Springsteen…Thievery Corporation? I don’t know.