UPDATE: Lucinda’s Friday-night show has been moved to the Millennium Center in downtown Winston-Salem.
It comes out of nowhere, really,” Lucinda Williams said, talking about her songwriting process. “As simple as a passing thought, an image. But I have to write it down, and that’s where it starts. I never leave the house without a pen and notepad.”
There is a simplicity to her music, a bare-boned, almost hauntingly empty sound that draws the listener in. But those simple songs hold in them lifetimes of experience, pain and loneliness, which laid the groundwork in reshaping country and rock songwriting after her breakout, self-titled third album Lucinda Williams was released in 1988. Carrying with them a soft-toned ambiance, Williams’ lyrics and music have the ability to suddenly take you into another realm, showing you the dark underbelly of humanity.
Williams spoke to Triad City Beat from the kitchen of her Indiana home, where, moments before, she had been writing while working through a day of interviews.
“I’m working with this new song I wrote for a dear friend of mine,” Williams said. “I thought it was done but woke up this morning and realized it wasn’t. She won’t be with us much longer, and I want to finish it for her to hear.”
Extracting moments of her life has been the guiding line in Williams’ writing.
“Autobiographical, that’s the only way to write,” Williams said. “I never saw the point in writing fluff songs, or dancing around things. Get to the marrow of things, get to the truth of it. That’s the only way I know how to write songs. I don’t have any set schedule. I love writing in my kitchen, early in the mornings before the world catches up with me.”
And if the darker, grittier and more sexual side of songwriting seems perfectly fitting for this hybrid form of country and rock music, it’s only because Williams was among the pioneers in the field.
“I look at music as almost writing in a journal,” Williams said. “I used to write in a diary as a kid and I was always worried about not keeping a journal. About forgetting moments that happened. And as I got older and started writing songs and stuff, I quit doing that. And I talked with my dad one time and told him I was worried about not writing a journal, and he said, ‘Honey, don’t worry about it. You’re a songwriter. That is your journal.’”
And it was the insight of her father, poet and professor Miller Williams, whose influence on her would set Williams on her course in music and exploring the gritty, harrowing, human side of art.
“Growing up with my dad and around all of those poets and writers, I think it had a major impact on me from an early age,” Williams said. “Writers can’t get away with not getting to the meat of their work, to the stuff no one wants to talk about. And songwriters can get away without doing it. They can write fluffy, cute songs. But that never interested me. If you’re not telling the truth, then what’s the point, you know?”
As a child, Lucinda Williams moved around the country constantly as her father took on different jobs, mostly in the South. Themes of travel, loneliness, loss and restlessness have become a staple in her music; these same themes are what led to the production of her 13th studio album The Ghosts of Highway 20, released in 2016.
“Ghosts was probably the most effortless album I’ve written,” Williams said. “I had all the songs written and ready to go and brought them to the studio, but then when we were all in there, it sort of just took on a shape of its own. We started to groove and I went with it. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had recording.”
Williams’ albums span a vast array of genres and musical expression, most often falling somewhere in the categories of Americana, country and folk. And as she has grown as an artist throughout her 35-year career, there is a simplicity and haunting emptiness that weaves itself close to her songs; while also playing within genres, Williams albums serve as moments of departure, moving from pop to rock to more bare-boned standards. Like a poet, Williams genius is in her ability to hold an idea or subject in her hands and turn it around, examining it from all sides, leaving nothing out. There are moments of such gut-wrenching sorrow blended with angelic melodies that one is simply forced to follow along the path she guides the listener down.
Such genius is what brought Williams out of the pits of struggling to survive as a musician in the late ’70s as she began, and into the realm of prominence where only an elite few are summoned, though her path to success has certainly been a long and trying journey. To go along with her myriad of awards and achievements, Williams was most recently named one of the 100 greatest country artists of all time by Rolling Stone. But despite such levels of success and fame, Williams has always placed her fidelity to an artistic vision ahead of conventional success.
“The way my mind works is more like a poet,” Williams said. “I’m on stage and perform in front of people, but when it comes to the writing, I’m coming from the point of view of the artist. The view that this is my self-expression and who I am. I come from there first, and then everything else comes way after. The art must be honest, it must be gritty and real. And that’s why I’m still doing this after all these years.”