It might be tempting to attribute the title of Lucinda Williams’ 10th studio album, Blessed, to her recent marriage to boyfriend Tom Overby, in a ceremony conducted during a show in Minneapolis. But as a glance at the album’s eight covers reveals, “blessed” means different things to different people, and they aren’t all sunshine and flowers. The album’s songs explore plenty of dark territory, from the combat zones of “Soldier’s Song” to the self-annihilation of “Seeing Black”; even the spiritual enlightenment of “Awakening” has an end-times tinge. If anything is different on Blessed, it’s the range of Williams’ subject matter, as if the relative stability of her personal life has freed her to move on to other topics. During a tour stop in Indiana, Williams called up The A.V. Club to talk about getting past unrequited love, asking Elvis Costello to play lead guitar, and why being a happy woman doesn’t mean she writes happy songs.
The A.V. Club: How much of a plan you go into the studio with? You’ve chosen the people you’re going to record with, and the producer, but do you decide, “I want this record to sound like this” before you start?
Lucinda Williams: No. A lot of people have been asking me about the theme of the album. I don’t do that before. I don’t have a concept or anything like that before I go in. My approach to recording and all that is pretty organic. It just has to do with all the songs I wrote; go in and record them. If I’m lucky, I have a handful of extras, and in this case, I did. I write the songs, go in and record them, then I listen to everything and decide how it all fits together.
AVC: What about in retrospect? When you’re sequencing the album, do you realize, “Oh, that was what was on my mind at the time”?
LW: Oh, yeah. That is part of the process. I’m involved in every single part of the process, but Tom [Overby], my husband, manager, and co-producer, is really good at sequencing. Generally he would do that with the other co-producer, in this case Eric [Liljestrand] and Don [Was]. They all do that, and I’ll look at it. Tom worked at record companies for a long time in marketing, A&R, did some producing. So he’s really good at conceptualizing, ideas like the cover, the artwork and all of that. That was all his concept, the different covers. Write the songs, you know? Sing ’em. It’s all a very collaborative process.
AVC: This is the second album you’ve put out since getting married, and there’s a running assumption that since you’re happy, your songs have to be as well.
LW: Oh God, yeah. You mean for Little Honey? Yeah, I have to keep explaining that over and over and over again, because people assume that those are all songs written since I’d met Tom, which was not the case. I had a lot of those songs for the West album, but I had too many songs. I just wanted to put all those songs out, even if it was a double CD, whatever, get them out, move on, put those behind me. That song “Real Love” was written before I met Tom, before we even got together, about somebody else. It was very frustrating. I had to wait. There were a few new songs, like “Plan To Marry,” “Tears of Joy,” and “Honey Bee,” that I wrote about Tom. For the most part, for me it was almost like Little Honey was West, part two. Everybody assumed, “Oh, this is your happy album.”
AVC: You probably don’t have to worry about that with Blessed as much.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how being in a relatively settled place in your life has affected your writing?
LW: I feel like it’s actually been liberating. It’s allowed me, in a good way, as a writer, to branch out, which I’ve always wanted to do anyway. I was always interested in dealing with different subject material, like “Soldier’s Song” and “Blessed.” Getting away from the unrequited love songs, which for me are the easiest things to write. I think most songwriters would agree. It’s really been fun and interesting for me. There’s always stuff to write about. So it’s very gratifying on a lot of levels. This is stuff I got asked over and over again, or heard about. People would ask me about it, but they kind of knew the answer. It would be this ongoing question: “Your fans are wondering, now that you’re married, are you still going to be able to write songs?” I’m serious! I would get asked that! Now with this album, on so many levels, it’s kind of like I can go, “Okay, here. See what I’m doing. It’s some of the best songwriting I’ve done.” I’ve proven something to myself. It wasn’t like it was really hard to do.
I actually surprised myself, in fact, when I wrote those two little sweet love songs, “Kiss Like Your Kiss” and “Sweet Love.” Those were very effortless, and I felt so satisfied, like, “Wow, I could still write a love song, just a different kind of love song.” Kind of like that old song, “My Funny Valentine,” that real sweet but really cool kind of love song. Ironically enough, it’s harder to write. For some reason, the breakup songs are all… [Makes ick noise.] It’s more self-indulgent. In fact, I read on No Depression online, they were reviewing Blessed. It was a great review, but one of the things he said that kind of surprised me was… You don’t often see yourself, you can’t get away to perceive yourself the way other people do. He said something like, “Wow, Lucinda, she’s finally gotten out of herself a little bit.” Like, gotten out of her own head. And I thought, “Wow, I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been doing that.” I guess it kind of makes sense, because I think what he was talking about is all my other songs are all about me, kind of. [Laughs.] But that’s common. I get asked some of the same questions about the theme and the album and everything. The way I look at life, whatever I’m doing at that time in my life is going to be reflected in my songs, for the most part. Of course, I’m older now. I’m in a different place in my life than when I wrote the songs for Car Wheels or Essence or whatever. Different things were going on.
AVC: Car Wheels is an album you famously recorded several times over. In the course of your career, there are songs that you’ve written and rewritten over the course of several years. “Drunken Angel,” which started out as “Blaze,” is one of them. Are those just ideas that won’t let you go?
LW: Yeah, sometimes it takes longer to finish. Like, that was one of them. The other one was “Blue,” off the Essence album. I started it years before that. That’s kind of a mystery. Certain songs, I get the initial idea, but I just won’t be able to finish them right then. For “Solder’s Song,” I had some lines written down several years ago, whenever it was. I keep everything. When I sit down to write, I get everything out, start going through, and see if something sparks or whatever happens. During the process, I’ll come up with something new, usually. So that way I don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper.
AVC: Which is a scary thing.
LW: Yeah. I got a lot of ideas already started. As long as I’m coming up with ideas, then I’m good to go. I don’t always sit down and apply myself. I don’t write. I’m not disciplined about it. I don’t say I have to finish a song once a week or anything. As long as the ideas are coming and it’s all flowing, I just write it all, like notes and lines and parts of songs. I’ve got an old song, in fact, that Tom heard on a really old demo tape that I recorded in 1983. I decided I didn’t like it anymore, but Tom heard it and said “This is great! I love this idea for this song.” And I said “Well, I need to work on the lyrics a little bit.” I wrote it a long time ago. I kind of cleaned it up, edited it a little bit, and did an acoustic demo of it. It didn’t make this record. So that’s an example. Sometimes I have a song that’s 20 years old.
AVC: What’s the name of that song?
LW: It’s called “Jazz Side Of Life.”
AVC: Maybe it’ll be on a record 15 years from now.
LW: Probably. I don’t know. Tom really liked it. I thought the line was kind of corny. [Voice in background.] See, he’s sitting here and goes, “Well, it’s a great song.” [Laughs.] And he’s my best critic. He’s very picky.
AVC: “Soldier’s Song” is an interesting example. The lyrics are straightforward, but the structure takes a while to get used to, where you’re alternating between a soldier’s observations on the battlefield and his presumably imagined visions of what his wife is doing thousands of miles away. There are a number of songs on Blessed like that, that seem very simple until you get up close, and then…
LW: There’s more. That’s a high compliment, because my favorite albums are like that. Some of Bob Dylan’s earlier albums, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis. When I first heard it, I didn’t really like it. I thought it was a little overproduced. But then I just kept on listening and listening and listening. I ended up playing that album every day. Certain albums are like that. But anyway. Yeah, “Soldier’s Song” was one I had this idea for. What inspired the basic idea, which is two people who know each other on opposite sides of the world, was that song, “By The Time I Get to Phoenix.” “By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising.” My dad has a poem that deals with that similar concept or theme, where he has a line and he says, “I’m sitting at the breakfast table. My wife is making toast. It’s 3 a.m. in Jakarta.” Or something. That kind of dual thing, dual lives. And it’s my way of making a statement about the war and everything. I’ve always wanted to be able to write topical songs the way Bob Dylan did.
AVC: Which is a specific way of doing it.
LW: Yeah, and it’s always been hard for me to do without sounding precious or too corny or whatever.
AVC: Dylan’s way of writing topical songs was very different from the way, say, Phil Ochs approached it, the idea of “all the news that’s fit to sing.”
LW: He’s the other one I’ve always referenced whenever I talk about topical songwriting. Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. It’s really hard to do.
AVC: You’re not recording the songs five minutes before the record comes out, and you want to say something that might still be relevant in a few years.
LW: Exactly, yeah. And I don’t want to beat people over the head with my political views. It’s more about the humanitarian aspect of it.
AVC: There’s that line about soldiers in the title track as well.
LW: Exactly, yeah. And that’s another thing. As I’ve gotten older, my perception of that has altered and grown, because when I was younger, I think I would have had a hard time saying a line like “the soldier who gave up his life.” When I was a teenager, when we were in Vietnam, there was a whole different perception of soldiers. Then as I got older and started to become more empathetic, I met a lot of Vietnam veterans who were anti-war after the war. Part of that is the growth thing, and just realizing that everybody, no matter what they do, whether they’re a policeman or a soldier, at the end of the day, he’s a person with feelings and things he has to deal with personally. They’re not all over there, these gung-ho kind of “Hey, I’m gonna kill somebody.” Probably some of them are, I don’t know. They don’t all want to be over there. They’re not there by choice, some of them. It’s heartbreaking what’s going on now. There’s no way you could talk about it without it being horrific. I thought twice about putting “Soldier’s Song” on the album, because it’s just so terribly dark. I just thought—I don’t know. It’s part of life, and I tried to do it in such a way that it didn’t seem I was taking advantage of a situation.
AVC: There’s a mysterious quality to Blessed as well. A song like “Awakening” almost verges on science fiction.
LW: Don was in the studio, and Tommy said, “What is this song about?” [Laughs.] And I said, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like when I wake up, or when we wake up, or when the world wakes up, or something like the 2012 thing.” In the awakening, it’s going to be, my consciousness will be raised. “I will not mourn my losses, I will not mourn the dead.” Kind of that spiritual awakening, if you will. That was just one of those stream-of-consciousness things. We almost weren’t going to put that on the album, actually. I don’t know, then we changed our minds.
AVC: Are you doing more stream-of-consciousness now?
LW: Yeah, probably, I guess. I’m feeling a little braver about doing that. I’m just allowing myself, giving myself that freedom.
AVC: There’s definitely a sense of that freedom on the record.
LW: That’s part of being the age I am. I just turned 58. When you get to be this age, you start to look around and look at life and death. [Laughs.] Know what I mean? More than you would if you were 28, or 38. If you’re lucky, you’re very creative, even more so. I guess I’m an anomaly of sorts in that regard, I don’t know.
AVC: That freedom, or that sense of personal ease, feels like something you’re still getting used to. “Convince Me” is about that, being in a good place in your life but not quite being ready to accept it.
LW: That came very quickly. I first thought it was an outline for a cool song, then it was kind of like, “This is it.” It was kind of me singing to Tom, or whatever, “Please convince me.” That’s another one where I’m kind of saying, “Look, yeah, I’m in a contented, loving relationship, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling with other things that are going on around me in the world.” It’s kind of like that great song, the R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts.” I always loved that song. You should hear the original “Convince Me,” how long it is. I think we’re going to make that available for people who preorder the record.
AVC: One of the more interesting guest spots on the record is that you’ve got Elvis Costello playing lead guitar, but not singing, on several songs. It’s a long way for someone who once billed himself as “The Little Hands Of Concrete.”
LW: I know. Not to sound like a broken record, but that was Tom’s idea. [Laughs.] Elvis just happened to be in town finishing his album with T-Bone Burnett. We caught him. He had a few hours free one evening, and Tom sent him an e-mail asking if he could play some guitar. He e-mailed Tom back and asked, “Are you sure you sent this to the right guy?” I even was surprised when Tom said, “Hey, you know what? I want to get Elvis in to play the guitar on some of these tracks.” I said, “Really? Okay.” He came in and sat down in the control room. He had three or four guitars with him, and we just played him the songs one by one. He’d listen to them and just sat there and shredded. I was in the control room watching him, listening to the track, because it was all done except for that. It was just mind-blowing!
AVC: And Matthew Sweet sings on a few songs as well?
LW: Yeah, he came in and did some harmonies. Those are really only kind of overdub-type things. We didn’t want to have too much added on. For the most part, everything was, as much as we could, recorded live, with my core: Rami Jaffee on all the keyboard stuff, Val McCallum on guitar, Butch [Norton] and Dave [Sutton], my regular rhythms section. [Steel guitarist] Greg Leisz came in on certain days. That was it, really. Those guys, and then Matthew and Elvis.
AVC: You’ve written several songs over the years about friends who self-destructed or died, and there are two on this record: “Copenhagen,” about the death of your manager, Frank Callari, and “Seeing Black,” about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide.
LW: Those came fairly quickly, actually. Kind of that burst of emotion while I was writing during the writing period. I might have had some lines from “Copenhagen,” but as I recall, I wrote it fairly quickly, and “Seeing Black” was the same thing. I found out about Vic Chestnutt’s suicide while I was writing. And another friend of mine had taken his own life, too, about six months before that or something. It’s not really about Vic. His suicide inspired the song.
AVC: It seems as if a lot of the songs start off being about specific people, then drift a bit.
LW: Yeah, and then they become more universal. I generally like to aim for that, I think. Kind of making a statement about something. Even in “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles,” which are both about these kind of self-destructing guys. But I’m not pointing a finger at this person, lecturing. One of the challenges as a writer for me that’s important is to be able to do that, write about somebody that may be fucked-up, the beautiful loser guy or whatever, and still be empathetic.
AVC: Without shying away from who they are, as well.
LW: Exactly. That’s challenging, I think, and important to learn how to do.
AVC: Or “Buttercup” on this record.
LW: Exactly. That’s a pretty good example of it. That song is such a departure for me from the rest of the album. It’s the only bad-boy song on the new album, is what I tell people. I wrote it about the same guy I wrote “Jailhouse Tears” about. Not much to say about it. It’s one of those more straightforward, little poppy songs.
AVC: The sequencing isn’t your department on this, but it does slide you into the record in a nice way.
LW: Right. A couple people have said, when they hear that first song, “Oh, this is kind of familiar territory.” And then it tumbles into this dark abyss.