Alt-country singer, songwriter, and all around musical maven Lucinda Williams comes from a long line of wordsmiths. Her grandfather was a Methodist minister and her father, poet Miller Williams, read at Bill Clinton's inauguration. She still turns to him for songwriting advice.
Williams is a prolific and inspired singer with both deep and memorable lyrics and voice. In a recent conversation with Williams, she told us that the biggest thrill in her career was winning her first Grammy in the category of Best Country Song for penning "Passionate Kisses" sung by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993. Since then, she's been nominated for over a dozen more and won two others.
In preparation of her upcoming South Florida show at the Parker Playhouse, we talked to her about working with Elvis Costello on her newest album Blessed, the difficulties of finding love as a successful, creative woman, and the significance of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.
Lucinda Williams: We had a couple of them going around. That's always a challenge. I liked it, but then I was concerned about it. I didn't want people to think it was a religious thing necessarily. It's not about religion, it's more about human's compassion for human beings. It's a combination of things. It's a little bit spirituality, a little bit of the human rights thing and all of that and how people are blessed in different ways, not only about having a lot of money.
Everybody we asked about it said, "Love that title, love that title." It's funny though because even now people sometimes pronounce it bless-ed. That gives it a whole different connotation. It sounds very Biblical, "Bless-ed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." Even that in yourself if that's how you want to interpret it, I love that line, too, actually. There are lots of beautiful lines in the Bible about that sort of thing. It's not just about that.
It's like when Wiccans say, "Bless-ed be."
Nobody's brought that one up! That's funny. I didn't even think about that.
Do you have a song that you favor the most on the album, that most speaks to you?
The one that's my favorite right now to perform is "Born to be Loved." It really captures people's attention. So does "Blessed," but we always wait to do "Blessed" during the encore, it kind of stands alone.
You collaborated with a bunch of other musicians, like masterminds of music, on this album, what was your experience like working with Elvis Costello and Matthew Sweet?
Well, I just adore both of them. I'd already worked with them on some other stuff prior to that. He (Elvis) had sung on "Jailhouse Tears" and I had sung a song on one of his albums a few years ago. Over the years, we developed a friendship, really. He happened to be in town finishing up his album with Steven Burnett, we were still in the studio doing Blessed and Tom (Overby), my husband and manager is always coming up with inventive ideas, suggested, why don't we have Elvis come in and put some guitar on some of these songs. I said, "Really?" He said, "Oh, yeah, he's an amazing guitar player." I'd never thought of him in that context and most people don't. Even Elvis he said jokingly, Tom emailed him to ask him, Elvis emailed him back and said, "Are you sure you're talking to the right guy?" He was just amazing. I was completely blown away.
Then Matthew Sweet had sung harmony on the album with Susanna Hoff. He has just amazing instincts. You don't have to tell him anything. I said, and you can quote me on this, "Matthew Sweet is the Brian Wilson of his generation." He's an amazing, amazing musician. A lot of people might not realize how creative he is. Obviously, they listen to his songs and albums, but not everyone's seen him work in that capacity.
In an interview you did on Aquarium Drunkard, you talk about how your romantic relationship changed the output of your music and you said that it inspired you, you're more prolific than ever. I thought it was interesting to see a female artist speaking so openly about the affect her relationship had on her music. It's brave, I think women are often scared to do that. What do you think about being comfortable with that?
Like losing yourself in a relationship? That's what I've done before. I've always been a diehard romantic. I've always been very hopeful, I knew that there had to be, there had to be... I wanted a relationship like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, that kind of thing where you inspire each other. Those don't come along very often. I had to wait till I was older for some reason, I didn't find the right person till I was in my fifties. We did that for each other.
When you're a woman and trying to be creative, or whatever you're doing, if you're successful, you have a career, sometimes it's hard to find the right person to be with because that person should have a career too. If he or she doesn't that person can be resentful. It's very difficult, being a successful woman finding the right relationship, or it can be. Most men, not Tom, in my experience has felt threatened by successful women. It's kind of hard to feel creative and feel inspired when you're dealing with that.
In other words, Tom lets me be me. And that's basically what it comes down to. If you can be yourself, then that's where your creativity is going to stem from. And you've gotta branch out and write about other things besides unrequited love. You kind of have to get out of yourself. Tom's my best critic, which is good, because you don't want to have anyone kissing your ass, you need someone to kind of kick your ass from time to time, so that's another thing to look for.
You have a big record collection. Could you tell us maybe a couple of your most cherished albums? Maybe the ones you'd take with you running out of a burning house?
There's the one that first introduced me to Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. At 12 and a half years old, just started taking guitar lessons, and that album completely blew my mind and made me want to write songs like that. The other one would be the Bobbie Gentry album, the first one that came out with "Ode to Billy Joe" on it.
She was one of the first female artists who kind of had that very smoky voice and all the others I'd been listening to had all this high beautiful voices and I could never sing like that, so I'd get all frustrated because I felt limited vocally. I was listening to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, then later Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell and they had these huge vocal ranges. Then Bobbie Gentry comes along, it was like wow, this is really cool, she's got this voice, she's writing all the songs.
The other would probably be the Robert Johnson albums that were reissued. That was a big life changing moment, too. I'd already been listening to a lot of blues, but nobody sounded like him. The other one Dusty in Memphis, that's a big one.
Lucinda Williams. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 20 at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE 8th Street, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $37.50. Click here.