On a recent weekend, Lucinda Williams is running late. She had a doctor's appointment, she explains worriedly. She seems to have forgotten that she can do whatever the hell she pleases — she's Lucinda Williams.
This is the same Lucinda Williams who ranks up there with sometime collaborators Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello for her heart-achingly vivid storytelling and glimpses into a forgotten swath of America, one that the election of President Cheeto has caused us to be desperate to understand once again.
There are only a handful of days before she hits the road on tour, she says. And she has a sinus infection. One would think a person who makes a living singing would be rattled by such news coming just a few days before a performance, but Williams is calm. She's been through it all — record label disputes, emotional pain she channeled into song on stages around the world, fans walking out of her show over her political stances.
She takes the walkouts with the same resignation she has for sharing her most sacred emotions onstage.
"I don't feel self-conscious about it because I like to push people's buttons a little," she says in her recognizable Southern drawl. "I like to make people wake up and think. That's kind of what drew me in to do what I do, 'cause the artists I grew up listening to, that's what they were doing, like Bob Dylan. I'd play the song over and over again, trying to figure out what he was trying to say. I didn't want to be that mysterious, but still, I look at it as artistic expression, which to me should be interesting and entertaining at the same time if you can manage it."
Writing about life's greatest losses and heartbreaks is painful but rewarding for Williams. Tears are actually her first sign that things are going in the right direction.
"A lot of times when I'm writing, there'll be a certain point during the writing of the song where I get so emotional I start to tear up. At that point I know, OK there's something here," she says.
"It can be very therapeutic and very cathartic. It's probably been my main mode of survival all throughout my teenage years and my adult life, because I've had that tool that enabled me to put all that stuff on paper and deal with it. So it helps me. I feel very blessed and fortunate because I'm able to get something out of it, and my audience gets something out of it too."
People go to Williams' shows to listen to a piece of her mind and soul, and sometimes that includes politics. She wishes for a "Happy Not-My-President's Day" twice during her interview with New Times.
"What I hate to see is these artists who say there's no room for politics in art or music. 'Musicians just need to shut up and sing' — that is completely the wrong attitude to take. I don't understand that. To me, it's a responsibility. We have a position of power. Let's use it for a good thing."
After all, her own life has been a testament to music's healing properties. "Music is an incredibly powerful tool. It can make a difference. I still feel that way," she says. "I don't want to alienate any of my fans, but I'm very outspoken when I get onstage. I've seen people walk out. I'm not saying I can necessarily change their minds, but stranger things have happened. You just never know."