Lucinda Williams is a Grammy-winning rock, folk, blues, and country singer-songwriter who's been making music for the better part of four decades. Her breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was released in 1998 when she was 45 years old and just passed its 20th anniversary. She's set to play Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale Saturday, February 2. Ahead of that performance, local songwriters Nick County and Oly recently sat down with Williams to talk about her life and her songs.
Oly: What is a normal day in the life of Lucinda Williams?
Lucinda Williams: I do crossword puzzles! [laughs]. We own a house in Studio City in L.A.; we work on the house. That’s ongoing — anybody that owns a house knows it’s constant. That takes up some of our time. Basically, we just rest and recuperate from the road. I try to work on songs; that’s basically all I do when I’m back. If I’ve written new songs, I have accomplished something. This time we’re home, it’s only for a couple weeks. I keep telling my husband if he quits booking so many tours, I’d be able to get these songs finished!
Oly: How has your writing process changed over the years?
Williams: I was actually sitting down working on some stuff today. I tried to change my writing process because, basically, I’ve always waited for the muse to hit — you know, as opposed to being real disciplined about it. A lot of songwriters carve out a few hours of the day. Maybe they might not like anything, but they carve that time out to pay attention to it and apply themselves.
Oly: That’s a great takeaway: You want to work when that feeling hits you, but then that can be few or far between.
Williams: Right, exactly. It just depends. Like last night, I started messing around with this kind of blues riff thing on the guitar, and then I found these lyrics and it worked — I got started on a new song. I’ve got a few things finished, but I got to really get my ass in gear because I need to get a new album out!
Nick: Do you have a favorite Lucinda Williams song?
Williams: That’s a hard one. I still love performing “Side of the Road.” The other one I love that I hardly ever do is “Blue.” I also love “I Envy the Wind.”
Nick: That’s on [your 2001 album] Essence. That’s a really nice album. I was just listening to that the other day.
Williams: It is, isn’t it? It’s one of those albums that at first people went, "What?" because it wasn’t like Car Wheels. It was one of those things like if I do another record like Car Wheels, then people are gonna say it sounds just like Car Wheels, and if it’s different, they’re gonna say it doesn’t sound like Car Wheels.
Nick: Yeah, you were in a tough spot there.
Williams: It was a tough spot to move forward from Car Wheels, but I finally got over the hump. It took the Essence and World Without Tears albums. Now I can do whatever — I’ve passed that point.
Nick: I read somewhere that during the making of Car Wheels, you were sending lyrics to your father [the late poet Miller Williams] for feedback, and you came to a disagreement about the word "angel" in “Lake Charles.” Can you talk a bit about that?
Williams: I wanted my dad's approval. It’s good to have somebody you can show stuff to, who you look up to. I didn’t really have anyone else to do that with. That’s how I learned over the years because he taught creative writing; it was kind of like an apprenticeship almost.
When I was trying to finish “Lake Charles,” he suggested that part about “Did an angel whisper in your ear” – and he said, “Well, I don’t think you should use the world 'angel' 'cause you’ve already used it in that song 'Drunken Angel,' and now you’re using it again.” One of the rules of creative writing, he said, was not to keep using the same phrases and words over and over again. I told my dad, "In this case, I can’t change it; it’s got to be 'angel.'" We went back and forth, and he goes, “OK, fine, you can use 'angel' in this one, but you’ve used up your quota of 'angel'!” [laughs]
Over the years, that’s one of the ways I learned how to make things original. There’s only certain subjects you can write about — love, sex, death, pain, the different things you experience in life — but you gotta find unique ways of saying it.
Oly: Do you have advice for women musicians navigating through a male-dominated music industry?
Williams: Oh, boy, yeah. When you go into the studio, chances are you are gonna be the only woman unless you’re lucky.
It’s not any different than any other situation where you have to work with men, and some men are easier to work with than other men. Some people are easier to work with than other people.
As far as sexism goes and all that, women have to deal with that constantly. It took me years to find the right men I could work with. I’ve been in these situations where I wanted to do my vocals over; I just wanted to see, try it out. I would get this: “No, we’re out of time. When are you gonna learn to trust somebody?” Part of that was me being younger, insecure, and now I work with people that if I want to do something again, I do something again. We’re all on equal footing.
There’s a lot of women artists, but we need more producers, engineers, heads of labels, that sort of thing.
Oly: What were your first, last, and best concerts you ever attended?
Williams: The last concert was Jack White in Nashville; that was amazing. The first concert, I can’t remember exactly, but it would have been, and you’re gonna laugh, but I was about 14 or something living in New Orleans: Peter, Paul & Mary. The best concert is probably Bob Dylan, but not now, though. I didn’t see him in the '60s; I saw him in the '80s when Tom Petty was playing with him and he had Neil Young sit in. He was still doing his songs, the original melodies instead of just sitting up there where you couldn’t even recognize the song. I never got to see the Doors, one of my favorite bands, or the Rolling Stones back then.
Oly: What can a newcomer like me look forward to at your show?
Williams: A great band — I’ve been with them for a while now. We love to play live, and we love to rock out; it’s not just going to be a bunch of sad, slow songs.
Oly: I look forward to crying a little bit too. Your songs are very cathartic.
Williams: We’ll fit that in there too.
Lucinda Williams. With Drive-By Truckers. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 2, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale; parkerplayhouse.com. Tickets cost $37.50 to $67.50 via ticketmaster.com.