The final conflict? Roots revivalists find harmony in discord on self-titled second album…
The vocal blend between Joy Williams and John Paul White is one of those effortless tongue-and-groove combinations which traditionally implies a bond forged in either church or kindergarten. In fact, the pair were thrown together in 2008 in the more prosaic surroundings of a Nashville songwriting camp. Californian Williams had spent most of the previous decade making white-bread Christian pop albums; White, ten years her senior, grew up in Alabama steeped in the work of Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt, and was once in a band named after Lynyrd Skynrd’s Nuthin’ Fancy.
Their coming together was an odd couple pairing that shouldn’t have lasted the afternoon. Instead, within three years they had won a handful of Grammys for The Civil Wars’ self-released 2011 debut, Barton Hollow. Easy on the eye and even easier on the ear, their instant appeal is no great mystery. The Civil Wars make a patchwork quilt out of American roots music, stitching together a little bit of everything: gothic-folk, sensitive singer-songwriting, razor-edged bluegrass, dainty parlour pieces and corporate country, folding in slivers of Mazzy Star’s melancholic haze and the pop-Americana of The Pierces. Sleek but not slick, their songs have the gift of familiarity; many sound almost instantly like old friends.
The catalytic element, however, is the chemistry between White and Williams. They are married, not to each other, but the potency of their entwined voices lends their music an air of passionate intimacy which in the past they haven’t been shy about amping up on stage, presumably in the knowledge that a little of that on-the-edge Tammy ’n’ George frisson doesn’t hurt ticket sales.
Intriguingly, life has recently begun to imitate art, with the drama implicit in the songs seeping into the duo’s personal relationship. Shortly after the basic tracks for their second album were recorded, at the end of 2012 The Civil Wars posted a message on their website announcing the immediate cancellation of all tour dates “due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” which as an excuse certainly beats “unforeseen circumstances” or “exhaustion”. “The reality is, this was a really difficult album to make,” Joy Williams tells Uncut. “There were tensions in the band that we couldn’t ignore. There was a breakdown in communication, and we had to find new ways of working together.” At the time of writing it’s not entirely clear whether this record will be remembered as a bump in the road or a full stop.
The off-stage commotion offers plenty to chew on for those inclined to sift through the lyrics for clues. Opener “The One That Got Away” – a dark little tale regretting bad choices which, like much of the album, foregrounds White’s crunching electric guitar – wishes that “I’d never ever seen your face”. The anthemic “Eavesdrop” begs “don’t say that it’s over,” while “Same Old Same Old”, a sublime ballad with a hint of Whiskeytown’s “Reasons To Lie” about it, is a pitiless account of a calcified relationship. White sings “I want to leave you, I want to lose us”; Williams counters with: “I’m gonna break things, I’m gonna cross the line.” We can draw our own conclusions.
Of course, these layers of subtext very possibly did not exist when the songs were being written. In which case, The Civil Wars proves more than capable of producing its own dark drama. This is an album which steadfastly refuses to get happy. Of the dozen songs here, only “From This Valley” offers a ray of light. A rousing country-gospel strum which makes a virtue of its simplicity, it could have been written at any time during the past century.
Much of rest runs the spectrum from twilit regret to simmering dread. Several songs feature William as the archetypal good woman willing to transgress in order to save her errant man. On “Devil’s Backbone”, a flinty minor-chord mountain stomp, she has fallen for a sinner on the lam from the hangman. On “Oh Henry” she cautions some local ne’er do well that “we don’t need one more grave in this town”, over a distorted bluegrass raga not a million miles away from the opening song-suite on Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle. Williams switches tactics for the bleakly beautiful “Tell Mama”, disguising her predatory impulses beneath the veneer of maternal concern, her whispering entreaties bathed in the country darkness of weeping pedal steel and mandolin.
If Williams’ voice and full immersion in her characters has star billing, musically much of The Civil Wars leans towards White’s swampy southern roots, taking the title track of Barton Hollow as its departure point and heading further into amplified Appalachian blues and heavier rhythms. On “The One That Got Away” and “I Had Me A Girl” in particular he’s like a one-man Plant and Page deep in hillbilly country, with some White Stripes thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere the songs strike out towards even more unexpected places. With its weary drum tattoo, drifting atmospherics and slow-pulsing bass line, “Dust To Dust” sounds like late-period Blue Nile drizzled in moonshine. The racked “Disarm”, mostly delivered by White, recalls the bleached melancholy of Low.
Only on the final two songs do The Civil Wars hark back to the more restrained prettiness of Barton Hollow. “Sacred Heart” is sung by Williams in French, and the distancing effect of a second language lends this delicate chamber piece a cool formality, a welcome respite from the torrid heat of what has gone before. The mood of quiet valediction bleeds into the closing “D’Arline”, which has all the unadorned immediacy of a field recording, two voices pitched soft and high as a lone dobro weaves its way between.
For those still hunting for clues “D’Arline” sounds awfully like a farewell – “Happiness was having you here with me” – but we should hope that the story of The Civil Wars doesn’t end just yet. On the evidence of their second album things are just starting to get interesting.
Presumably you felt some pressure having to follow the enormous and unexpected success of Barton Hollow?
Of course I felt pressure, we did such great work on Barton Hollow. I aspired to not only equal it, but to surpass it. John Paul was more of the ilk that it would happen organically; I was more of a mind to push the envelope and get out of our comfort zone. I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how to accomplish that. But despite all of the tension and struggle, I think we made something even more universal, honest and beautiful than Barton Hollow.
Did you still write together in the same way?
Yes and no. The way we wrote was the same – in a room together, writing lyrics together, building a melody and harmonies together. But the energy was different. The former ease on some level became replaced by some struggle, and I think we both wrestled with how to navigate that creatively. But the strange thing that happened is, out of that struggle, we got something totally unexpected.
How was this record made?
We tracked for two weeks in the studio last fall, recording our performances live together exactly like we did for Barton Hollow. Same room and everything. John Paul played acoustic, and at times brought out the electric, which seemed to make him really happy. While he was working out electric parts to record, I was nursing my baby boy upstairs in-between takes.
In places this is a considerably heavier record than Barton Hollow – both lyrically and musically…
Lyrically, I don’t see this album as heavier, just more vulnerable at points. We’ve always specialized in sad. Sonically, this album has more grit and at times has a more electrified sound. Distorted guitars, using dobros and mandolins in some unconventional ways. What prompted the change? We didn’t want to make the same album twice. I’m the type of person who always wants to plough new ground, to uncover more parts of myself. Lyrically, this album touches on a myriad of emotions – regret, loss, absence and desire.
Rick Rubin assisted on one track, “I Had Me A Girl”. What did he bring to the process?
Rick was really encouraging, peaceful and almost like a shaman while we recorded our performances. I can still remember him with his tanned skin, board shorts, white t-shirt, white-grey beard, laying on his back, eyes closed and rocking his head to the music while we sang. He encouraged us to “sing it like it’s the very first time you’ve ever sung this song”, and he sent us on our way with encouragement to keep writing on the road. People like to idealize being off the road to write the next record, but sometimes the best songs are written while in motion.
You sing “Sacred Heart” in French. Why? And what is it about?
I took French starting at third grade. I am not fluent by any means, but I’ve always loved the language. I guess I was channelling my inner Edith Piaf. “C’est La Mort” on the last record had a French title, with lyrics in English. We thought it would be fun to turn it around on this record: song title in English, with the lyrics in French. We were in Paris with friends for a photo shoot, and John Paul brought out his guitar and started fiddling with an idea he’d been working on. All of the sudden, lyrics and a melody started flowing. I can still remember having a direct view of the Eiffel Tower that night, lights twinkling in a thousand directions, drinking a strange concoction of Coca-Cola and red wine in hand, which I later called Rednecks in Paris. When we were working on the lyric, I remember John Paul and I conjuring up the image of two people in a long distance relationship saying they would meet at a certain spot, at a specific time in Paris. But one of them never shows.
Given the circumstances, do you have mixed feelings about the record?
When I think about this album, the thing that sticks out in my mind is that I’m not the same person I was when I first began this album. I can’t say this album is completely autobiographical, but we left a lot of tracks in the snow. The process of writing and recording this album changed me, and I’ll never be the same – a lot of hard lessons learned. But you are what you overcome, and I’d like to think that this struggle has made me more awake, aware, alive and compassionate.
INTERVIEW: JAAN UHELSZKI