Lucinda Williams is a lot more calm and serene than her current album — the brilliant and intense “West” — might lead listeners to believe. Speaking about her life and music from her adopted home of Southern California, the singer sounds spiritually unburdened.
It’s clear that the recording of “West,” an uncompromising look at love, loss, death and redemption, has provided Williams with a much-needed catharsis after a particularly trying time.
“The songs deal with a chapter in my life and they definitely tell a story,” says Williams. “It’s probably been the most prolific time in my life as a writer. I’d been through so many changes — my mother’s death and a very tumultuous relationship that ended badly — so obviously there’s a lot of pain and struggling, but it ends with a look towards the future.”
Fearlessly exploring the dark themes that occasionally enshroud every life, Williams and her co-producer Hal Willner (Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, Bill Frisell) have created arrangements that alternately soothe and embolden. The album is truly an evolutionary step forward from the more roots-oriented work of her Grammy-winning triumph, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998), its critically-acclaimed follow-up, “Essence” (2001), and the dazzlingly feisty “World Without Tears” (2003).
Ultimately, “West” is an affirming work, one that hypnotizes with its edgy rhythms and liberates with its ultimately sanguine spirit. It is with this optimistic mood — and buoyant sense of humor — that Williams approached a recent interview that touched on subjects both personal and professional. The singer candidly discussed her romantic travails, her liberal upbringing in the South, and her bracingly honest views on gay marriage.
I’ve always been drawn to the Southwest. I guess it just represents expansion and freedom to me. It goes back to the days of the early West — “Go West, young man.” People who went West were generally freedom-seeking people getting away from a repressive English Protestant lifestyle. Personally, I’ve just always loved this part of the country. A lot of positive changes happened to me out here.
On gay marriage: ‘I think it’s great. I mean, who the hell cares? If people want to get married, that should be their prerogative. I’m a strong believer in individual freedom.’
Actually, Tom, my fiancé, turned me on to Hal. He said I should listen to the Bill Frisell album that Hal produced. Then I went back and listened to the Marianne Faithful “Strange Weather” album that he did. Hal comes from that Lou Reed-John Cale scene. His tastes are more avant-garde, but he still has a grasp of roots music. I think I brought in more of that traditional blues thing, and Hal brought in his influences. It was just the extra dimension that I needed. I didn’t want to make the same record again. My favorite records lately have been things like Thievery Corporation, Richard Dorfmeister, and the Gotan Project — just really cool, funk, world beat, and electronic kind of stuff. It definitely influenced the kind of record I wanted to make this time.
When I lived in Nashville, I always had one foot out the door. I don’t really have any strong ties there to the South now that my mother’s gone. She lived there for years and years, in New Orleans, right in the city. Then I moved her up to Arkansas because we had other family there. I have some relatives in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, but it’s actually strange for me to go back to Louisiana. There are just so many ghosts.
Well, the last time I went back there, we played the House of Blues in New Orleans after Katrina and being in the venue in front of the audience, I could feel this undercurrent of anxiety and frustration. A restlessness. In fact, people were just obviously getting extremely inebriated. And the strangest thing happened. A woman in the audience started masturbating during the song “Essence.”
No! Cops were called, and she got angry because she wanted to finish. It was probably one of the strangest stories I’ve heard from the stage. It kind of gives you an idea of the desperation of the some of the people there.
Well, I have to say, “Essence” is one of my favorite songs of yours. It’s very sexy. I’ve always liked that you’re so upfront and honest about sex, but in a very organic, emotional way.
I consider myself a feminist who is very interested in the politics of relationships. The topics on this subject are endless; I will keep writing songs about it until the day I die. I grew up around poets, and I saw them write about different aspects of relationships. They’re multidimensional — they’re not just about the sex. So “Essence” is about much more than just sex. It’s about love that’s multi-dimensional. Some people find the honesty in my songs disturbing. They say, “How can you put yourself out there like that? Aren’t you scared?” No, it just comes naturally to me. I don’t like to put anything or anyone in a box. The race thing, the gay thing — these are multidimensional topics too. My role as an artist is to portray that diversity. It doesn’t matter what your sexual [orientation] is — you’re still going to be going through all of these amazing experiences when you explore your sexuality. Unless you live in a monastery [laughs].
Yes. I mean they don’t come up and say, “Hey, I’m gay [laughs].” I have a lot of women in the audience who are hanging out in the front. Girls with girls, guys with guys, girls with guys. But haven’t taken a poll [laughs].
I know it’s a stereotype — but I think some gay people not from the South — are actually a little afraid to go there.
Unfortunately, that stereotype still exists. But the South has always been seen as more racist than homophobic, but frankly, I’ve seen a lot of racism all over the country. Not sure it’s a North-South thing. It could be an urban vs. rural thing. I can’t speak personally from a gay perspective. I grew up in an academic environment, and it was racially and sexually diverse. I lived in Fayetteville, Ark., in the early ’70s. It’s a college town and there was a strong gay community there. There was no need for me to question someone’s sexuality. My father was a professor at the University of Arkansas at the time, the director of the creative writing program.
Yeah. We grew up among artists and writers. My dad knew people who were gay. When I was 15 or 16, there was a guy I really liked a lot and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t interested me. My dad tried to explain to me why — it never occurred to me that he was gay. My little 16-year-old mind! We were like buddies, but I wanted him to be more than that. I remember when I would meet guys and find out they were gay — I was like, “Oh, damn!” I always wished that my boyfriends could be more like my gay friends. For a long time, I had my male sex partners and then I had my friends — it was hard for me to bring the two together.
Yes. In the past, I’ve had boyfriends that I didn’t even really like. They were boyfriends, but not friends. My fiancé Tom is heterosexual, but he’s not that macho bad-boy type. When I first met him, I thought, “He’s too nice, he’s not enough of a bad boy.” But I’ve matured enough and I stayed open to it. The more I got to know Tom, I realized how interesting and smart he is. It’s always tough to find guys who are smart enough. He’s got a little bad boy in him, too [laughs].
Speaking of getting engaged, what do you think about gay marriage?
I think it’s great. I mean, who the hell cares? If people want to get married, that should be their prerogative. I’m a strong believer in individual freedom, as long it doesn’t hurt other people. In this country, the people are supposed to be the government. It’ not supposed to be the government over the people. That’s how America was founded — “We the people.” It’s your life; you should be able to do what you want with it.”
Sometimes when I get onstage, I get really fired up. I just can’t stand complacency and apathy. There are so many things in our society designed to keep people down. All of this in-fighting, like a pack of dogs — it’s just a way to keep people down. I’m starting to sound idealistic, but guess what? I am. And I’m not afraid to say it.
— Lucinda Williams performs at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville March 18.