Lucinda Williams: “I don’t mind pushing people’s buttons” | The music


Lucinda Williams sleeps more than usual. One night last week, she dreamed that Mormons had invaded her house, converted her friends and stolen her possessions. It wasn’t the problem: “They were all sitting next to each other, and I said, ‘Don’t you understand, you’re supposed to be quarantined!'” Williams laughed, his laconic outlaw baritone pouring into astonishing laughter. Her husband and manager, Tom Overby, told her that she had become restless in her sleep. She thinks it comes from the nightly televised marathons that have become their new lockout routine, staying until 5 am watching the Jewish drama Unorthodox, “Only in my dream, they went out as Mormons.”

Wiggy’s dreams are a quarantine staple, but Williams has had a lot to deal with lately. She and Overby recently moved to Nashville and have no furniture yet. As soon as they arrived, a tornado hit the city, taking part of their roof with it. Then the coronavirus killed two old friends: Hal Willner, who produced Williams’ album in 2007, West, and country musician John Prine. She last saw Prine in November when she played her festival in the Dominican Republic. “It was crazy,” she said incredulously, calling from her house.

Now 67, Williams has often written about death during his 40-year career: songs such as Pineola, Sweet Old World, Lake Charles and Drunken Angel have become classics of alternative country music, often representing complex men who otherwise could easily be reduced to caricature. This familiarity does not mitigate losses. “I think that’s why I write about death,” she says, her magnificent accent kneading each vowel, “because it’s so difficult to manage. The subject is less present on his new album, Good Souls Better Angels, although we can say that it deals with worse destinies: shame, depression, the disturbing horror of watching despots crush the values ​​which are for you. dear.

Williams’ career renaissance began with Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone of 2014, but Good Souls is another cut above: the flinty garage blues that highlight the punk Rough Trade spirit recognized when the label British raised it from relative obscurity with his third eponym of 1988 album. Now that she is releasing her first collection of what she calls “topical” songs, she has been taken aback by critics who have asked her why she wrote them (“Because I’m frustrated and angry”) , or by pointing out how “prophetic” Bad News Blues and Man Without have a feeling of soul (namely Trump) in mid-pandemic. Williams is not psychic, just listening to injustice: she keeps bags of unused lyrics from the 1970s and weaves them through her writing. “There has always been something in this country to rebel against and get mad at,” she said.

Yet Williams says Trump is “unlike anything I’ve ever lived in my life.” She knew “all of the racism and intolerance and fanaticism” that it represents was part of the American psyche, “but I thought it had been removed to some extent, or that we had some control over it.” Trump has given people of this state of mind “subliminal permission to get out of the closet,” she said. “” You can hate, you can get your weapons and your anger. “” She’s staggering to discover, via a Facebook discussion thread on Man Without a Soul, that she has fans who are supporters of Trump. “It’s just incongruous,” she says. “How can these things go together? Their comments kept her awake one night, even though she finally found them validating. “It feels good to rebel. To tell you the truth, I don’t mind pushing people’s buttons, you know? I like to make people react. “

I’m not trying to say, “Poor Ryan, he was completely misunderstood. “I just take the situation and turn it into a song

Lucinda Williams

Williams is not a cheap scum: it is his insistence on compassion and complexity that is provocative. There is pity even in Man Without a Soul. On the new song Wakin ‘Up, she reflects on an abusive relationship in which she was around 2003. “Pulled the kitchen chair from under me / He pulled my hair and then he kicked me / The next thing I swear, he wants to kiss me, ”she said on a jerky guitar. “I used to judge women who were in these horrible and abusive relationships,” she admits. “And now I was here in the same situation. You get a little numb. It’s easy when you love the person. Drunk with whiskey, this boyfriend flew away in violent rages that he had forgotten the next day. Then he started shooting heroin and cocaine. “It got worse and worse until one night, he actually said,” You have to go out. “He broke long enough to realize what he was doing. So I fully understand the whole battered woman syndrome; it’s not black and white. “

This perspective feeds Shadows & Doubts, a song advertised as confronting “our fast-paced, social-led society.” I ask Williams if she had a specific situation in mind. For the first time, she hesitates, describing a situation in which a male celebrity she knows has been accused of sexual harassment, but insisting that the song should be “more universal or open to interpretation.” I’m surprised she’s surprised when I guess it’s Ryan Adams: he played on his 2001 album Essence and she wrote about her problems – well documented before last year’s sexual harassment charges (this he denies) – on Little Rock Star, from 2008’s Little Honey.

“Look, I know Ryan, and I know he fucked up a lot,” she said clearly. “He’s one of those people you can love but he can piss you off too.” God knows he made enough mistakes. She says the song doesn’t talk about sexual allegations. “This is someone who basically screwed up and tries to face this person while being concerned about him. I still love Ryan. Do I agree with what he did? No. I’m not trying to say, “Oh, poor Ryan, he was misunderstood. “I’m just taking the situation and turning it into a song, but I think you can apply it to different things. I don’t want it to feel like defending his actions completely. “

She’s appalled that I can name him when she hasn’t, but I explain that I don’t think her position is unreasonable: justice requires rehabilitation, even for Harvey Weinstein. “Well, I agree,” she said. “And the other thing is that it is a disease. It’s very taboo but it’s another form of mental illness, and they need help. We are talking about how the social urge for shame can be rooted in fear of our worst instincts, which prompted Williams to elevate his love for Freud. “We all have the ability to go beyond limits,” she said. “My father used to describe it, like when a true close family friend committed suicide, like: we all stand at the edge of this deep, dark well and some people jump or fall and others do not. We all face the same temptations. “

Williams attributes his compassion to his childhood. Her mother, Lucille, suffered from manic depression with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies. She was treated for lithium in Williams’ early years, leaving the three children primarily in the care of their father, famed poet Miller Williams (whom he read at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1997). “Since I was very young, my father took me aside and said:” It is not your mother’s fault, she is not doing well “,” she said. “I learned early on not to expect her to be a mother like a traditional mother should be. But, thank God, I had a connection with my father. I think that’s what saved me when I was very young. “

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams on stage at last year’s Cambridge folk festival. Photography: SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Miller introduced his daughter to a world of writers; as a child, she hunted the peacocks of Flannery O’Connor in her garden. This is what drew his mother to him when they met at Louisiana State University. Miller’s cultivated history was the antithesis of his repressive and religious focus (“probably somewhat abusive too,” says Williams). Lucille studied music, especially the piano, but largely abandoned it when she married and had children. “To this day, I still don’t know what my mother’s dreams were,” says Williams. “If she considered herself a professional musician or not. “

After her parents separated when she was 12, it was in Lucille’s apartment in New Orleans that Williams first heard Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. She started playing at age 18, moving frequently between cities in the south (plus a stint in New York). There was sometimes a piano in the apartment when she visited her mother. “When she entered those states where she didn’t feel good about herself – maybe she wasn’t taking her medication – she would get rid of her piano,” says Williams. “She said something like: ‘I couldn’t be there anymore’, almost as if the piano came to represent something that caused great joy or complete anxiety. But then she would inevitably get another piano, then she would become happy again. Williams has seen the cycle repeat itself several times. “But she never really talked about it more than that. Did that remind her of what she didn’t accomplish? What was that? “

When Lucille was doing well, she dressed to watch her daughter play live “and she was just thrilled”. After her mother died in 2004, Williams had little left: just her psychology paperbacks (“She could tell you about it all day”) and her notebooks. “I came across something she wrote in one of her darkest moments,” she recalls. “She would move to this place where she would be angry and almost a little paranoid. And I saw something she had written. He said, “I’m tired of living in the shadow of Miller and Cindy.” You see, my name was Cindy when I was growing up. Imagine seeing this written by your mother. “

How did it make him feel? “Sad,” she said simply, “just sad.” Her voice cracked, then she said warmly, “I feel like I’m going to cry! I’m sorry, but she says, “No, it’s good! Williams takes antidepressants for depression and anxiety, although she has never felt far from her music. The opposite: she remembers a boy asking her, after a concert in the 90s, how she wrote songs. “I said, you have to go down into this deep, dark well and go up and write about it. He looked at her, dismayed. “He says,” I can’t do this! “It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard. He was aware enough to know that he was unable to cope with the demons. It came to my mind: I guess that is how the majority of people live, which is part of the problem of humanity and society. They all live on the surface. “


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