Danny Clinch / Courtesy of the artist
Like just about all of us, Lucinda Williams has not been able to break the news cycle in recent years. On the song “Bad News Blues” from his new album Good souls, best angels, she sings “Bad news all around / No matter where I go, I can’t get away from it / Don’t you know that I’m deep on my knees. “
Sure Good souls, best angels, Williams is going through the bad news to deliver his hottest and most up-to-date album to date. She is especially ready to sing about Donald Trump, whom she calls “the worst president we have ever had in the history of the United States.”
Mary Louise Kelly of NPR spoke to Lucinda Williams about having suffered a severe blow for speaking about current issues, the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit her house in East Nashville and about being tired of writing songs about the unrequited love. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for a transcript of the interview.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Mary Louise Kelly: I should start by noting how strange it is to release an album. Are you crouching like the rest of us?
Lucinda Williams: Yeah, squatting like everyone else, in our house in Nashville. We had just moved in before that. First the tornado hit, then the pandemic. I asked my husband Tom [Overby] the other day, “Are we going to have grasshoppers next time? “That’s the whole biblical thing; it’s like that.
Is it weird to drop an album and not be able to turn it over and play it and see people’s reactions?
I think I am in a better position than many other people because I do not have a 9 to 5 job and because we are financially well. I’m depressed when I think of a lot of other people who can’t afford their house and pay their rent and everything right now, because we don’t have the kind of government – I guess we don’t get laid place to help workers in this country like some other countries have been able to do, so that people can get by.
Let’s see this new album and how it fits. When you wrote these songs, what did you think? What did you mean when you wrote this?
I was going to say earlier when we were talking about “Not the right time to release an album”: Ironically, [for] this particular album, it’s probably the perfect time to get it out.
Why? How? ‘Or’ What?
Because of what’s going on. Besides the pandemic, we are dealing with the worst president we have ever had in the history of the United States. So the songs are very relevant to what’s going on right now. What I was thinking of when I was writing the songs was either what was going on now – the state of government and the way things are – or five years ago. I always wanted to write more topical songs.
So what has changed? You said you always wanted to write more topical songs. You have been doing this for decades. Why now?
It’s very difficult, I think. I think most songwriters would agree that it is much easier to write an unpaid love song than anything else. They are the easiest of all.
And it resonates with everyone.
Yeah. But I have always been attracted to very good protest songs or topical songs, like those of Bob Dylan in the 60s like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, this kind of songs. If you look at my other albums – it probably started on Blessed album, [but they’re] not as many protest songs as songs about humanity. And I have another one called “Soldier’s Song” which was on this album; it’s an anti-war song for me.
To tell you the truth, this is probably due to my meeting with Tom, my engagement and my marriage, in search of my soul mate. And also to realize that I can’t keep writing unpaid love songs for the rest of my life – which is a good thing. I already wanted to write more about other things and explore other subjects in addition to unrequited love. In a way, it was really liberating, because it sort of forced me as an artist to delve into other subjects.
Even if these are songs on modern issues, it seems that on some level you are inspired by an earlier era, protest and political music from the 60s and 70s?
Yes, because I was very active at the time. At the age of 16, I read books like Autobiography of Malcolm X and Dick Gregory and go to anti-war protests and distribute SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] school leaflets, kicked out of high school for not saying allegiance. So it’s always been in my blood.
You said, in your words, “the worst president in history,” and I mean a song from the album called “Man Without A Soul.” I’ve read interviews where you alluded to who you wrote this song for, and I was wondering if you would tell us?
Tom brought it to me and he said, “I have this great idea for a song: ‘Man Without A Soul.'” And at the start, I said, “Well, everyone has a soul.” , and it reminded me a bit of the line of this Neil Young song, “Even Richard Nixon has a soul. ”
I didn’t tackle it right away. I didn’t want to have a song that obviously sounded like “Oh, this is Trump. But Tom said to me, “Don’t tell people it’s about Trump. And I said, “I don’t tell people that, but they tell me, because it’s obvious. But then Tom said, “Well, that could also be about Mitch McConnell. “
Who is it?
To me, this is about Trump, just because that’s what I was thinking about. But Tom came up with some words and for him, he was thinking about this abusive relationship in which I was before meeting Tom. Said, “I think of this guy as much as Donald Trump when I hear this song. “
To me, it sounds like it’s the state of the country, the person or people in charge – we all know that the president is not the only one. He has people who bend over and tell him what to do.
Are you afraid of being frank when certain people in your audience may feel alienated?
I’m starting to accept this. I didn’t really think I would have people like that who were my fans. I saw it happen a little before Obama was elected. I was playing in Minneapolis at [the music venue] First Avenue and I started to sing my song “Well Well Well. It was just when I found out that Ralph Stanley had come to support Obama, which I just thought was wonderful, and I said something about it from the scene before I sang this particular song, including I said she was inspired by Ralph Stanley’s music – “Isn’t it wonderful Ralph Stanley came to support Obama? So I started singing that song right after I said that, and an older man with his two daughters or granddaughters got up and went out.
I had a little bit of it from time to time. Right after September 11, I started performing Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” because I thought, “Well, this is an appropriate song to do right now. And I have received negative comments about it.
Does it bother you?
It absolutely bothers me. Some can be very sharp and very mean. An article was published in the New york times; oddly enough, the article title was something like “Where’s the soul of Donald Trump?” Completely unrelated to the song. We posted it on my Facebook page, a link to the article and a link to the song “Man Without a Soul”. So I look at it and all of a sudden I see the comments rolling and oh my God.
What were they?
Everything from “I was a fan of your music before, but I’m not anymore” to “You sing like you’re having a heart attack. He was the one who attracted me: one of them said, “I thought you were a compassionate person. You wrote this song “Compassion”. Where is your compassion? “That one really attracted me. I am a compassionate person! But I also get angry. It is a song. It’s supposed to describe a feeling, and my frustration and anger, like many people in this country, are feeling it right now.
I see this all the time. I see this with other artists: people who say “Shut up and sing. Don’t get involved in politics. It’s not your job. Well sorry, please differ. Go back and listen to Woody Guthrie. he East my work for me.
It makes you angry, but it’s a good thing. It’s good to get upset. What I hate worse than all is apathy. I almost prefer someone to tell me what they think in front of me. Have at least one opinion, rather than this “I don’t know, I don’t care about the kind of thing. “
It is a time of anger, and also a time when so many people are trying to be aware of kindness and tenderness and to take care of others. There is a song here that made me think of this: “When the way gets dark. The lyrics are “Don’t give up / Take my hand / You are not alone”. What is it like to sing right now?
It’s wonderful to sing that. I want to express the feeling that there is a positive result in all of this, and I feel very positive about things and where they are going to happen. I believe in the goodness of people. Mistakes have been made and we must correct them.
It reminds me of what happened in the 1960s when we were in Vietnam, as well as the civil rights movement. It took that kind of thing to bring people together. This is how I look this time now. It woke up a lot of people.
So when you say you have hope, what gives you hope?
Just my own inner strength and the compassion I see in others. Right after Tom and I moved into this little house in East Nashville, the tornado hit, and we went out the next day and witnessed the damage. We were lucky compared to some of our neighbors. But the first thing we saw was this car parked with a platform in the back and complete strangers – a family, a guy with his kids – who was running around and picking up stuff and throwing it in the truck. And they came to our lawn and started picking things up. It made me cry. That’s what keeps me going, I guess: good in people.
Gabe O’Connor and Christopher Intagliata of NPR produced and edited the audio for this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis have adapted it for the web.