Golden Globe nominee and Grammy award winner Joy Williams speaks to Jack Walsh about the Civil Wars, her relationship with John Paul White and the Hunger Games
Internal band disputes over a band name are a common occurrence in the music industry, however, in the case of the Nashville-based duo The Civil Wars, there is an inextricable sense of irony attached to the whole fallout.
With the band name loosely representing Joy Williams and John Paul White’s tribute to the civil war monuments in their hometown of Nashville, the onset of the duo’s in-house dispute due to “irreconcilable differences of ambition” will have to go down in history as simply a massive coincidence; even though it does seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Williams and White’s tentative relationship has added a definite shroud of confusion around the release of their new album Barton Hollow. Their first album saw them garner three Grammy awards and, despite her relationship with White being on tenterhooks, singer-songwriter Williams believes their latest offering, The Civil Wars, doesn’t reflect the disharmony between the duo.
“John Paul and I wrote this album not in bits and pieces. We sat down, and we would finish a song. The singing and the harmonising came really fluidly and I think the emotional overtones that were in the first album are fleshed out even further in the second.
“I think the bonds between John Paul and I had shifted somehow, very suddenly. To a degree where I don’t think it harmed the music in any way, but the music became our best language to still speak to one another.”
Memorable for bringing a jazzy vibe to the traditionally rigid folk scene, Williams assures that the latest album follows the same tone and that the tracks definitely reflect a level of continuity between albums. “While keeping within the DNA of the band, the heart of the music that we made, I do feel that it is so visceral and raw, a really emotional project.
“You can hear it lyrically, we wrote all of these songs while we were on the road. I think the road seeped into many of these songs in a way that created many vulnerable and very colourful lyrics. It does feel like a very gutsy, rootsy, heartfelt album.”
Known as somewhat of a perfectionist, Williams was well aware of the critical and commercial expectations that The Civil Wars as an album faced. The album peaked at number one on the Billboard chart and it was well worth the many uncertainties during production. “I’m a very ambitious person, so if something goes well then my natural instinct is to bring what I do next to an even better place.
“So I would lay awake thinking how could we do this musically or that production-wise and I’m happy to say that the album has a progression sonically that I’m really proud of.”
Speaking in relation to the critical and commercial acclaim and how it can be inherently damaging to the artistic process, Williams eloquently affirmed that it is very important for an artist to keep their feet on the ground. “All that I know I have been learning is to believe, that regardless of if it’s fame or not, is that if you believe what other people believe about you, then you cease to be focused on what you know of yourself to be true.”
Having entered the touring scene at 17 years of age, Williams’ world view has changed substantially throughout her years as an artist. “Learning how to navigate a nomadic life on my own; I think of my world view shifting as it often does and learning to trust your instincts. Doing what you feel instead of what you think you should. Accepting the beauty of living in the grey of things rather than the black and white.”
The harmonic relationship between Williams and White is a crucial aspect of the band’s identity. Williams attributes their focus on harmonies to the early years of her life and the music that she listened to at a young age. “A lot of the music I listened to had a lot of harmonies. My mom loved the Carpenters and my dad loved the Beach Boys.
“I became so intrigued by how notes can just bend and weave together. There’s an earnestness and an ache to country, and jazz is steeped in history in a way that pop music only winks an eye at.”
The band’s work with Taylor Swift on the Hunger Games soundtrack is an example of how the American folk scene does have a sense of family. Artists within the genre are always happy to collaborate with one another, and this link up with Swift saw Williams and White enjoy great success.
Garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for their work on ‘Safe & Sound’, Williams recalls working with Swift and T-Bone Burnett, “The process of writing was really fun. We wrote in T-Bone’s home studio and recorded the song in an afternoon. It was really easy to write together and everyone was throwing out ideas and vibbing off of people. The vocals that you hear are the first takes that we did after penning the lyrics.”
Unfortunately, the Civil Wars are now deemed “on hiatus.” Williams and White hold a well-kept estrangement, and asked about the prospect of a reunion Williams affirmed her “belief in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Moving forwards is the way that I know. It also takes two people to mend bridges, so I do believe that that’s possible, if both people choose that.
“Moving forward, this experience, whether or not this is the end or this is the continuation of, it has changed me greatly. It has broken me in some ways and it’s also mended me in some ways. I think it’s a Japanese proverb that says; fall down seven times, get up eight.” To which Otwo says, stop falling over.