It took some time for the awards and album sales to catch up with Lucinda Williams. But she could care less, as she’s been along for the ride since the very beginning.
The celebrated songwriter boasts three Grammy wins and eight more noms in her decades-old career and the critical acclaim for albums like 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or 2007’s West couldn’t be any effusive. And last year’s Little Honey featured her most expansive work to date. Yet in our conversation with the folk/rock songstress, we found Williams hesitant to reflect and excited to simply enjoy herself in the moment.
In one of our favorite conversations at Stereo Subversion in a long time, we sat down with Williams to discuss her unpredictable future projects, why her time came much later than expected and how she’s more comfortable in her own skin now than ever before.
SSv: The accolades are obviously coming later in your musical career than earlier. Do you have any reflections on your career? Do you think about those things?
Lucinda Williams: I don’t really think about it to tell you the truth. I guess I’ve always just enjoyed the journey as it went along, you know? I never really thought that much about it as far as ‘Why is it happening now instead of earlier?’ I never felt bad about that. I guess I’m unusual in that regard. I never think about my age that much – even back then. When I was just making music, there was never a day where I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m not young enough.’ I just kept going. So it didn’t really register and I didn’t think about it.
The majority of artists we listen to in the pop world peak at a younger age and then they just disappear or just never really come up to what they used to do. With me it's been the opposite, I think. It's weird.
I know that other people do, but I think I’m different in that regard. A lot of it, I’m sure, has to do with the fact that I never had kids. My life has never really stopped, but it’s always kept going. It wasn’t like I had to stop for kids or because I turned 40 or something. There’s never been anything to stop me. Plus I’ve always been a late bloomer and I’ve always been young at heart, so I don’t really think in terms of age. If my lifestyle never changed, why would I think about it? I’m still living right now as I would in any age. I don’t have a family of my own, so I’m sure that makes things different.
SSv: You mention the journey and being aware of that, but were you cognizant of that in your early-20s, for example?
Lucinda: Well, do we ever really know about it consciously as it’s happening? I don’t think I did. Things were a lot tougher then. I wasn’t sitting there idealizing it going, ‘Oh, this is a journey.’ [Laughs] I just mean looking back, I was always in a different place all the time. It’s just getting older and never really stopping to reflect that much. Now I do and it’s easy to romanticize the early years, but what I was trying to say was that ideally, that’s the way it should be. Ideally you look at it for the journey that it is, whatever stage you’re in. Each stage has its rewards, but that’s true of life in general. That’s what happens when you get older and you start philosophizing. [Laughs]
SSv: It’s so interesting to see that not only is the acclaim coming later in life, but you’re also releasing albums as a much faster clip. Are those two related?
Lucinda: Everybody has their time. For some reason, I know it’s unusual, but that’s the way it’s happening for me, for whatever reason. I think it’s amazing when you see younger artists who are already achieving notoriety and already being so good at their art in their early 20s. When I look back at what I was doing at that age, it’s nowhere near what I’m doing now. So it’s interesting that everybody piques at a different time. The majority of artists we listen to in the pop world peak at a younger age and then they just disappear or just never really come up to what they used to do. With me it’s been the opposite, I think. It’s weird. [Laughs] I’m an anomaly I guess.
SSv: Do you feel in the middle of your creative prime?
Lucinda: I don’t know if I’m in the middle of it. Some people look back on that Rough Trade album, the self-titled album, and that’s still their favorite one. Of course, for a lot of people, it’s Car Wheels and they think that’s the album that defines me. Some people look at that and think it’s my peak. So I don’t know if I’m in the middle of it, but I do think I’m growing. I still have more to learn. I still have more to do. I feel I’m expanding more as an artist. I think vocally, I’m singing better than I ever have before. I’ve learned what my voice can do and what it can’t do and I’ve learned how to write songs for me and my voice. I’ve learned how to relax, especially in the studio, and I’m doing things with my voice now that I’ve never done before. I can definitely see that.
SSv: Are you more comfortable in your own artistic skin?
Lucinda: Definitely. I give myself permission now to do what I want to do and not be so self-conscious about it. It’s not, ‘Oh, what will people think? What will people think?’ I still do that. I still torture myself with that from time to time, but I get into that more when I’ve recorded something and I’m listening to it and I’m getting too hard on myself wondering if people will think it’s good enough. I put those standards on myself, so sometimes it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror and picking yourself apart. But I think that’s part of what being an artist is.
SSv: You definitely went to places on Little Honey that you haven’t before, so is that a part of that album’s story?
Lucinda: Yeah, I think that’s definitely what it is. Just with anything, it’s practice makes perfect. It’s getting more comfortable in your own skin. It’s just like anything you do long enough, you feel more confident and comfortable with everything. It’s a combination of things – getting used to the process, being comfortable, finding your place, feeling accepted and vindicated and all those types of things. That allows you to really go for it and you feel you’ve arrived so you can pretty much just do anything. You’re not so self-conscious.
Probably the hardest time of my career was in between Car Wheels and Essence. Car Wheels was the first album that people really noticed me and everyone praised. I felt they were looking at me through a magnifying glass and I had a really hard time moving forward after that – writing the songs and all. I felt like everything was just going to be compared to Car Wheels, and of course it was. [Laughs] So that was the hardest period of time for me.
They still compare things to that, to an extent, but it’s less than it used to be. So that’s part of it all, too. It’s having my fans and audience and everybody accepting who I am and getting them used to me doing different things. So it’s a combination of all of that. I had to prove to them that I could make other records that were at least as good as Car Wheels but also different. I never like comparing anything.
Also, I didn’t want to just stop with Car Wheels. I knew I couldn’t make another record like it, so I knew I just had to move on. I also had other things I wanted to do, so that was the rocky point where I felt a bit more under the looking glass. I got past all of that and I think with Little Honey was when I felt most comfortable that I was accepted. I felt I could do pretty much anything and people would, for the most part, accept it. People would just realize it was just another Lucinda Williams album. They don’t expect things to sound like Car Wheels, so that’s a big turning point in my career.
SSv: So was there a point you thought you were done in that time?
Lucinda: No, there has never been that time. It’s just a part of my life. I just eat, drink, sleep with, bathe with my art. It is me. [Laughs] I don’t know how to do anything else.
SSv: Maybe part of that is what you said earlier about not having to stop.
Lucinda: Yes, it is my identity really. I mean, I can see when I’m older… well, I don’t even know what older is. When will I be older? 70? I’m sure I won’t want to be touring forever, but I will want to do something – write short stories or photography. That’s something I’ve always wanted to take up. I’m always going to be doing some kind of art. I’ll always writing something.
SSv: Have you thought about putting the guitar down?
Lucinda: Not permanently. But I really enjoyed just singing and not playing. It gives me that certain freedom live. I love listening to the old standards. I love the jazz vocalists and Brazilian music and just singers. That’s a whole other thing that I haven’t tried yet – a whole realm of possibilities. I have fantasies of doing an album of pop standards or something. Then I want to do a blues album.
Tom and I have been talking about doing an album of covers of other songwriters – songs that others haven’t heard. I love talking to new songwriters just getting started and there are a handful of really good ones out there. It would help them out, too, and it would be great to pick these obscure songs, do them and highlight those artists. So that’s another project we’re considering, too. So the possibilities are endless.
SSv: So any details on the covers project? Can you tell us some of the thoughts?
Lucinda: Yeah, I am really excited about that. There’s this girl Maria Taylor-
SSv: Yeah. Lady Luck?
Lucinda: You know her?
SSv: Yeah, we just got it in.
Lucinda: She’s great. And there’s another band from Austria of all places who we heard here and we’re trying to help them get a record deal over here and get back over here to tour. It’s a husband and wife team called Son of the Velvet Rat. I don’t know about that name. People are going to think they’re this heavy metal thrash band. [Laughs] He said [Euro accent], ‘Oh, I don’t know. I want a certain image.’ He really reminds me of Mark… what’s his name.
Lucinda: Yeah, he’s got this great sexy, gravelly voice. He reminds me of that a little bit – this Dylanesque thing. It’s beautiful melodies and sort of this Nick Drake, Mark Lanegan kind of thing. I freaked out when I saw them at this little place called the Hotel Cafe. So they’re another one. I get so many CDs from different artists, just hundreds of them. I just put some on the other day. If I sit on 50 of them, there will be one or maybe two of 50 that I will be impressed with. The rest of them, I just listen to the first song and then move on. But some of them really strike me as cool.
SSv: Looking back at Car Wheels, is that the album you’re most proud of?
Lucinda: Not really. Like I said, I don’t like to compare things. To me, every album has its own life and special time. That was such a special time, but so was the Rough Trade album. That was my first real record. The only thing I’d done before that were these two Folkways [Ramblin‘ (1979), Happy Woman Blues (1980)]albums and that was really the first time I went on tour and had a band. So that was a big deal.
Of course, Car Wheels was another whole thing and I won the Grammy and all of that. But I love the West album. And there are a lot of tracks I’m really proud of as well from different records. Like I love “I Envy the Wind.” I love that track. “Blue.” I love the “Rarity” track from Little Honey. I don’t listen to my own albums actually, so I don’t know. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror. [Laughs] I don’t need to. It’s done and out there, so let’s move on.
I’m ready for the next one now. I’ve already got a lot of stuff started, so I’m looking forward to getting off the road, to tell you the truth. We’re going to take some serious time off in October because I want to get these songs finished and get back into the studio.