Alt-country songstress Lucinda Williams has found her essence.
Not just because Essenceis the name of her sixth album, which came out June 5 and debut at N0. 28 on the Billboard 200 album chart, one notch ahead of Nashville diva Trisha Yearwood. And not just because “Essence” is the disc’s first single, a typically yearning Williams track about wanting love so badly you’ll do anything to get it.
No, she’s literally found her “essence” — what her astrologer tells her is the fragrance that embodies her personality and spirit.
“He told me it was either magnolia, which is the state flower of Louisiana, where I’m from, or lotus,” Williams said from a Montreal hotel room, where she was signing 100 lotus-scented candles — promotional trinkets to be handed out to fans, radio personalities and the like. “We decided on lotus because I’m from the swampy part of the country and a lotus kind of comes up through the mud and the muck to the top of the water.”
That’s a fitting description of the music Williams has made during her more than two-decade career. Williams songs like “Right in Time,” “Changed the Locks” and virtually everything on Essence dig through the dirt of love and loss to reveal beauty out of pain, hope out of heartbreak.
Which is why she bristles a little when people pigeonhole her as some sort of romantically tragic figure.
“I think that’s kind of pedantic when people start saying that’s what I’m all about. I mean, whose songs don’t focus on tragedy and loss?” Williams said. “In the end, there’s something else going on there. I’m not just being stepped on all over the place. If you look at the bulk of my material, it’s about trying to find some strength through that.”
The 48-year-old singer, who got her first taste of mainstream success with 1998’s Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, said she began to reap the benefits of success when she found herself playing to crowds of 3,000 or more on her current tour, as opposed to the 1,000-capacity clubs she’d been used to. And that’s right where she wants to be.
“It’s still intimate enough that it’s not the arena-rock thing. I’d rather play five nights at the Fillmore than one night at an arena,” she said with the been-there, done-that tone of someone who’s opened for Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. “It’s a real good level to be at. I’m fine if I just stay here.”
She might not be able to, with the strong showing of Essence in its first week on the charts. In addition to its slinky grooves and emotionally honest lyrics, the album features what Williams thinks is the best singing of her career.
“I’m more relaxed with my voice and the limitations of my voice,” she said, recalling songs like “Passionate Kisses” and “The Night’s Too Long,” which were later recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Loveless, respectively. “I wouldn’t think about the range of a song. When I would sing ‘Passionate Kisses,’ it jumps up … and my voice doesn’t go there naturally.”
Williams said listening to jazz vocalists like Nina Simone and Brazilian singers like Virginia Rodrigues and Astrud Gilberto helped her literally find her voice.
“This is really kind of a sit-down album, much in the same way I imagine Billie Holiday or someone sitting down in the studio and singing. They would make the song kind of fit their voice, more than making the voice fit the song.”
Williams is on tour until Aug. 5, with Australian country singer Kasey Chambers opening up.
Lucinda Williams tour dates, according to her management:
· 6/20 — Madison, Wis. @ Orpheum Theatre
· 6/22 — Kalamazoo, Mich. @ Kalamazoo State Theatre
· 6/23 — Cleveland, Ohio @ Odeon Concert Club
· 6/25 — Columbus, Ohio @ Southern Theatre
· 6/26 — Cincinnati, Ohio @ Bogart’s
· 7/14 — Indianapolis, Ind. @ Indy Jazz Fest
· 7/15 — St. Louis, Mo. @ Pageant
· 7/17 — Minneapolis, Minn. @ First Avenue
· 7/20 — Vancouver, British Columbia @ Orpheum Theatre
· 7/22 — Seattle, Wash. @ Summer Nights at the Pier
· 7/23 — Portland, Ore. @ Crystal Ballroom
· 7/26 — San Francisco, Calif. @ Warfield
· 7/28 — Aptos, Calif. @ Fat Fry Music Festival
· 8/5 — Salt Lake City, Utah @ Red Butte Garden