The Civil Wars, an indie duo that has received more buzz in early 2011 than perhaps any other new artist, possesses one of the most deceiving names in music today. Their music is unquestionably somber, but during an in-person interview at the CMT offices, singer-songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams interspersed their well-thought-out answers with zingers, comic insults and a lot of teasing.
After their first-ever show together, Williams says she asked White, “Are you depressed? I’m depressed.” She also laughs at her own early idea to sell razor blades with every record. And when she admits to being stubborn and emphasizes she’s not just being self-deprecating, White jumps in with the dry response, “I can second it, if you want me to.”
Yes, White and Williams are married — but not to each other. Yet, fractured relationships make up most of the fodder for their first full-length studio album, Barton Hollow. Although the duo’s music is not aimed at country radio, the video to its mysterious title track found a home on CMT.
The duo filmed it in a rural locale called Mt. Zion, near Minor Hill, Tenn., in a spot White visited every summer for family reunions and where some of his family members are buried. Despite the moody black-and-white treatment, they say one of their most vivid memories of the video shoot is walking back and forth across a rickety swinging bridge.
“In four-inch heels, by the way,” Williams interjects. “It’s beautiful, though. You have to really want to go there, and you have to know how to get there, as well, because you’re up and down hills and winding roads, and then you’re driving literally through rivers which are called … water bridges?”
“Low water bridges,” White says.
“See, I’d never done that,” Williams says, “before going over to Mt. Zion.”
“This is CMT. They’ll know what I’m talking about. These are my people,” White deadpans, causing Williams to burst out laughing.
“The California girl-turned-Nashvillian still needs to learn a lot!” she brightly concludes.
Although they converse like lifelong friends, White and Williams have known each other less than two years. He hails from Florence, Ala., while she comes from Santa Cruz, Calif. They met in Nashville as professional singer-songwriters doing their own thing, but they quickly realized they were kindred spirits, instinctively in tune with each other’s musical vision but far from mirroring it.
“When we first sang together, I literally had that goose bump moment. The hair on my arm went completely up and the back of my neck, too,” Williams says. “I chalked it up to adrenaline because I had never met John Paul, and the scenario of how we met — in the classic Nashville writing camp, being called by our publishers with several other writers to write something for a specific artist — I really was a little dumbfounded. But I’m also quite stubborn, so I didn’t want to let him know that I felt that way at all.”
It’s a winning combination that nobody could have predicted. Coming from a successful contemporary Christian music career, Williams nonetheless cites the Beach Boys as one of her biggest influences. Meanwhile, as a kid, White naturally absorbed his dad’s record collection — titles by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins and Don Williams. However, as a fledgling singer-songwriter, White rarely drew upon that country catalog, finding inspiration instead from melodic rock by the likes of Jeff Buckley, the Electric Light Orchestra and Queen. However, he notes that Williams has been gently coaxing those country sounds from his youth.
“For some reason, it’s a well that I didn’t tap into on my own as a solo performer, so everything feels brand new and fresh,” White says. “It’s just going back to the classics that I grew up on.”
“I grew up in Northern California before I moved to Nashville 11 years ago, but when I came to Nashville, I felt the musical history even on the cement that I was walking on,” Williams says. “I think to have a little bit of the Nashville sensibility, combined with the California pop, I do feel like there’s room for all of it. The culmination of the different backgrounds is what creates this unique sound. Neither John Paul nor I can put our finger on it, exactly. And we love the fact that you can’t say that the Civil Wars’ music entirely fits into one genre. We’re proud of that.”
As a duo, they performed their first show in a Nashville club, where producer Charlie Peacock became intrigued by their haunting sound. He signed on to produce Barton Hollow, which was recorded in Nashville, but it isn’t actually their debut album. That distinction goes to Live at Eddie’s Attic, a recording of their second-ever live show at the respected singer-songwriter venue in Decatur, Ga. The duo posted the free recording on their website in 2009, and it has since been downloaded more than 120,000 times.
Also that year, a four-song EP titled Poison & Wine gained attention when its title track was played in its entirely on the Grey’s Anatomy television series. In addition, Taylor Swift included the melancholy track in her iTunes playlist, noting, “I think this is my favorite duet. It’s exquisite.”
Although some bands would labor over the album that was poised to be their breakthrough, White and Williams agree that pre-production for Barton Hollow essentially consisted of performing its songs live. In the studio, they might enhance them with a few musical flourishes, but at other times, they’d wipe away anything extraneous.
“But there was no grand scheme of, ’We must keep this stripped down!'” White says. “It was just, ’Let’s get it to a place where we really love it and could never hear it any other way.’ That’s the record that came out of that.”
“The show is relatively similar to what you hear on the record,” says Williams. “It really does come down to John Paul and me — John Paul on various guitars and stringed instruments, and me on keyboards and piano, whatever’s there that day. I think that you’ll get a lot of what you hear on the record and then some really ridiculous fodder back and forth in between songs.”
“We have a lot of fun when we play live,” White states. “We figured if we’re going to be away from home as much as we are, working as hard as we’re going to be, we really need to love what we’re doing. So we goof off a lot. We make fun of each other and …”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Williams interrupts. But White continues, laughing but undeterred.
“Some of the music we play can be inherently heavy. Whether it’s positive or negative, we opt to go there,” he says. “We like to lighten it up when we can and enjoy ourselves.”
When the question is posed about their favorite part of being in this duo, Williams puts on her most sincere talk show host voice and queries White: “John Paul, tell me what your favorite part of being in this duo is.”
“I reeeealllly don’t want to put myself out there like that. Let me think about that,” he replies, playing along. “My favorite part of this, and it’s pretty much hands-down, is how much fun I’m having. That has not always been true in making music. I think all musicians out there could say the same thing. I’ve played a lot of bad gigs and done a lot of bad cowrites.”
“Meeeee toooo,” comes the certain confirmation from Williams.
“And I will do more — probably with her!” he says, tilting his head toward his partner, causing an eruption of girlish giggles and an unsure “thanks!”
“But I think we’re scratching the surface of what we can do creatively,” he continues. “We’ve written 15 to 20 songs total, and we have a lot of stuff left in us. I’m having the time of my life.”
“I would say the same thing, too,” Williams says. “I’ve never felt this kind of freedom or fun, ever. We both were solo artists in different past lives, so to have it feel new and completely free … I’m so proud of the music we’re making right now. I feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude to have stumbled across John Paul and to have stumbled across this kind of music. I feel like I’m tapping into a vein of something that I didn’t know I had inside of me. There’s nothing more rewarding than discovering something like that.”