The Civil Wars are riding a wave of success that started a little more than a year ago, and now that wave is sweeping them all the way to the United Kingdom.
Offering a haunting blend of folk and pop — and uncanny harmonies that suggest a connection much deeper than their two-year friendship — the duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams have arguably had the best year of their lives. And it all started with Grey’s Anatomy. After their song “Poison and Wine” was used on the hit TV show, Taylor Swift referred to it as her favorite duet on her official iTunes playlist, helping to catapult the band into the public eye.
With the sparse and brooding video for “Poison and Wine” now airing on CMT, the Civil Wars are continuing to tick off boxes on their bucket list. Their album, Barton Hollow, has sold far above and beyond expectations, VH1 named them “You Oughta Know” artists and they received nominations for the CMT Music Awards and the Americana Honors and Music Awards. Just this week, they received their first nomination at the CMA Awards. To top it all off, their sold-out tour of the United Kingdom is in support of good friend and pop star Adele.
The playful duo caught up with CMT before a flight to Dublin, Ireland, to reflect on an industry that runs at the speed of light, the wisdom in disregarding compliments and rolling with one of the most popular musicians in the world.
CMT: We’ve got the “Poison and Wine” video on CMT now. Did you guys have a vision of what you wanted that to be?
White: “Poison and Wine” is the one that’s showing right now. We did “Barton Hollow” — which CMT aired for a good chunk of time — that actually was filmed second, but aired first. “Poison and Wine” was the first song that we did a video for, and we did that really quickly because it was playing on Grey’s Anatomy, and we had to rush and get it done.
Williams: In an afternoon! (Laughs)
White: So we did it at a friend’s house down in Florence, Ala. His name’s Billy Reed. He’s a fashion designer and designs all the clothes that I wear. So we did it in his house, and it was the perfect setting. We knocked it out in an afternoon and are extremely proud of it.
What has this past year been like for you guys?
White: The word that always comes straight to mind is “whirlwind.” We had lofty expectations of what we wanted to happen, but what’s happened this year has far, far, far surpassed what we thought we could do. In our first week of sales, we did probably five times what we were expecting to do, and everything since then has been that sort of thing. Lots of stuff crossed off our bucket list. It’s pretty overwhelming. We’ve kind of got blinders on right now trying to keep our heads about us.
Now that your album’s been out for a while, what’s the biggest compliment you’ve heard?
White: Oh, boy, I don’t know. I try to somewhat let them go in one ear and out the other. If we pay too much attention to them, we have to pay attention to the bad ones, too. Believe me, we definitely are extremely proud of the nice things people have said about the record. We don’t ignore it — it makes it so great — but we try not to dwell too much on specific things. We felt really good about this record when we made it. And we’re surprised and totally heartened by how many people have felt the same way.
Looking forward, you’ve got the U.K. tour with Adele. Do you have any idea what to expect over there?
White: This is a perfect situation for us because, number one, we’ve worked with Adele before, and she’s a sweetheart, and we’re all semi-family now. But number two, you know she’s gonna have packed houses at all these places, lots of cities that we’ve never even been to. And on top of that, it’s the types of crowds that are gonna be attentive, you know? They’re gonna pay attention and at least give us a shot. It won’t be a typical pop/Top 40 crowd that are just there to see the headliner. I think it will be a really good, knowledgeable audience, and it’s up to us whether we can make fans out of them.
Are you guys big fans of Adele’s music?
Williams: Yessssss, very much. That’s an understatement.
What is it about your music that’s a good fit for opening her shows?
White: A lot of what we do has soul and R&B and has an old soul to it — and that’s definitely where she comes from. She’s a singer’s singer. Primarily, it’s about that voice and it’s about the song. All of her songs are extremely well-written and topical and some are autobiographical. She pulls from inside, and you can hear her bleed when she sings. That is what we want to do. Whether we’re accomplishing that or not, that’s what we always strive to do. We want to make people feel something.
Adele said recently she wants to do a rootsy album. Have you guys had the opportunity to brainstorm with her?
White: Well, when we went out on tour with her last time, we were just acquaintances. We didn’t really know each other that well. By the end of the tour, we were super-fast friends, but it wasn’t ever where we had that sort of situation. You know, we’re traveling separately, and there’s not a lot of time to collaborate other than just hanging out, having drinks … and more drinks and more drinks. (Laughs) But this time around, we’ll be together for a month and sharing some transportation, so who knows? Anytime that you’re in those sorts of situations, it’s always a whole lot better served if you don’t push it, and if it happens, it happens.
Williams: We would not be bummed if she came and hung out in Nashville. She’s amazing and she has incredible instincts. And I know Adele has been following us since the very beginning. So if she wants to make a rootsy album, I’m standing on tiptoes, and John Paul and I both are cheering her on in whatever she wants to do next.