The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams Discusses New Album

Duo's Self-Titled Project Debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200

When a duo debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard sales chart, wouldn’t you think they’d celebrate with each other? Not if they’re the Civil Wars.

“It’s bittersweet on a lot of levels, but at the same time it just proves that the music is connecting, so that makes me really happy,” says Joy Williams, one-half of the Grammy-winning duo that unexpectedly split last year.

In a visit with CMT Hot 20 Countdown ’s Tim Hardiman, the singer shares memories of recording the self-titled project, her hopes of touring again with bandmate John Paul White and her thoughts about the music video for the album’s lead single, “The One That Got Away.”

CMT: Your producer Rick Rubin said for you and John Paul to write this on the road. What made you take his advice and do that?

Williams: Well, it’s Rick. Need I say more? I mean, yeah, next question. He’s changed the arc of people’s career, from Johnny Cash to Metallica, by making those kinds of suggestions. And he really encouraged us to write on the road, which was something that we had already been doing. So when Rick said that, it was further gasoline on the fire to not get tired and to not say, “We’ll write it next week.” It was like, “You know what? No, we’ve got a couple hours in the green room” or “Hey, we got a longer soundcheck. Why don’t we fiddle around with that guitar idea you had?”

Were you able to channel the adrenaline from your performances into your post-show songwriting sessions?

Oh yeah, I love our crowds. I love performing and I love singing. What we do is a duo and have been doing is a duo, and it’s like this connected energy that’s been built by the two of us being in the same room together. So it was exciting to be on the road and then to take some of that energy and take it into the co-writing process. I feel like you can feel that energy.

I think something Rick Rubin does very well is take a minimalist approach to recording a song, yet makes it sound massive. That seems to be the approach he took with this album, and it worked very well. Would you agree?

Thanks, I think Rick does a really amazing job at what you just described, too. What Rick did on “I Had Me a Girl,” he created this complete Zen atmosphere at his Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. It was like open doors and open windows and natural sunlight. He never wore shoes and he had board shorts. Everything was so calm, and he made it really conducive for creating the best vocal possible.

When we got our basic performance down, Rick would come back in the studio in-between takes, very much like a shaman … that salt and pepper beard that’s so iconic now. He’d say really kind things and I always remembering him saying, “Sing it like it’s the first time you’ve ever sung it. Sing it like you just wrote it. …”

Then we took that vocal performance, just that raw vocal performance, and took it to our producer Charlie Peacock, who did most of the record. I feel like that was something Charlie was able to build off of. So that sound that you’re talking about that’s really expansive, I feel like that’s the two of them together, which I really love. I love how that song turned out. There’s like a swagger. Like a whiskey and smoky kind of … it’s Southern Gothic, and it’s one of my favorite tracks, how it wound up musically.

Why did you decide to cover the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” on the record?

We started out becoming a band that was known for doing covers. When we were a baby band, [that reputation] started out because we didn’t have enough songs. So we were like, “That sounds good. Let’s put that one in.” But over time, people started almost getting frustrated if we didn’t put them in the set, whether it was a Leonard Cohen song or the Romantics. There are a few others — Michael Jackson, we definitely did a few from him.

“Disarm” is an unbelievable song, and John and I both grew up loving Smashing Pumpkins. And we always got really inspired choosing songs that might not be the natural covers, trying to find a way to sort of rework what is already beautiful music and turn it slightly so people can hear the lyric, too. What we’ve always been drawn to is, what’s the lyric of it? Is it something we can really feel when we’re singing?

So it was — I’m sorry, I’m totally giggling right now because I remember a few shows where it was on the set list and we were like, “Aw, we’re running out of time. Wanna skip it?” And literally someone would read our minds from the crowd and be like, “Play ’Disarm!'” So we got requests a lot, and it’s fun when people want to hear your music and then also want to hear what you do with other people’s music, too.

What’s the oddest cover song that people would request in your early stages?

Oddest? Well, people would often request “Free Bird,” which was a really, really bad idea because John Paul would incorporate the bird, but it would not have anything to do with the song if that makes any sense at all.

That’s one thing that I always loved about the people that come to our shows, too. They’re in it with us. I mean, they’re pin-drop quiet when we are. And they’re rockers when we are. And it’s like one massive living room and some alcohol, and that’s always a fun combination. So I look forward to getting back out on the road, I really do. I’m anxious for it and hope that this music will have a chance to live and breathe onstage, too.

What are the odds of that happening?

I don’t know. As unlikely as it was for John Paul and I to meet and connect musically in that random co-write that we had in Nashville years ago, I think the fates could be just as creative. I think the break has been — I’ll just speak for me — the break has been really good for me to get a regained perspective and to reconnect in ways that I really needed to personally.

The road can be a really winding, lonely place, even when you’re surrounded by a lot of people all the time. So it’s really good for me to be home and be here and recalibrate, but it’s made me that much more passionate about making music and continuing to do that and being on the road. That’s something that I’m ready to do and would love to.

Is it a little awkward for you to promote this? I know you don’t want to speak for him.

No, it would be disrespectful to.

You’re obviously proud of the music or you wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me about this album.

That’s why I am here talking to you, because I wanted to give this music as much of a chance for people to hear it as possible.

From an outsider’s point of view, it would seem that the timing of the pregnancy may have been the catalyst for the break. Most people would want time off to be a mom. Is that the catalyst for the tension?

No, not at all, not at all. My husband travels on the road with us. He’s our manager, and I love the prospect of having Miles on the road and showing him that much more of the road. So that’s not it. A lot of people thought that was the reason why — and that’s understandable — but that’s not it. I think John Paul and I just wanted different things, and over time that became more and more apparent.

Then you add having to be creative every day and the road, and John Paul having to be away from his family, and things just started coming to a head for us.

But that having been said, going back to “Why have I been talking about this album?” You know, “Why am I talking about the album?” And it is because I believe so much in it, and I believe it really turned into something even beyond anything that I thought it would be when we were recording it. … As I listen to it, I hear a beautiful ache and I hear something that’s honest and vulnerable and that I feel like a lot of people can see themselves in. And so that’s why I wanted to talk about this album, and that’s why I’m here and that’s why I’m holding up hope that there’s a chance we will be out on the road again and that’s not been determined.

There’s been no grand decision made about what’s happening with this band. It’s a little bit on pause. … I won’t speak for John Paul at all, but I will say that we both signed off on this. We both signed off on the album coming out when it did. And I think for me it’s because I believe in the caliber of the music. If I didn’t think this project was really honest and true and that it broke my heart and put it back together at the same time, and that that might be able to happen to other people when they hear it, I wouldn’t have signed off with the album coming out now.

But I feel like my character really has grown and shifted because of all this challenge. … I think you grow the most when you’re in the season of challenge and you’re also able to see what things matter the most when you’re in the season of challenge, and that’s where I’m at. So I think I’m seeing things more clearly than I have before. Part of that is embracing what is and talking about what isn’t and understanding that life is messy. I really feel like I’m growing stronger because of it, but I’ve had to experience pain in this process. But I believe that some of the pain and challenge has really been funneled into music. I think I’m more proud of this project than any project that I have worked on before.

I watched the video for “The One That Got Away.” I sensed tension, but also the great satisfaction of you both knowing you’re making powerful music. How was the video put together?

Our friend Mark put that together with 1504 Productions and did a great job with it. He was in the studio with us. We invited him. He had shot previous footage of us as well. He started out as just a friend of John Paul’s, then we got to know each other. I thought he did a really good job with the treatment of that and capturing what was sort of unspoken in the studio, that you could see more clearly looking back. At least it was for me, that’s how I felt.

What was it like when you first saw it?

Hard. It was hard to see it. But like you said, at the same time … even if John Paul and I at a certain point lost the ability on some level to have that ease that we had before, we’ve always been able to talk music. And that’s always been the bridge we’ve been able to walk across between the two of us. And so that reminded me of that as well, even in the midst of that tension, something beautiful was born.

Oh, one thing I do want to say that came about when you were talking about the tension in the studio and what was it like. I mean so many, so many bands have had tension in the studio. It’s as old as time. We were in a place of having discord in some way, so I think it added to the complexity of the recording and the honestly in it and the energy in it. But we’re not the first band ever to go into the studio having some personal differences and creating music. … We’re not the first and definitely won’t be the last.