With all the sound machines, editing software and other technologies that have been pushing music toward the electronic side of things, it’s quite refreshing when a band decides to peel away all the digital layers and just rely on vocals, a piano and guitar. And Nashville Americana-folk duo, The Civil Wars, have done just that with their debut LP, Barton Hollow, released on the 5 March through Columbia.
“[We’re] very excited about the record finally releasing in Europe,” guitarist and vocalist John Paul White says. “We’re both such huge fans of music that has come from all these amazing locations that we’ll be touring, and we dearly hope our music is accepted there. It means a lot to us to become more global in scope as a band.”
White and singer and pianist Joy Williams, who were both solo songwriters and artists at the time, found out that within minutes of being pushed into a room together during a writing exercise at songwriting camp that the musical pairing was meant to be. “We basically drew straws, and ended up in the same room, knowing nothing about each other,” White describes. “We clicked instantly – I knew where she was going to move vocally before she ever did it. And vice versa. It was eerie, and something neither of us could walk away from.”
Following that initial meeting, Williams and White decided to explore the possibility of putting more than just a song or two together at camp despite their different backgrounds. Growing up on the West Coast in the U.S., Williams found herself listening to a variety of styles including the classic crooners like Etta James, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra as well as Top 40 pop. But what’s more surprising is that Williams admitted that she even listened to some rap music, which she isn’t necessarily ashamed of but does come as a bit shock considering the style she plays. Meanwhile White, who hails from Alabama, was raised on the music that’s a bit more aligned with the band’s sound, such as bluegrass, Americana, folk and country. He also admitted to throwing in a little metal music here and there. Considering their musical histories, even Williams wondered how the two were able to meld their influences together.
“I still don’t quite know how we managed to make such musical differences mesh, but I’m thankful to say we both feel that our music is authentic to both of us,” she explains.
And this authenticity is the theme that streams through Barton Hollow. Writing about the ups and downs of love blended with their heartfelt harmonies and emotional lyrics which demonstrate the truth they try to convey in their music. This is especially true on their achingly beautiful ballad, ‘Poison & Wine,’ which they wrote about the bliss and pains of being in a relationship. And before you think that these two are actually an item, Williams and White are both happily married to other people and view each other as the sibling they never had.
“’Poison & Wine’ was a song that we co-wrote with a friend of ours, Chris Lindsey,” Williams states. “All three of us are in long-term, committed relationships, and we were talking about the good, bad and the ugly of it. We wanted to write a song that was painfully honest. We posed the question, ‘What would you scream at the top of your lungs to your significant other if you knew they’d never actually hear you?’ We wanted to write within the tension of that.”
The Civil Wars prove they are more than acoustic crooners. The album’s title track, ‘Barton Hollow,’ not only shows the duo’s edgier side but also is one that pretty close to White’s heart. “Barton Hollow is a place near where I grew up in Alabama,” he says. “It’s a little spot out in the country that the locals would frequent when they were up to no good (including me). When Joy and I started that song, we knew we wanted a picturesque name for the location. Barton Hollow instantly came to mind.”
It’s no secret that the two have strong voices. However when it came to writing ‘The Violet Hour,’ the lyrics were just not flowing. So two exercised their instrumental chops and created the only instrumental track on the album.
“We followed our noses on every track on this record,” White expresses. “We decided early on to treat each track that way. We knew that we could only control whether we loved it, not how others felt. ‘The Violet Hour’ fell out at a soundcheck along the way on the road. We tried for about five minutes to set words to the melody, but it instantly felt wrong. Everything just got in the way, but not necessarily in a lyrical sense. The moment voices got involved, it seemed to lose something. So we left it as is. One of our favourites.”
As you move from track to track on Barton Hollow, there is a seamless melodic thread that runs through each song, no matter what it is about. While Williams wishes she could say that they knew exactly how they were to craft this record, she simply pointed to the fact that she and White “followed our gut every step along the way.”
“Our criteria was simple : we wrote when we could, pushed each other to create the best songs we could each day, and we made sure we were created something we’d want to perform night after night with just the two of us on stage,” she elaborates. “When we were recording in studio, we trusted our collective intuition each step of the way, as well. We “trimmed the fat” so to speak on every track, whether it was instrumentally, lyrically, etc. We simply wanted to create something we could be proud of, to create something authentic to who we are, and then decided to just let the chips fall where they may.”
This instinctual approach has garnered praise from critics as well as some chart-topping artists. Adele has been one of The Civil Wars’ cheerleaders, calling them “the BEST live band I have ever seen.” She loved them so much that she invited Williams and White to open for her during her UK tour last year. White calls the opportunity one of the band’s favourite musical moments.
“Being able to share the stage with someone we respect immensely as a writer, singer, performer – it goes without saying that we were honoured,” he says. “But the beautiful part was getting to know that sweet lady. She was so warm, caring, welcoming, inspiring. We count her as one of our favourite people and a dear friend. It’s so fun to cheer for her.”
Country-pop-crossover star Taylor Swift shares the same sentiments with Adele and even collaborated with The Civil Wars on ‘Safe & Sound’ – a song for the soundtrack of The Hunger Games. The band also contributed one of their own songs to the soundtrack called Kingdom Come, which follows the same musical vein as what you would hear in Barton Hollow. And the good things just come on coming with The Civil Wars walking away with two Grammys for Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo or Group at the 2012 award ceremony. With everything that’s been happening to them, all Williams can feel is thankful.
“We are infinitely grateful for the support Taylor, Adele and other artists have offered,” she explains. “It is a generous, selfless thing to do in their positions. They have been a part of an even larger story for us as a band – the gift of word of mouth.”
The Civil Wars recently finished the UK leg of their tour and will continue touring in the U.S. in May, before returning to Europe in Autumn. But after 18 months of being on the road, it’s safe to say that they deserve a break, especially since Williams is expecting and is due in the summer. While the band is currently enjoying their growing success, they still have their eyes on what’s to come in the future and although they can’t really predict what will happen, they will be happy as long as they get to continue to do what they love and to do it on their own terms.
Barton Hollow is available now through Columbia.