Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Lucinda Williams2 8727 By Danny Clinch

Lucinda Williams' Personal Best

28 June 2023, 08:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Danny Clinch

At 70, Lucinda Williams remains one of music’s most potent singers and songwriters. With her 16th studio album out this Friday, she looks back with Alan Pedder on five significant tracks from her past.

Lucinda Williams doesn't like to pick favourites, but it seems that her subconscious doesn’t have a problem with it.

She’s genuinely surprised when I point out that four of the five songs she’s picked as her Personal Best are all from one album, 2001’s Essence. “Wow, I wasn’t even thinking that!” she says with a bemused smile. “That’s amazing, actually.”

She’s at home in Nashville when we speak, taking a short respite from yet another tremendously busy year. In April she released her revelatory, long-in-the-works memoir Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, and this week follows that up with Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, her first studio album since suffering a debilitating stroke in November 2020.


Although her recovery has been remarkable – from the ICU to live performance in less than a year – Williams is no longer able to play guitar, forcing a rethink of her songwriting process. As a result, collaboration and community are the central tenets of Stories…, which features guest appearances from Personal Best alumni Angel Olsen and Margo Price, and longtime Lucinda Williams fans Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, to name just a few. Jesse Malin, whose 2019 album Sunset Kids was co-produced by Williams and her husband and manager Tom Overby, contributes as a co-writer. In a horrible coincidence, Malin has since suffered a stroke himself, leaving him paralysed from the waist down – only temporarily, it’s hoped.

Williams hasn’t chosen anything from Stories… to talk about here, though tracks like the rain-soaked “Where the Song Will Find Me” (one of six co-writes with Overby and Williams’ longtime tour manager Travis Stephens) and the anthemic “New York Comeback” comfortably rank as some of her most evocative work. Instead, let’s jump back 25 years to the immediate aftermath of her totemic roots-rock masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Coinciding with the resurgence of Americana in the mainstream, the 1998 album went on to win her a second Grammy and sell over a million copies worldwide, but it left her quite perplexed as to where to go next. “I felt like I was kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she explains. “That was my biggest breakthrough point, and I knew that whatever album came next would be criticised if it sounded too much like Car Wheels or not enough like Car Wheels, so I felt almost like I was competing with myself.”

Lucinda Williams3 8562 By Danny Clinch

The album that came next was, of course, Essence. Swapping out the assertive, laboured over production of Car Wheels for a more groove-driven sound, steeped in humidity and heartbreak, it proved to be a departure of the best kind. “With Essence, it sort of organically happened that I started to write songs that weren’t narrative like a lot of the songs on Car Wheels,” she says. “They didn’t have as many lyrics. They were songs that depended more on the music than the words.”

There’s a lovely passage in Williams’ memoir where she talks about sending early drafts of the songs to her father, as she’d always done before. Miller Williams was a poet and a literature professor, and she “looked up to him so much as a writer,” so it was a proud moment when he turned around and praised her latest work as “the closest [she’d] ever come to poetry.” “I was on the phone to him and I was like, ‘Really? Wow. Does that mean I graduated?,’ because it was sort of like an apprenticeship with him. He said ‘Yes,’ and that felt really, really good.”

Her apprenticeship complete, Williams stopped sending her songs to her father after that. She later set some of his poems to music – “Compassion” from 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and “Dust” from 2016’s Ghosts of Highway 20, recorded in the year he passed away. When I ask if Miller had his own favourite song from Essence, Williams casts down her gaze. “I wish I’d asked him that,” she says. “He never mentioned it, but I would say that it would probably be the most country sounding stuff like ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’. That song and ‘Blue’ were holdovers [from earlier songwriting sessions] and you can tell that there’s a difference in style.”

"Blue" (2001)

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Why did I choose this one? I just really like it [laughs]. I like the lyrics a lot. I love the melody. And I like the way the track itself came out. I play it a lot live.

The song was inspired a bit by the blues, and by the Joni Mitchell song “Blue”. I just really liked the idea of taking the idea of blue and sort of personifying it, almost like it’s an actual living thing.

BEST FIT: What do you remember about recording this particular song?

Ah, well, I do remember that I was worried about my vocals on the track because it hits kind of a high note and I was struggling with that a bit. I wanted to sing it over again, but Charlie Sexton, who was co-producing with me in the studio, said, ‘Okay, well, I don’t think you need to, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead.’ So I did, and I tried to get the vocal, but of course he was right. I had already gotten it, I just didn’t know it yet.

When you were making the demos for Essence with Bo Ramsey and you sent them to your new record label, they liked them so much that they said they could use them almost as they were. So I’m wondering, how close to the demo version is the album version of “Blue”.

Oh, it’s really close, because that’s how I like to do things. When I first write a song, I like to put it down acoustically in just its raw form. Then when we get ready to make an album, I’ll take that first written version in and play it for the band so that they can learn it. And sometimes when we’re working in the studio and I feel like a song is getting off track a little bit, I’ll say ‘Let’s listen to the demo again.’ I always want to go back to that raw, acoustic form, just to get reconnected with it again.

It was interesting to read in your memoir that the making of Essence was your first introduction to the world of ProTools, and that you were kind of blown away by all the possibilities of it.

Honestly, I’m not exactly sure if it was the first time, because maybe there was an earlier song when we used it. But, okay, yeah, there have been a lot of situations since where if we hadn’t had ProTools we would have been up the creek, or whatever the expression is.

With Essence, I had some great musicians on the album. I had Jim Keltner playing drums and Tony Garnier from Bob Dylan’s band on bass, and I had Bo Ramsey and Charlie Sexton on guitars. But we only had a certain number of days to get the basic tracks down, because some of the guys had to go back out on the road. There ended up being a handful of things we’d recorded that needed to be corrected, but by that time those guys were gone. I was sitting there in the studio, pulling my hair out, thinking, ‘What are we gonna do now? We’ll have to wait until they get back and re-cut the whole song.’ I can’t remember which one it was now, either ‘Get Right with God’ or ‘Essence’, I think.

Anyway, Bo Ramsey offered to bring in some buddies to re-cut it with them. But we already had the vibe of it, with some of the best musicians you can get, so I didn’t want to do that. Then Charlie came in to work with this young college kid who was really good at ProTools. It was almost like performing surgery, the way they teased everything together so you can’t tell anything’s wrong. It was really a game changer.

You also mention in the book that you were a little bit influenced by Sade on this album. Where do you feel that influence coming through in the songs?

In the song “Are You Down”, I think. Sade is great. I love all her music. I love a lot of Latin music, too. Anything Brazilian. I love all that stuff.

Lucinda Williams Essence

"Bus to Baton Rouge" (2001)

BEST FIT: Essence turned 21 last year. These songs are all grown up. I wonder, how do you feel about this song all these years later? Has the way you feel about it changed at all, from when you wrote it to now?

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I think I just came to realise that I really like this song and came to realise what a good song it is, at least in my mind.

It’s got some good imagery in it and I’m really proud of the lyrics, like that one line that says, “the sweet honeysuckle that grew all around were switches when we were bad.” I was doing an interview a few days ago with a guy from Yorkshire who didn’t know what a switch was. He was just completely amazed. He had no idea that kids would get whipped with these branch things, and that we’d have to go out and pick a switch first. He just couldn’t get over that. Anyway, I think the song really paints a picture, and that’s what I was going for.

A lot of times, the reason I write is to kind of purge myself of painful memories and to get stuff out of my system. But people like this song, and a lot of them don’t see the dark stuff in there right away. I have to explain it to them, usually, otherwise nobody knows. That was one of the good things about writing the book – being able to go into more detail about things than I would be able to otherwise.

It's funny, because when I was working with Bo Ramsey on the songs before we recorded Essence, I’d had “Bus to Baton Rouge” for a while but it wasn’t quite done. I played it for him one day and he was like, “You’ve never shown me this song before, where’s this been hiding?’ He really loved it, so it did get finished in the end.

Is it a true story? Did you actually take a bus down to Baton Rouge to see your family’s old home?

No, it’s just in my mind. We don’t have good transportation systems like you do in Europe. I mean, I did ride the Greyhound bus quite a bit, and Continental Trailways, to go to other towns. But, yeah, it’s really hard to take one of those when it’s a long, long trip. You can’t lay down or anything.

Going back to what your dad was talking about with the poetry, I can really see that coming through in this song with your imagery of the dining room table that nobody eats at and the piano that nobody plays.

Yeah, those are sad things. I guess that maybe somebody did play the piano at some point, a long time ago, but then it just sat there collecting dust.

Lucinda Williams Essence

"I Envy the Wind" (2001)

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I don’t know why but I just love singing this song, and it’s definitely one of my songs that I’m the most proud of. I’m just really happy about how it came out.

When I wrote this song, I was thinking about someone from a relationship I’d had some time before. I mean, I guess it’s about unrequited love, really, and maybe that’s not a very original subject [laughs].

BEST FIT: But I think you always manage to make something original out of it. You always seem to approach things in ways that feel fresh.

Well, that’s a great thing to say, thank you.

So, what are your memories of writing and recording this particular song?

I remember when I was first working with the melody, I thought maybe it sounded too familiar. I love it, but it sort of sounds like something you’ve maybe heard before. It just has this very classic sounding melody. So I did think about that at first, but then I thought about the lyrics and how the words still make it stand out from anything else, and I started working with that idea and that combination in a lot of my songs.

Before, I used to feel like when I was working on the melody of a song that it had to be this completely unique, or at least different and weird or whatever melody. But sometimes it’s nice to just have a straight-ahead, classic kind of melody like the one in “I Envy the Wind”. So, yeah, I guess this song was just me giving myself permission to write in that way.

I can imagine that this is a song that a lot of people have taken to their hearts. You’re singing about a very universal feeling.

It’s funny, because I don’t know that this song has been heard by all that many people. It’s one of those songs that kind of gets lost. It’s maybe one of my more obscure songs. It’s not as well known.

Recently I was working a little bit with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, because he’s recording his own album and he asked me to come and sing on it. He told me about this song he was working on and he said that the vibe of it was kind of like “I Envy the Wind”. That made me feel really good, just that he was aware of the song and that he liked it. There’s nothing better than getting that kind of compliment from someone whose music you admire.

Lucinda Williams Essence

"Essence" (2001)

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I like that this song had this kind of blues-rock melody. It sounds like something that Jim Morrison of The Doors might sing, you know? The lyrics are so edgy and weird, and I really like that contrast. I like that the music is one thing and the lyrics are something else.

“Essence” is another unrequited love song, only taken to a whole other place. The idea of using a drug as a metaphor came from all the blues and jazz songs I’ve listened to that use honey or sugar as a metaphor for lust or whatever. So lines like “Baby, sweet baby, you’re my drug / come on and let me taste your stuff” really come from that sort of world.

BEST FIT: It’s quite funny that this song started quite a few rumours about you. Some people interpreted it in a very literal way, thinking you had a heroin addiction or something.

I know! [laughs]. You know, I was doing an interview at the time and this guy asked me, ‘When did you get out of rehab?’ I said, ‘What?!’ Like, it’s just a metaphor. It’s not to be taken literally. I mean, the song is about sex for the most part. I was hoping to not have to explain that. I was thinking that people just would pick up on that, but, you know, I guess it all overlaps.

It's a thrilling song, but it's also quite vulnerable too.

I'm really happy that you can see that. You know, I've had a lot of interesting feedback about this song. People have told me that they’ve made love to this song, and all kinds of stuff.

It was funny to read in the book about some of the weird things that have happened when you’ve played this song live, like the woman who was masturbating to it in the crowd.

Yeah, wow, that was quite unexpected but it’s an interesting compliment. It turns people on, apparently, which is quite flattering. I mean, I can only be glad, right, that I wrote this song that people can get off on.

Lucinda Williams Essence

"Unsuffer Me" (2007)

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: I chose this song because I think it kind of gets forgotten about a little bit. But I do think that maybe that’s changing. You know, that started happening with Essence a while back. At first everybody compared it with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but now I have a lot of fans saying that Essence is their favourite album. Like, it’s finally finding its place. And I think maybe that’ll happen with the West album too.

BEST FIT: It’s found a place with me. West was the first one of your albums that I listened to.

Oh, I’m glad, because I do think it's got some really good tracks on it.

The writing and recording of West happened during some quite turbulent times for you. “Unsuffer Me” seems to be some kind of plea for healing and unburdening. What were you thinking of when you wrote it?

Ah, you know, it’s kind of a spiritual song. It’s about me wanting to be freed from the weight of depression and stuff. That’s about as good of an explanation as I can come up with for this.

I absolutely love the arrangements, especially the strings. What are your memories of working with Hal Willner and the band on those?

Oh, Hal. He was just a genius. It was amazing to work with him on West. He brought in Jenny Scheinman on violin and Rob Burger on keyboards, and that was something new and different for me. I think it really helped to have those extra instruments. It added so much.

It really did. So, when you were making West, you’d been together with Tom for a year or two. I’m wondering, when you were putting together the songs, how much did this new love of yours influence the writing?

Mmm, well, when I was first with Tom, the first thing I wanted to do was to make sure that I was still going to be able to write like I used to before we met. And thankfully I was able to do that, which was a relief, because I had been in previous situations where I’d kind of lose myself in the relationship a little bit and sort of stop writing. But with Tom, I managed to stay on track and I was actually writing a tonne.

I talk about this in the book but at the time I was living at a motel called the Safari Inn in Burbank, California. I had a room that was kind of like a little efficiency apartment with a whole kitchen and everything, and you could rent it by the week or month so I would stay there between tours. I did that for a while, actually, and I went through this period where I was getting up every day and writing a new song every day. Then I would go and record the demos with a bunch of guys at a studio in Hollywood, and those are the songs that ended up on West.

Coming back to “Unsuffer Me”, you recorded a totally different take on this song for Vanished Gardens, the jazz album on Blue Note that you did with Charles Lloyd & The Marvels. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh god, Charles Lloyd. He’s just so brilliant. Sometimes when I’m listening to him play and I close my eyes, I feel like I could be listening to John Coltrane. I think he has a similar kind of vibe. I just love him. I love what he does. And I’m so glad we made this record.

Lucinda Williams West

Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart is released 30 June via Highway 20 Records / Thirty Tigers.

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