Joy Williams on The Civil Wars and Her New Album, VENUS

Photo by Chuck D Willis

Many know Joy Williams as one half of the four-time Grammy-winning folk-rock duo The Civil Wars. Until their 2012 hiatus (and eventual break up in August 2014) the singer-songstress with her long sea witch hair and Mona Lisa half-smile rarely revealed herself, except through the duo’s bruising and stark lyrics of romantic conflations and doomed intimacies.

On VENUS she changes all that. No longer content to just conjure the antique grace of some mythic, bygone world, Williams was intent to actually pierce the veil of metaphor and an imagined history and tell a more honest, human story of one woman’s journey out of darkness.

Over 11 unstintingly honest songs, she unabashedly recounts what occurred in her life over the past two and a half years. She doesn’t try to defend or explain, but instead tells a simple straightforward story of events, sparing no one, especially herself.

Over the arc of the album, the listener can feel Williams coming home to herself, after fearlessly excavating all the pain and confusion. In the end she can see her life from a great altitude, able to view her choices as an overarching geography that finally makes sense to her, freeing her to become the woman she needed to be. To find the parts of herself that were broken, becoming stronger and content to just be.

You might call it a coming-of-age album, but it is so much more than that. It shows how one woman has come to live her truth — the good, the bad, the petulant, the honorable — and in the end, shows all of us how to live our own.

Jaan: Your new album is about to come out. How are you feeling about it right now?

Joy Williams: It feels like I’m reclaiming myself. I identified so much with The Civil Wars that when it went away I had to process the myth that I’d been a part of creating, free myself of that, and rediscover my own voice. Working through that really opened me up. In finding my voice I found myself again.

When did you start working on it?

I wrote my first song on June 24, 2013 in Nashville. I remember that date so well because it was just a few days before my son Miles’ 1st birthday. I’d been putting up some decorations in the house before I got in my car to go to the studio. I went on to write 75+ songs for this record over the following year.

Was making a solo album something you were thinking while you were in The Civil Wars, or was it something you did as a response to the break up of your band?

John Paul and I had both talked about down the line releasing solo albums.

Are there any similarities, or did you want to distance yourself as far as possible from The Civil Wars?

No, I’m proud of what John Paul and I did together. I feel that a couple of the songs on VENUS are a bridge to some of the things we did with The Civil Wars. “Before I Sleep” and “Until the Levee” both felt like the gentlest way to bring in people that may have been aware of The Civil Wars before, with the antiqued imagery-laden lyrics and the sonics that we created around it. It wasn’t some sort of calculated thing, just a natural progression. “Before I Sleep” was the very first song I wrote for the record, and it just felt like the right place to start from. A continuation on my musical path.

Is this a break up album?

I like to think of it as a break through album.

Photo by Chuck D Willis

Are any of these songs about John Paul White?

Yes, a couple. I’m sure some people will think that a majority of the songs on this album are about The Civil Wars ending, but that’s actually not true. There’s a depth and breadth to this record that’s about a lot of different relationships in my life.

How does it compare to The Civil Wars’ two albums?

It doesn’t, but I took the best parts of what I learned in The Civil Wars and brought my love of Massive Attack, Annie Lennox, Portishead, Kate Bush and hip-hop and made something that was completely different. Something completely my own. We started the process by recording all of the songs to acoustic guitar, and it just wasn’t inspiring enough to me… I wanted to stretch, expand, grow and challenge myself. I wanted to infuse other kinds of styles and production that I love into these songs.

Will The Civil Wars ever get back together?


What was it like for you working by yourself after being a part of a duo for five years?

This isn’t the first time I’ve worked by myself. I had a career as a solo artist before I joined The Civil Wars. But the truth is, I wasn’t really alone. I worked with many great songwriters in Nashville & Los Angeles. Help also came from an unexpected place: Justin Timberlake.

His invisible fingerprints are on this album. Justin and I met back in 2011 when we were both on Letterman. Over the years, we’ve kept up with each other and become friends. He was a good sounding board, and he was the one who introduced me to Matt Morris. Matt went on to not only co-write most of the record with me, but co-produce with Daniel James & Charlie Peacock, and co-executive-produce the album with me & Nate (Yetton).

How did making music change for you?

I’m not cleaning closets now. I’m letting things be messy. I feel like I went to a deeply inward process. Before I felt more comfortable writing in metaphors, until I met Matt Morris. During one of our very first writes, he said to me…

“You are so afraid to say anything wrong that
you are risking not saying anything at all.”

“You’ve got to be brave. If you’re feeling mad as hell, then we’re going to write a mad-as-hell song. If you’re feeling broken beyond measure, we’re going to write a broken-beyond-measure song.” Something locked in for me. Then he asked, “How are you feeling right now?” And with tears in my eyes I just looked at him and said, “I’d love to write a happy song. One day I will.”

Matt said, “That’s a great way to start a song. What next?” He told me to put my laptop away and just talk. So I did. Not one single line from “One Day I Will” was overly woven or crafted. It was literally me, just talking, one line at a time. And that’s pretty much how writing the rest of the record went after that.

Photo by Andy Barron

What did you find out about yourself in working alone?

I used to feel guilty because I’ve always felt I created better when I worked with other people. But working on my own album, I found that I really do better work when I work in tandem. I can’t just do great creative work with anyone, though. Whoever it is has to be an intuitive, active listener. Thankfully I found a few to add to my tribe of kindred spirits. When someone is drawing the best out of me, I’m drawing the best of them. And I’m drawing the best out of me.

What was your intention in making this album?

It was all I knew how to do. It was a way to move forward. To heal. To find my own voice again and to stand on my own two feet. I wanted it to reflect what I’ve gone through. I wanted to make a personal album that people could find their own stories in, too. It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to be brave enough to write through it. Then move beyond it.

How would you describe VENUS?

For me, it’s my coming-of-age album, becoming the woman I’ve always wanted to be. I think over the course of the last couple of years making this album, I finally felt that I stepped into my own skin. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be the best version of myself, and I’ve finally let myself just be me.

Can you talk about how you came to name the album VENUS?

It was an intuitive thing for me. As I was writing songs for the album, I was realizing they had started organizing themselves around this theme. It was like the songs themselves were naming the record. There’s an old wives’ tale that children name themselves. When I thought about the word VENUS, it was like all the songs lit up.

It was almost exactly like when I was trying to find a name for my son. I would try out a name, speak it to my belly, and whenever I said Miles, he would kick. I knew that was his name.

The same happened with these songs. I had working titles that just didn’t seem right. When I said VENUS, the songs kicked back.

Does the name have anything to do with there not being a Mars in the picture?

Well, my Mars has always been in the picture. We’ve been married for 11 years.

The Civil Wars went on hiatus over two years ago and officially disbanded in August of 2014. What have you been doing for the past two years?

Changing my hair color. Cooking a little, but ordering a lot of take out. Drinking red wine. Wine and therapy — sometimes you have to prioritize. I also moved back to California.

Starting over with Nate in our new home by the ocean, we really needed that. I started taking better care of myself, started working out. Listening to a lot of old records. Reading books, dreaming, and attempting to teach Miles to speak French.

How did you know it was time to write again? To get back to the business of making music?

I began when I felt like I would burst at the seams if I didn’t start putting words and melodies together. I started getting irritable. Hard to live with. At times I’ve been a reluctant artist; it’s not pleasurable to write generally.

I feel like I’m putting my hand down my throat to take my pulse. To feel my own heart beating. In order to get something good, I have to reach down into myself and scrape around. But this time, in the absence of The Civil Wars, I had to find a way to continue to create.

And I did.

Photo by Chuck D Willis, design by Katie Moore

What is your creative process like? Has it changed any from when you were in The Civil Wars?

Yes, I never realized how much free time I had until I became a mom. I used to think I was so busy. Then I had Miles. What did I do with all that free time before? Now, I’m lucky if I remember to put mascara on both eyes.

They say novelists return to the same theme in their writing. Did you find that was the same for you?

One word that I live my life by is authenticity. I ask myself “Is it true to me, even if only to me?” That was what connected the songs for me. If it wasn’t true, it didn’t get on the album.

Are there themes that tie this record together?

Acceptance. Transcendence. Transformation. Letting go of things that don’t serve you.

There seems to be an autobiographical aspect to the things you wrote. Can you talk a little about why you allowed yourself to be that candid about the things you were going through?

I’ve never been good at small talk. I always want to know how someone is really doing. Not just the highlight reel. Perfect people are impossible to plug into. I spent far too many years being obsessed with the idea of perfection. But that means you don’t need anyone, which wasn’t true about me. After going through the past two years, I’m far more intrigued by the broken places and how people move through it. I think that level of honesty is where you find genuine connection.

Were you afraid of the repercussions of telling such an unvarnished truth?

Of course. For me there wasn’t any other option than to be honest and totally open. But this isn’t a therapy record. I wanted to tell my true story, just not necessarily all the details.

Joy Williams, “What a Good Woman Does” from VENUS

Besides the break-up of the band, there have been many other big changes in your life — becoming a mother, troubles in your marriage, and the death of your father. How had that translated into what you’ve been writing about?

I can say that after what I’ve been through I’m sadder and a little wiser. I’m wise enough to know I don’t know a whole lot. There is a strange kind of untethering that happens when you lose the option to just think about yourself, and when you lose a parent who was responsible for bringing you into this world. You take a long hard look at who you are and where you are going.

There is something about loss that either wakes you up or puts you to sleep. I chose eyes open.

You’ve written quite a bit on darker topics. In “One Day I Will,” you say, “I’d love to write a happy song.” Why couldn’t you?

You can’t write about the sun when it’s raining. I’ve just been through one of the darkest periods of my life. What I found is when you stare into the dark, it’s not as scary as you think it is. Yes, I’m a little sadder for it, but stronger and more resilient.

Do you feel you have come home with VENUS? Home seems to be a touchstone for you. Can you talk about the concept of home for you?

Being known. Being seen. Belonging. That can happen everywhere. I’m learning it has to start with me. What’s the old phrase? “Know thyself.” Not being afraid to let my edges out has been a major part of being seen. Of being myself. Charlie Peacock said something in studio that really spoke to me. He said, “Don’t try harder. Try less.”

You live in California now. Does that seem more like home for you?

There is something life-giving about being close to the water for me. I’ve always felt that way. I remember being a kid on the beach in Santa Cruz. Everything felt bigger, like there was more space to breathe and think; to feel small and big at the same time. Being in Venice Beach reminds me of that. Plus now that my dad is gone, I like being closer to my mom.

Do you write differently when you’re in California than when you’re in Tennessee?

The writing process was very similar in both places, but the recording process was markedly different. I recorded most of the vocals in Nashville with Charlie Peacock and Matt Morris and most of the beats and tracks were recorded in Venice Beach with Matt Morris and Daniel James.

There is something transformative in the songs. Like the woman who began the album seems changed by what happened to her. Is that accurate?

The process of writing these songs changed something in me. It wasn’t just the songs, but the hard work at staring into the broken parts of my life and figuring out how to carry on after that. How to build new, not just build the same thing again. That made me realize that life still goes on and I’m braver than I thought I was. I saw my life going one way and then it went totally haywire, but I think I’m going to look back and see that this was a necessary change.

Your marriage was almost a casualty of all the upheaval. Can you talk about that?

Nate and I had hit a glass ceiling. In life, everybody hits a glass ceiling. What you do next is what’s important. I think this is a really honest space that people will relate to and it’s exactly what happened in my marriage. We just got to a point where we stared at each other and both thought:

“What have we become?”

“How were we this close and how did we get that far apart?”

We were so intent on building a life together that we somehow started missing each other along the way. We weren’t connecting anymore. It left us with a choice: give up, redefine the relationship, or fake it. Neither Nate nor I wanted to fake it. I wrote about it in “Not Good Enough,” where I say “don’t try to leave, try to stay.”

We had a long road back to each other, but I’m really glad we decided to take it.

Photo by Andy Barron

You didn’t tour the last The Civil Wars album. Are you looking forward to getting back on the road again?

I feel thrilled and scared all at the same time. I always work a little better with nerves, though. I know that when something scares me, it generally means it’s exactly what I should do. I’ve been so used to looking left on stage, but now I have total freedom and that inspires me. This all feels like a continuation for me, of doing what I love.

I’ve missed performing on stage and connecting with an audience over the last two-plus years. My hope with this new music, the album and the live show, is that people will leave feeling a little more alive and a little less alone, starting with myself.

I want to keep that intimate feel, centered around my voice and the songs, but I also have some really exciting plans to take the live experience to an unexpected, transportive place.

Will you perform any of The Civil Wars’ songs?

Yes, I am reimagining a few. Those songs just can’t just sit on the shelf. It was such a heartbreak not to perform them. Moving on doesn’t mean neglecting my past. It would be a shame to let those songs just fade way. I’m too proud of them.

Do you think you’ll ever equal or surpass the success of The Civil Wars?

I heard Neil Young say, “your best work is ahead you. It has to be…”