VENUS, Song by Song

Photo by Chuck D Willis

Imagine us, face to face… Here’s an in-depth look, song by song, into how VENUS came to be.

[Click the audio icons to hear Joy describe the creative process behind each song.]

“Before I Sleep”

This is the first song I wrote for the record. I co-wrote it with Paul Moak and Tom Douglas, in Paul’s awesome SmoakStack studio in Nashville. The three of us were talking about how difficult it is to move on, and that it can feel like a slow, cold, lonely walk. But you can’t go back, especially if there’s nothing to go back to. All the things I’d constructed for myself in my life, relationally, career-wise — they’d all crumbled in their own way, and I felt undone. Some days it was hard to get out of bed and go about normal daily life, but somehow you just do. “Before I Sleep” was a picture of simply putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that moving forward would lead to more hope along the way.

Without trying, “Before I Sleep” (and “Until the Levee”) felt like the gentlest way to bring in people that may have been aware of The Civil Wars before. It wasn’t intentional on my part, just the continuation of how I create, with the antiqued imagery-laden lyrics and the sonics that we created around it, while doing it in my own way.

“Sweet Love of Mine”

There is an ancient tradition that I read about where when a woman finds out she’s pregnant, the other women in the village send her off into the forest by herself so she could spend time in the wilderness, until she heard a song. That song would become the anthem of the child.

I really loved that idea, but I was so crazy busy on the road that I couldn’t hear (my son) Miles’ song no matter how hard I tried. After he was born, I remember being out in the screened-in back porch of our house in Nashville, with Miles asleep in my arms. It was a warm July afternoon, and the melody just kind of came to me. I started humming so I wouldn’t wake him up. It was windy that day, and I like to think it was the wind that brought it to me.

“Woman (Oh Mama)”

Sometimes a woman gets a sixth sense about things. With most of the songs picked out for the record, I felt like there was one more missing piece. I really needed something that had energy and fire, that represented a more external expression of what I’d been processing internally with the music I’d already written. I wanted to own the complexity and the three-dimensional aspect of what it is to be a woman, and not apologize for it.

The whole record is me moving toward holding my head up again, capped off with this song. Once I raised my head I looked around and saw all that I have, and all that I have yet to experience, and saw the power and the wonder of it all. I’m excited about being a woman. I’m excited to be where I am now. Who I am now.

“I am a universe wrapped in skin,” that’s probably one of my favorite lines of the whole album. Because every woman truly is. This whole song is an invitation to come closer to the beauty and the vigor and the fire and the spark of what it is to be inside your own skin.

“One Day I Will”

I’d gotten together with Matt Morris at my friend Allan Heinberg’s house right at the foot of Laurel Canyon. I needed a quiet place to write because I was feeling a little worn out after writing 55 plus songs in studios with a lot of different people from L.A. and Nashville. I was feeling a little shut down. I was writing mostly in metaphors until Matt stopped me and told 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.

“Not Good Enough”

Nate and I went through a really difficult time in our marriage. And by really difficult time I mean those moments when you kind of wonder if you’re actually going to make it or not. It’s strange how you can be so close to somebody in proximity and yet so far away from them in terms of connectedness, and I think that’s what happened to Nate and to me. Then comes the question: is it worth fighting through this or is it more worth fighting to get out of this? This song is me saying, “You get me. Obviously I’m done being the best version of myself for you. Now you get to see the rawest parts of who I am.” This was huge for me. My greatest fear has always been if people really see me, will they leave? My unasked question for Nate was “now that you really see me, will you reject me?” I was faced by my greatest fear, and the realization that there isn’t always a happy ending. Maybe we don’t stay together. “Not Good Enough” was me saying I still have fight for this. I still have fight for you and for me. Not because we have to but because I want you, and I wonder if you want me. The key line for me is: “Don’t try to leave, try to stay.” Sometimes the hardest work is trying to stay.

“What a Good Woman Does”

I don’t know when or where I started believing this, but I used to think if you’re a good woman you can’t be messy, and you can’t be mad. I’ve been learning that neither of those two things is true. This is that moment when you want to call someone up and give them a piece of your mind, but you don’t because you know that no good will come of it. I’ve learned sometimes it is enough to let yourself feel the anger. It doesn’t mean that you have to always act on it. Anger can actually bring a searing clarity, and moving through that anger can eventually bring peace. And if you’re wondering: yes, this song is about the ending of The Civil Wars.

The whole emphasis of VENUS is I’m discovering what it means to be a woman. It’s not necessarily the things I was taught. It’s the things I’m learning on my own. The good, the bad and the ugly is all in there. To be strong and to be weak, and to be scared and to be bold, and to be angry and to forgive, and to be broken and to break open, and break through, and to be hurt and to do the hard work to heal. That’s the type of woman I want to be.

Photo by Chuck D Willis

“Until the Levee”

I’ve always loved the Eleanor Roosevelt quote “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” When I was writing this song, I felt like I was in that hot water. I was at the peak of working through the heartache of the band, was gut-punched over my Dad’s sudden stage 4 cancer diagnosis, doing the hard work in redefining my marriage, grappling to figure out a rhythm as a new mom, and struggling to find any hope in it all. It felt like a lot all at once. I felt like I was in a standoff within myself- to break down and give up from the pain, or to stay with the pain in the hopes that I’d learn how to get stronger through it. Somehow, while I was steeped in the discomfort of it all, I found out I was made of stronger stuff than I thought. This inner resiliency started coming out of me, and I was feeling this heat, this determination to not be overtaken by it. To stand in the ache, to find hope in the midst of it all… even if only just a little.

“You Loved Me”

For most of my life, I always tried to be a “good girl.” To do the right thing, whatever that was, to stay inside the lines. Somewhere along the way I think those people-pleasing habits became a way of self-protection from the fears deep down that I had. “Am I too much?” “Am I not enough?” “What happens if you really see me? Will you still love me?” I’ve talked to a lot of other people who’ve said they’ve felt the same, in their own ways. I’ve been learning that this is a pretty universal emotion.

When the band imploded, when I was off the road, working hard with Nate to redefine our relationship, when I was un-showered at home with a brand new baby, I felt so raw. Like there was no option to put my best foot forward, or present anything but my broken down, vulnerable self. The truth is that some people walked away in that span of time, but a lot more people I hold dear stuck around, not the least of whom was my husband.

“The Dying Kind”

Honestly, I’m still working through what this song is about. I know at the heart of it was my dad had gotten his cancer diagnosis while I was writing the album and that preyed on my mind. That no one gets out alive. We all come to the end of something. But there is a beauty in the human experience, in all the things that everyone goes through. The trick is not to let fear stop you and inhibit the way you live or interact with someone. Even in the face of certain tragedy it’s still important to feel, to allow yourself be intimate with another person. While you can experience great joy from this intimacy you also run the risk of experiencing great pain. This song became an unexpected homage to learning about the beauty, frailty and danger of certain relationships within the human journey. In romantic relationships, in family relationships, in relationship with yourself.

“Till Forever”

Nate and I had a long road back to one another once we realized how far apart we’d grown. It’s so easy to lose sight of one another, even if you live life closely together. We went through hell and back to redefine our marriage, but after months and months of tilling the soil, I remember looking at Nate in bed one day and thinking that we’d really come a long way. Almost like, “finally, the worst of it is over.” But the end of something always means the beginning of something else, and we had to learn how to start over again, together.

There’s an ancient Japanese art called Kintsugi, the fixing of broken pottery with silver, gold or platinum. I always loved the idea that breaking apart and repairing something only makes something more beautiful, rather than it being something shameful to discard or to hide. “We grow stronger for breaking/we grow stronger for breaking apart together.” I think it’s really easy when things get ugly to retreat instead of to lay yourself open, and to break apart together is extremely scary. After you’ve had all the talking and done all the hard work, sometimes you have to crawl into bed together and mend. Sometimes not talking is the best thing. Sometimes talking with skin is the best thing.

“Welcome Home”

We all want to belong. This ultimate idea of Home is a theme I seemed to stumble into for this record, probably in part because of becoming a parent. Several years ago I’d had a number of miscarriages and I wondered if Nate and I would ever be able to have children. Because we’d experienced multiple losses over the years, we were totally surprised by my advancing pregnancy. I remember being petrified and thrilled all at the same time when the midwife reassured us our son was really on his way. I’d try names out, talking to my belly and saying this one or that one, and getting kicked every time I said Miles. That’s how I came up with the line, “I’ve been whispering your name again and again.” When I finally held Miles in my arms I knew I’d been changed forever. I can still remember Nate driving home so carefully from the hospital, and when we stepped through the front door, I held Miles close and whispered, “Welcome home.” Once I started writing songs again, I wanted to write a song for Miles that could apply when he was five years old and when he’s 35 years old. This idea of reaffirming his place in the world. That no matter what, he will always be loved. It’s a deeply personal song but I hope that when people hear it, whether or not they are a parent that they would know how important it is to belong somewhere. And to someone.

VENUS is available now at iTunes, Amazon, and Joy’s Official Store.

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