04 The Surrender of Joy Williams

Photo by Allister Ann

With a varied musical career that began at age 17, Joy Williams has faced her share of forks in the road. Now, with the sun setting on her most recent creative endeavor, The Civil Wars, she’s confronted with yet another turning point. Here, Joy takes us on her journey, emerging with renewed patience and faith that what will be, will be. “Letting go was a major turning point for me,” she tells Jaan Uhelszki.

Photo by Allister Ann

Joy Williams was one half of the three-time Grammy-award-winning mountain-folk-rock duo The Civil Wars, along with Alabama native John Paul White. Until their 2012 hiatus which recently ended in an official split, the singer-songstress, with her long sea-witch hair and Mona Lisa half-smile, rarely revealed herself, except through the duo’s stark and bruising lyrics of romantic conflations and doomed intimacies.

When the two of them sang together—even for the very first time when they met at a songwriter’s camp—they experienced what Williams calls a “great creative ease,” their voices pirouetting and doubling back on each other, creating an electric frisson and an antique grace and gravity that astounded both of them. To seal the “meant-ness” of that first meeting, when they walked out to the parking lot, they realized they both drove the exact same make and model car: a black late-‘90s hatchback Saab.

That propitious meeting resulted in a partnership that produced 2011’s Barton Hallow, 2013’s self-titled follow-up, and a long string of tour dates that made fans feel they were in the presence of something downright holy. But that electricity burned so brightly it seemed to consume the two of them, and they were forced to take a break, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable difference of ambitions.”

According to Williams, that’s when she was able to take a long hard look at what had happened and figure out how she was going to move forward creatively, either with or without White. In the true spirit of breakdown/breakthrough, what Williams began to realize was that the secret of moving forward turned out to be not trying to figure anything out. The singer, who originally hails from Santa Cruz, California, and is a self-confessed control freak, insists that she’s at her best when she simply lets go and allows herself to not know how things are going to turn out.

It’s what she did after she decided to abandon her career as an award-winning Christian pop artist, back in 2005, and move to Nashville, taking a job selling clothes at a tony boutique to Nashville’s well-heeled glitterati. After that, she cajoled Paste magazine into hiring her to sell advertising. But throughout that under-employment of her talents, she believed that somehow the answer would appear—and it did, in the form of The Civil Wars.

Facing change again this time, Williams did something a little closer to home to find her way through a labyrinth of doubt and anxiety about what was next for her after The Civil Wars. “You mean besides organizing my closet or doing the dishes?” she laughs, sitting in the kitchen of the East Nashville home she shares with her husband Nate Yetton and their young son Miles.

Fortunately, it’s working. Williams takes us through the winding road of her risk-filled career, and reveals how the art of knowing when to let go has allowed her to keep moving forward.

FTP_Issue_04_web-03Early on, was there a voice in your head that said, “This is what I’m supposed to do and I’m going to keep doing it until I make it”?
I started so young, I mean at 17, I started out as a solo artist and I sang faith-based music—many people call that Christian music. But it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it was that kept me going, because it was definitely the school of hard knocks. I remember being on lots of tour buses, being the only girl on the bus, and having to grow an extra layer of skin. But the fight of having to figure out how to survive on my own in a context like that actually was part of what made me realize how much I wanted to keep making music, because I wouldn’t back down in spite of all the challenges I found on the road, whether it was loneliness or dealing with being the only girl on a bus full of dudes. It changed me in a way.

But every night I had something to look forward to, which was meeting the people who connected with the music. The one thing I’ve always loved, regardless of genre, is trying to write in a way where I let my heart bleed a little bit and open myself up for other people to maybe go, “Oh, you too? Me too.” Meeting people every night, and the connection that could happen onstage was something I realized I had a passion for.

When you stopped performing faith-based music, did you just run out of steam or did you run out of inspiration?
I was on the road for 250 days that first year. I kept a pace like that because I was so young and really naïve and I thought I couldn’t say no to every opportunity that came my way. So I was bound to experience some burnout. On top of that, my worldview shifted like tectonic plates from 17 to my mid-20s, and over time, I just started feeling less and less comfortable with the type of music I was making. My worldview felt like it was growing broader and I didn’t want to be fake; I didn’t want to be two people, like one person onstage and one person off. And it felt like I was and I felt like I was going crazy. I wasn’t really crazy, but over time I felt like I wanted to do more and I didn’t want to feel hemmed in by lyrical content. I wanted to write things that moved me and not feel like I had any parameters telling me what to do or not to do.

Before the Wars: Joy circa her 2005 solo album Genesis.

So then you worked at various jobs outside of music. What eventually drew you back?
It was good for me to do something else and then to realize that, quite frankly, I was shit at doing anything else but music. And so I set about writing songs with musician friends who were working on records, and eventually I wound my way through some of those co-writes to getting a publishing deal with a woman named Judy Stakee at Warner/Chappell. Judy was this Zen master, and every session I had with her was like extreme yoga—so experiential—it made me grow as a writer. She did all kinds of creative voodoo to get me out of the shell I’d known for most of my life; it was yoga and these weird writing sessions with myriad different people. I really enjoyed the process of digging into other people’s stories and getting inside their brains to help them create something that was locked inside. But over time I started to feel flustered by not being able to engage those personal stories that really translate the most onstage. It was all pointing to the fact that I missed being an artist myself.

When Judy sent you out on sessions to write songs for other people, did you miss writing for yourself?
Yeah, I realized I needed that. But I’d gotten so burnt out touring before, the last thing I wanted to do was pack another suitcase. Plus, I was newly married at the time, so there was that pull to find something more conducive to having a relationship that wasn’t so bohemian. It was the perfect opportunity for me to just let go of trying to be the perfect girl next door, the pressure I felt when I was doing faith-based music. It was fun for me to fold into other people’s projects and not feel like I had anything to prove or pursue. I was still finding out who I was without the context I’d grown up with my whole life.

FTP_Issue_04_web-04I always think it’s important to take a break, to “fill the urn” and allow inspiration to return after you feel creatively empty. Given your past, that would seem like an unlikely posture for you. Was there ever a time you just let go and trusted that something would take you to the right place?
Frankly, I felt like the gas tank was really beyond empty and I was running on fumes. And at that point it was exactly where I needed to be, because after all of that striving and all of that attempting to achieve, I finally released my white-knuckle grip; I finally let go and believed that whatever was next for me would find me as I continued to pursue what it was I loved. It made me stop trying to be so mathematical about it. And that’s when the good stuff starts happening, really, I mean music and otherwise. That letting go was a major turning point for me.

Do you have something you tell yourself when you feel like you can’t go on?
There’s a Japanese proverb that goes: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Also, I read a letter online that John Steinbeck wrote to his son and one thing I’ve always loved about it was that Steinbeck said, “Nothing good gets away.” Looking back on my life, even without having read that, I had that sense of, if this is something I’m meant to do, I’m not going to sit here and just be naïve and think it will find me. But if I continue to just trust my instincts and move in a way that’s more fluid and more like myself, I’ll probably stop running into dead ends. Like Steinbeck said, “Nothing good gets away,” so if I’m meant to do music, I’ll find a way to do it in a way that doesn’t burn me out, doesn’t make me feel like a cog in a wheel, and that inspires me to risk everything and jump off that ledge again.

 What led you to that one particular writing session where you met John Paul?
I was still writing with Judy Stakee at Warner/Chappell and she sent me to this massive cattle call that two producers from LA had organized, contacting a multitude of writers from Los Angeles and Nashville. It was at the Sound Kitchen, in Franklin, Tennessee, and I remember feeling so completely out of place because, even though I lived in Nashville, I was late to the game when it came to country music. There were names in that room that I knew were bigwigs and I was like, “How am I going to write a country song? I’ve never really written one.” I listened to Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams when they showed up on the occasional soundtrack, but it wasn’t like I was steeped in the tradition of country music. I remember going in there and saying to myself, “I feel completely like a black sheep.” Honestly, I thought about bailing; I figured I could put in my name, hang out for a while, and if I could find any opportunity to leave, I was going to try to do that. The band [who eventually became known as Gloriana] performed a song and they told us they needed radio singles. My name was called and I walked into the room I had been told was mine and saw two people. One of them was John Paul. I remember sitting down and thinking there was probably nothing I had to creatively work out with this man with the dark curly hair and the mustache and lots of tattoos. He seemed very foreboding and very Eeyore-like, and at the time I was still in my sunshine phase.

Like Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh.

Do you want to explain exactly what you mean?
No, not really [Laughs]. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I was phasing out of my sunshine phase. The sun was setting on my sunshine phase. But I just remember thinking, “You know what, I don’t have to make this co-write work. If I do write a radio single for another band, I could secure another year with my publishing deal. But if this doesn’t work it’s not make or break it, and I can’t force anything to happen.” Then John Paul started playing guitar. We started talking through ideas and it was as though the third person just evaporated from the room because there was this lightning bolt creative connect that I’d never experienced. I remember singing with him for the very first time and the hair on my neck went up. I also remember going home that day after walking out of the parking lot and realizing that John Paul and I had the exact same car. We both had black hatchback Saabs, from the late ‘90s. I remember driving home and telling my husband, “I feel like I met my musical brother.” I felt I’d met a long-lost kindred soul I didn’t know I was missing before.

Had you worked collaboratively before John Paul?
Yeah. Since I was 17 I’d been co-writing. And then with Warner/Chappell, all I was doing was co-writing, and that was literally a Monday-through-Friday experience. So the fact of the matter was that even though I was feeling uncomfortable being in what they would call this songwriting camp, I was used to sitting down and creating with people I’d never met before because that’s what you do as a songwriter. You get used to dealing and immediately working to connect with people that you’ve never met before. It’s like musical speed dating. I’d gotten used to that, but that’s why it was also so strange that when I sat down with John Paul, I felt this immediate creative ease from a very unlikely character.

In the flow with former collaborator John Paul White.
In the flow with former collaborator John Paul White.

Do you find that the songs you write for yourself are more true somehow than ones you’ve written for other people?
Yes, the ones you write for yourself are always more true, because the reality is you can’t hide behind anybody else. What you’re creating is something that you know eventually will make its way to coming out of your own throat and out of your own heart on a stage in front of people. And that’s a really vulnerable place to be. And if I’m doing that, if I’m crazy enough to pursue music and perform onstage—which you have to be slightly neurotic to think that that’s a likely profession—then it makes no sense to come with only half your heart. So I do think that somehow in the writing of music, when it’s for me or when it’s with John Paul, it has to become more true. Otherwise, it would become doubly false.

But one thing that John Paul has always done very well and one thing that I admire creatively in him, is that he has a ferocity when it comes to leaving the red pen out of the room. He was always helpful with my over-analyzation and my— let’s face it—my OCD. Like I could manhandle lyrics and I could think of ten other phrases for the one I’d just written. That’s something I think is a strength but can also drive me crazy. The thing John Paul was really good at was saying, “No, that’s really good. We got what we need, let’s move on to the next thing.”

I think working together there was almost a third being, because we could bring two perspectives to the table. And somehow I feel like that brought about a more visceral and more honest way of writing. It was almost like we could spar off each other’s perspective and bring it to a more personal yet universal place. Like the yin and the yang of it. I would bring my female perspective, he would bring his male perspective. I would bring my optimism, he would bring his pessimism, and somehow together we would create something totally other than what we could have created on our own.

FTP_Issue_04_web-07bGoing from that first writing session, how did you decide to form a group together?
It wasn’t an immediate thought that we needed to be in a duo together. The only thing we talked about was, “Hey, this was a good day. It was easy to write together. There was something here, let’s keep writing.” So we wrote over the next couple months, on and off, and those were the songs that wound up on Barton Hollow. But at the time, we weren’t even writing with the idea that we would be a duo. We were writing as professional songwriters, thinking there’s a lot of duets that have yet to be sung, why don’t we write a few of them? And let’s, by the way, not worry about our quotas with our publishing deals and not worry about trying to fit this on radio with a certain genre. Let’s just write music that we love to write. That’s harder to come by when you’re a blue-collar songwriter. We both thought this could be a fun break in the week, where we’re not writing music based off of a tip sheet of who needs what and when.

For the second album, you were following up a hugely successful debut, tending to the needs of a newborn and dealing with internal band tensions. Any one of those things could have shut down the creative process. How did you stay open and focused?
The fighter in me gets stirred up when I feel there are more and more challenges stacked on top of each other. So for me it was more inspiring, having a child and not getting sleep and riding this amazing wave of what had happened with Barton Hollow. It was like I wanted to figure out how to hold on to it all while still staying on the surfboard to ride what was going on underneath. It took an extra amount of energy to write the second record, to concentrate fully on the creative process as tensions were mounting.

But the reality is, on the first record, John Paul and I didn’t really know each other that well. And throughout the course of writing the second album, we were touring full on and the newness had begun to wear off, as is normal. Over time, the complexity of our dynamic started revealing itself. [Eagles drummer] Don Henley once said that the very thing that can make a band great can be the same thing that tears them apart. So with that having been said, the only thing I knew how to do was to take the truth that was happening around me and mirror it back in a way that takes the original emotion and translates it into something artful. And ultimately what we created was something really honest and at times arresting and raw and has even more of a heartbeat than Barton Hollow.

Do you have any advice for performing so well under pressure?
When you ask me that, I think about performing at the Grammys and having 60 seconds to perform, after having just run past Bruce Springsteen and chatting with him for a minute and then standing onstage and looking to my right and seeing Paul McCartney, and looking to my left and seeing a slew of other artists that had been icons to me, and knowing I had 60 seconds to make ourselves known. It was almost like I could either cower under that moment or I could lift my hands up at the top of the roller coaster and say, “Let’s go.” I’ve always wanted to look back knowing I didn’t hold anything back and that I was brave. The only way for me to feel connected to what I’m doing is if I’m bringing my whole self to the table.

FTP_Issue_04_web-08What’s your process now that the band has split up after the creative hiatus?
I am writing alone and I’m also writing with friends. It’s a habit, creating music now. It’s a wonderful habit so I miss it when I don’t do it. And then there are seasons where I’ve felt I’ve needed to be quiet. That process has been important, too. So I’ve done a bit of both. And I’ve been enjoying the experiment of writing with all kinds of different artists and musicians that I really love and respect and am curious about. It’s a way for me to keep my love of music awake and keep myself happily busy. It’s also a way for me to not feel stuck in one particular chapter that I don’t know the ending to. It’s a way for me to build and look ahead while not making any assessments about what happened with the band.

Because you don’t know the outcome.
Yeah, because I don’t know the outcome.

Do you feel like you’re having another one of your watershed moments, where you’re actually ready to let go without knowing the outcome?
I feel like I’m at another fork in the road and it’s another invitation to let go. To let go of the outcome. To let go of the myth of control. To let go of the over-optimism and the pessimism and to just let things be what they are right now. Which is uncomfortable at times and which is up in the air, but I can sit at home and be pissed off and twiddle my thumbs and wait for something to change or I can breathe and just be in my days and do what it is that I love and write music with other friends and keep that passion alive. And I can go out and play in the front yard with my son, and make dinner with my husband and just keep going about life in the way that I know how to, which is just moment by moment. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward and I can’t let one chapter determine the rest of my life, either. So while I wait in this undefined place—what should happen now that the band has ended—I am moving forward in my own small ways while keeping my palms open.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.