re/VIEW: Lucinda Williams
“If I’m working on a song, I get to a point, and I get so emotionally pulled in, and it affects me so deeply I cry—it’s like a sign.” —Lucinda Williams, whose latest album, Good Souls Better Angels, was released in April
Lucinda Williams doesn’t mess around. She’s got the hair and leather of a punk rocker, the writing chops of a poet laureate, and vocals that grab your heart and drag it across the driveway. Born in Louisiana and raised throughout the South, Williams began performing in the late 1970s and has since produced 14 albums, winning three Grammy Awards and legions of fans along the way.
Her latest album, Good Souls Better Angels, was released in April to rapt reviews. Many called it her best work in years, equal to her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. At age 67, Williams created a soundtrack for our apocalyptic times—a record that is dark, driving, and incisive, though thankfully not humorless.
In “Bad News Blues,” a Delta blues-style number, the songstress sings about bad news everywhere—from the elevator and bar to what’s “hanging in the air.” Another song, “Big Rotator,” talks about justice—and lack thereof— as a motivator. It’s almost like Williams had a sixth sense of what 2020 was going to unleash many months before the events took place.
“It’s crazy,” says Williams, talking to us from her home in Nashville. “All the songs were written before the pandemic. I had a note from years ago about bad news in my breakfast cereal—thinking back, I think it was from the 1980s. I never throw ideas away. I keep a folder with that stuff. I write things down all the time, like on a cocktail napkin. When I sit down to write, I pull it all out to spur me on. A few lines like that can lead to a whole song.”
No matter what genres she’s working in—rock, soul, folk, country, blues—Williams has long laid bare the whole human experience, whether that be joy, depression, domestic abuse, suicide, passionate kisses, unjust convictions, or compassion.
“I’ve been accused of writing really dark songs for a long time, and some people have mentioned that the songs on this album are especially angry,” she muses. “Well, anger is a valid emotion. You can be angry and still be spiritual. It makes me sad because it seems that people feel like they have to decide between feeling bright and light and joyous and hopeful, or feeling frustrated and sad and angry and those other emotions. Like you can’t have both, or you have to have one side but not the other.”
A literary bent runs in the family. Her father, Miller Williams, was a poet and professor. “He kept index cards in the pocket of his shirt with a pen. I remember him getting ideas, pulling out the cards to take notes, and we have that in common. His brain was constantly moving with ideas.”
She was very close to her father. “I have a very warm, soothing memory of hearing the typewriter going. I miss that sound. We had a special bond. He was kind of [both] mother and father to me in my early years because my mother struggled with mental illness and other stuff.”
When she was a young adult, exploring Eastern spirituality and reading books like Be Here Now by Ram Dass, Williams “used to think that the goal was to never feel bad or sad. I wanted to get to the nirvana state where I was completely happy all the time, to reach that level, and never feel pain, probably akin to when I was dabbling in psychedelics—that feeling of just Wow. I thought that was how I was going to connect with God and do that path [like Ram Dass] did, the whole thing.”
But as she evolved, she realized the human condition isn’t meant to be joyful all the time, that the dark is as crucial as the light. “It’s part of the being human thing,” she observes. “We’re all made up of that; it’s the yin/yang. It’s important to address all the aspects of our emotions.”
She continues: “Writing for me is a real spiritual outlet. When I am writing a song, there’s something that manifests itself; it comes out through my writing, not just that particular song. I always know. If I’m working on a song, I get to a point, and I get so emotionally pulled in, and it affects me so deeply I cry—it’s like a sign. And when I perform, that, too, is a release. Writing helps me deal with emotions. It’s a form of self-expression, even survival, but I’m an artist first and foremost. I know that I have been blessed with this ability to put these things out like this. I don’t take it for granted.”
Want more from our interview with Lucinda Williams? Check out this supplemental Q&A with the artist.