Lucinda Williams reveals all about her writing process
Lucinda Williams learned an important lesson from her poet father, Miller Williams: Never censor yourself. And indeed, since her 1978 debut, Ramblin' on My Mind, the 58-year-old singer-songwriter has never held back in her lyrics, shooting straight from the hip with her brutally honest songs.
"Otherwise, what's the point?" she says. "But see, that's how I approach life in general. Like, no bullshit, be honest, treat people the right way. All of that informs everything I do — my whole philosophy about life in general."
Noting that writing about raw emotions hasn't necessarily gotten easier, she says she thinks she's gotten better at it: "I was kind of doing that early on, but probably not as much as I'm doing now. I just got braver about it over the years. But I was always kind of doing that a little bit."
Williams says she's never had an inner editor who's worried about someone hearing a song she wrote. She says she always enjoyed the idea of somebody going, "God, that's about me," but she writes in a way that nobody's going to know for sure.
"I mean, I'm not mentioning names. And I don't tell the audience, 'Okay, this one's about so and so.' When I write a book one day, I'll tell everybody what all the songs are about. I told somebody at one of the gigs the other night, 'When I'm too old not to care anymore, I'll tell everybody who these songs are all about.'
"I think people are privately pleased when they know a song is written about them," she goes on. "I had this one boyfriend years ago, and he knew that some of the songs were about him, and he said, 'All my friends are teasing me.' But I knew he was secretly pleased. I think there's a way to do it and not be...you don't want to hurt somebody's feelings or anything. You don't want it to be disrespectful too much. But then I have songs like 'Come On.' I guess I am getting braver as I get older. But I still try to be subtle about it."
And while she's written her share of songs inspired by former boyfriends, Williams is in a different space since marrying her manager and producer Tom Overby on stage at First Avenue in Minneapolis two years ago. With her latest effort, Blessed, released last March and co-produced by Overby, Don Was and Eric Liljestrand, she was able to go outside herself and write about other things besides her personal life. "I've always been a rebel at heart," she confesses, "so I enjoy pushing people's buttons a little bit. I like pushing the envelope, you know, like waking people up, like, 'Hey, wake up. Snap out of it. Snap out of your political apathy.'"
Successful marriage notwithstanding, Blessed is not Williams's "happy" album, even if it's positive overall. There are some undoubtedly gorgeous moments on the album — especially the title track, "Sweet Love" and "Kiss Like Your Kiss," which earned a Grammy nomination — but she also visits some fairly dark subject material. "Seeing Black," for instance, one of the three tracks that features Elvis Costello on guitar, was inspired by Vic Chesnutt's suicide. "Copenhagen," meanwhile, finds Williams writing beautifully about the sudden death of her former manager, Frank Callari: "Thundering news hits me like a snowball striking my face and shattering," the lyrics read. "Covering me in a fine powdery mist and mixing in with my tears, and I'm 57, but I could be seven years old, 'cause I will never be able to comprehend the expansiveness of what I've just learned."
A lot of Blessed was written during an extended writing streak that gave Williams enough material for two albums. As with a lot of her music, Blessed's songs were written at her favorite writing place, her kitchen table. That's also where The Kitchen Tapes — the appropriately named bonus-material demos for the deluxe version of Blessed — was recorded.
"You know how they say that people just tend to gravitate toward the kitchen when they're in your house," Williams says. "Everybody goes to the kitchen. I guess the theory behind that is that it's sort of the heart of the home or something. For some reason, I've always enjoyed writing at the kitchen table or just hanging out in the kitchen. As a writer, you find your little sort of magic spot."
As for her writing technique, Williams says she starts by writing down a line or two as things pop into her head. She keeps a folder full of papers with ideas and lines written on them, and when she gets in the mood, she spreads the pieces of paper out on the table and sees what happens. "Once I'm in that mode of writing," she explains, "I'll just go and go. For a couple weeks straight, I'll just write and write and write. That's kind of how I do it."
Writing has gotten easier over the years for Williams, and part of it is just experience and having done it for so long. The other part is giving herself permission to write. "When I was younger," she notes, "I might have boxed myself in a little bit more, whereas now I just go with whatever."
Early on, Williams took a few cues from Bob Dylan, another songwriter who wasn't afraid of shooting from the hip. "He went through a period there where his stuff was like a puzzle, trying to figure out what he was talking about," she observes. "Like 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).' I first heard him in 1965, and that was when the Highway 61 Revisited album came out, and I had no idea what he was talking about. But I was only twelve years old. But still, there was something about it that rang really true. From then on, I was a huge Bob Dylan fan. I wanted to be able to write like that."
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