Hearts on Fire

The Lyrical World of Lucinda Williams

Despite winning multiple Grammies and being named by Time magazine as America’s best songwriter, one tends not to hear Lucinda Williams’s songs in the hands of too many other people. The intimate nature of her material might be what endears Williams to her legion of followers, but it’s also what gives record executives anxiety attacks. While Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patti Loveless admirably stood by their convictions and have taken Williams-penned songs to the top of the country music charts, nothing will ever quite compare to experiencing Williams’s own impassioned musical performance. Wrapped within an enticing blend of country, rock, and folk, Lucinda Williams doesn’t just pull on the heartstrings, she gives them a good old jolt. And when she joins George Jones at the Arlington Theatre this Monday, Santa Barbarans will be given the opportunity to partake in a little emotional subjection of their own.

Your songs tend to be an emotive exposé of personal experiences, almost like a journal. How conscious are you that the world will be sharing in something that has stemmed from such private beginnings? Taking a personal experience and making it universal is what I strive to do. And that’s the challenge of being an artist. I want people to be able to feel what I’m feeling and see what I’m seeing. And that’s what I really enjoy doing.

Given the personal nature of your music, is it strange hearing other people sing your songs? No, not really. I kind of wish more people would cover my songs. But that’s one of the things that gets in the way of more commercial recordings of my music. And I have asked about that — about why I can’t get a big hit single — and what I’ve been told is that it’s because my songs are so personal.

Your songs are also very literal; does that play a role as well? There have been a couple of times in the past where the powers that be — the record company executives or whoever — shied away from some of my songs because of the lyrics. This takes place in Nashville from time to time because they are more conservative there. And they keep getting more so. They were a lot more risqué lyrically back in the ’60s and ’70s. Now they like to sugarcoat everything.

It’s strange how there is this self-imposed censoring mechanism in place to safeguard the public. If people don’t want to hear something, they don’t have to listen to it. Why should someone else decide for them? You’re right. I was talking to Robbie Fulks about this. I sang on one of his songs and I was really taken by the lyrics. It was a very evocative song that had a line that went something like “wrap your legs around me and press your mouth to mine.” I thought, “Wow — this is really brave.” We were recording in Nashville at the time and I told him about my songs and how the country music industry was afraid to have people record them. And he said, “Yeah, they don’t like body parts too much in Nashville.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter and her version of your song “Passionate Kisses” is a notable exception, though. The only reason that song even got cut was because she just stood her ground. So I’m grateful to Mary Chapin Carpenter for that. They weren’t going to let her release it as a single and she said, “Well, screw that. It’s coming out as single whether you like it or not.” And the rest is history.

Your latest album, World Without Tears, came out a little while ago. Are you currently contemplating a new recording? I have a bunch of new songs and I have been writing quite a bit lately. Before the last tour, I went into the studio with the band and we recorded the basic tracks for a whole bunch of new songs. We are going to use those tracks as a template. It’s an eclectic mix. There’s some country stuff. There are some ballads. And there’s some rock and folk songs too. I am really looking forward to this one.

You just released a live concert recorded at the Fillmore. Generally speaking, how do you think the dynamic of a live performance translates into a recording? I learned that I had to step back from it. You can’t control every little aspect of a live recording like you can in the studio and that’s the main difference. You have to work with what you’ve got. In hindsight, I would have liked some other songs on there that we didn’t have recordings of and it was simply because we didn’t perform it at the concerts. I would have liked it to have been a little more retrospective.

But the beauty of that recording is it draws heavily from your last two albums and perfectly captures a very rich musical period of yours. I probably should have done a couple more throughout my career so there are different snapshots, but there is another one coming out with my earlier band. And that will be a really nice retrospective because it was recorded around 1988, when the Rough Trade record first came out. It’s funny looking at that now because I was so innocent and so shy on stage and then looking at this later recording you can really see the transition.

For you as a listener, what makes a great song? Of course a good melody is what initially attracts me, but I really want to hear the words. I am really into good lyrics. I get really frustrated if the vocals are buried in the track and I can’t understand the words. I appreciate good writing and you don’t come across that very often. I like all types of styles of music, but no matter what the style, it all comes down to good writing. I don’t care if it is heavy metal, hip-hop, or country, it’s all about the writing.

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