You can tell a lot from the way a singer handles the word “baby.” Lucinda Williams, for instance, drags out that first long “a” until it becomes a bittersweet moan. Chrissie Hynde, on the other hand, belts “baby” with more equal emphasis and a rocker’s percussive attack, yet somehow underneath it there’s always this subtle, lump-in-your-throat hiccup of emotion. In fact, from talking to both Williams and Hynde in the last couple of weeks, I would extend the “baby” principle to an even shorter and more common word, and say that it’s possible to hear everything that’s in a songwriter’s heart just from listening to how they voice the second person singular—songwriting’s sweet embraceable, irreplaceable “you.”
When the Williams and Hynde tour rolls into the Majestic Ventura Theater next Tuesday, August 17, it will be the first time these two rock goddesses have gone on the road as a team, and ample reason for rejoicing among their fans. But for Williams and Hynde, the tour also celebrates a pair of exciting new relationships, as both women have new people in their lives who have redefined what they each mean by “baby”—and by “you.” Williams and her husband, Tom Overby, are fast approaching their first anniversary, as they were married onstage last September in Minneapolis, Overby’s hometown. And Hynde, while not yet married to her new collaborator JP Jones, nevertheless sounds like a woman in love on Fidelity!—the outstanding new album she recently recorded under the moniker “JP, Chrissie, and the Fairground Boys.” With both women riding intense highs in both their creative and emotional lives, it’s bound to be a memorable evening.
For Williams, the last decade has been one of extraordinary productivity and quality. In the 1990s, Williams got a reputation for her painstaking approach to recording; she famously re-recorded a nearly finished album, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which later went on to win her a second Grammy and a name as “the Elvis of Americana.” But since 2000, Williams has found a deep groove in the studio, reliably producing excellent albums every couple of years and showing no signs of slowing down in her fifties. Indeed, West and Little Honey, her two most recent recordings, are both masterpieces, and all indications are that there will be another one on the way this fall. Williams spoke with me from her home in Los Angeles.
I hear you recently finished recording a new album. Can you tell us about it? Yeah, we’re mastering right now. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be called Blessed because that’s the title of one of the songs. I feel good about it.
For more than a decade now, your work has been so great and so consistent. To what do you attribute this incredible run of productivity and quality? I think I’ve just become more confident, and as a result I can be more prolific. Like anything, having done it more makes a difference. I’m not afraid to put things out there. I had to learn about songwriting, too, and as I’ve grown into it, I’ve also found a lot more things out there to write about. You know, it’s not just unrequited love that makes a good subject for a song—humanity and human suffering are great subjects, too.
Has having a new sidekick in your life affected your writing? It’s funny. What happened when people heard about the wedding, and I got into interviews following that, was that these questions started coming at me to the effect of, “Now that you’re happy, how are you going to continue to write good songs?” It was ironic, because these same people who were happy for me personally were also genuinely concerned that their supply of new music was going to dry up. And it is kind of pedantic, that way of looking at things as being so simple and direct. I’d just be sitting there thinking, ‘Do I have to tell this person that happiness and joy are relative?’ The thing is, I’m still suffering. Just because I’m happy with Tom doesn’t mean I’m no longer human, and to be human is to suffer. We’re born into the world to struggle from the moment we come out of the womb. And, as a writer, being honest about that struggle is my job, no matter how things are going for me personally. Ironically, these songs I’ve written now, the ones I just finished recording, I think are some of the best things I’ve ever done.
Can you give an example? “Born to Be Loved” is a laid-back blues ballad, kind of in the style of the Allman Brothers Band. In it, I sing the line “You were born to be loved,” which does refer to Tom, but I’m not just being affectionate, because I’m talking about myself at the same time.
Fairground Boys and Girls
Hynde will open for Williams with her new project, the product of another relationship and an amazing story in its own right. JP Jones spotted Hynde holding up the bar at a London party in early 2008. The musician had just seen his band Grace go from next big thing to breakup, but he had a feeling about Hynde, and he acted on it. Introducing himself and getting her digits, Jones began a text message and songwriting campaign to win Hynde over to his idea that they could make a great album together. She was on the road with the Pretenders for much of the time, but kept coming back to the charm and intensity of this persistent Welshman some 30 years her junior. By the time she got back to England, he had written several songs that she liked, and on their next in-person meeting, he proposed a songwriting trip to Cuba, which is where Fidelity! was ultimately written. The result is one of the most impressive albums of the year, and a chronicle of an unexpected love affair passionately considered, and then righteously forgone. I spoke with Hynde and Jones by telephone last week.
JP, had you been a Pretenders fan before this?
JP Jones: I had her picture on my wall when I was growing up, and I loved the band.
And Chrissie, how do you feel about JP’s music?
Chrissie Hynde: I feel like a hero bringing this guy to America with me. He’s one of the greatest songwriters and musicians I know, a huge talent.
The songs on Fidelity! play around with the relationship and the situation. Can you talk more about that?
CH: Yes, that seems to be all we’re talking about. [Laughs.] It was true, when we got away together to Cuba, the first thing we had to deal with was this sense that we were falling in love, and you know, what do we do about it. It’s not practical; I’m too old to have a family with him, but we are experiencing all these feelings, so we decided to talk it out. Most people would have just limped away from it disappointed, but that’s not what we did, because we can make music together. He’s awesome, and I want to spend the rest of my life with him, and this is how that’s possible.
Lucinda Williams and JP, Chrissie, and the Fairground Boys will be at the Majestic Ventura Theater (26 S. Chestnut St.) on Tuesday, August 17, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 653-0721, or visit venturatheater.net.