Joy Williams may be one of the best female vocalists in music today. Her strong alto is naturally tinged with a Southern accent, which she beautifully showcases on her latest solo record, Front Porch, which is easily her most warm and comfortable to date. Her previous record was the electronica-veiled Venus, which took Williams out of her comfort zone. While it alienated some fans, the beautiful record brought her closer to where she needed to be to make Front Porch.
Births, deaths, and a cross-country move later saw Williams come face-to-face with the music she was meant to make. Just before the release of the new album, Williams spoke with mxdwn to discuss her mentality when writing music for Front Porch, all those Grammys she won, recording with Chris Cornell and her future with The Civil Wars.
mxdwn: Was there a certain kind of story behind the Front Porch? What prompted you to make this record at this stage in your career?
Joy Williams: Yeah. There are always stories behind why I make records. They all spring out of real life, even if it’s like the movie in my mind that I’m experiencing — a song like “Hotel Saint Cecilia” or a song as autobiographical as “Preacher’s Daughter.” I was living in Venice Beach several years ago, I had left Nashville with my family and just needed to get out of Dodge. It was really the sort of, consummate Southern California-experience. I grew up in Northern California. I was in Venice Beach and making Venus and the reason that we moved out as well was because I wanted to be closer to my dad who was very, very sick with cancer at the time. Making that record and being with my dad, what I call “mid-wiving” my dad to the other side, so to speak.
Once he passed it was almost like, ‘Why am I here?’ I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ and ‘I want to go home.’ I had always said that Santa Cruz was home but I looked at my life at that point in time, which you take stock of when someone you love passes, and thought, ‘Actually, I think my home and most of my roots are back in Nashville.’ We went back to the house that we never sold and Miles started going to school just a few minutes away, and I thought, ‘I’m so glad to be back here.’
Out of that season of loss with my dad came this conversation of re-framing, so to speak, of re-organizing and re-prioritizing my life. In my 20s, I think I was so future-forward, always, ‘What’s the next thing, and what’s the big thing I can look forward to?’ I think something about being in my 30s and going through what I’ve been through, whether it was The Civil Wars or losing my dad, moving back to Nashville, it was the sense in which I was like, ‘I’m actually really starting to enjoy the rainbow in the bubbles while I’m doing the dishes.’
It’s the little things and honestly, I’ve been playing with what it looks like to love the little things. That’s what The Front Porch came out of, to go to such an astral place as Venus and then to come back and literally center it around a front porch. That’s as grounded as I think as you can be, like shoes off, welcome mats and no pretense, just to be as you are. That was the impetus for what became this record. In the bridge of “Preacher’s Daughter,” I talk about how I see my father’s smile in my son and then my daughter when Nate and I found out we were pregnant, we looked at the ETA, as it were, her estimated due date and it was my dad’s birthday. She was born one day before my dad’s birthday and we named her after my father. The grandkids all called him Poppy or Grandpoppy. So that’s what we named our daughter, Poppy, like the flower.
There’s just so much full circle. It’s about coming home, whether it’s coming home to yourself or coming home to something you’ve been running away from. If it’s coming home to a relationship or grief or even just learning to love, I’ve had to learn to love the bruises and bumps along the way, instead of trying to be like, ‘They’re not here, don’t look, look somewhere else.’ Instead of that, just to own it and allow those things to add to the beauty of life, as opposed to adding to a desire to hide, which I never want to do anyway.
mxdwn: You can’t have joy without sadness.
JW: It’s true, though. I totally agree. I have had so much in life, so much in life that’s been the bitter with the sweet combined and I’m experiencing that even now. You cannot control how life goes. I keep getting my ass handed to me over and over and it must be because I need to keep remembering this lesson, which is that, life is meant to move and change and shift. You can get hard and reject it, resist it, which’ll only cause suffering or I get the chance to ask the question, ‘Okay, what is my new normal, and how can I grow in this?’ That’s where I love to make music from, is asking the questions, not necessarily coming to any stock answer like a bumper sticker idea. How do you move with the beautiful complexity of these things, even things that you don’t foresee happening? What does it look like to love, what does it look like to work with desire? What does it look like to lose? What does it look like to celebrate? These are kinds of things that I like to toy with when I make music.
mxdwn: How did the video for “The Front Porch” come together? It has a very poignant message.
JW: What’s the message to you?
mxdwn: Acceptance, but it comes at a highly sensitive time. Was it your idea to make that kind of video or was it something you guys sat down and discussed?
JW: I loved the process of working with (directors) Stephen and Alexa Kinigopoulos. They’re a brother and sister creative duo powerhouse and I’m so glad I got to make a music video with them before I probably can’t afford them. They brought such a heart and soul to the storytelling of that song. Stephen really got what I was trying to write about and it wasn’t that story per se, what is fleshed out, but it’s the similar themes of acceptance and welcoming, to be seen and to be loved, and how human those feelings are. Stephen just took it to a whole other level. There was some intentionality in how we crafted that story and who was cast and why. I’m infinitely proud of that music video. I couldn’t imagine another music video being made for that song now. He took what I’d written and put it through his own lens, and this what I love so much about art in general. It’s almost like a gem. You turn it one way and it looks different to someone and then you turn it another way and someone sees it from a different angle.
Yeah, and they were just the sweetest. My son Miles, this was the first thing he ever said he wanted to be a part of, in a bigger context. He was like, ‘I want to do something. I want to be a part of this music video.’ Stephen and Alexa just welcomed him in. Then, when he wasn’t in the music video, Stephen was letting him call the shots, like, ‘Action!’ Then, at the very end, I’ll never forget, Stephen leaned over to Miles and said, ‘You can call it, buddy.’ The last shot of a movie or something on set, sometimes it’s called the Martini shot. Miles was like, ‘That’s the Martini shot.’ I just started busting up laughing that my six-and-a-half-year-old was calling a Martini shot. Front to back, making this record and making even the music video about this record has felt so very much about family and relationships because that’s what really lasts in life, is the relationships. It’s how you make people feel. It’s not even necessarily what you say. It’s how you make people feel and that matters to me.
mxdwn: Is there a different mentality to writing a song for yourself versus writing with a group like The Civil Wars?
JW: It’s so funny, because I’ve never compared the two, so you’re asking me a question I haven’t really considered it. Let’s spitball here, Brian. I think for me, The Civil Wars was more a play on the archetypal aspects of relationships, meaning the archetype female and the archetype male. You know, in a song like “Poison and Wine,” it’s like we’re both playing with the archetypes within a relationship. There was always that kind of interplay in how we wrote. Obviously, you have to bring your own emotion, how you access your emotion, into the writing process, but I think with Front Porch and writing for myself, I’m dealing less with archetypes and I’m dealing more with just my own life experience. They’re not mutually exclusive. If you listen to “The Front Porch,” I think you’ll be able to determine, ‘Oh, yeah, I can hear that Joy co-wrote those songs on The Civil Wars as well.’ They’re not too far off in the approach, but the approach is different.
It’s fun for me to be able to explore and experiment with what I’m capable of. Venus was like that as well. It was, ‘What am I capable of?’ I wanted to push myself. I think after having done that, I realized, okay, I know that I can do this, I can make something electronic and more modern, and then, what’s that deep breathe moment feel like for me? What feels the most effortless to me? It was making music that sounds like The Front Porch. This feels like my sweet spot. This feels like a place I’d like to linger for a while, and I don’t just mean the actual front porch, but I mean this kind of music. If you know me mostly from The Civil Wars, this record might feel a little more familiar-feeling to you than, say, something like Venus is.
mxdwn: I am a huge fan of the lap steel guitar and you sprinkle it all over the place on this record.
JW: Oh, I know. Oh my God, and then you have Russ Pahl playing it and I’m like, ‘I’m dead.’ he’s so good.
mxdwn: I listen to the most punk-rock Motörhead song and then I listen to your music, that lap steel guitar and your voice make my hairs stand on end.
JW: Like, you listen to, Motörhead, and then you listen to me? Oh my God. That’s like the biggest compliment I could ever hear today.
mxdwn: You worked with the late Chris Cornell on a song for the movie 12 Years a Slave called “Misery Chain.” How did that collaboration come about?
JW: Our mutual A&R guy, at the time when I was with Columbia Records, said, ‘Chris is wanting to do a duet. Would you be interested?’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry, did you just say Chris Cornell? Hold up while I spatula myself up off the ground.’ I will say that, when I walked in, I remember feeling the weight of how much I had heard his voice as I grew up. His voice is seared into parts of my childhood. The passion and the power and how he could just rip into these notes, it astounded me. Then I got to see him do it literally right in front of me. We didn’t record our vocals apart from one another. We literally recorded them simultaneously together.
I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if Chris thinks I can do this.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I’m wondering if I can do it,’ but the music started playing. I don’t know what it is, I’ve always been this way. It’s like having a conversation with somebody I love, what I call active listening, where you’re really leaning in to see what is that person going to say next, how is that person going to lean this way or that? How can I let them know that I see them and I hear them? That’s partly how I sing with others. I call that just active listening. I use that phrase with my six-and-a-half-year-old now. I have to be an active listener in my every day, too. This interchange that we had, I didn’t feel like I was having to chase him. I was amazed at how much he let me see him while he was singing. In between a take, he looked at me, and I’ll never forget, he said, ‘I had no idea that this could go so easily.’
I was like, again, fan-girl. I played it super cool, but I was inside, the eight-year-old girl in me was melting thousand times over. He was such a soft and kind spirit and I didn’t know what kind of energy I was going to be walking into that day. He’s an icon, alive or having since passed, which is so sad. He remains an icon, but he came with such humility and softness and kindness and spoke with so much affection about his family and what he was doing in that season of life and grateful to be doing it. I just felt like it was a total gift to be in his company that day, and we had a great time. It’s a memory I’ll have for the rest of my life and count it as a pretty remarkable privilege to be able to say that I’ve sung with him.
It’s like when you meet people that you grew up with like I remember when I met Paul McCartney…I’m just trying to explain that when you meet people that you grew up idolizing, that it brings up a whole host of emotions. Like, excitement and total bliss, and then also complete and utter moments of, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting to do this right now. What is life?’ Thank you for being encouraging, and also, those are bucket list moments.
mxdwn: You won four Grammys with The Civil Wars …
JW: I’m really proud of how hard we worked to get recognized that way… I have a friend who’s won far more than me and three of them are on top of her commode.
JW: Yeah. I have a friend who has one of them in their fridge.
mxdwn: Just hanging out in the fridge?
JW: Just to keep it light. Yeah. It’s great, and it keeps me grounded. Don’t get too big for your britches, as my dad used to say.
mxdwn: What is it like winning your first Grammy? Were you freaking out?
JW: Oh, I was freaking out. I didn’t believe when people…I’d watch people at the Oscars, or whatever, win. They’d go walk up and say, ‘I completely blanked, I blacked out,’ but I remember our name being called and being like, ‘Surely that must’ve been a typo. Any second now, as we’re walking down the aisle, they’re going to be like, “Oh, wait, sorry. Not you guys. We meant someone else.”‘ I remember just being completely floored because there was no crafting of the music in a way that was like, ‘Well, how are we going to get noticed?’ None of that factored in. All John Paul and I ever did were just write things that we loved. That was it. That sounds more simplistic than it was, but the reality is, we were not ever trying to become well-known. We just were both staff writers at the time, sick of writing songs that we only half-liked. Instead, us joining forces during that season of time just brought about these exponential life experiences that I would’ve never dreamed of, both in the positive and the negative. I look at those Grammys and I think, there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into those, and I learned a hell of a lot. I got to do a lot of things that I never dreamed I’d be able to do. For that, I will always be really grateful.
mxdwn: Do you think we will we ever see the Civil Wars perform again?
JW: I like to think that life is long and that anything is possible. That being said, I would highly doubt it, but again, life is long and anything is possible.