Talking to The Queen of Alt Country Before She Received Any of Her 15 Grammys
By Cathy Lee Crane "Getting Her Way" in COVER Magazine, October, 1989
While the promotion of her debut album is coming to a close, an elaborate campaign for her recently released EP, Passionate Kisses, is taking its place. In addition to the title cut, the EP offers previously unreleased live material, plus the added treat of a 1983 recording she made with Taj Mahal. After the EP campaign: a video, in-store merchandising, and potential dates in Australia, Lucinda will return to the studio to work on her second album for Rough Trade.
With 40.000 albums sold, she still seems surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response. "Let's just say that it's more interesting than I expected and more work than I realized. I mean, I thought doing the album would mean I'd perform a little more, maybe even begin to make a living. I didn't know how much work that really meant. Also, I'm between managers now, so I have to do a lot of the business stuff myself"
This business load, coupled with the complete creative control Rough Trade has given her, is a two-edged sword. The fact is, Lucinda Williams is used to doing things her way. "I like to make sure stuff gets done right. Consequently, I have to be there all the time. It depends on what role you want to take. Some musicians let the decisions be made for them like, 'Oh. the album cover, who cares, just so it gets done.' I'm not like that. It's more-work for me but it's worth it in the long run because I get what I like. I mean, it's got my name on it."
The album does have her name on it, literally (that's her signature on the cover) and the songs inside are pure Lucinda too — an eclecticism of style that simply defies the limitation of labels or comparisons. Oh sure, her voice has an evident southern lilt, her lyrics resemble some of the best of country, blues and pop but why categorize her? Visibly bored by attempts others have made to pigeonhole her in a musical genre, she offers the quintessential rebuttal. "I think Hank Williams was as blue as Muddy Waters is."
While she has baffled some critics and has confused record execs for over a decade, Lucinda is no big mystery. She is a woman who wears her personal history on her sleeve; the influences of her poet father, her musican mother, moving from one southern town to another, the political involvement of the '60s and '70s, and her love affairs.
The Music. Her Way
In short, Lucinda sings of her life. "Everything's kind of all melded together into whatever I am now. I think the reaction to my album is that people are responding to something they understand. One thing I see lacking in other songs is that they're surface. Some people are so afraid to be vulnerable, to expose themselves. So many artists play it safe. They see what's already out there and imitate it, don't take risks. What separates art from fad and fashion is the ability to articulate your own response to the world. Art is an extension of oneself, looking inside for oneself, not outside for other people. Even people in the music business are afraid to bend the rules. It seems that they want records to be sterile and clinical. You can make albums without humans now. But in producing my album, we didn't 'clean it up.' I mean, we left the squeak on the neck of the guitar, we didn't use a click track. With the fascination for technology, producing was more what we didn't do than what we did do."
Nevertheless, she does wax nostalgic for the time when living seemed easier, when there was more time to actively participate in politics and the creation of art. But the realist in her stops the romantic short. "The whole getting back in touch thing. That's a hard one. It doesn't feel the same, it's not going to feel the same. I'm not the same person; I'm older now. It's a different time.
You can't really go back. A lot of pepole are politically involved now. But the climate is different. The general vibe is more conservative. I think the difference between then and now is basically an economic one. Today it's more difficult to just get by. And with the struggle to simply survive, people can't afford to be creative anymore. They don't have the time or luxury of hanging out and just grooving along or whatever. It's pretty hard when you work 8 or 9 hours a day, to also remember that you're a musician, to come home and write a song."
But difficulty has never been a reason to stop living her life. Though a decade separates Lucinda's first recording effort on Folkways, and her recent Rough Trade releases, she seems somewhat philosophical about having just gone with the flow. "You can't explain why things go the way they go. While some people have a plan and they see it through, I let life happen. The other way is that whole yuppie thing. 'First we're going to get married, buy a car, a house then wait 5 years to have kids ... so, is it time yet?' I just don't live my life like that." Indeed, she's been trying to achieve a balance between the contradictory impulses of a romantic and a realist. Her success feels all the more victorious because it suggests the realization of that balance.
It only means I need a little time,
To follow that unbroken line,
To a place where the wild things grow, To a place where
I used to go.*
Having following "that unbroken line," Lucinda Williams has finally arrived. It's irrelevant to ask, "Why now?" or to try to come up with a "female singer-songwriter" trend theory. It makes more sense simply to listen to Lucinda Williams' music, to risk the very real possibility of being moved, or better yet inspired to live life like she sings songs — straight from the heart without apologies, compromise or easy answers.
*From her song "Side of the Road," Lucy Jones Music (BMI), with Bug Music.