Finding Her Voice
Jun 30, 2015
For Joy Williams, raising a toddler and pursuing a music career is a balancing act. Literally. During tour rehearsals in April, Williams was singing her Afro-pop flavored single "Woman (Oh Mama)" when her two-year-old sidled up to her.
"He squeezed my hand and looked up and said, 'I hold you?' I had him on my hip for the rest of the song and the whole rest of rehearsals," says Williams during a phone call from Los Angeles. "I sang pregnant with him a lot, so there's nothing greater than having him in my arms [while I'm] singing. Especially a song like 'Woman,' which is so much about embracing who you are."
On her new album, Venus, Williams has certainly embraced who she is and found her own voice. The 32-year-old calls it her "coming-of-age album." It was written at a time when the young mother was rocked by a series of blows. Williams' father had been diagnosed with cancer, her marriage was in trouble, and The Civil Wars—her wildly successful Americana band with John Paul White—had unexpectedly split up. (Never has a band name been so cruelly ironic.)
"The reality is that I, for a while, really wondered if I could enjoy music again after The Civil Wars ended, because it ended so tumultuously and with so much difficulty," Williams admits.
The singer found solace in writing songs about birth, death, and the bracket of life in-between. In total, Williams penned 80 songs, a prolific rate that makes even Ryan Adams look like a slacker. The first two pieces she wrote, "Before I Sleep" and "Until the Levee," chronicled the burdensome days when her shoulders felt like those of a pallbearer. During that time, Williams' social media photos of her husband and their son suggested a blissful, untroubled existence.
"Isn't that thing about online?" says Williams. "It's a format where we generally post the highlights of life. I look back at those pictures and I know the ache of those days and the hard work we were going through while we were tilling soil and while we were parenting. You can laugh amid the sorrow. Those are the moments that are good to remember when you're going through it and when you're really in it."
For much of her life, Williams has presented herself as clean and neat as a Sunday dress fresh from a dry cleaner bag. Raised in a religious family, she was the self-described "good girl" who strove to please other people, not the least of whom was her father. As a teenager, Williams signed to the Sony/BMG-owned Christian music label Reunion Music, moved to Nashville, and went on to release three religious-themed albums. Keen to expand her musical horizons, she left Reunion in her 20s. Williams' first secular singles presented a persona wholly in keeping with her first name. The relentlessly upbeat "Sunny Day"—which makes Colbie Caillat's similarly styled "Bubbly" sound like PJ Harvey—brightened the gloomy skies of Seattle when it appeared in Grey's Anatomy. Williams wrote songs for David Archuleta, a teen American Idol contestant as wholesome as fellow Mormon Donny Osmond. And she brought home the bacon by penning a peppy jingle for an Oscar Mayer commercial titled "It Doesn't Get Better Than This."
Fortunately, Williams was able to move away from writing boloney when she met White at a writing camp in Nashville. The musical connection was instant. Williams and White discovered that their disparate voices harmonized like Maple syrup and vinegar. The duo's subsequent superb albums of acoustic guitar-based, minor-chord melancholy showcased a hither-to-unexpected side to Williams. Yet, even in The Civil Wars, the pretty brunette remained largely inscrutable. In a series of moody, monochromatic publicity photos, Williams and White created the impression that they were a 21st century couple who'd traveled back to the 19th century. They dressed accordingly. Dark suits and Victorian bowties for him; black lace dresses for her. Even the songs seemed to be in character. Their lyrics depicted a world in which people wash themselves in rivers, watch the black smoke of trains coming around the bend, and bury the dead in six-foot holes. You'd almost imagine their albums had been cut straight to wax cylinder for playback on Thomas Edison's phonograph. The only modern aspect of the exquisite songs was the duo's aching, unmet desires—seemingly for each other. But that, too, was a winking contrivance. Many fans were surprised to discover that Williams and White were each married to someone else.
After The Civil Wars ended, Williams found it hard to shake the band's influence. She wrote in a style that echoed her former band's rustic aesthetic.
"There are songs on the album, like 'Before I Sleep' and 'Until the Levee'...which feel like an inadvertent bridge to the new landscape from The Civil Wars band," she says. "It was a little bit more of the antique imagery in the lyrics."
Soon after, Williams moved from Nashville to Los Angeles and began writing songs with a new collaborator. Matt Morris—who'd been recommended by Justin Timberlake—asked Williams why her metaphorical lyrics weren't more forthright in expressing how she really felt. She teared up. "I'd love to write a happy song. One day I will," she responded. That confession became the opening line of "One Day I Will," a centerpiece of the album. It was a pivotal moment that changed her approach to songwriting.
"Before co-writes, I used to clean closets and wipe down kitchen counters," Williams admits. "I didn't do that on this go around. I felt I became more comfortable with life being messy. I became more comfortable with myself being messy. I didn't want to write in a way that was a vanity record. I wanted to write in a way that I could authentically tell my story."
Emboldened, Williams wrote "You Loved Me," which exposed her deep-rooted fear that people wouldn't love her if she revealed her true self. She mourned the death of her father in "The Dying Kind." ("There's a strange untethering that happens when you lose someone who brought you into the world," says the singer.) And, most difficult of all, the songwriter wrote about her relationship with her husband (and manager) Nate Yetton. After a decade of marriage, their relationship had begun to founder.
"I was in very close quarters with Nate on the road," says the singer. "We were working toward a common goal together and yet, with regard to each other, we were drifting apart and we didn't really see it. By the time that we did, we got to that place where we went, 'Do we still want to be together?'"
Williams exposed her marital woes on songs such as "Not Good Enough" and "You Loved Me." Why do so? "Authenticity matters to me," she answers. She also hopes the songs will resonate with listeners in difficult relationships.
"In 'Not Good Enough,' that song in particular, the theme was that...sometimes the hardest thing is to stay," says Williams. "Nate and I looked at each other and said, 'If we're going to work on this, let's actually work on this. We're not going to fake it. We're not going to give up. If we going to do this, we're going to build in a way that will mean something so that we can feel stronger for having gone through what we're going through.' That's why I say, 'Don't try to leave, try to stay,' because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to stay."
That message seems applicable to Williams' former professional partner John Paul White. Outside The Civil Wars, no one saw the split coming. On stage, the two were renowned for playful banter in which she giggled at his deadpan quips. Between 2011 and 2014, the duo found themselves performing at the Grammys (they won four of the awards), touring with Adele (with whom Williams shares a matching tattoo), and collaborating with Taylor Swift on a song for The Hunger Games soundtrack (Swift once posted an Instagram of herself babysitting Williams' baby). It seems that The Civil Wars ascended too fast and got the bends. The band's final press release blamed the breakup on "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."
Williams and White aren't on speaking terms, but it's been a remarkably civil war. The two musicians have refrained from criticizing each other in the press. Yet Williams vents her frustration at the dissolution of The Civil Wars on the album during a hushed piano ballad titled "What a Good Woman Does." Its pretty chorus is laced with arsenic: "I could tell the truth about you leaving/but that's not what a good woman does."
Does she hope that White will hear the song? There's a long silence on the other end of the phone line. Did the question stump her?
"No, it's good. I'm just trying to be thoughtful about it," she says.
In the end, she doesn't directly answer the question during her careful response.
"I want to be a respecter of persons and I want to be able to hold my head up high. I don't think taking pot shots gets anyone anywhere good. But for me, I felt like making this whole record, was me reclaiming myself and finding my voice. I feel like 'What a Good Woman' spells that out."
It would've been easy for Williams to replicate The Civil Wars as a solo artist. She didn't stray far from the template when she duetted with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on "Misery Chain" for the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack. Soon after, she teamed with The National's Matt Berninger for the roots-y theme song of AMC television's Turn. In the end, it was Williams' guest turn on Paramore's single "Hate to See Your Heart Break" that was most representative of her future musical path. Venus is a sophisticated pop album in which electronic beats pulse alongside the fiber-optic glow of modern synthesizer sounds. Williams unfurls her big voice in a way she seldom did in The Civil Wars. It's music that will likely appeal to fans of Florence and the Machine, Sia, Imogen Heap, and Annie Lennox.
"I was asking myself, 'How can I integrate this in a way that feels very much like me?'" says the singer. "I'm experimenting a little bit. It isn't safe. I work better when I'm a little bit scared. It felt like a brave move, for me, to let my influences come out in a way that was even unexpected for me."
Williams' upcoming tour promises another dramatic shift from the bare-bones approach of her former outfit. Her band will play behind a semi-transparent curtain that will double as a movie screen. Out front, Williams will be framed in front of what appears to be a giant crystal ball.
"All of it is integrated in a way not to be distracting, but to add to the feel and the experience of the event of what a show could really be," she explains. "I will be reimagining a few songs from The Civil Wars. It was a heartache to me that we were never able to perform the songs live off of the last record."
The interview draws to an end as Williams prepares to return to rehearsals and also tend to her two-year-old.
"Having Miles in my life has made me a more focused person," she says. "I don't suffer fools the way I use to, and I don't waste time the way I used to."
Still, Williams takes a moment to enthusiastically detour into a conversation about Kate Bush. She wishes she had been able to travel to London last year to see Bush's first concerts in 35 years. Williams hails Bush's artistic bravery and her ability to "write in a sensual and strong way." That description about sums up Williams' own newfound musical boldness, forged from the fire of her trials and tribulations.
"I think, for me, it was in a way, looking back that season was a wake-up call for me," says the singer. "To find my voice again, to remember who I am, to grieve, to realize that if you look into the dark places, you're still standing and there's an inner strength and almost a sad kind of way you can grow in it. And maybe become of the opinion that I don't know a lot and I have a lot to learn."
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