Feb. 18 2015 03:11 PM

Veteran songwriter enjoys resurgence of creativity


"Some people knew they were going to be at a wedding that night, and some didn’t.”

Lucinda Williams is referring to her somewhat impromptu 2009 nuptials during the middle of a show at Minneapolis’ First Avenue. The groom, Twin Cities native and former Universal Records exec Tom Overby, had served as the gravelly voiced Grammy winner’s manager for two years before saying, “I do.”

And while the event will always serve as a fantastic anecdote for both the couple and the unsuspecting fans who were there, it also marks a turning point in Williams’ career.

From the release of her 1979 debut, Ramblin’, Williams struggled with writing songs. Even nearly a decade later, when Rough Trade released her self-titled breakthrough, the Louisiana-born singer still had difficulty crafting the album’s 11 original compositions.

Blame the emotional pain of penning dark, brooding tales of unrequited love, or Williams’ own insistence on surpassing prior works, but the process never came easy.

That is, until relatively recently. 

Her 2007 album, West, was a revelation. Mining the impossible emotions of losing a parent, and guided by her new relationship with Overby, Williams wrote enough material for two albums (the extra songs from the West sessions ended up becoming most of 2008’s Little Honey). And since that wild night of rock ’n’ roll matrimony in 2009, Williams has both expanded her lyrical focus and kept the spigot to her newfound creativity wide open.

“I guess it’s better late than never,” she tells CityBeat with a husky laugh from her Los Angeles home. “I can’t really explain it. But I know I’m an anomaly. That’s for sure.”

Case in point: 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Produced by Overby and guitarist Greg Leisz, Williams’ 11th studio effort is her first double album. Featuring Elvis Costello’s rhythm section, progressive guitarist Bill Frisell and an assortment of L.A. studio musicians, the 20-song Spirit was actually edited down from a much larger cache.

“We recorded enough for three albums,” Williams says. “We had so much material that we knew early on it would be impossible to narrow it down to one. But, thankfully, we knew which ones had to come out together.”

Spirit marks other firsts for Williams, as well. It’s the first time she’s used lyrics by her recently deceased father, poet Miller Williams (“Compassion”). And it’s the inaugural album for her newly founded label, Highway 20 Records.

More than just a vehicle for her own future releases, and in conjunction with plenty of guidance from Overby, Williams relishes the opportunity to find and promote new talent.

“We really haven’t kicked it into gear yet,” she says. “And I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve never had my own label before. But I feel positive about it, and just hope I don’t have hundreds of artists getting me to sign them [Laughs]. Because I love pretending I’m an A&R person, going into clubs and discovering great new artists. I have a good ear for that sort of thing. 
And now, I actually have a vehicle for it.”

While all of this new inspiration, energy and expansion is coming at a time when many of her contemporaries are either winding down or relying on the rehash of classic albums in their past, Williams seems to be hitting her creative stride.

Her trademark voice is stronger than ever, she’s finally in a supportive and nurturing relationship and the most challenging part of her creative process has been figured out.

“I don’t think in terms of age,” Williams says. “I don’t understand when artists feel they haven’t ‘made it’ by the time they turn 30 and start talking about giving up because it’s too late. ‘I’m too fat,’ ‘I’m too old,’ ‘I’m too tired’—none of that flies. I didn’t even get my first break until I was in my mid-30s. So I don’t get those attitudes. Ageism only exists in the pop world. It’s just not a factor in things like jazz or blues. People are sometimes surprised by my age”—she’s 62—“but my songwriting has matured as I’ve matured.”

Lucinda Williams plays Feb. 21 at The Observatory North Park

That tough-as-nails attitude resonates in everything she does. For an artist whose music tends to be emotionally vulnerable, there’s an undeniable vibe of industrial-strength durability to everything else about Williams.

“I really enjoy that image,” she says. “I enjoy being the bad girl, the Chrissie Hynde or Joan Jett type. And I’m also not afraid to tell it like it is in my songs. But I just lean more in the direction of motorcycle dudes and leather jackets. So it makes sense that I’d give that impression. It’s probably the combination of all of those things.”

Williams will remain on tour for Spirit until the end of March, when her focus will return to the new record. Although it isn’t likely to be another double album, it promises many other surprises, including covers of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.”

Additionally, though Frisell’s contributions to Spirit were limited, he’ll be featured on almost every track of the next one.

With the release date of the new album still undetermined and Highway 20 Records yet to be fully realized, Williams shows no signs of slowing down, even with her 40-year career milestone ahead of her.

“I really don’t think like that,” she says. “When someone mentions how long it’s been, I still have a hard time believing it. But Tom and I make a good team. And it’s very liberating to have creative control, to be able to put however many songs you like on an album with no middleman to tell you what to do.

“I have the best of all worlds, and it’s a great situation to be in.”

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