Feature interview by Jason Gonulsen
"It was intentional on my part," Joy Williams tells me via phone from Venice Beach, California, where she now lives part-time with her husband (and manager), Nate Yetton, and son, Miles. "I felt like it was important to start where I left off, and I'm glad that I did."
Williams is talking about November 6th, 2012 at The Roundhouse in London, the last time she played a show with John Paul White as a member of the critically-acclaimed and four-time Grammy winning duo The Civil Wars. Their last gasp together was an excruciating-to-watch version of the song that made them famous, "Poison & Wine," which featured the lyric, "I don't love you, but I always will."
But Williams is also talking about the present: May 6th of this year, when her new life as a solo artist made its live debut, also in London.
She pauses when I ask her what she was feeling when she walked on stage for the first time.
"Oh man," she says quietly.
"Walking on stage for the first time felt really scary and really invigorating," Williams continues. "I've come to learn something about myself that I feel like I do some of my best work when I feel a little scared. Almost like I have to let my instincts kick in. And I felt that when I stepped on stage -- it was this feeling of this is exactly where I need to be right now in this moment. It felt raw, it felt real, I felt present. I really enjoyed it, and it seems like the people that came really enjoyed it too."
Venus, Williams' new solo record, which she tells me "felt like a culmination of two years of blood, sweat and tears of not only personal work but creative work coming to fruition," are her first songs released since the self-titled The Civil Wars in 2013. It's being released almost simultaneously with the launch of Apple Music, the new streaming service that reversed its original plan of not paying artists during a free three-month trial period. The decision came after a letter to Apple from Taylor Swift, who is Williams' friend.
"I was really grateful for Taylor's bravery to write and address what she did," Williams says. "And I am thankful, because Apple Music launches around the same time that my record drops on June 29th, so I am thankful for the way that Apple responded too. So, yeah, I'm cheering Taylor on, and I'm grateful for Apple listening to her."
All the songs for Venus were co-written, to which I asked Williams: Is it hard to be so personal writing with someone else?
"I think it can be," Williams admits. "It takes a special person for me to feel like I can open up, and I'm really glad that I found more people to add to that tribe of kindred spirits. People like Paul Moak and Matt Morris and Mike Einziger of Incubus, Daniel James, Tom Douglas, and even Charlie Peacock. These are names of people -- some I've known for years and some have become near and dear friends. But, I think if you're just shooting in the dark writing with somebody who you haven't met before, it's a little bit harrowing (laughs).
"I was talking with some Grammy Camp students yesterday about that first initial co-wrote, and how it's like a blind date and you have to make out, so to speak, within the first thirty seconds. Because it is such a vulnerable thing to gather in order to create. But for me, I don't do well with small talk. I'm always interested in how people are really doing, and that's the way I go about creating my music too. I don't want to mince words, and I don't want to skirt around things. I want to be brave and stare into the dark and see if there is some light in there. And normally there is, and that's what I want to write about."
Williams' Venus, like her work in The Civil Wars, has quiet moments, but it mostly focuses on bolder sounds: new age/electro beats to live beside her greatest gift, which is her undeniably gorgeous voice. The album sprints from any recollection of country, folk, or Americana roots.
And with good reason: Williams, alone, is never going to give everybody what they want musically. Her personal life also remains a target. Facebook pages for her own solo career and the one remaining for The Civil Wars (that she uses to promote her own solo work; note: John Paul White has requested not to be mentioned on The Civil Wars' Facebook page) are often flooded with questions: Why did the band break up? Is there any truth to a rumored steamy love affair between Williams and White? Many fans still want to talk about the past, or, maybe more importantly, what they still don't know.
In fairness, it does seem that Williams hasn't entirely let go, although Venus clearly shows her moving in that direction. But songs like "One Day I Will" and "What A Good Woman Does" will only add fuel to a stubborn fire, especially with the latter featuring the lyric, "I could tell the truth about you leaving," which insinuates that we haven't heard everything as to why the duo split.
"'(What A Good Woman Does), for me...it's one of the very few songs that directly address the breakup of The Civil Wars," Williams tells me. "And I think it's that moment for me where, and maybe other people can relate with this too, it's that moment in your life where you feel like there is no resolution; things have been left unresolved, and the emotions that come along with that. And I think as I was raised, you know, growing up over my lifetime, I sort of believed this idea that a "good woman" didn't get...didn't get pissed off. And I think over time I learned that's actually not true."
I wait for her to explain further.
"A good little girl might always behave and try and say the right thing, but what does it mean to be a woman to own your voice, and own the emotions that you felt, and do it in a way where I can still hold my head high. And I feel like that's what I wanted to do in writing "What A Good Woman Does." Own the depth of emotion, own the fact that I have a voice, and that I feel like I have reclaimed myself from the process over the last couple of years -- not just over the breakup of the band, but over a lot of other things that have happened in my life. The record deals with a lot of other emotional aspects and a lot of other dynamics of my life."
Still, I wonder. So I press her a bit: Was it written to get a reaction from John Paul White?
Williams doesn't pause, but quickly responds.
"I feel like I wasn't writing it to get a particular response. The whole part for me in writing this record was in part so I could heal, and transcend, and include the best parts of all the chapters I have been in, and I feel like I have. I don't think I wrote it for any other reason than just for me to be brave enough to speak my truth and to own what I was feeling. That was one of the ways that I was able to move through and move beyond. And yes, every song on this record is personal -- I almost don't know how to write any other way. So, it feels really vulnerable and you open yourself to be misunderstood or misinterpreted, but authenticity matters to me, and this was my way of doing that."
Venus is at its most experimental during its first single, "Woman (Oh Mama)," and the album ends with its most dramatic moment, "Welcome Home." It's a song written for her son, Miles, and she's recently explained its meaning to Medium.com:
"I wanted to write a song for Miles that could apply when he was five years old and when he’s 35 years old. This idea of reaffirming his place in the world."
Truth is, with Venus, she's also done that for herself.
Welcome home, Joy.