I don’t love you, but I always will.
It’s the lyric that Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars will never escape. The stabbing lyric at the heart of their breakthrough song, “Poison and Wine.” The one moment where truth bites beautifully and leaves an immediate scar. It’s the lyric that you avoid to anticipate, because, sometimes, the truth doesn’t hurt so good.
Poison and wine are not mutually exclusive — not in The Civil Wars’ world. And somehow, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is exactly happening here is hard to explain. Williams and White have formed a duo, a musical partnership that has created waves. You know, the kind that get your album to the top of the iTunes charts and to #12 on your first-ever Billboard 200 chart. Sure, their talents are undeniable, but talent alone doesn’t always win out in this world.
But, let’s forget about the reasons why. The only thing you need to know is that Barton Hollow, the debut album from The Civil Wars, is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes furiously inspiring. Emotionally, you’ll be hard pressed to find another collection of songs this year to match its consistent, raw approach to invoke feeling. That’s what Joy Williams and John Paul White do best.
Fortunately, The Civil Wars took a few minutes to chat it up with us over the phone a few weeks before Barton Hollow’s release. You can purchase the album now.
So, the release of Barton Hollow is approaching. How are you getting yourselves prepared for the actual day?
John Paul White: We wish we could have released this record a long time ago, so we’re anxiously chomping at the bit. And thankfully, other people are, too. It’s a bit of a whirlwind getting the tour set up, and taking a couple of trips out west. Right now we’re kind of holding on for dear life, in a wonderful way.
Joy Williams: We just got the CDs with all of the packaging we’ve been working on so hard. There are so many details to take care of. The unintentional tease of things taking a little bit longer has actually been a positive thing. It’s created more enthusiasm.
JP: Now we can worry about whether somebody runs from the altar at the last second.
Joy: (laughing) Who’s running from the altar?
JP: I don’t know…I don’t know. (laughs) Just throwing it out there…
Joy: You’re making me nervous! (laughs)
Now you’re making me nervous…
Joy: (laughing) No!
JP: I’m kidding! I’m totally kidding. Although, we do joke that I have a solo career coming called “The Civil War.” It might be a little presumptuous to do it now. I need to wait a little while.
Joy: (laughing) You’re so full of it!
JP: Thank you.
Oh boy. Well, you mentioned the enthusiasm, and I get a sense of the people who talk about your music — there is so much passion there. The first song I heard was “Poison and Wine,” and it didn’t take me but twenty seconds to know that this was something special. And that doesn’t happen all the time.
JP: Thanks a lot, man.
Joy: Yes, thank you!
I really mean that. I’m not sure if I’ve heard honest music like yours in a while.
Joy: Well, the response has been overwhelming. Primarily, because that “Poison and Wine” had a really great (showing) on Grey’s Anatomy, that song has lumped to the forefront initially. To have…I think we’re a little under half a million views on the music video that we made. To see people come to shows to experience the music, and to hear how other people interpret the songs is always a great and wonderful surprise. The fact that the music is connecting with people is nothing short of magical.
We tend to write a lot of times much more focused on “Is it true to us?” and “Do we care about it?” Because if we don’t, I think people in the crowd will pick that up, too. But, I think that what has been fantasic is the word of mouth, and the organic way that that song and some others on the record have connected so that people want to talk about it. That is something that we never planned on, but we’re grateful for. And we continue to plan on creating in a way that is authentic and true to our lives, and if it connects with other people, that is very tasty icing on the cake.
John Paul, I read about how you guys first met, and it was sort of like a chance meeting. Can you describe that meeting? And also, when was it that you finally decided that this was what you wanted to do?
JP: Well, I think it was like any typical relationship. You know, we kind of waded into it little by little. And I have an immense fear of rejection, so I was really nervous about even hinting about the idea. Because we had multiple conversations about the solo artist life, and touring, and making records for a major label and all that, and we mostly talked about the negative of all those things.
And so, I felt that…I can’t say when was the initial time that I thought, “We need to be a duo.” But I do know that from the first spark, it was, “I want to make more music with this person.” And so, it kind of grew from that, and we waited a little while before our second co-write, and then it was little after that before we ever went in the studio. And once we went in the studio and got our voices on tape, it was kind of undenaible for me. I couldn’t help but at least ask. And we always joke about how it was extremely akward, like, “I know you probably don’t like me, but I like what what you do, and I have this guitar…and you’re a pretty good singer…and…you probably don’t want to do this…you probably hate me…I’m gonna go!”
Joy: (laughing) Yes…
JP: It was exactly how it felt! But luckily, unbeknownst to me, she felt the same way on the other side of it. Once we were in, it all kind of snowballed really fast from there. With instrumentation and things like that, we never really even had to have a conversation. When we wrote songs, we wrote them with a guitar, or we wrote them with a guitar and a piano. We wanted it to feel right in that kind of set up, and we just kind of felt like, “we won’t adorn it with something else to distract you, unless it really needs it.”
Well, that makes a lot of sense. When I listened to the full album to the first time, it was just beautifully simple and organic sounding. What was your sort of method of recording?
Joy: I think the method is the fact that we don’t seem to have one. And that we continue to sort of follow our instinct and follow this mysterious muse that is the sound we’ve sort of organically come into. I know for John Paul and for me, that in the process of recording, we don’t always believe that endless options are a positive thing. We intentionally wanted to limit ourselves in some ways. We said no to Auto-Tune, we did not play to a click track. We wanted elements — if we were going to add them to songs — we wanted them to be felt and not simply heard. We ended up putting in a lot of things in the recording process that we ended up stripping back went it came to the final product. It’s all very much void of science. It’s very much an experiment in following our instincts. And thankfully, the producer that we worked with, Charlie (Peacock), also felt the same way. There were no battles; we wanted to continue to keep the emotion of the songs intact.
The songs feel very close to the initial source. To me, that’s beautiful.
Joy: Thank you.
JP: Yeah, I think a lot of that is testament to the fact that we go and record just voices and guitar, so it has no choice but to be vulnerable and intimate and on the tip of your tongue, so to speak. When we initially write the song, we know we’re going to be performing it the way that we’re writing it. We make sure there’s no portion of it that is filler or overwrought. We’re not waiting for a guitar solo to come in and save the bridge. It would make sense that it still feels new and first born because, typically, the nucleus that we come out of that room with never changes. By and large, whatever we walk out of the room with that day, that’s the way it is.
A lot of people out there who see the “Poison and Wine” video might think you’re married or something, but you’re not. Do you still have arguments? I’m obviously trying to get the dirt here…like, what happens to The Civil Wars when things go bad?
Joy: A ha! (laughs)
JP: This is one of the great things about being in a duo with someone who is not your spouse or significant other. We can say things to each other, that if we were in a lasting relationship, other than being in a duo…you know, we just air it out and then go to therapy…
Joy: Ha! Individual therapy. (laughs)
JP: And then it all smooths over. It works because we don’t have to be quite so mindful of things that people would who are in a normal, emotional relationship, and I think that’s good for us. And it’s good for us in the songwriting process, too. Honestly, we don’t fight. We’re extremely early in our relationship. We have tiffs and we rub each other the wrong way sometimes when we’re on the road, but, we know that we’re not going to have to live with this person every day for the rest of our lives, so, we can deal with this!
Joy: (laughing) I love it when you talk sweet, that’s so great. It’s so honest, it’s completely true. Therapy for me is $125 an hour. Therapy for John Paul consists of a very good whiskey.
Ha! There you go!
JP: Mine is a lot cheaper than hers is. (laughs)
Joy: (laughing) But, mine is better for my liver.
JP: Yeah, but all my problems go away. Just so you know. (laughs)