Lucinda Williams: Grammy-winning Singer-songwriter on her New Music, Memoir, and Tour
Gregg Shapiro READ TIME: 8 MIN.
In a recording career that spans more than 40 years, with well over a dozen studio albums of unforgettable originals, Grammy Award-winner Lucinda Williams has left an indelible mark on contemporary Americana, country, blues, pop, and rock music. Virtually unstoppable – undeterred by a tornado, a stroke, and a pandemic – Williams emerges victorious on record and in print in 2023.
Her memoir, "Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You" (Crown), was recently published, and her new album "Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart" (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers), featuring a stellar lineup of guest artists including Angel Olsen, Bruce Springsteen, and Margo Price, arrives this summer. Lucinda performs on Aug. 8 at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley.
Gregg Shapiro: 2023 is the 35th anniversary of your self-titled album which contained the song "Passionate Kisses," later covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter, earning you your first Grammy Award. What was the experience of having one of your songs become a hit for another singer, and what did it mean to you win that Grammy?
It was great, of course. Having Chapin – that's what her friends call her – cover "Passionate Kisses" opened a big door for me, really. It started getting all this airplay and eventually won a Grammy for Country Song of the Year, which was the biggest irony, because it almost didn't become the single. She wanted it to be the first single off her new album and her people said no. They didn't think it was a good idea because it wasn't a country song.
It was more pop.
Yeah, but she stuck to her guns and said, "I don't care." She had been playing it live, and she said her fans really liked the song a lot. She stood her ground and said she wanted it to be the first single. They relented, and it became the single. When it won the Grammy for Country Song of the Year, it was nice. It was like, "Ha ha ha."
Over the years, you've had a wonderful array of guest musicians performing with you on your albums, and "Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart" is no exception, beginning with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa on "New York Comeback" and "Rock N Roll Heart." What made those songs a good fit for you, Bruce, and Patti?
I think the nature of the songs, what they're about, and just the feel and vibe of them. I'm in Nashville right now with my husband Tom, and our friend Jesse Malin was in town. We were working on songs together. That one came up, and I think it was Tom who had the feeling. He's always been a huge Bruce fan, and he said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could have Bruce on this song?"
At first, it was just Bruce, and then Patti jumped in, bless her heart. Anyway, Jesse Malin was the one who piped up and said, "I think I can get I can get a hold of Bruce for you. He'd probably be into it." Jesse went back home to New York where he lives. He's tied in with all the East Coast rockers and musicians and all. So, he was able to track Bruce down. Bruce said yes. We sent him the tracks. We weren't in the studio with him at the same time.
Bruce has his own studio. They went in and jumped on board. We didn't even tell him what to do. We let them decide for themselves. They ended up really getting into it enthusiastically. You can tell when you listen. Every time I hear it and I hear his voice on there, I just get so excited and happy. It's such a thrill to hear him on there. He's just such a sweetheart.
Another one of the stellar guest artists on the album is queer singer/songwriter Angel Olsen, who joins you on "Jukebox." Why did you want to work with her?
I love her voice and her vibe and everything. I wanted another voice on there. I love having guests come in the studio and do their thing. It adds so much to the song. A lot of the time it has to do with if the person is available and how convenient is it going to be and all those technical details. She happened to be in Nashville around the time we were in the studio.
I think she told me she spends a lot of time in Asheville, North Carolina. But she was in Nashville, and she was really into coming in and doing something. That's how all that happened. That went smoothly. She just came in and did her thing. It's real subtle, but I think it really adds something, especially at the end.
I live in Fort Lauderdale, and you live in Nashville, meaning that we both in live places considered to be ground zero for attacks on the LGBTQ community. To my ears, it sounds like you are addressing that subject on the song "This Is Not My Town." Am I right about that?
I wasn't necessarily, but it's open for interpretation. I'm glad you mentioned that, actually, because I like to politicize things. I like to make statements about things. That was a collaborative effort between me and my husband Tom and Travis Stephens. I know Tom and I talked about this. It is politicized, but it might not be real obvious. You're right, basically, it is supposed to be about that feeling of division; being politically divided and being frustrated with it, just all the stuff that's been going for the last however many years.
Are you aware of if you have an LGBTQ following for your work?
I hope so! It's hard for me to tell. Somebody would need to have been keeping track of all that. I mean, the only thing I could do is look out in the audience or, after the show, meet and greet people. But there's always been a certain percentage of my audience from that community. I'm not sure if there's more now or not. It would be cool if there were [laughs].
I also want to extend my congratulations on the publication of your memoir "Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You." As the daughter of a writer, poet Miller Williams, do you think it was inevitable that you would someday write a book?
Yeah, probably. For years, people have been saying I should write a book. I'm such a storyteller. I've always written songs that tell stories. When I get on stage to perform my songs, I explain the song by telling the story behind the song.
The book is really just the same thing, just taking it a little bit deeper even; with more details about the characters and the songs because they're all true stories. I talk a lot about characters that people already know about through the songs. When they read the book, they can get to know them even better, maybe see a photograph of them in the book.
You have concert tour dates from May through August. I was thinking about the way that when Mary Gauthier published her memoir, and she would tour, she would read passages from the book and then do songs. Will you be doing something similar?
Yeah, we're going to do something like that. The lyrics to a lot of the songs are in the book. After the story, there'll be some lyrics from a song that is connected with that story. Tom was saying he wants to connect some recordings of songs with the book. Make a CD of songs that go with the book, have it available with the book, or something like that.
If your memoir was adapted into a biopic, who would you want to play you?
That's so interesting because I just did a book event with Steve Earle as the moderator in a bookstore in Brooklyn, when we were in New York recently, and somebody said that (Williams' acclaimed 1998 album) "Car Wheels on A Gravel Road" should be made into a play.
Wow! Like a musical?
Yes, I guess. Then I kind of laughed and said, "Okay, as long as Frances McDormand can play me." Everybody clapped [laughs]. I love her! It was just off the top of my head, basically. But I've always loved her acting. She kind of reminds me of me a little bit, physically. I think she would be a good choice.
My husband turned 70 in March, and to celebrate we went for dim sum with a group of friends. Did you do anything special to commemorate your 70th birthday?
Let's see, I think we were performing somewhere. It was January 26, so we would have been in Europe. We did the show and they brought a cake out on stage for me. The audience sang "Happy Birthday" [laughs]. It was a trip turning 70! I wanted to tell everybody, "I'm 70! I'm 70!"
It's something to celebrate.
Yeah, I made it to 70. Nobody thinks I'm 70!
Lucinda performs with Big Thief on Aug. 8, 7:30pm at The Greek Theatre, 2001 Gayley Road, UC Berkeley campus. $56. www.lucindawilliams.com
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