Singer/Songwriter Joy Williams of The Civil Wars Talks About Her New Projects and Writing Her Songs

Joy Williams at the Grammy Awards
Joy Williams at the Grammy Awards. Photo: Steve Granitz/

Update: The Civil Wars won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for their song, “From This Valley.” In late 2014 Joy Williams announced she has left The Civil Wars.

Though The Civil Wars, Joy Williams’ Grammy award-winning duo (with John Paul White) officially remains on hiatus, the singer is excited about their latest nomination, Best Country Duo/Group performance for “From This Valley,” a track from their self-titled second album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and in several other countries. The album’s third single “Dust To Dust,” was used in the recent remake of the film Carrie, and its video includes footage from The Civil Wars’ 2011 trip to Paris. Williams also sings with Chris Cornell on his song “Misery Chain,” which appears on the soundtrack to the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave. In December, they performed it on The Late Show with David Letterman.

The Civil Wars, which released its debut EP Poison & Wine in 2009 before breaking through with their debut album Barton Hollow in 2011, won two Grammys in 2012 (Best Folk Album, Best Country Duo/Group Performance) and another in 2013 for Best Song Written for Visual Media for “Safe & Sound,” a T-Bone Burnett produced track which they wrote and recorded with Taylor Swift and Burnett for The Hunger Games soundtrack.

On January 23 (2014), three days before the Grammy Awards, Williams participated in the star-studded cast of artists who performed at the Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Beverly Hills, CA. Produced by The Grammy Foundation, this year’s show “A Song Is Born” was centered around songwriters and the impact that their songs have made on the music industry. Williams, who launched her recording career in her late teens as a Christian Contemporary Music artist, was joined by Kris Kristofferson, John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, legendary Blues Brothers guitarist Steve Cropper, Skylar Grey, and hit songwriters Dan Wilson (known for his work with the Dixie Chicks and Adele), J.D. Souther (Eagles, Linda Ronstadt) and Allen Shamblin (Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis).

The Legacy Concert highlights the Grammy Foundation’s year-round activities in support of its mission, from preservation grants to its Living Histories archive. The Project also draws the attention of a wider audience to its efforts, and to the imperiled condition of many of significant recordings and other music materials. This Grammy Week concert promotes the Foundation’s mission of recognizing and preserving our musical past, so that future generations can continue to benefit from an appreciation and understanding of those contributions.

“I got a phone call from what I consider my family at The Recording Academy,” Williams says, “and I was very excited because both the national organization and L.A. Chapter have been so supportive of The Civil Wars. I love what the Grammy Foundation does to support music education and keep the music alive. I’m in great company. It’s always exciting to be part of what the organization is doing and to be involved with other musicians I admire and respect, some of whom I’ve written with in the past. These kinds of events make our community stronger as a whole.”

Here’s the video of Joy Williams performing with
Chris Cornell on the David Letterman Show in December.

Long before she was brought to Warner/Chappell Music by veteran publishing exec Judy Stakee and hooked up with White at a “songwriting camp” in Nashville run by music execs Matt & Dean Serletic in 2008, Williams was making joyful noise as a top Christian artist. Her first three Reunion albums, starting with a self-titled debut in 2001, sold more than 250,000 units total and she received 11 Dove Award nominations, including Female Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year. Just as she and White were launching The Civil Wars in 2009, she released a double EP called Songs From This/Songs From That. She later released another EP We Mapped The World in 2010.

“The twists and turns in my career have been very surprising,” Williams says, “but one of the things that evolved for me over time was the craft of songwriting, on top of my shifting worldview. Nobody stays the same from the age of 17 into their early 30s where I am now. In the process of growing up as a person and artist, I worked through all these new ideas and the way I saw myself as an artist and composer. I grew up with a bit of a white knuckled grip on the world, but as I got older the sense of what I knew about life loosened up for me. I let go of my need to control everything so I could look around and better understand the complexities in myself, my OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) issues and fears and things within myself that were contradictions. Over time, as my personal beliefs started expanding and as I emerged from my teen years to young adulthood, I started feeling creatively hemmed in by the demands of being a CCM artist. It would have been logistically convenient and more fiscally beneficial to stay in that place, but I felt like it wouldn’t be an honest reflection of who I was becoming as an artist and songwriter.”

She laughs at one of the consistent OCD-driven patterns in her songwriting process that has not changed even as she her thematic and stylistic landscape has broadened. “Someone I’ve known for a long time just pointed it out this year, and I didn’t realize it before,” she says, “but from the time I was 17 till now, I clean before I write songs. I do the dishes or clean the bathroom and get it in order before I write. I think it’s about creating order of some part of the outer world before I dive into the chaos of the creativity inside and the collaborative process!”

While fans of The Civil Wars and the media have speculated on what Williams and White meant when they announced their hiatus in November 2012 with the wording “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” Williams prefers to look back wistfully at the hard to explain songwriting and vocal magic of what the two created in their earlier days together. “Looking back, it all makes more sense now,” she says. “Having both been signed as solo artists with the highs and lows of label experiences behind us, we found ourselves in a similar spot in life despite our differences in age and life experiences. By the time we started writing together, we were beyond the notion that you could just find a way to fabricate a hit song.

“Both of us had been working on our craft long enough to realize that we felt genuinely inspired when we worked together,” Williams adds. “The original workshop was only two days, and when we took our songwriting beyond that environment, we realized that we gravitated towards duets that no one else would ever cut. They were too quirky and harmonic. Nobody in the mainstream rock world was doing duets like this. I think John Paul and I rounded off each other’s edges. My editing ability came in handy as did his confidence when he would hear a song and say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ My female perspective blended well with his male point of view and we were just similar enough to tap into the tension of that. We both wanted to create something emotional and visceral and raw. I think we reached a lot of people with a sense of simplicity and heartache and our ability to tap into the human experience within the contest of pleasurable instrumentation and the blend of our voices.”

At this point, Williams doesn’t know what the future holds for her own career and that of
The Civil Wars, but her recent powerful duet with Cornell reinforced not only her ability to sing and harmonize well with other artists, but feel a sense of awe every time she steps in the studio to record. “Chris played the song for (A&R exec) Mark Williams at Columbia Records, who thought it would sound great with a female harmony vocal,” she says. “I was so honored to be on their short list, and while getting a call from Chris Cornell, whose music I grew up with, was fairly intimidating, I rose to the challenge and we had a wonderful experience recording a powerful, emotional song.

“The first thing I did was ask Chris how and when he wrote it,” Williams adds. “I’m constantly in awe of people’s passions and talents and how people write great songs, and I think that’s one of the reasons I have grown as a songwriter as well. I’m always listening to the great songwriters of the past, who laid the great foundations for all of us who make our livings this way. From this point on, I want to take the best part of all of these musical experiences, keep them in my proverbial backpack and take them with me. No matter what the future holds, I’m grateful for all of it, and can’t wait to see what kinds of opportunities come my way.”

Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]