One of the reasons why The Civil Wars work so well is the effortless collaboration between its two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White. And it had better work well: they travel without a band, playing their music with just guitar and piano. Plus two beautiful voices.
What I found most unique about their creative process is its genesis. Most artists start with the music, and the words flow from that. A few, but not many, start with the words. The Civil Wars begin with both: when Williams and White get together (both are veteran songwriters and are not married to each other), White "noodles" on the guitar as they talk about what's going on in each of their lives. It's that combination of noodling and conversation that leads to the ideas for their songs. (Of course, I'd also argue that prolific output like this is due to their love of William Faulkner and Flannery OConnor, but that's another story.)
The duo is touring now to support the February release of Barton Hollow, which is still in the top ten on the US iTunes album chart after spending a couple of weeks in the top spot. And this week the album is #12 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. That means that if you don't have tickets now to one of their upcoming shows, buy them soon. Read my interview with Williams and White after the video.
John Paul White (JPW): For me, songwriting did not come along until college. I had no urge. I enjoyed creative writing classes and loved literature, loved that world. But I never had any drive to write a song. That drive came about just to get my foot in the door as an artist, really as a singer. So I begrudgingly stepped into it.
It took a while for me to get my wings and find my own voice. It's the best thing I ever did, because I sounded like everyone else when I sang. I had no clue who I was until I put pen to paper and figured out what I loved and what I wanted to say. That's a process that most people go through earlier, like in their teens, but I didn't even try to find it until my 20s.
Joy Williams (JW): I am pretty similar. I enjoyed creative writing and wrote lots of short stories growing up. I wrote the classic, forlorn "nobody understands me" poetry that we all write in high school. I did the artist thing before I ever wrote a song, but realized that singers who wrote their own material had a tremendous connection with the audience. So I set about trying to find my own voice, which was a long journey. I'm still learning about the stories in my life and what I want to tell and my own view of the world.
How does your short story writing strengthen your songwriting skills?
JW: John Paul and I both tend to be pretty literary. We are avid readers. Over time, after reading so many books and getting to know authors, things like the turn of a phrase and the arc of a story really become important. The authenticity of characters, how real they feel, when you are reading a book. That is partially what happens with our music and songwriting.
JPW: My creative classes were the one place I felt free to say anything I wanted. And I had some great English professors. That was the only place I could feel free to write what I wanted without any repercussions. As soon as I started writing songs, I wrote what I thought everyone wanted to hear and what radio would play and what artists would want to record.
So for the first year and a half of songwriting, I wrote that kind of stuff, since when I was growing up my MO was to get girls. I wanted to write songs that girls would like. It took a lot of beating my head against the wall to realize I was sick of it, I didn't enjoy doing it, and I was going to do it for myself. I had a publishing deal, and I decided I was going to spend their money and write what I wanted, for me, even if no one was ever going to hear those songs. And interestingly, from that point forward, people started to be interested in my music. It's cliche, but as soon as I started being selfish with my songwriting, things started to fall into place.
Both of you mention "voice" in the literary sense. What was songwriting able to give you that short story or poetry writing was not?
JPW: When I first started writing songs, everything was a short story. Laughs. It was impossible to get everything into the standard three minutes and thirty seconds for pop songs. The reason I leaned towards songs is because of melody and harmony and structure. We crave the structure that the pop format gives us. We play with it and bend the rules when we can, but that's the driving force. I lean towards music that is more melody based. Probably eighty percent of our songs come from some melodic place that started with one of us playing the piano. And we just follow it.
So tell me about your songwriting process.
JW: It's normally in my living room, where my upright piano is. And John Paul has his guitar. We talk for easily 45 minutes or an hour, just catching up, since he lives a couple of hours away. We talk about everything going on in our lives: our families, the books we've read, the documentaries we've seen, the funny story we've heard.
JW: John Paul tends to noodle on the guitar while we talk. It actually tends to be good fodder for inspirations. So at some point I'll stop him when he plays something that I like. Then down the path we'll go, chasing the breadcrumbs that the muse has left us, and along that path we normally tend to incorporate what we've been talking about for the last hour.
JPW: The guitar noodling thing subconsciously follows the conversation. I've never really thought about that, but I guess that's what happens. Sometimes something I'm playing will start a conversation, where one of us will say, "You know what that makes me think of? That reminds me of this trip I took." Things like that will fall out.
A lot of the things we do together, because we've got a base of being songwriters for a while, is so subconscious. We dare to suck, as we like to say. We are not afraid to say something stupid to each other. If it pops into your head, say it aloud and the other person may say, "Well, where I thought you were going was this route." And maybe I was. That happens a lot. We are completely ourselves in the songwriting process, and selfishly follow what we would like to hear come out of the radio. That's the only thing we chase in the songwriting process. We are not afraid to head down whatever road our muse takes us.
So how often do you get the urge to write about a particular topic?
JW to JPW: Have we ever done that?
JPW: Almost never. I do that with other writers.
JW: Yeah, we both do that when we co-write or writing individually. But when we write together, it never happens. It's much more conversation-based then theme-based.
JPW: We hate to put a theme on the day because who knows what kind of mood she is in, or what kind of mood I'm in. Laughs.
When those songs start flowing, do words come or just gibberish?
JW: Definitely. I call them baby words.
JPW: I've always just defaulted to scat.
How disciplined are you as songwriters?
JPW: I live a couple of hours from Joy, so when I am in Nashville and we can do get together, we are extremely disciplined. But there is never any pressure, because things tend to just fall out. We've had no duds of a day. Not one. We've had maybe two days over the past two years where we've been in a room together and didn't end up with something we later recorded. I cannot imagine that ever happening. We are disciplined, but we are able to call the muse up every time we are together.
JW: Yeah, I'd say we are disciplined, but not regimented.
Do you have any favorite authors?
JW: Flannery O'Connor, Steinbeck . . .
JPW: Faulkner. We've been on an O'Henry kick lately. A lot of the classics, but also Cormac McCarthy, Bukowksi, Richard Brautigan, David Sedaris.
The Sound and the Fury is one of the greatest books in the English language.
JPW: I read that book way too young. I had to read it when I was older and make peace with it, but it is amazing.
How do any of these authors inform your songwriting?
JW: O'Connor's unflinching writing beautifully describes the Gothic south to perfection. Her writing always inspires me. O'Henry's witty irony is something that has always appealed to the more impish, quirkier nature of our creating.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
JPW: Outside of this relationship, we read, we watch movies. Really anything in a creative realm will usually jog the mind. But honestly, with Joy, there have been no road blocks. And yes, I'm knocking on wood as we speak.
Do you compose lyrics on computer, or pen and paper?
JW: I tend to use my laptop. It allows me the quick freedom to jot down as many crazy lines or ideas as possible. I start overthinking when I put ink to paper. The non-committal aspect of a screen that I can either delete or keep helps me work through all of my creative ideas until I get to lines that I really feel proud of.
There's the old adage that art is never finished, it's only abandoned. To that end, how do you know when a song is done?
JPW: Far be it for us to say that's untrue, but by and large it doesn't pertain to our songwriting. There's always a moment where we collectively take a deep breath and say, "There." We typically don't tweak it much from that point. Sometimes the live performance will point at subtle moments that need to be shored up. When it feels solid under our feet and there are no red flags, we know it's done.
Common Ground: Also read my interviews with
- Nils Lofgren (Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band)
- James Vincent McMorrow
- Pete Yorn
- Richard Buckner
- Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes)
- Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket)
- Jesse Tabish (Other Lives)
- Alain Johannes
- Nathaniel Rateliff
- Jack Tempchin (Eagles songwriter)
- Laura Burhenn (The Mynabirds)
*photo credit: Tec Petaja