Singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams missed our afternoon interview and felt bad about it, so she invited me to dinner with her and her husband/manager Tom Overby. We ate and talked at Talesai in Studio City.
Q: Is aging something you think about much?
A: It was always kind of this little thing in the back of my mind, but you know I guess I feel blessed because I’ve always been kind of considered a late bloomer professionally. I didn’t get discovered until later in my career and all that and I’ve always been really adamant about saying how old I am [she's 58]. It really annoys me when women get older and don’t want to tell their age and all the rest of it. On the contrary, I sort of enjoy saying it, because then people go, “Oh, God, you don’t look that old.” You know? I mean, everybody’s different. I’ve talked to women a lot younger than I am who are completely paranoid. And then there are other women older than I am who are not concerned.
Q: Some people are cool and some people are mortified and they feel like they need to deny it.
A: Which doesn’t work. I like looking good, which is the same reason I work out. Not just for the health thing but, you know, I like being able to wear my clothes. I’m just at that age I guess where every so often you go, “Wow, I didn’t notice that before.” I look a little different, you know? I feel like you go through little bumps in the road. And you kind of go, hmm… but I kind of just absorb it and sort of go through this transformation, you know, with myself. And just eventually sort of ease into it.
Q: You make attitude adjustments.
A: Yeah, you do the little attitude adjustment and then you get used to it. And then you sort of float along with that for a while. And nobody else is noticing it, really.
Q: Yeah. It’s actually so interior.
A: It’s so interior and it has so much to do with your attitude, like you said. I get really bitchy sometimes about it, you know? It’s counterproductive and I’m really fortunate to have a lot of support with Tom, who just refuses to listen to it. The majority of men don’t enjoy listening to women complain about themselves.
Tom: We hate it.
A: It’s not sexy. And basically all you’re doing is, you know just grabbing for attention. The other thing, I think it has a lot to do with who you hang out with, who your friends are in terms of women, the kind of women you hang out with, you know? Because you can really get brainwashed if you’re hanging around the wrong kind of insecure crowd.
TOM: The thing that I always remind her of — we all fall into this and I think getting older just sort of exacerbates it – is that when you look in the mirror and see yourself, you’re getting about 10% of the information. You don’t see yourself as everyone else sees you. Because you carry something else, so much more. Your confidence. Everybody forgets that. Everyone else sees so much more.
Q: That’s such a good point.
A: My dad [poet Miller Williams] always said, if anybody ever complained about aging, “Well, you know what the alternative is to getting older. Take your pick.” I mean, we don’t have a choice unless you’re going to die, you know? No matter what you do, you can go try to do all the little fixes you want, and again, there’s nothing wrong if you want to go get a little, you know, laser thing or skincare thing. That’s fine, as long as you don’t wrap your head around that whole thing.
Q: How has aging colored your identity as an artist?
A: Actually, it’s enhanced it. It’s colored it in a positive way. I mean, I find that I’m much more prolific now than I’ve ever been. I tend to work on what someone referred to once as a J-curve, where you just kind of go and go and then all of a sudden you have this swoop. And I used to worry about it because I don’t get up every day, you know, at a certain time and write. I just kind of do it whenever the mood strikes me. But I’m always getting ideas. Even today I came up with an idea for a song. And yesterday. And you know, I’ll write some stuff down, and if I get a melody I’ll record it. And then at a certain point I’ll sit down with everything and, well, the last couple times I’ve done this, I’ve come up with enough songs for two albums. I used to never do that. When I was writing the songs for West, most of the songs on Little Honey were already written. Before that, I would be lucky if I had enough songs for one album. I see it as a confidence thing, a lot of it, as you get more experience in your art. And just not being such a self-critic. Being able to just say, “Okay, every song doesn’t have to be, like, this long narrative thing.” Do you know?
Q: Do you trust yourself more?
Q: You trust your instincts more?
A: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m just able to be more spontaneous. It’s a combination of things. It’s hard to explain, you know?
Q: It sounds like you’re just getting better. Like you’re mastering your craft.
A: Exactly. Yeah. That’s what I think.
TOM: There’s no question. We’ve talked about it. I’ve talked about it with other people, people she’s worked with, you know. It’s not just the writing –
A: My voice.
TOM: She’s singing better than ever. There’s just no question.
Q: Do you spend time working on your singing?
A: No. It’s just totally organic and a lot of it is I’ve learned how to use a microphone. I wasn’t making records for a long time when other people, you know, the same age, were, like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and whoever else. I didn’t really make my first real official studio album until the Rough Trade album, with a producer and an engineer and everything.
Q: And how old were you then?
A: Probably in my mid-30s. Like, 34, 35. So when I went in to do Car Wheels I was still terrified. I really didn’t understand the process completely. I was still really very deliberate about everything. I remember when I was working with Steve [Earle] on the Car Wheels record, he got real frustrated once and said, “Lu, it’s just a record. Come on.” But everybody has their different ways that they work in the studio. I still tend to take my time and everything. Now I’ve noticed that even when I have the time I need, I don’t need the time. I’m just not as nervous as I used to be about it.
Q: Do you do things differently? Has your methodology changed?
A: That part is probably pretty much the same. For Christmas last year Tom got me one of these things similar to your recorder thing called a Zune, you can record music on it and it’s, like, high def or –
TOM: Two channel digital audio.
A: It’s amazing. I mean, it’s just this little device and you can plug it into your computer and burn it on a CD and, I mean, you could actually make an album with one of these things, you know? It’s pretty amazing. I’d maybe have a little funky cassette player thing or whatever, but I’ve never had access to a nice studio to go in when I was first writing. Or a home studio. So, this is the closest I’ve ever had to that, and it was exciting because you could get this instant gratification and then it would make you feel excited. So we kind of fell into a routine where I would get up and make tea or coffee and once I get on a roll like that, I just sort of leave everything out, all my paperwork and my guitar and stuff. And I kind of can’t wait to get back to it.
Q: So there will be a concentrated period where you’re in songwriting mode.
A: Yeah. And I kind of go in this cave. I’d get up and if I’m lucky I’ll finish a song. Sometimes I’ve got two a day. And I’d put it on the little Zune thing with just my guitar, at the kitchen table, take it up to Tom in his office and just hand him the Zune, and he would go, “Wow, another one?” And I’d go, “Yeah.” And he would burn it on a CD and then later that night we would go out and have dinner like this and then we’d go home and listen to it. Well, first he would listen to it. And I would wait for him to come down and praise me or not. And I would hear his footsteps and I’d see the look on his face and he’d be like, “Wow, honey.” Or, he would go, “Yeah, you know, that’s pretty good,” or whatever.” Most of the time it was wow.
Q: Are you brutally honest with her, Tom?
TOM: She counts on me for that. She wants me to be.
A: I need that. What’s the point otherwise? So we fell into this really cool pattern. We’d invite people to come over. Once I got, like, five or six of them to come over and listen to the kitchen tapes. Now we’re going to put them on as bonus tracks.
TOM: For her deluxe version. A songs-as-they-were -born thing.
A: After we listened we thought some of these are better than the one on the album. Not really, but you know?
Q: When a song has good bones, you don’t need a lot of ornamentation. And sometimes that unvarnished performance is really potent.
A: That’s a good way of putting it.
TOM: Obviously I’m biased, but over the two months that the bulk of this was written, it was amazing what she accomplished. Once she got on a roll it was like, “where are all these songs coming from?”
Q: That’s a good question. Where are all these songs coming from?
A: I don’t know.