Lucinda Williams is lunching in downtown Austin, a quick drive and half a lifetime away from the spot, near the University of Texas campus, where she sang on the street in the 1970s. A good day’s take was twenty bucks. “I wouldn’t want to be starting out now,” she says. “It’s tougher. I see a jadedness in kids. It’s not cool to have a sense of wonder, to be, like, ‘Wow.’ ” Williams, 48, is especially aglow today, packing a fine new roots-pop album in Essence, written in a burst of candor last year after the end of a relationship. Williams took five years to make 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But she cut the basic tracks for Essence in a week, with members of Bob Dylan’s and Neil Young’s bands. “Not a recommended way to work,” she says of writing right after emotional rupture. “I haven’t been successful at being in a relationship and being creative. I have to bring the two together.”
How did Charlie Sexton and Tony Garnier manage to get time off from touring with Dylan to do Essence?
I had to get a band together. I was thinking, “Who’s playing with Dylan and Neil Young?” Because those are the best bands.
Don’t go for the unemployed, right?
I figured I could just borrow ’em. I’d worked with Charlie before. Jim Keltner’s name came up — he was out with Neil. I knew Tony from living in New York City. All of them had one week available, this little window of opportunity. We cut fourteen tracks in six days.
Is it true that, while writing, you didn’t leave the house for two weeks?
All I did was go out to eat at the end of the day — maybe call a friend: “Want to get some dinner?” You get up, make coffee, start writing. I enjoyed it. Then I started playing the demos for close friends, getting reactions. A couple of people said, “Why don’t you just put the demos out?” People say that because they’re always complaining that I take so long [between records]. I proved them wrong this time.
Where do you write?
My kitchen table, with a little tape recorder and all the notes that I’ve ever written and never throw away. When I write, I pull everything out and see if something happens. If it doesn’t, I put it aside, get it out later and try again.
When do you know it’s right?
I cry. It’s very cathartic. Like “Bus to Baton Rouge.” There’s a darkness to it. I didn’t put it all in there. You have to read between the lines: “There are other things I remember as well/But to tell them would just be too hard.” Nobody’s written the definitive Lucinda Williams story, because I’m very protective of my family.
You have a song on the album, Get Right With God. As a native Southerner, did you grow up in the church?
Both of my grandfathers were Methodist ministers, but my parents got away from that. We went to the Unitarian church. But I grew up with an appreciation of the Bible as a wonderful piece of literature, tradition and ritual. And I didn’t grow up with a traditional standard for women — getting married and having a family. I was allowed to explore.
The irony of country music today is that lyrically it ignores the very stories that define the Southern experience.
Country music is watered down, whitewashed. My favorite period of country music was the 1960s. It was about the gritty things: infidelity, car crashes. Like “Ode to Billie Joe” — what did she really throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?
If you wrote with less darkness and more sugar, do you think you’d get that big country-radio hit?
There was one artist interested in covering “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” [from 1988’s Lucinda Williams]. She said that if I could magically add a chorus to the song, she would consider it. My response was, basically, you can kiss my Dixie white ass. People won’t cut my songs in Nashville, except the brave ones. Patty Loveless recorded “The Night’s Too Long.” Tony Brown, her producer, said “they” even had a problem with that one, whoever “they” is. That’s the thing about Nashville. “They” is always someone else: “We’re artist-oriented. It’s ‘they’ who are the problem.” No one cops to it.
I’ve heard that you don’t like to fly. Do you have a fear of flying, or do you just not like airplanes?
Both [laughs]. I mean, who likes it, sitting there, closed up? I like the solitude of driving. The phone’s not ringing off the hook. I’ve written songs while driving. I wrote “Joy” [from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road] driving to see my folks in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We moved around a lot when I was growing up. My dad was teaching. We would be a year here, a year there, which is the way it is when you’re a young college professor. I feel comfortable in a hotel or motel. I’m always writing letters and sending postcards.
That’s very old-school.
I don’t have e-mail. I already get so much mail I can’t handle it. I called this guy the other night. I tried to leave a message, and there was no machine. I couldn’t believe it. Later, I got him and said, “I tried to call you, but I couldn’t leave a message.” He said, “I figure if people want me, they can find me.” There was something refreshing about that.