She was a former Christian pop star, he was a hellraiser stuck in a rut. Joy Williams and John Paul White tell Sue Wilson about an unlikely meeting of minds that has led to global musical success
SOME MUSICAL marriages, it would seem, really are made in heaven; artistic opposites evidently do attract, and sometimes the darkest hour does indeed herald the dawn. Not to mention the fact that you couldn’t make it up. All of these adages apply to the 21st-century fairytale – or parable – of Joy Williams and John Paul White, jointly known as The Civil Wars, and arguably the hottest property in US roots music right now.
The band round off a sellout UK tour with two Scottish dates this weekend, including Celtic Connections’ new Big Top festival (see panel below). Less than four years on from their first, chance meeting – when both were struggling solo singer-songwriters, eking a living penning product for other artists – last month the duo were on stage with new-best-friend Adele at the Grammy Awards in LA, having won both Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance for their debut album, Barton Hollow.
The intervening chain of events is intriguingly replete in contrasts – between their backgrounds and tastes; between lucky commercial breaks and bootstrapped underdog conquest – reflecting the classic yin/yang dynamic at the heart of their uncanny vocal alchemy and less-is-more lyricism.
The founding irony behind their partnership is that they stumbled across this revelatory creative chemistry in perhaps the least creative of music-biz contexts. Back in 2008, they were among 20-odd record label hacks dispatched to a Nashville “songwriting camp”, paired off by drawing straws, and tasked with producing material for then-nascent country band Gloriana. It was neither musician’s natural habitat.
Williams, who grew up in California singing in church and along to her parents’ Beach Boys and Carpenters records, had sold more than 250,000 albums as a former teen star of Christian music (she was blonde back then), before venturing less successfully towards adult alternative pop.
White is from the Deep South musical hotbed of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a one-time hellraiser weaned on outlaw country and heavy rock, who’d paid his dues plying the local bar circuit, then headed for Nashville and hit a similar professional rut. Each had done their best to get out of the Gloriana gig. Thankfully – if not for Gloriana – both their labels had insisted.
“That very first day when we started singing, it was like we’d been doing it our whole lives,” White says. “I’ve done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I’d never felt that spark, that weird familiarity like we were in a family band or something.”
“I was pretty close to falling out of love with music at that point,” says Williams, “struggling to find my voice amidst the task of helping other artists find theirs. When I met JP, it was like I’d met someone who really understood that precarious place.
“He too was burnt-out by the industry, fighting the confines of commercialism and inane deadlines by publishers. He wasn’t sure he had any desire to perform on stage ever again either, and we bonded over that. It’s not like he or I helped the other find our unique voices. It was more, for me anyway, that our musical endeavours together helped to allow for total creative freedom.”
For White, The Civil Wars’ mysterious symbiosis definitely centres on their dichotomy. “Everything we grew up with was completely different – music, climate, ideology, food – and when we sit down to write a song, I tend to be fascinated by those aspects of Joy that are novel to me. I pull them from her and incorporate them with my sensibilities, and vice versa. We truly make music that incorporates each of our disparate backgrounds.”
The resulting synthesis is a kind of chamber country-folk, hauntingly suffused with melancholy and longing, where Southern Gothic shadows and high-lonesome Appalachian purity meet the exquisitely aligned harmonies and melodic allure of vintage West Coast pop.
Lyrically, the contradictory and ambivalent remain to the fore, rendered painfully explicit in the hypnotic, heartrending Poison & Wine, with its incantatory refrain: “I don’t love you but I always will.” Depicted with skeletal poetic economy, the elision of lovers’ selfhood in Birds of a Feather is at once blissful and troubling; the feverishly yearned-for object of To Whom It May Concern proves entirely imaginary, and the direction of travel in Falling is not in but out of love.
The intimacy, rawness and intensity with which Williams and White explore what they’ve called “the good, the bad and the ugly” of romance has led to widespread presumptions that they’re married – which they are, but to other people; another contradiction that White sees as intrinsic to their music.
“If Joy and I were in a relationship together, it’d be a totally different act,” he says. “I don’t think we could go on stage every night and sing ‘I don’t love you’. When we sing, the connection is more in line with a family bond, a brother/sister dynamic. What people do see is a passion for what we do that’s unparalleled in our respective musical pasts. Since we perform with just a guitar and two voices, we can never mail it in. We have to stay connected.”
Having teamed up as a duo within months of that original encounter, by spring 2009 they’d written enough songs to start gigging, and happened to play only their second ever show at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia, where the resident soundman is renowned for high quality desk recordings. As a free digital release via their website, Live at Eddie’s Attic – comprising nine originals, plus the pair’s now celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love – proved an audacious gamble that paid off beyond their wildest dreams (it’s now been downloaded around 200,000 times), and established The Civil Wars as a burgeoning online phenomenon.
Another major fillip came later that same year, when Poison & Wine was played in its entirety during an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, prompting hundreds of thousands more internet hits. The song also came to the attention of Taylor Swift, currently a contender for America’s biggest pop star, who included it on her official iTunes playlist.
The word continued to spread throughout 2010, as Williams and White worked steadily to consolidate their live following and record Barton Hollow, sending the album straight to No 1 in the Billboard digital charts on its release last February.
Continuing the celebrity endorsements, Adele enlisted The Civil Wars to open all 21 shows on her spring/summer US and European tour, proclaiming them “by far the best live band I have ever seen.”
“Being on the road with Adele was an absolute blast,” Williams says. “Hearing her sing each night was mesmerising. Getting to know her was even better. We each seemingly fell into each other’s lives, and became fast friends. We can’t say enough good things about her, that wonderful woman.”
Then came the Grammys – and just to add the crowning fairytale touch, Williams tweeted during the day of the ceremony that she’s expecting her first child this summer. From a business perspective, however, with the duo’s now-myriad fans beginning to anticipate a second album, this might seem characteristically contrary timing, but Williams seems confident of taking this latest twist to the tale in their stride.
“I’m thrilled to be venturing into the winding journey of motherhood,” she says, “But in truth, not much will be changing. I will, of course, take a few months off for maternity leave, though there’s talks of possibly writing a bit with JP when I have the energy. But come autumn, we’ll be back in the UK for another tour. Nate, my husband, travels with us as our manager, so it’ll be back on the road, steady as she goes, with the wee one in tow – one big, bohemian family.”
• The Civil Wars play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow, and Celtic Connections Big Top, Broadford, Skye, on Saturday.
The Big Top festival
THE Civil Wars’ current high profile is a boost for Celtic Connections’ new Big Top festival, which takes place in Skye tomorrow and Saturday.
Part of the Year of Scotland’s Islands, the Big Top marks the first time that the traditional music festival has staged an event beyond its usual home, Glasgow in January. Americana is a strong theme in the line-up, which, alongside the Civil Wars, includes Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny), below, Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, and “epic folk and grasscore” five-piece, The Deadly Gentlemen. There are homegrown acts, too, including the Michael McGoldrick Band, Dàimh (with a guest slot by Karen Matheson), Mànran, and Niteworks, an “electronic Celtic fusion band” from Skye.
The festival will take place at Broadford Airfield, on the south-east corner of the island, close to the Skye Bridge. For ticket and travel information, visit the festival website.