Does heartbreak make for better art? It’s an interesting question and one that Lucinda Williams has grappled with over the last several years.
It all started when the singer-songwriter found her soulmate: Tom Overby. She and Overby moved in together, got engaged and eventually wed in 2009. Williams called it a “huge turning point” in her life.
But shortly afterward, people started asking: “Is she still going to be able to write songs now?” The question made Williams doubt her abilities, but it also forced her to reach beyond her songwriting comfort level.
“I was kind of like, OK, I’ll show you, this is a challenge. I’m going to show you I can do this, and it proved to be really liberating,” Williams told HuffPost.
Williams was in a reflective mood during our phone interview in March, a month before her new album, “Good Souls Better Angels,” was due to be released. Holed up at home because of coronavirus social distancing measures, she was trying to stay as occupied as possible.
“I think a lot of people of people feel like you have all this extra spare time, so you should be doing all this other stuff like cleaning the house, exercising,” she said. “But then you don’t feel like it, so then you beat yourself up because you’re not getting anything done. “It’s weird.”
Despite everything going on, Williams, 67, still was in a relatively happy place. A place that’s made her wonder over the years whether she could stretch her lyrics beyond love and loss.
“To be honest, it was a test because I’ve been in other relationships before where I would kind of lose that part of myself. … And if I wasn’t going to be able to be my creative normal self, I would run as fast as I could in the other direction.”
Williams ended up pushing beyond her limits on this new album, tackling current events with the song “Man Without a Soul,” in which she alludes to President Donald Trump.
“We’re living in unprecedented times,” Willams said. “We’ve never had a person like this in the White House before. And I mean, just all the fallout from that ― and it pisses you off. People are pissed off and angry, frustrated.”
Williams said the state of affairs drove her to write more topical songs and, dare she say, even protest songs.
“It proved to be really liberating, and so that was kind of the first step with writing ‘Soldier Song,’ which is an anti-war song,” she said. “And learning how to write about these subjects without it being that obvious thing like, OK, everybody, let’s hold hands and come together and that kind of thing.”
She thought a lot about Bob Dylan while writing this new body of work, noting she grew up with his music.
“When I was starting out as a songwriter and learning how to write and all that, to me it was a lot more challenging. Those types of songs are harder to write. And I think other songwriters might agree because you don’t want to sound too hokey or corny.”
Williams doesn’t stop at politics on “Good Souls Better Angels.” She also sings about mental health in “Big Black Train.”
“The big black cloud of depression, that kind of thing. That one’s really been affecting. … It makes me almost cry every time I sing it,” she said. “Several people told me that that song made them cry.”
Williams said she’s not worried about being blunt in her music, as she’s always “liked to push peoples buttons.”
“I consider myself an artist first, in the same way that we look at painters and refer to them as artist. Art is about self-expression. So it’s going to piss some people off.”
Ultimately, Williams wanted to write songs that move people. It was the same force that pushed her throughout her four-decade career ― from writing her debut album, 1979’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” to 1997′s Grammy-winning album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and beyond.
“I’m not writing for the radio. I’m not writing for Music Row. I want to make it palatable, so it reaches other people,” Williams said.
Williams said she hasn’t lost her love for songwriting and performing.
“I feel like I’m sort of an anomaly at this point because people seem so surprised and say, ‘Wow, you’re this age and you still have the energy and spunk that you’ve always had.’ I don’t really think about it that much. Nothing’s really changed that much for me. I mean, I can’t imagine not doing what I’m still doing, you know? … It has continued to grow over the years. I’m one of those kinds of artists who are slow and steady kind of thing.”
“Good Souls Better Angels” is due out April 24.
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