The first time I heard “Poison and Wine” was at Rockwood Music Hall last summer, a song that perfectly exemplifies the dichotomy of love and frustration, and the reality of relationships. The duo performing consisted of a petite brunette woman wearing a simple black dress on piano and a distinguished Southern gentleman donning a black suit and guitar. Their haunting melody, brutally honest lyrics, and perfect harmonies filled the room from the stage to the balcony, leaving everyone seeking more material from this relatively young band, The Civil Wars.
A lot can change in a year. Now returning to NYC as part of their current tour, John Paul White and Joy Williams are still bewildered by the fact that they’ve sold out both Joe’s Pub and Rockwood Stage Two, weeks before the Nashville musicians even set foot on these city streets. Their latest album, “Barton Hollow,” debuted at #1 on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts and peaked as the #1 digital download on the Billboard Top 100. One full listen to this 14-track masterpiece and it’s no wonder why it’s been a smashing success. “Barton Hollow” reads like a journey through your favorite life tales, from the subtle sweetness of a child’s jewelry box dancing through the instrumental track “The Violet Hour,” to the Southern front porch swing sounds of “Forget Me Not” and the Midwestern saloon style of “Birds of a Feather.” The beauty of each song is how the two singers tell their illustrious stories, painting pictures of the factual and fantasy experiences that led them to each other and have crossed their recent paths. Their two well-known hits, “Poison and Wine” and “Barton Hollow” are guaranteed to play on repeat, mesmerizing in their lyrical content and incredibly powerful in their delivery.
A true Southern boy with a healthy mixture of charm, humor and twang, and a lovely California girl with an appreciation for the beauty of life’s struggles and living in the present moment, John Paul and Joy are not only a pleasure to listen to, they also have an entertaining blend of laughter, intelligence and strength between them that’s inspiring to fellow artists and songwriters. In an industry that changes daily and is filled with contrived, marketed music, it’s a breath of fresh air to embrace a pair that live, work, and embody the spirit of art and longevity.
When you performed in NYC last summer you were promoting the Poison and Wine EP, which came out in late 2009. The title track is so powerful and speaks of relationships in such an honest way. You are both married to other people, yet you write with so much chemistry. Do you find writing with someone who isn’t your significant other to be somewhat therapeutic?
John Paul: When we come into a writing session it’s a bit like therapy. We can talk about things, and because we are married to other people we have a lot of the same things going on in our lives with relationships- the good, bad and ugly. If we were in a relationship there would be certain things that would be forbidden for us to write and talk about. There are things that we can say [to each other] that sometimes you may reserve because you don’t know how it will be taken and you don’t want to let the cat out of the bag about how you really feel. We can say to each other, “Alright what would you scream into someone’s face if you knew they would never hear it?”
Joy: That’s Poison and Wine.
John Paul: It’s all those little things you would love to say but you really don’t want to be heard. We do that with a lot of our songs. Some are completely inspired by events in movies or art that we’ve seen, or books we’ve read, but some of it we pull from our own personal lives. We just keep to ourselves which is which.
Where did the band name “The Civil Wars,” originate from? Now that you’ve marketed yourself with a specific type of aesthetic, do you find, particularly with “Barton Hollow,” the songs were a product of the image you created? Or did the writing of those songs help create the image you have now?
Joy: I think that one informs the other and vice versa along the way. In creating we were following the breadcrumbs the music was leaving behind, and if we traveled down that path a little and looked back we started noticing that we write a lot about tension, and that there was a rootsiness or an earthiness to what we were doing. The band name came about when I was driving in a car around Nashville with my husband, and I was thinking about the themes we were inadvertently finding along the way, which again, was tension. Everybody has a battle or multiple battles that they face on any given day, but whether or not you see them is a different thing. As I was driving around town looking at all the Civil War monuments I thought about all the wars that we each face. So the name came about that way. When I called John Paul he seemed really excited about it. In a strange way, that name has continued to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It keeps meaning more as we continue going along the path.
Strangely though, John Paul and I never sat down and said, “Here’s going to be the aesthetic of the band. We just kept making music that we loved and felt proud about, and that’s how we got to where we are now. It’s all been a very organic process for us. John Paul wearing a suit on stage was due in part to the fact that Billy Reid, a well-known and wonderful men’s designer, happens to be John Paul’s neighbor. We’ve worked hard, but we’ve also stumbled into a lot.
Barton Hollow- Fact, fantasy, or a little bit of both?
John Paul: Barton Hollow is actually a real place. It’s near where I grew up in Loretta, AL. As the name states, it’s a little hollow down in the west side of town, and you don’t typically go there to do anything that you should be doing. It’s a little blip on the radar, but everyone from there definitely knows what I’m talking about. We knew we wanted a picturesque name for this place and the story that was falling out of our heads, and that was the first place I thought of. Joy loved the name so we went with it. As far as it becoming the name of the record, there’s really not a scientific process. I actually think our manager just said it was a great idea to be the title and we looked at each other and said, “Yup, that’s it.” As with a lot of the things we do, sometimes our gut just tells us to do it.
In the past few months The Civil Wars project has seemed to explode. Do you attribute your recent success to a pivotal moment, or has it been a series of events that all collided at the same time?
John Paul: I think that the latter is mostly true, although there have been multiple events that without them, it definitely would have slowed down the train… Starting with releasing our live record for free, which started the dialogue.
Joy: Which [Live at Eddie’s Attic] was only our second show, ever.
John Paul: We toured quite a bit trying to support that, but then when the Grey’s Anatomy placement happened, out of the blue, it pushed the train along. Then some very sweet endorsements from friends and new fans helped a lot, and The Tonight Show did not hurt in the least. Things like that just kept falling from heaven, and when we don’t expect it more comes out of nowhere and there’s another little shot of adrenaline. When the record came out we didn’t know what to expect or how all the sweet comments, interest, and downloads would translate. Needless to say we were pretty overwhelmed with how our early numbers were.
What are your greatest fears as artists?
Joy: That John Paul is going to start a solo career and call it The Civil War.
John Paul: Now that’s a great idea!
You know what I’ve had lots of fears going through my career of “hope this doesn’t happen,” “hope that doesn’t happen,” “why won’t this happen” but right now I don’t have any of those. I don’t have a fear that this is going to fall flat, or that we’re going to become disillusioned and hate what we’re doing. If that happens it happens, but we’re clicking right now so well as writers and performers, and all the residual stuff of people enjoying it and buying it is amazing. But we’re completely, selfishly loving what we’re doing. As long as that’s the case then I don’t have any fears of anything.
Joy: I’m with John Paul. Even though there are certain elements of what will happen and the how’s, why’s and when’s, those are all out of my control. I could be very fearful but they don’t help me remain present. There’s so much good that’s happening right now that it’s beckoning me to be present more than to have any fears. The fact that John Paul and I have been solo artists in the past and have pounded the pavement is a boost of encouragement to me. We both know the road can get weary sometimes and that we’re going to get on each other’s nerves, but in all reality that’s life. You take the good with the bad, but there’s so much good happening that I don’t feel like there’s space to let those fears inform what we’re doing.
So many aspiring songwriters will now look to you in the hopes to have a career like yours. Who do you tend to gravitate towards and admire in the music food chain?
John Paul: Typically I don’t look at careers so much as I look at artists and what they’ve created, especially since the market has changed and sales aren’t so much the way things go now. It’s about having longevity. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan or an arrow shot arch of a career. We want to do this for a long time, so we look at artists like Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris who have been doing this for awhile and will continue to have the same strong fan base. We want to cultivate that same sort of thing. Things are different now and you can’t really hold on to the old models.
What advice would you pass along to young songwriters just getting started in the industry?
Joy: It’s hard to give broad reaching advice… I feel like we are still learning every day. Every artist is different, and for a good reason- that’s the beauty of art. But I would say to create in a way that’s completely selfish. Make sure that you are making music that you are enthralled with and proud of and is the best that you can make. Because you can’t control how people are going to respond to what you create. Be as excellent and as selfish as you can be as you cultivate what you do, because your own individual voice is what counts.
John Paul: My advice is they should all just stop writing songs. We don’t need competition.
And with that, the interview ended in laughter. Please check out Joy and John Paul’s fantastic duo, The Civil Wars, playing at Joe’s Pub Tuesday, February 15 at 8pm and Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2, Friday, February 18 at 8pm. For more information, merchandise and tour dates visit www.thecivilwars.com. Barton Hollow is also available for download on iTunes.
Category: Exclusive Interviews