A Conversation with The Civil Wars' Joy Williams
Mike Ragogna: Joy, you have a new album, The Civil Wars, self-titled, which is your second album. Usually, a group flips that and starts with the self-titled, although it feels like with the first one, the title helped give everybody an idea...
Joy Williams: A context.
MR: Exactly, a context, yeah. So what are your thoughts about this brand new album?
JW: I'm really proud of it. It was born out of some strife and pain, but I feel like in the midst of all of that, it made for an even more raw and, in my opinion, moving body of work than we even did on Barton Hollow. It's remarkable to me that it seems like the album has really been connecting with people, and that's all you can really hope for as an artist. You give birth to something and hope that it's received out in the world, and it seems like that's what's happening. That's maybe some of the good that comes out of the difficulty that John Paul and I have found ourselves in as of late.
MR: It's pretty much out there that you and John Paul have obviously had a true bump in the relationship.
JW: It was a true bump and it was a series of difficult situations that John Paul and I kept trying to make the best out of and then, at a certain point, the reality is that we've always really worked well together professionally. But you spend a lot of time on the road and those hours get long and you're in close quarters, and friction and tension is bound to happen. It's as age-old as time, bands having disagreements and finding themselves not on the same page all the time. The reality is we are working with some very real tension and a bit of a breakdown at the moment--and I say "at the moment" intentionally--and it's something that we're navigating. I'm proud of our team and the way that we go about it, we've gone about it as honestly as we can. This is real life. It's messy and it's challenging and it's difficult. You can't always control what happens in life. These are the unexpected moments, but in all of this, I still feel like something really beautiful has come out from it. So, in a strange way, I still hold out hope that there's a possibility that John Paul and I could mend our fences and come back even stronger as a duo.
MR: Well that's what I was about to say about the artistry of this album. The relationship obviously influenced a lot of the material in the creative process. "I Wish You Were The One That Got Away," "Devil's Backbone"...there are topics on here that were probably not even inspired by what you did, but went further because you bothered to keep it honest. It gets a bad rap, but the word is "Confessional." You made art out of it as opposed to just trying to maintain a business relationship. It became art.
JW: Yeah, thank you. The record is not a ripped out journal page, there's still a lot of art and metaphor used in the record, but there is also real life woven into it, so it's all strung throughout and I think you can hear the authenticity within that. I think you can hear the layers and even feel it sort of subconsciously when you press play.
MR: It must have been both a surprise and probably a stress to have that much success with your debut album. I mean, the music certainly deserved it, but to have gotten a couple of Grammys from it, to have suddenly become the biggest "Americana" act at the time had to have been slightly odd.
JW: [laughs] How do you mean, "odd"?
MR: Well, not everybody gets that experience right out of the chute, and it's a commentary on both the material and The Civil Wars as an entity. It was a validation of what you had done. On the other hand, suddenly, you're in a position of intense celebrity with huge success. That's got to have its pressures.
JW: I've remained thankful and honestly surprised by how much Barton Hollow connected with so many people so instantly. John Paul and I were both solo artists for over a decade before we linked arms musically, so when things really started taking off, it was a thrill. Individually, we both sort of knew what it was like to beat your head against a wall, so when things started really taking off, all that preparation that John Paul and I had done as artists felt like it was really starting to move in a direction that was really thrilling. I remember when we were in the process of recording it, I had a lot of sleepless nights. I didn't think about the fact that we'd won Grammys, it's an amazing honor and I have them proudly festooned on my--I just said "festooned," who says "festooned?"
JW: I don't know where that word came from, I must have heard it. I have them on my bookshelf right now, I'm proud of the music that we've made, but I remember thinking not so much about, "What are people going to think of this next album?" as much as I was concerned with, "How do we move forward as a duo musically, how do we push through to new sounds and find new territory and new things to write about and new ways to translate this in studios?" I think we've really accomplished that on this album. John Paul is playing more electric guitars live on stage from when we finished Barton Hollow and were on the road, so it makes sense to incorporate more of that in the process of recording. I'm very passionate about music and I'm very passionate about finding new ground to trod on. We definitely wanted to not make the same record twice, and I'm proud to say that we didn't. But I definitely laid awake at night thinking about how we could improve on what we'd already accomplished because so many highlights had happened because of Barton Hollow and I was just determined and sleepless because I wanted to scare out how we could continue to make music that was even more moving and more compelling than before.
MR: Joy, what is the most revealing song on the album to you, personally? What song would you direct someone to for a summation of your emotions?
JW: I don't think I could point someone just in one direction for a song, if you're wanting me to sum up where the band is at this moment. I feel like the whole project itself is the summation where we highlight those emotions that range from loss and regret to loneliness and the desire to be seen and celebration and clarity and the rawnesss of the human experience, which is so often muted. That's why I probably couldn't tell you that there's one particular song that could sum up what it is. Right now, the song "Dust To Dust" is something that I continue to find myself humming in the kitchen when I'm cooking up dinner for my husband and my son. That song really does speak to the fact that everybody has pain and everybody experiences that desire to be seen and to not be forgotten and if we're all really honest, we've all had seasons like that, where we've been absolutely lonely even if we're surrounded by a multitude of people. I've said it before, but when John Paul and I wrote that in Birmingham, England, on an off day on the Adele tour that we were on, we intentionally changed the pronoun at the end: "You're like a mirror, reflecting me/Takes one to know one, so take it from me/You've been lonely/You've been lonely too long," and we changed it to "we," "We've been lonely/ We've been lonely too long," to really highlight the fact that everybody goes through this and this is a part of the human experience and the journey that feels like it winds and twists and bends.
MR: Yeah, that's really true. Is there any wonder why people relate to your music?
JW: [laughs] I'm just glad that they do. It's been written with a lot of heart. Blood and sweat and tears have gone into this album and to me, just to know that people really are feeling moved by it too, there's no greater joy than that in an artist.
MR: Joy, I want to ask you a question I asked you a couple years ago given all that's happened since then. What advice do you have for new artists?
JW: Gosh. I feel like I'm learning so much in this season right now. Look, I'm no sage, I'm trying to figure life out and music out and being a mom and being a wife and all of these things. I don't feel like I have any sage advice, but I think the thing that I can say I've been learning is how important it is to stay connected to yourself and to what truly matters in life as you chase art and chase the muse. Because regardless of what happens with your career, if you keep the core relationships, the people that really love you no matter what, and that it's not about what you do, it's about who you are and if you can stay grounded in those kinds of relationships, the twilight zone known as the road can be navigated a little more easily. So as much time as one might spend on the craft, I would say spend time on yourself and becoming the person that you desire to become and that that can only influence your art in a better way and not just your life. But it's pretty important that it would influence your life as well.
MR: Boy, for someone who wasn't sure how to answer the question that's one of the best answers I've ever gotten.
JW: Oh, cool! I'm just speaking from the heart. I turned thirty this year, I had a baby, I've been married almost a decade to my husband, and I was on the road at a pace that was so exhilarating but was so full of so many opportunities that I sometimes missed the opportunity to stay connected to myself. As painful and as difficult as it was for both John Paul and I to decide to go on hiatus for right now, I will say that this hiatus has really helped me realign and reconnect. That's been so necessary and I feel like regardless of what happens moving forward, I'm a better person for having experienced the challenges of some of what's gone on in the band. Again, I believe that anything's possible. I hold out hope for reconciliation and creating music again with John Paul. He's a wonderful musician and I look forward to that, but I also won't let one chapter determine the rest of my life either. I hope to always take the best parts of what I've experienced and bring them with me, but now I'm just laughing and rambling.
MR: [laughs] How's life with baby?
JW: It's the most exhilarating and exhaustingly wonderful experience. I never knew I could love somebody so fiercely as I do my son. I am just so enjoying changing his diapers and making his food and watching him grow and develop and watching all of those teeth come in one at a time. My husband and I have been teaching Miles how to walk and having family dance parties in the kitchen to Daft Punk. I'm loving this process of being a mom, and I also feel like it's stretched me. As much as I didn't know I could love somebody as fiercely as I do, I also feel like it's been so humbling that there are multiple times a day where I feel like I wonder what the right thing is to do for my son because I want to do right by him. Everybody says parenting doesn't come with a manual. In some ways, that's absolutely fabulous and in other ways, that's absolutely terrifying. So I think Nate and I are just now reviewing the fullness and the chaos of raising a little soul who is so fabulous and sociable and sweet and quirky and fun and is otherwise known as my son. I feel like he teaches me every day. I feel like I learn something from Miles, if only to just be present in the moment and to be content in that. I feel like he teaches me that every day.
MR: God, it seems like all of these answers you've been giving are like precursors to new songs.
JW: [laughs] Well, who knows?
MR: Can I ask you a weird question, especially given the circumstances? Where would you like The Civil Wars to be next year?
JW: It's so hard to forecast the future, so I won't try to. But I will say that in my heart of hearts, I believe in the power of forgiveness, but it takes two. John Paul and I both burnt the bridges between us, so there's no finger-pointing in what I'm saying right now. I really do hope there can be a chance to have a dialog that might allow for the band to really reconnect and set about to what we really do best, which is make music. So I would love to see that happen in the next year and in the mean time, I'm still playing my husband's grandmother's piano out in the back half of our home and I think being creative will also be a part of my next year, so I can keep that muscle strong. I hope in the next year that my son learns to speak in full sentences and I'll be chasing him around parks and that my husband and I will be stronger for having gone through another year of living life together and being co-parents together and navigating this adventure known as life together. So I guess what I'm saying is restoration and family. That's probably what I would say I hope for in the next year.
MR: And only good things can happen from here, I imagine.
JW: Yeah, I hope so. I hope that you're right and I believe that you are. I think the best is yet to come.
MR: Nice. All right, Joy, it was really sweet talking with you again. It's always a joy, you might say.
JW: Ha ha.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
"IN OR OUT" WITH MATTHEW MAYFIELD
According to Matthew Mayfield...
"For me, 'In Or Out' has always been an ultimatum of sorts. It's a song about that inevitable, vulnerable moment in any relationship where the rubber meets the road. The question marks have begun to weigh heavy on the hearts involved and a call has to be made as to how far they're willing to take it. On the record (Irons In The Fire), the sonics are fairly aggressive and there's an urgency in the performance. I feel that urgency every time I sing it."
A Conversation with Dumpstaphunk's Ivan Neville
Mike Ragogna: Ivan Neville, you have no right to be part of such an incredibly musical family. What do you have to say for yourself?
Ivan Neville: [laughs] I was just born into this thing, a bunch of musicians, and it happens to be in New Orleans as well, so that just adds a little bonus to it.
MR: Having Aaron Neville as your dad, that has to have had just a little bit of an influence on you, don't you think?
IN: Oh, most definitely, most definitely. Growing up, that's all I really saw was my dad and my uncle. They were all musicians. I guess eventually, it just took hold of me. I was like, "Okay, this is what I want to do as well."
MR: So, this new Dumpstaphunk project funks along with folks like Trombone Shorty, Annie DeFranco, and Flea guesting. Were you trying to out-funk the funkiest?
IN: Yeah, you know...I don't know! We were not really thinking along those lines. Obviously, we want to get people to hear what we're trying to do. Basically, our goal is for someone to kind of understand that, "Okay, damn, this is kind of stanky." We're influenced by many different things, and it all kind of stems from some sort of bluesy rock 'n' roll gospel funk s**t. That's kind of what it is, and it all comes from the stuff that we listen to. We just try to say that music is so great, music in general is such a cool thing that we were blessed with, you know? We're music lovers and we want people to hear that and feel that in our music. We're blessed to be musicians, but we're music lovers and fans, and that's what we want people to get. We're trying to relate. We share, we've been blessed to be a channel of some cool stuff, and it just happens that most of it is kind of stanky.
MR: There a few groups I think you'd really dig, like Parliament and Sly & The Family Stone.
IN: [laughs] Most definitely, those are huge influences on us. We come from New Orleans, so The Meters and my dad and the brothers and things of that nature are naturally embedded in us. There are three members of the band that grew up listening to the radio in the seventies, and the music of Sly & The Family Stone in the late sixties and early seventies. That music was so special, it was so broad where it was rock 'n' roll; it was funk, it was gospel, it was blues, it was all of that mixed together, and it was as well with Parliament/Funkadelic. Pretty much those two bands incorporate a lot of what we aspire to do. Vocally, we've got four people in the band that all sing, and we incorporate that and that's influenced by the bands you mentioned as well. We love that stuff and the fact that we're even in the same sentence with that is an absolute honor.
MR: Yeah, and it's great your uncle Art is on the album.
IN: Yeah, Art's on it. He just came into the studio one day with Ian, who is Art's son, which makes him my cousin. Art came to the studio one day to hang with us and we said, "Okay Art, you want to play on this song?" He played and it was just so natural. What I love about his performance is we've got Rebirth on that song, we've got Trombone Shorty on that song, and you can hear all of it. You know that's Art playing the Fender Rhodes all through that song. It's not too loud, but it's in there just enough that you can hear that Art Neville kind of thing, and I love that about that track.
MR: Now, Flea totally makes sense, Rebirth Brass Band totally make sense, Grooveline Horns, totally. Ani DiFranco? I mean she's awesome, but that was a surprise.
IN: Yeah, I'll tell you how that happened, which is really a great story as well. Ani DiFranco's husband, his name is Mike Napolitano, also known as Nappy. He mixed nine of the eleven songs on the record, and they have a studio in their house in New Orleans. They have a studio in their living room. The majority of this record was mixed there. She was at the house while he was mixing, we were nowhere around, and she heard something and she went and put some vocals on a song that was pretty much meant to be an instrumental. Mike said, "Hey, man, Ani did this thing on this song." So we heard it and I was like, "Damn, that kid is bad! Sure!" And what she sang on it, if we would've said something on this song, maybe we would've wanted to say what she was saying. We get it to where it still comes off as an instrumental and she doesn't come in until after a couple of rounds and then the bridge and then she comes in with this vocal riff. We love it. That's how it came on, though. It wasn't like we planned to have Ani on the record. We love Ani, and we have played with Ani before, she's sat in with us and I played on Ani's record as well. So it was just so natural for it to happen the way it happened. Now Ani's on the record. What a cool thing.
MR: You've got a new drummer and singer, Nikki.
IN: Yes indeed, Nikki is amazing. We've been playing with Nikki in the band for like two years now. We met Nikki through some friends of ours, a band called Soulive. We met her through those guys, Eric Krasno and the band. Nikki was friends with them. She'd gone to Berkeley college and studied music and whatnot there and she was friends with them. We met her through them. They would all come out to Jazzfest every year. We met Nikki in 2004 and we would play with her here and there in different configurations and she sat in with us a couple of times and ended up being in the band. She's a great addition and the fact that she sings her ass off as well as plays, just killing it, we got to add the female voice element to the mix which is something that we really have been trying to take advantage of. I think on this record, we incorporate that a great deal. The sound's evolving into what it's become and we're pretty pleased with that.
MR: You mentioned earlier all sorts of styles from the sixties and the seventies, and I want to say that you're not only a good student of that stuff, but also that you employed various styles when you were working on records that ranged from Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, Paula Abdul, and Spin Doctors, and you were even a member of Spin Doctors for a while.
IN: I played on a couple of Stones albums as well. Yeah, it's been a fun thing to do over the years, playing on different stuff and to kind of just go where the music wants you to go with it. That's kind of where I like to come from, I'm a student of listening. I like to listen. When you're in there doing it, usually the music tells you what to do. That's kind of what I do in this band especially. I've got some great musicians that I get to listen to on a daily basis. I get to listen to them play and I get to come up with this cool s**t to play alongside everything that's going on. It kind of does its own thing.
MR: Yeah. I have to ask you, have you ever heard of a musician named, I think it's Fats Domino?
IN: Oh yes, I have! [laughs]
MR: I love that you did that tribute recording to him. I feel like he ought to be sainted or knighted. What a sweet guy. Is that your impression of him too?
IN: Absolutely, absolutely. We were absolutely honored to do his song in tribute to him and B.B. King was on the track with us, which was totally amazing and thrilling and all that. But I got to play with Fats maybe one time. I got to play on stage with him once for a benefit in New York, and it was a band we put together and Fats showed up and he actually played a few songs and I think he stayed up longer than they expected him to. I've heard stories that he would come and play a few songs and then walk off--he's finished. But he actually played a couple more songs than they were planning on him playing and it was amazing. What a thrill. Like you said, he's the sweetest guy, he is like a king. Like you said, he should be sainted. He's one of those guys, he's one of our heroes, he's a living legend.
MR: Well, I also want to throw out there, you're a hero, too, Ivan. You should be knighted as well. You worked with Tipitina's Foundation after Katrina hit, you were with other musicians trying to organize for charities, et cetera. What are your thoughts on the Katrina disaster? Has New Orleans truly recovered from it?
IN: It was absolutely a devastating thing. A lot of people lost lives, and then people lost a lot of other things. People lost family members, people lost their homes, a lot of people left New Orleans never to return, which was a huge tragedy. You've got this great city, it's all about community, and it's about the people. The people are what make New Orleans what it is. The resilience of the people here and the determination, people were determined enough to come back here to try to make New Orleans what it once was. You can't take the soul away from anyone, and that's what New Orleans is all about. The soul of the people, the culture, it's about music, it's about food and when we talk about music and food, it's about people. Basically, the only positive to this whole tragedy was that a light was shined on New Orleans, people maybe took for granted what a special, great place New Orleans is, and then when Katrina happened, we almost lost this amazing city, this amazing place. It's like no other city in our country, no other city in the world! So the fact that a light was shined on New Orleans and people paid attention to New Orleans music for a while after that, a lot of New Orleans musicians got a little bit more recognition because of the light that shined on New Orleans, that was the one positive that came out of that tragedy. In the aftermath, I would say that yeah, New Orleans is back, it's back to what it normally does, making music and cooking some good food for everybody. It's a good place to come and visit, it's a place to do anything. A lot of people come down here with their companies and do conventions and all that sort of thing because New Orleans is a great place to hang out. You can walk to a gazillion restaurants, you can see stuff that's historic. That being said, New Orleans is healing. The loss that happened, you can never replace that, but like I said, you can't mess with the soul of New Orleans. That will always be there.
MR: Wow. And I also love this quote about your version of "Fortunate Son," on the benefit album, Sing Me Back Home, the critic goes something like, "Catharsis never sounded cooler."
IN: [laughs] I think I remember reading that, yeah. That was a good piece of music. That was born out of Katrina as well. As musicians, we were kind of in exile. We were all stranded in Austin, Texas, temporarily living there, holed up in a studio somewhere making that record.
MR: What do you think of the state of funk these days?
IN: I think it's alive and well. Not only are we trying to do what we're doing, there are a lot of bands that are alive and doing it and you've got some of the heroes that are still around doing it. Bootsy Collins is out there doing his thing, George Clinton is still out there with the P-Funk cast. It's not a lot of the original guys still around, but that spirit is still there. Everything that's done now has borrowed some way from that. Everything that's out there, all that s**t that's going on has borrowed some kind of way from that music. All of the hip-hop music has borrowed from funk, so it's still alive and well.
MR: I imagine Christmas must be an expensive time of year for your family. You have so many family members and they're all musical. Do you all just buy each other musical instruments?
IN: [laughs] No, not really, no. There were times when we had a lot of us living on the same street in a two block radius, and that's not like it anymore, but my uncle Art still lives on that same street, in that same block. It was mostly about food, though, and telling stories and stuff, more than actual gifts. There was always a piano somewhere nearby, so maybe singing together and whatnot. Things of that nature.
MR: Nice. What advice do you have for new artists?
IN: I guess work at it. Spend a lot of time doing it. Spend as much time as you can doing music and honing your craft and remember the reason that you're doing it is probably because you love it. And the fact that you get to play it is a gift and a blessing, so never forget that. I would say, remain a music lover first.
MR: I also want to thank you for one of my favorite songs from Pump Up The Volume.
IN: Oh, you liked, "Why Can't I Fall In Love?"
MR: That's my favorite song from the soundtrack.
IN: That was a cool track, yeah. I had a lot of fun doing that back in the day.
MR: Okay, with the new album from Dumpstaphunk, there's going to be touring, right?
IN: Yes, there will be, yes, yes. We'll start barnstorming; we're going to do a few things and then closer to the end of the summer, we're going to go out for long periods of time.
MR: Anything else you're going to be working on, side projects or a solo album or whatever?
IN: We're always working on something. Everybody's got something that they're doing, little songwriting things with different people and whatnot. I don't have anything in particular that I want to talk about just yet, but the way Dumpsta's been playing lately, we've played each groove sometimes where we got certain songs that we play that kind of lend themselves to making up a new groove in the song, and I'm looking forward to us evolving yet more and writing some new stuff very soon. I'm looking forward to that.
MR: What does Dumpstaphunk do for you that you're not able to do with other projects?
IN: Dumpstaphunk allows me to be involved in a group of people that take turns driving. I can just be a player, you know what I'm saying? I don't have to be the lead guy all the time. We've got other people that sing, we all accompany one another and to me, that was the beauty of being in a band like this. You don't have to be the focal point all the time, focus can turn to another member at any given time and you can just be the accompanist. I love that dynamic. I get to listen to people that I really love and admire pretty much every day. You can't get much better than that.
MR: Ivan, I love your family and really appreciate your time. So glad we got this together, man.
IN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it as well.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
And drink in some "Water" with the group live in New Orleans...
"ON YOUR MARK" WITH MIKO & THE MUSKET
According to frontman Miko De Leon...
"'On Your Mark' was one of those songs that did not have an initial concept or theme. It started with the bass riff that you hear in the beginning, and each movement that comes after was written collaboratively with the rest of the group. I remember feeling so conflicted and stuck when trying to figure out what this song should be about. I expressed my frustrations in a writing session I had with Mike (lead guitarist), and we both took a second to realize that that's what the song should be about; the struggles that we go through personally to maintain artistic integrity, honor musical influence, and trusting in the process to achieve our goals. My favorite part of the song is the end, where we sing '...are we gonna get there together?' because it alludes to the commitment that the band members have with one another, and hopefully, it invites the fans and audience members to feel involved in the experience."
And don't forget...
Miko & The Musket @ Arlene's Grocery, NYC
Saturday, August 17th
Doors: 8pm | Show: 10:00pm
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008