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Blessed: A Conversation With Lucinda Williams, Plus David Berkeley's Video "George Square"

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A Conversation with Lucinda Williams

Mike Ragogna: Hello there, Lucinda. How are you?

Lucinda Williams: Good.

MR: So, your new album is titled Blessed, and you brought in Don Was on production.

LW: Yeah, he was co-producing with Tom (Overby) and Eric (Liljestrand).

MR: Nice. The mix, of course, is the usual--a beautiful combination of country, blues, folk...

LW: Thank you. Yeah, I'm really excited about it. I think bringing Don in really moved things up the meter quite a bit. Just having his experience in there and, you know, an extra set of ears.

MR: Is this the first time you've worked with him?

LW: Yeah.

MR: The one thing I noticed was he brought out different areas of EQ in your vocals, it seemed like you have an even richer sound to your vocals this time out.

LW: Yeah, and you know one of the first things he said before we started working together was whatever we do, I want everything to revolve around Lucinda's vocals.

MR: And it definitely shows. What was the studio experience like for Blessed?

LW: Well, We cut over at Capitol Studio B to start with. Wonderful studio. You know, it provided a real warm environment...it's where a lot of the old stars recorded. I was actually sitting in the very booth, the vocal booth that Frank Sinatra recorded in, and for the most part, it was all recorded as much as we could live. The band was pretty simple, we didn't have a lot of people in there--just my regular guys on drums and bass, Butch Norton and Dave Sutton--and then we had Val McCallum and Greg Leisz come in and play different stuff. We had Rami Jaffee. So, the majority of the tracks were those guys, and we had Matthew Sweet come in and overdub some harmonies.

MR: Yay. I'm a big Matthew Sweet fan. In fact, I think we talked about him the last time we did a HuffPost interview.

LW: I loved working with him on the Little Honey album.

MR: And you had another interesting guest too, right?

LW: As fate would have it, Elvis Costello happened to be in town because he was finishing up working on his album with T-Bone Burnett, and Tom came up with the idea of bringing him in to do guitar. I'd never heard him play like that before. He came in one evening and did guitar anjust shredded. (He played) hard down on "Buttercup" and a couple of the other tracks.

MR: Yeah, he had a real aggressive approach, especially on "Seeing Black" where he supplies the counterpoint to you.

LW: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But anyway, whenever I recorded, it's organic in terms of nothing's really that planned out or anything. I had the songs put down--demos of the songs which, of course, we decided to release in the deluxe version.

MR: "The Kitchen Tapes."

LW: "The Kitchen Tapes," yeah. They were the demos, and we tried to stay as true to them as possible but kind of expand from that.

MR: Which brings us back to the studio experience. How did you proceed from there?

LW: We would just take one song at a time. I'd go in, Don and Eric were at the board. Don and Tom and Eric were there in the control room, and for the most part, everybody could see everybody and I just got in front of the mic and up on the stool with my guitar. I'd start singing the song the way I wrote it and the band fell in. Sometimes, we hit a groove and we just kept going, and you know, do a couple of takes and if we were getting it, we'd say, "Okay, we got it, let's do one more." I was in really good shape vocal-wise. We didn't have to fix that many things.

MR: Bet it didn't hurt that everybody was great at their gig behind the board.

LW: You know, the part of the talent comes in starting with Eric the engineer. And Don mentioned this, how impressed he was with the way Eric set up the mics in the room. I mean, everything matters, you know? So, the actual recording of it was done really well.

MR: And again, Capitol Studio B.

LW: Yeah, I can't stress enough the warmth of that room.

MR: Absolutely. Let's talk about "Buttercup." You're razzin' this guy who's a loser who, basically, took advantage of a situation and now wants back in. But it's more than that, you point out lyrically, "You're like a little kid with bruises on his knees," and it's almost like this guy is such a jerk because he just never grew up.

LW: Yeah. That's very perceptive. Actually, to be honest, I wrote the song about the same guy I wrote "Jailhouse Tears" about, it's sort of "Jailhouse Tears Part Two," I guess--the final chapter.

MR: Yeah, huh.

LW: I like to tell people it's the only bad boy quote unquote song on the new album, and I still have a little bit in my system, still had some stuff I had to get out.

MR: Let's also talk about a couple of these other songs, like "Born To Be Loved," another really topical song, one of my favorites.

LW: That's one of my favorite ones too.

MR: Its message is beautiful: "No, you weren't born to be a jerk you weren't born to be abused, you weren't born to be horrible. You were born to be loved."

LW: Yeah. And, for me, I wrote it with a more, you know, universal theme. Although, it's interesting because another reviewer I was talking to thought it was a love song.

MR: A love song to the world

LW: Yeah. But it could be interpreted either way.

MR: Lucinda, "Copenhagen" is a tribute to your old manager.

LW: My late manager, Frank Callari, yeah. It's pretty literal. Actually, we were over there touring and had the night off. Getting ready to go have dinner, my tour manager and myself got the news and, of course, everyone was stunned. You know, we weren't terribly surprised because Frank hadn't been in all that good health. But still, you're never prepared for something like that.

MR: It's yet another song that demonstrates the deep levels from which you write. That brings us to "I Don't Know How You're Living." It really touches me, especially sequenced right after "Buttercup" since I initially had a different impression of what that song was about. It's a song that could be from parent to a child on his or her own, but in this case, it's about your brother, right?

LW: Again, you're very perceptive. Literally, technically, no, but in a matter of speaking, yes. It deals again with my brother who I wrote "Are You Alright" about.

MR: Yeah. And at times, to me, it's beyond confessional. I know parents will listen to this and empathize, especially a parent who hasn't heard from their kid for a while.

LW: Well, that's what this is. This is my younger brother and I love him so much and, you know, care about him, and I haven't heard from him in a long time.

MR: And there's another ballad, the gentle "Soldier's Song," obviously written from that perspective.

LW: Well, that's exactly what I wanted to try to convey, the day in the life of a soldier or what it might be like. I was also kind of working with the idea that two separate people across the world from each other, one's wondering what the other one is doing at any certain time of the day. The song that comes to mind is "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." You know, she hasn't woken up yet, he's gotten up and left, he's driving across country and says, "By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising," and he knows exactly what her day is going to be (like). I took that idea and, you know, pushed it, pushed the envelope with it.

MR: Yeah, and "...Phoenix" was classic Jimmy Webb. He also wrote that song about a guy who was supposed to been in Vietnam...

LW: Yeah, "Galveston."

MR: Though they played it down at the time, it actually was an antiwar song within a love song...

LW ...they did play that down, and that was the other song I was going to mention that inspired this song.

MR: Beautiful. And earlier on, Glen Campbell--you remember his perky, TV show? Anyway, he did "Universal Soldier," a protest song, and it was almost like, "Well, is this guy against the war?" I think because of the TV show, most felt he was a bit conservative.

LW: I mean, I guess it didn't matter at the time, he was saying the right stuff, you know?

MR: Of course. Lucinda, you included "Kiss Like Your Kiss" on your new album Blessed. That has True Blood roots from the HBO Original Series, right? It was even on a second volume of its soundtrack.

LW: Right.

MR: Is this a re-record? It sounds kind of different.

LW: The track that's on the album is the track we cut, but it was remixed and, you know, remastered and everything. To be honest, it was already written, I wrote it for my husband Tom. You know, I hadn't really worked with the idea of writing a true love song, one that wasn't about unrequited love. I mean, I did it a couple of times with, like, "Honey Bee" and "Tears of Joy," which were written for Tom. But even those are a different sort of style. You don't really think of "Honey Bee" as a love song, you know? This was the first time, with this one, that is was just this sweet love song, sort of in the vein of "My Funny Valentine" or one of those kinds of songs. Just a real kind of classic love song. So, the song was written, and Gary Callamore was looking for some new songs cause he'd used one of my songs before, "Lake Charles." So, Tom took a few songs over and this was one of them and he loved it, wanted to use it. Obviously, the reference to the vampire was in there. I got a big kick out of, thought it was really cool.

MR: Did you watch the scene where they used it?

LW: I haven't yet.

MR: Just curious what your reaction might have been as its writer and performer.

LW: We're waiting for the DVD of the whole final season to come out so we can take it on the bus with us. That's how we like to do it. But anyway, we cut the track at Capitol, it was a one-off so we could get it done for Gary, and that's when we decided, after we cut the track there. I just said, "Wow. We gotta do the whole album here."

MR: Oh, cool, so it led to your using Capitol Studio B for the album.

LW: Yeah, I had such a great experience cutting that one song and I just fell in love with the studio.

MR: Most folks aren't aware that most of the big, great sounding studios are disappearing. Thank God a place like Capitol Studios still exists.

LW: Yeah.

MR: On the other hand, the concept of making a high end sounding album these days is almost gone.

LW: It's sad.

MR: It is, but it also shows my age.

LW: We're always worried about sounding like we're too old, you know? It's the voice of experience.

MR: I like that, cool. To me, it's kind of more than the passing of an era, it's throwing away knowledge. I don't fault technology, but I blame us collectively for not caring about having the best possible sound anymore.

LW: Yeah. Well, I guess it depends on the kind of music you're making. Some people can get a pretty good sound, I mean, it depends on what you call "good sound." For me, I don't know what the difference would be because I've never had the advantage of having a studio. But I guess you can do a lot now without a studio.

MR: We talked about Frank Sinatra recording in Capitol briefly. Think about all the greats that recorded there. My feeling is, in order to capture people with talents where rich arrangements and capturing subtleties at their greatest, you still need the best equipment.

LW: Well, there's a reason why they built these studios. I mean, there's a certain kind of wood in there and, you know, with the acoustics... Again, if you're going to set up live and have the band in there, you want a certain kind of room for that. If everything's just going to be computerized, it's going to be hard to get the acoustics. They're just two different things.

MR: Exactly. Now, did they clue you in on the reverb chambers under the parking lot?

LW: I don't know if I heard that.

MR: Yeah, it's interesting engineering. Okay, back to Blessed. There's something that happened on this album, it's almost like everything about you is so front and center.

LW: Yeah, that's what people are saying. I think it's just I'm older and wiser, and maybe a little world weary. I mean, that's what happens when you get older and wiser, and I'm still as idealistic as I ever was, but I think being married has given me a certain perspective and freedom that I didn't have before in terms of writing. My life is in a different place now, my perspective is certainly going to be different now than it was when I was 48 and different when I was 38 and when I was 28. So, all of my albums, my song writing, is what's going on in my life.

MR: And you're able to write so richly because of the type of life you had.

LW: Yeah. I'm just branching out into different subject matter a little bit, although I've done that in the past, like with "Seeing Black," which was inspired by the suicide of Vic Chesnutt though not necessarily about him. I also touch on that in the song "Sweet Old World."

MR: Lucinda, because Vic Chesnutt is somebody I had the opportunity to interview and admired very much, do you have any Chesnutt chestnuts you could share?

LW: Well, we had done a couple of shows together in the past and I hadn't really had a lot of chances to hang out to get to know him really well. But he's got a song, bless his heart, called "Lucinda Williams."

MR: Yeah, that's right.

LW: And I found him to be you know he had this wickedly wry sense of humor. You know, maybe to make up for the fact that he was restricted physically, he made up for it in his songwriting and his wicked, wild sense of humor. And he had this sweetness about him.

MR: I interviewed Michael Timmons from Cowboy Junkies on their Vic Chesnutt cover album Demons. He shared a story of when Vic were their opening act, he had everybody change up their instruments, so everyone was caught off guard and he was like, yup, that's what we're doing tonight gang.

LW: Yeah. My first initial impression of him was shock and awe to tell you the truth. The words that would come out of his mouth--I mean, he's so sweet. He had this beautiful smile, then he would just open his mouth and it would be really crude. I didn't know him really either. He would say things like, "Your songs really make my c**k hard." (laughs) This is when we first met. He didn't have a filter at all.

MR: When I interviewed him, the first words out of his mouth were, "What lousy reporter is it now?" (laughs)

LW: You just knew that was Vic. And his beautiful wife Tina...they seemed to have this incredibly devoted relationship. Then again, I didn't know him or her real well. Then, of course, there was the incident with Mark Linkous of Sparkle Horse. He shot himself and him and Vic were real close. Vic was actually a mentor of Mark Linkous.

MR: There was something to the synchrony of that which was disturbing.

LW: It was very disturbing.

MR: Let's get back to your album. It is beautifully intense.

LW: I don't want people to think that my songs are too dark or something. For me, it helps me to get through things and get in there and get to look at something.

MR: It's truth, gotta love the truth. Let's talk about what's in the news. What's got your attention?

LW: It basically boils down to gun control in this country. I can't read the paper or go online without seeing a story about someone. The biggest story revolving around that subject is the Arizona shooting. I was telling somebody the other day it's easier to get a handgun than it is a driver's license. Then, there was the woman that just couldn't take it anymore and shot her two children in cold blood.

MR: I asked my conservative friend who is a proponent of gun control what his argument was in light of something like that. He came back and said, "All the crazies already have guns, how can I defend me and my family against that?" I said, "If there were stricter gun laws, then the crazies wouldn't be getting guns." On the other hand, he does have a point and a respectable perspective.

LW: It always goes back to that, the endless argument. The point is gun control, make it harder to get a gun. The woman that shot her kids wasn't seen as a crazy person. She could have been one of those people who said, "I need a gun in my house to protect myself," then she ended up killing her kids. If people want to have a gun, then fine, have a gun. But they need to make it more difficult to get.

MR: So, do you think the country's heading on the right course right now?

LW: Well, I'm a big Obama supporter. I feel like he's always gotten the short end of the deal as far as being criticized for things. I like the guy, I would like him even if he wasn't the president.

MR: That's what they said about Bush too. He was the guy folks would have at a barbecue.

LW: It depends on what kind of barbecue your having. (laughs) He wouldn't have been at my barbecue probably. I'm not a politician, so I don't know. The whole Tea Party thing, I don't know.

MR: How do you get your news?

LW: When I'm at home, I read the newspaper, and when I'm on the road, I read USA Today and watch MSNBC.

MR: How about The New York Times.

LW: Yeah, we get The New York Times too.

MR: You're going to be touring in support of Blessed?

LW: Yes, I am. The first part of the tour I'm doing a solo thing. It's just me and guitar which I haven't done in a long time. Then the band flies in after that and we do two nights in Toronto with Levon Helm. We are in two nights in New York City, and then we are going down to Austin for SXSW.

MR: So, is Tom going to be home watching ESPN?

LW: No, he's coming out with us.

MR: You guys have the seemingly perfect arrangement and marriage.

LW: We're still in love.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

LW: Get out there and play in front of an audience and work out your songs in front of an audience while at the same time building up a fan base even if it's small at first.

Tracks:

CD 1 - The Studio Album
1. Buttercup
2. I Don't Know How You're Livin'
3. Copenhagen
4. Born To Be Loved
5. Seeing Black
6. Soldier's Song
7. Blessed
8. Sweet Love
9. Ugly Truth
10. Convince Me
11. Awakening
12. Kiss Like Your Kiss

CD 2 - The Kitchen Tapes
1. Buttercup
2. I Don't Know How You're Livin'
3. Copenhagen
4. Born To Be Loved
5. Seeing Black
6. Soldier's Song
7. Blessed
8. Sweet Love
9. Ugly Truth
10. Convince Me
11. Awakening
12. Kiss Like Your Kiss

(transcribed by Lauryn Shapter & Theo Shier)

HuffPost Exclusive: David Berkeley's "George Square"

David Berkeley recently released his fourth studio album, Some Kind of Cure. Along with the album, Berkeley also wrote an accompanying book of short stories entitled, 140 Goats and a Guitar--the stories behind Some Kind of Cure--all while living for a year in a remote 35-person mountain village on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

The songs on Some Kind of Cure feature lush string and horn arrangements, and his band includes drummer Kevin O'Donnel (Andrew Bird), vocalist Kim Taylor (Over The Rhine), Lex Price on mandolin (Mindy Smith), Peter Bradley Adams (EastMountainSouth), and trumpeter Jordan Katz (De La Soul).

The following is an exclusive premiere video of a live performance of "George Square" from the CD release party for Some Kind of Cure in New York at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 on January 25, 2011.

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Tracks:
1. George Square
2. Independence
3. The Blood and the Wine
4. Parachute
5. Steel Mill
6. Hope for Better Days
7. Some Kind of Cure
8. Shenandoah
9. Soldier's Song
10. Homesick
11. Marie
12. All Those Ashes
13. Winter Winds

DAVID BERKELEY TOUR DATES:
Sun, Mar 13 - Albuquerque, NM - Art Of The Song - Radio performance
Mon, Mar 14 - Houston, TX - Blue Willow Bookshop - reading, performance & book signing
Wed, Mar 16 - Austin, TX - Combo Plate Presents SxSoup Fest @ Caritas (611 Neches St @ E 7th) - SXSW - 11:30am
Thurs, Mar 17 - Austin, TX - Tijuana Gift Shop's TEXAS TORNADO @ Rusty Spurs (405 E 7th St @ Trinity) - SXSW - 2pm
Sat, Mar 19 - Austin, TX - Folk Alliance SXSW11 Party @ Threadgill's World Headquarters (301 West Riverside Drive) - 12pm
Sat, Mar 19 - Wimberley, TX - Blue Rock Studio - 3:30pm
Sat, Mar 19 - Austin, TX - The Tap Room (311 Colorado St @ E 4th)- SXSW - Official Showcase presented by Hotel Cafe - 7:30pm
Sat, Apr 9 - Decatur, GA - Eddie's Attic
Mon, April 11 - Knoxville, TN - Preservation Pub - FREE
Sat, May 14 - Denver, CO - Swallow Hill Presents at Tuft Theater
Wed, June 1 - Berkeley, CA - Books Inc on 4th St
Wed, June 15 - New York, NY - Bryant Park - FREE
Thurs, June 16 - New York, NY - Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2
Fri, June 17 - Phoenixville, PA - Steel City Coffeehouse
Sun, June 19 -Washington, DC - Jammin Java