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The Civil Wars: Fighting the Indie Music Battle and Winning

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To start an article by saying that things have been tough this year for indie bands would not be entirely true. Sure there are still hundreds of thousands of indie artists fighting to make it on their own or get picked up by a major, but as a whole, 2011 has been accepting of the non-labeled music makers, allowing talented indie musicians to reach heights that were once solely reserved for signed artists.

Proof that mainstream America has embraced independent music can perhaps be most clearly traced through the Grammys. Last year, Arcade Fire's album-of-the-year Grammy award for "The Suburbs" was an affirmation that not only was indie music able to rival music released on major labels, but that in some cases, it could even surpass it. This year, roughly half of all non-producer Grammy nominations were comprised of independent artists (as reported by A2IM), including country/folk duo, The Civil Wars, who are up for two Grammy awards -- Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album.

The past year has been quite the journey for Joy Williams and John Paul White -- a pair that only connected a few short years ago, during a music writing job in 2008. Since then they've recorded and released "Barton Hollow," their first full-length album together, had songs placed in Grey's Anatomy and The Hunger Games, scored the film, Finding North, which was screened at Sundance this past week and have through it all built a large and loyal fan-base. The natural, fluid chemistry between these two performers is rich and undeniable, and their talent has been well-received and avidly supported, even without the attachment to a major label.

I had the chance to catch up with the charming twosome at this year's Sundance Film Festival, just prior to their performance at Google Music and T-Mobile's indie concert series. The two hit on some truly relevant topics including the impact social media has had on their notoriety as well as the importance of giving away music for free as well as placements in film and television.

TH: This year there's been such a big indie presence with the Grammys. I want to know what sort of feedback you've gotten as an indie band with two Grammy nominations.

John: This year it's been a really good year for indie musicians. There are so many more avenues for us than there used to be with social media, Twitter, Facebook, things like Google Music. It's amazing what kind of options we have compared to what you used to have to have. Now a little band like us, that a year ago played a café and nobody knew who we were -- our record hadn't come out yet -- to come out here because of things like Google Music and also because we scored one of the films here, Finding North -- we're really proud of it. As an indie band, while all these things are happening, it's a little telling. I think with the Grammys people have seen that sort of avenue and felt like it should be recognized.

TH: So is digital social media how you went from playing in cafés to being nominated for Grammys? What was that journey like for you?

Joy: A big part of our story is online presence. The second show we ever did as a duo (in late 2009) was recorded front to back, a full show's worth, in Decatur, Georgia at a place called Eddie's Attic. Afterwards we thought, well, why don't we just put this up online and make it completely free and completely accessible to anyone -- no e-mail retrieval, no nothing. So when we released it we had no idea how it would be received. Thankfully, that was a really big conversation starter with a lot of people. Couple that with a placement in Grey's Anatomy as well as Twitter and Facebook, which are amazing avenues to spread word of mouth. And I think that has been one of the major parts of building the story of The Civil Wars. A friend's recommendation to another friend is one of the biggest gifts you can give anybody. So with all of that continuing to build and grow, those doors that were never accessible to us have become open opportunities for us and we've been running through them as much as we can and as much as they've made sense for us. And it's something that we're really proud of in this new era of music. You don't necessarily have to have that big machine. If the music connects, we've found as of this last year, it can find a home with people.

TH: I'm sure with the fame and the notoriety you've achieved, that labels have approached you and record deals have been offered. Is there any reason you've stuck to this indie route and not gone down that path?

John: There's never been a line in the sand that we won't do anything in particular. That goes for travelling with a band or a major label. With every opportunity we look at all the angles and think, what can they do for us that we can't do for ourselves -- and there are things that they can do that we can't. By and large, we weigh how much we'd give up our creative control and our general control over what we do because right now, with anything we decide to work on, our meeting is Joy and I and her husband, who is our management. There's no red tape. At the moment, we're okay. There have been opportunities and hopefully there will be more opportunities, but at the moment we're happy to be independent.

TH: Now you guys have a direct connection to a film at Sundance, but even if you didn't, what would you say are the benefits to an indie artist playing in Park City during Sundance?

Joy: The independent spirit at Sundance alone is something that's great to be a part of. To find like-minded people who are also largely in a DIY situation with their art, you know, it's fun to be able to be in that kind of community of people -- to brainstorm, to connect, just making friends. On top of that, too, I think there's a growing consciousness and appreciation for music and film together and what kind of marriage that can create in a beneficial way. So, of course, we've been thankful to be a part of some of that this year with the Finding North documentary. It's something we hope to continue to be a part of and we hope to see music and film continue to find happy relationships together in the future.

TH: Have you met anyone here who you think you will work with in the future? Do you think any of the connections you've made will help spawn a new project?

John: Who knows? It's hilarious. We're constantly bouncing off of so many people over the course of a year -- you never know where it's going to come from or what connection leads to the next. So, who knows?

Joy: I think it's fun to build genuine relationships with people as opposed to networking.

John: And here, I feel like you can do that. Independent artists and filmmakers seem to have the same wavelength. It's less about work and more about building friendships.

TH: What do you have coming up after Sundance?

John: Well, the most important thing we have coming up is the Grammys, but also our record hasn't released overseas yet and we have that coming out in the first week of March. So we're heading over to Europe to promote it over there and we're extremely excited about that. We're curious to see if our presence over here is on par with our presence over there, so we'll find out.

Joy: We also have some new music coming out with the Finding North documentary, so there will be a soundtrack coming out for that, and we recently were able to lend some music as well to the soundtrack for The Hunger Games, so we have an original song on that as well as a co-written song with Taylor Swift, and T. Bone Burnett as well. So, there's new music coming down the pike and touring overseas and we keep crossing things off the bucket list.