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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Lucinda Williams Counts Her Blessings (And Some Woes)

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Though Lucinda Williams titled her new album Blessed, and she counts the many ways in which blessings come on its title track, she’s still far from the soft and mushy fool in love that some feared she’d become after she finally found domestic bliss. Not our Lucinda.

In fact, the roots-rock songwriter starts out her new album, due March 1 on Lost Highway Records, with a rather vicious kiss-off, “Buttercup,” then moves into “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’,” another song about her troubled brother la “Are You Alright,” from her 2007 album, West. The third track is “Copenhagen,” which begins with the line, “Thundering news hits me like a snowball striking my face and shattering.”

“I wrote that about my late manager, Frank Callari, who died suddenly when we were touring over in Europe,” Williams explains, actually rather cheerily, via phone from her Los Angeles home. But clearly, she hasn’t lost her talent for using vivid imagery to express pain—or the need to get it out in song.

“I don’t sit down and think of a theme before I go in to write,” she continues. “It’s whatever’s goin’ on in my life at that time. Unfortunately, there’s sad stuff that goes on. I mean, that’s why I’m an artist to begin with. It’s like writing a journal for me or something; I just have to get it out of my system.”

Another song, “Seeing Black,” was inspired by her friend Vic Chesnutt’s suicide; he died on Christmas Day 2009. Its opening verse:

How did you come up with the date and time?

You didn't tell me you changed your mind

How could I have been so blind?

I didn't know you changed your mind.

“I think I found out about it when I was in the middle of writing songs,” she says. “It was very sudden and startling and upsetting.”

Thoughts of mortality permeate Blessed. Even the closing love song, “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” contains finality in its words, as she recounts the special nature of each passing season with lines like, “We’ll never see a yellow so rich. … There will never be another kiss like your kiss.”

“These things are gonna happen and, of course, the older you get, the more strange or different things you’re gonna experience in life,” Williams observes. “I just turned 58 (in January), so of course I’m gonna see life differently than I did when I was 48 and 38 and 28.”

Then there’s the devastating “Soldier’s Song,” inspired in part by Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” as well as Williams’ newly acquired habit: reading the newspaper—“the actual, physical newspaper,” she says. Reading so much about war, she started thinking about how soldiers spend their days, and who they think about.

“I’m always coming up with ideas; I’m never at a loss for that,” Williams says. “But I don’t sit and finish a song; I don’t say, ‘OK, I’m gonna write a song a day or a song a week,’ or whatever. I just keep ideas. I write everything down.”

Blessed
is a departure in one respect: Except for one incendiary Elvis Costello guitar solo on “Seeing Black,” there’s no barnburner cut, no “Get Right With God” or “Joy.” That wasn’t intentional. “I just go where the song wants to go,” Williams says. But despite the lack of rockers, there is, she notes, an intensity to this one.

“It kind of reminded me of a Jim Morrison vibe, almost, with some of (the songs),” she says.

Morrison, of course, thought of himself as a poet. Williams has the same gene; her father is renowned poet Miller Williams. But she says writing lyrics really is different than writing poetry. Every time she tries to pen a poem and then shows it to her dad, “He says, ‘Honey, I think it wants to be a song.’”

Williams and her father have done a few evenings of shared poetry and song, however, and he wrote the vows for her 2009 wedding to her manager, Tom Overby, onstage at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, Overby’s hometown.

At the wedding, Williams and her band performed a concert, and following a couple of solo songs for an encore, her dad came out and read a poem.

“It was really fun, really fun,” she recalls. Then they got back on the tour bus and continued to the next town.

Williams admits that her and her husband occasionally butt heads, just like any married couple, but “you work through it,” she says.

And then you count your blessings. And maybe put them in a song.

Lucinda Williams plays a solo acoustic show on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Turner Hall Ballroom with opener Dylan LeBlanc.