The alt-country songstress talks about how lust, hard living, and heartache are at the ''Essence'' of her music
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Lucinda Williams
Credit: Lucinda Williams: Alison Dyer

In this excerpt of a story from EW’s June 15, 2001, issue, editor at large Gordinier spends a night in Nashville with Williams.

”You know the day destroys the night/ night divides the day…”

The sun’s down and we’re cruising in Nashville in Lucinda Williams’ truck, listening to the Doors. ”I’ve been in this Doors mode lately,” she says. ”It’s erotic. Erotic. I don’t know. It’s so sexy.”

A few minutes later she’s parking the Silverado when I ask whether she’s dating anyone. ”No,” she says with a profound chest heave. A pause, then a monologue of amazing vulnerability and sweetness. ”That doesn’t come easily for me because men are all afraid of me,” she says. ”That’s the only way I can figure it out. It’s a real dilemma. They get drawn in but then they get scared…. It’s horrible being single in this day and age. It’s not like it used to be. There’s a real fear of intimacy in this world — it’s just horrible. I’ve heard everything from ‘Let’s just be friends for now’ to ‘I love you but it doesn’t fit into my agenda right now.”’

Those twin obsessions, lust and heartbreak, simmer close to Lucinda’s skin — in song and in conversation. The spur for ”Essence,” in fact, was her breakup last spring with her boyfriend of almost six years, bass player Richard Price. ”Any time there’s a major change, whether it’s going into a relationship, getting out of a relationship, moving to a new city, a death — that usually provides a catalyst for an explosion of creativity,” she says.

After a five-year dry spell — time chewed up by the perfection and promotion of ”Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the soul-baring Stars ‘n’ Bars travelogue that went gold and won a Grammy — she suddenly plopped down at the kitchen table in the early summer of 2000 and started banging out new songs (”Lonely Girls,” ”Steal Your Love”) and bringing old stragglers to completion (”Out of Touch,” ”Bus to Baton Rouge”). (Granted, there was plenty of emotional material bottled up; in the wake of ”Car Wheels” her old band split up and her longtime drummer, Donald Lindley, died of cancer.) ”I thought I was going to go to the desert,” she says. ”I never made it out of my condo, much less out of Nashville.”

Much of the work poured out in a marathon fortnight. She finished the rest over six weeks.

For a woman with an elastic sense of time — and deadlines — this was weird. ”I couldn’t believe it, at first,” she says. ”I thought, I don’t know, are the songs good enough?” She took heart from ”Time Out of Mind,” the 1997 album on which the wonder bard shaved down his lyrics to a kind of stark, shuffling, Gary Cooper on his deathbed haiku. ”It’s just a different approach to writing. It’s more about the groove and the melody, and everything’s a lot more sparse,” she says. ”It was real liberating for me to get to that place with these new songs, because at first I was kind of questioning it. Like ‘Are You Down.’ Four little bitty verses that I then repeat. My first thought was, Well, this is a good idea for a song, but I have to fill it in. And somehow I got to this place where I just went, You know, this is cool like it is. I’m just gonna let it go.”

She let it go in the studio, too, nailing ”Essence”’s basic tracks with members of Dylan’s and Neil Young’s touring bands in five or six days — the sweet relief of surrender after the slowpoke agony of ”Car Wheels.” The crushing ballad ”Broken Butterflies” transpired in one take, with no rehearsals. ”When that song arrived, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a moment like that in the studio,” says producer Bo Ramsey, who oversaw the basic tracks. ”It was magical.”

Which is not to say that ”Essence” came easily; Lucinda stayed in Minneapolis throughout the iciest months to squint over every nuance of the overdubbing and mixing process. ”Poor thing, she was there forever,” says ”Essence”’s producer and guitarist Charlie Sexton. ”She went there to do the record, and by damn, she wasn’t leaving ’til it was done.” Says Ramsey: ”She’s very intense in the studio, and very meticulous, but at the end of the day I have an appreciation for it, because her instincts are so good. She’d hear something that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t hear, and if she thought it was wrong, she would stay with it until it was fixed.”

There’s fiscal security in Lucinda’s life now, rental fluctuations aside: She’s the flagship artist at Universal’s twang oriented Lost Highway label after years of being kicked from one dubious deal to another. But that just means that her old style of self-inflicted, sweat-the-small-stuff wretchedness feels more like the thumbscrew than the rack. ”I’m always going to be tortured, no matter how much money I make,” she says. ”Don’t worry about that. There’s enough torture to go around and last me for the rest of my life.”

For more on Lucinda Williams, read this story in its entirety in Entertainment Weekly.

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