I admittedly hadn’t paid much attention to Nashville duo The Civil Wars, until word started getting out about the internal discord between Joy Williams and John Paul White late last year. After making a Grammy-winning album, Barton Hollow, there were separating due to “irreconcilable differences of ambition,” a phrase that suggested a myriad of scenarios.
Upon hearing their powerful new self-titled album–possibly the last music they will make together–I was more than a little curious to speak with Williams about what had happened over the past year. Here’s the full transcript of our conversation.
The obvious question, bluntly, is what is the status of you and John Paul?
The reality is, I don’t know. I wish I had a more concrete, happy answer. I have hope for the band, but at the moment we’re not on speaking terms, and I wish that that were different. I would be willing to have a dialogue, and I hope at some point we’ll be able to find a place to meet in the middle and that there can be some reconciliation there. I’m very hopeful of that. In the meantime, John Paul’s at home with his family and I’m at home with my family. As difficult as it was to take a hiatus, it was a mutual decision. It’s really brought some clarity that I think I’ve needed, but what’s a marvel to me is that in the midst of all that the music was still a binding force between John Paul and me. Even out of that distress in some ways we managed to create something really powerful and moving and emotional and honest—even more so I think than Barton Hollow.
It’s got to be a surreal experience for you right now having the new album come out with so many expectations. What can you tell me about that?
It’s incredibly uncomfortable; I’ve shed many tears about it. There’s moments when I’ve been angry, and there’s moments when I’ve looked back and wished I’d gone about things in a different way from my end. I feel like I’m learning a lot in the process. It’s life lessons that are the uncomfortable times, but are the necessary times. On top of that, I really find myself missing the road. I have great hope that there will be a chance John Paul and I will be able to mend fences and be able to perform these songs, because the music deserves it. I’m so proud of this project, and I don’t want the back story of what John Paul and I are working through individually to overshadow the caliber of the music. I really believe it merits an opportunity to be heard. If we had made a record that neither of us were proud of, we would not have put it out. I’m so proud of this project, and it’s an uncomfortable place to be, but I keep saying this is an opportunity to grow wiser and kinder and become an even stronger band for going through this. It’s not as if anything is determined at this time; it’s not over, it’s not done. A deep breath was needed.
You mention missing the road, and you guys obviously had a really intense few years of constant work. Most of the speculation about the hiatus always seems to dwell on the fact that you and John Paul had families as well. Was it all getting to be too much?
I would say it was both personal and professional pressures just continuing to build. It wasn’t just one thing that tipped the scales. The work was something that was starting to become a challenge, but again, there wasn’t anything we hadn’t agreed to do. We found great pleasure during the moments when we were on stage and performing. But hitting the road that hard, it can only take a toll over time if you’re not keeping other things in balance. For me, at a certain point in time I lost sight a little bit of taking care of myself and tending to relationships that mattered most to me. My husband, who is our manager, was traveling on the road with us the whole time, and I think this hiatus has been needed even in the context of my marriage. On the professional side, when you work so closely with another person, as John Paul and I have—it’s not like we had a band to bounce off of—that dynamic can be a lot to handle when you have a difference of opinion or a difference of ambition. There’s a phrase I heard that best describes it for me: small hinges on a very large door.
Would you say that much of this album was created in the heat of that tension?
I remember the week before Barton Hollow was released, John Paul and I sitting down and writing some more, because that is what we did. We find magic when we write together, so we were compelled to keep writing and finding that magic in the creative sense. So, we wrote for quite a long time and compiled songs that are largely on this album. We wrote all the way up until we basically stepped into the studio. That week before Barton Hollow was released, we were writing up at Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, and we didn’t stop writing until my son Miles was in a bassinette in the living room. I remember sitting in the screened-in porch of my house and asking John Paul to play quietly so he didn’t wake my son up. It was a long arc.
Many artists have told me that their creative process changes when they have their first child. Was that the case for you?
I feel like having Miles only enhanced my love of music and my ambition to create, and to show him a world that is so beautiful and vast and full of things to discover. There’s been a lot of assumptions made about the reasons for the hiatus, and one of those is that I just couldn’t handle having a baby and being on the road at the same time. But that’s not the case. Like I said, my husband was traveling with us and we had a nanny with us, and I was enjoying the process of being a mom on the road. I look forward to going back out on the road again and showing Miles more of the world. So, my ambition level didn’t wane having a child, my ambition level actually grew.
For a group with a traditionally based sound, you were embraced almost immediately by the mainstream. Was that a little overwhelming as well?
It was more thrilling than overwhelming. We’ve been able to meet and work with people that we’ve either admired for years or become recent fans of, and been embraced by such a large mass of people on a global scale. That’s been so thrilling. John Paul and I were both solo artists before we linked arms and never experienced even a fraction of the acceptance of this music that we happened to stumble into making. I think that’s another reason to keep holding out hope and believing in the future for us, because so many people have been so supportive. That doesn’t just happen. Combined with a lot of hard work and all of the wonderful people that are part of our team, that felt like lightning in a bottle as an artist. To be accepted on that scale was nothing short of jaw dropping.
Did you see an immediate effect from, say, the track you did with Taylor Swift for The Hunger Games soundtrack?
Yeah, whether it was writing with Taylor or touring with Adele, or having musicians we loved mentioning us or Tweeting about us, it was all very surreal. Word of mouth is really the way this band got started. It wasn’t just people in the music world talking about us, it was word of mouth online. It was friends telling their friends and family members telling their family members. It was girlfriends bringing their boyfriends to see us live—sometimes when we’d do meet-and-greets those guys would tell us they felt like they were getting dragged, but they really enjoyed it when they were experiencing it. It’s a really sweet thing, and honestly, it makes me kind of emotional. I really ache over the fact that there isn’t a tour for this album, at least not right now. I’d love to be on the road and saying hi to so many people who have been so supportive. And Canada has been among the most supportive places.
Well, we’re patient up here.
You are patient! And with your winters, you guys are brave. I grew up in northern California, and when I hear winter and Canada in the same sentence, I shudder.
Have you done a coast-to-coast tour here?
We didn’t, as much as I would have liked to. I did a few things way back in the day, a whole other lifetime ago, when I was in Canada and really enjoyed it. There were some beautiful parts of the country that were unlike anywhere else I’d ever been. But that just sounds like I’m being ingratiating.
No, not at all. I think your sound fits in perfectly with our musical traditions here.
I guess that’s true. The first song that John Paul ever sang together was Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” It’s in our veins too.
So, what do you think it will take to get you and John Paul on stage together again?
I can’t really give a definitive answer to that out of respect for John Paul, but for me it wouldn’t take that much. I’m a firm believer in the power of reconciliation and forgiveness. If I knew the answer to how this could all get sewn back together, I think I would have already done it. I’m trying to figure it out myself. I’m very much in the process of it, and feeling it all. There are days when I feel hopeless and discouraged, and days when I feel strength and tons of hope that I’ll find clarity.