Lucinda Williams Gets in Touch with ‘Angels’ and Anger on a Harder-Rocking New Album

With a bluesier new record, "Good Souls, Better Angels," just out, Williams tells Variety about the album's rawer sound, her raw nerves about Donald Trump, why she wrote more explicitly about domestic abuse, and the neighborliness of her new home, Nashville.

Lucinda Williams Variety Facetime
Danny Clinch

Lucinda Williams had “blues” in an album title as far back as her second release, 1980’s “Happy Woman Blues,” but it took until 2020 for her to truly get as bluesy — in an electrified, garage-y kind of way — as she does on her new album, “Good Souls Better Angels.” It’s as raw and hard-rocking an album as she’s made, thanks to the fact that she cut it on the quick with her touring band and co-producers Ray Kennedy, one of the guiding lights behind her 1998 classic “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” and Tom Overby, her husband and manager. Williams spoke with Variety from her new home in Nashville, the city she recently moved back to after decades in Los Angeles.

VARIETY: This feels like your hardest-edged, blues-iest album — do you feel like that way about it?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, this is really kind of the album I’ve always wanted to make. I love the grungy sound of the blues thing. I think it was a combination of the style of the songs and then Ray Kennedy’s expertise at getting this kind of vintage sound. We didn’t even know for sure if we were going to record the whole album with Ray Kennedy at his studio, but he just invited us and said come check it out and see what you think. Part of it was his studio, which is a very rudimentary, no-frills kind of studio, and then he’s got a collection of all these vintage guitars and vintage amplifiers. With a lot of the songs I’d be playing a 1950s guitar going to a 1950s amp, and that gave it a certain sound. The other thing that sets this album apart is the fact that it’s just my touring band. We were in between two tours, so we kept them over for a few extra days and went in. I thought I wanted to bring some people in to do some harmony and add this and that, but everybody said, “We should just leave it like it is.” It gives it that certain garage-rock sound.

Did you have any doubts about putting the album out now?

Somebody I was talking to said, “Well, this is exactly the right time to put an album out,” because of the pandemic and everything. In a way, the timing probably couldn’t be better, for this particular album, because of the nature of the songs. “Man Without a Soul” was the first song that people heard off the album, and everybody’s reaction was like, “This is exactly how I felt. Thank you, this really helped.” People are asking me things like, “Well, how did you know?” — like it’s so prophetic or something.

It’s not a stretch to see “Man Without a Soul” as being a song about Trump. 

With that song, people go, “Oh, that’s about Trump.” And you know, I guess it kind of is, but it’s really just kind of about that type of person. In fact, Tom was like, “Don’t tell everybody it’s about Trump!” And I go, “I’m not —everybody’s telling me!” [Laughs.] And then he goes, “Well, it doesn’t have to be about Trump. It could be about Mitch McConnell, too.” It’s kind of like: pick one! But we posted that song to Facebook along with an article that came out in the New York Times called “Has Anyone Found Trump’s Soul?” And all these hate comments came up: “I thought Lucinda had compassion. She wrote that song ‘Compassionate,’ and she shouldn’t be writing a song like this.“ Or, “She needs to stay out of politics and just write songs and be a musician. I was a fan of hers before, but not anymore.” And I was just like, what? I mean, God, first of all, anybody who’s a fan of mine, I thought they know where I stood on things. I guess I’ve had fans like that and didn’t know that. For some reason, this song apparently pushed a button. I kind of like pushing people’s buttons; I feel like, you know, wake up! I guess I’m going to lose some fans with this album, but to hell with it.

Tom has been coming up with ideas for songs, and “Man Without a Soul” was one of them. At first I said, “Everybody’s got a soul!” He responded two ways. He said, “Well, I don’t know if everybody has a soul,” and then he goes, “Just look at it as an expression. It doesn’t have to be taken literally.” I was a little resistant at first. It reminded me of that line in that Neil Young song where he says, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”

The songs aren’t overtly political, but there are deep undertones. Do you think of it as topical? There’s a big overlap, mood-wise, between the traditional “hellhound of my tail” feeling of the blues you’re sometimes referring to and then just feeling a sense of foreboding about the world right now.

Yeah, that’s how I feel about it. But I was starting to write more songs about humanity and problems before this. On my album “Blessed,” I wrote this song “Soldier Song,” which is probably one of my more obscure songs, but that was an antiwar song. And with “Born to be Loved” and even the song “Blessed,” I was kind of starting to experiment with writing songs about things besides unrequited love. I’ve always wanted to do that anyway, ever since 1965 when I started listening to Bob Dylan and he had all these great protest or topical songs like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “With God on Our Side” and songs like that. And I always wanted to kind of explore that area more, you know? But I guess people aren’t used to it. I hate to talk about the ‘60s like, “Oh, I remember the ‘60s, how great it was” — but it was!

But if I was going to pick a song that I would’ve said, “Should I put this on the album?,” it would be “Wakin’ Up,” just in terms of the brashness of it lyrically.

“Wakin’ Up” is about domestic abuse. Had you wanted to write about that for a while?

It was about this relationship that I was in, and I’d actually touched on it a couple of earlier songs, “Jailhouse Tears” and “Buttercup,” which were kind of more humorous looks at it. And then I came up with this song. I needed to get it out of my system. There was obviously some anger. I felt self-conscious about it a little, like I’m airing my dirty laundry. But we all know other people who’ve been through similar situations.

It’s hard to admit that you were stupid enough to get involved with somebody like that. This guy was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and he would threaten me and do that thing like you see in the movies where somebody puts their arm around your neck. I remember sitting in the kitchen counter on a barstool, and he came over and just pulled the chair out— like just this weird kind of psychotic thing. And so, you know, that lasted, I mean, that went on, you know, for… I mean, all of that didn’t start till right before the end of things. and then, but I’ve found myself and now I understand the battered women syndrome thing. And he’d wake up the next day and he doesn’t remember anything, you know. You tell him what happened. He goes, “Really? God, I’m so sorry baby. Oh, that’ll, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. That will never happen again.”

You kind of just numb yourself. I, like a lot of other people, used to think, “Oh, it’s just a certain kind of woman who gets stuck in something like that.” But no —I’m smart, I’m aware, and it happened to me. There are certain things in our society that are still a little taboo that people don’t want to talk about. And really this is another form of mental illness. It can cause all kinds of behavioral problems.

And I dealt with a lot of that with my mother. Now, she wasn’t physically abusive, but she would go off and drink and kind of disappear, and not be emotionally available for me. So it’s one of those things that’s harder to talk about, I guess. But I’m able to write songs and talk about it that way. Thank God I have an outlet for these things, you know?

Here I was listening to “Wakin’ Up” and thinking the line about pulling the chair out from under you was a metaphor.

Yeah, it’s actually really literal. My bass player goes, “Lu, just be prepared that you’re going to have to talk about this if you put it on the album.” But it needs to be out there.

There is a lot of darkness and foreboding on the album, but it’s also fun and driving, musically, which can be a challenging balance to strike.

Exactly. Well, I think that’s what some of my favorite artists forever to do, people who I grew up listening to, like the Doors, Jim Morrison’s stuff. And another later on, a band that I just fell madly in love with when they first came out, was Talking Heads — David Byrne’s stuff (had depth), but it was danceable. And Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders too, you know? I love that juxtaposition between the darker lyrics and the upbeat kind of music. Thievery Corporation is another favorite band of mine who Tom turned me on to. They have this song that I covered, that I do live sometimes, called “Marching the Hate Machine Into the Sun.” It’s basically an anti-war song, and the lyrics are written by Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. That’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me. War on Drugs is another band favorite.

We’ve lost a couple of important music figures to the coronavirus recently, and more importantly, you’ve lost them, since you knew both John Prine and Hal Willner (who produced her 2007 album “West”).

Well, we found out about both of their deaths on the same day. Of course with John, we were a little more prepared, but it still didn’t make it any easier. We knew he was in the hospital and we knew he contracted the virus. But we still thought, “He’s going to beat this. He’s strong and he’s beat cancer twice.” And so we thought it was going to be okay. Part of it is we were kind of prepared with John’s passing, and then the other part of us thought he would beat it.

But with Hal’s death, we had no idea at all that he contracted the virus. It was just “Hal Willner is dead.” That’s the one that Tom and I both were having a hard time kind of dealing with the reality of, because it was so sudden and unexpected. But to hear about both of their deaths on the same day was just surreal. We’re both still reeling from the news. Hal, the last product that I worked on him with hasn’t been released — which is classic Hal. It was a T. Rex tribute album, and I recorded their song live to DAT. It still hasn’t come out because he kept inviting more and more artists to come in and do tracks, which is what he would always do with projects. Whatever project he had started, he would just keep building on it and building on it.

And then the last time I saw John Prine was in November when we went to do this music festival that he and his wife Fiona put on in the Dominican Republic, and I got invited to go play with my band. I’m glad I was able to do that even more now, because I got to see John and Fiona and hug John. It’s too soon for both of them.

How is the sheltering in place going? You moved back to Nashville, right?

Yeah. We were spending quite a bit of time here, between L.A. and Nashville. And so we just thought we better quit spending money staying in a hotel, and go ahead and get something here. So we’re here and we’re actually renting our house out in L.A. right now. One of the reasons we were spending more time here because of between tours, a lot of times we ended up in Nashville; the tour bus would end up here because the buses all live here. Flying back and forth into L.A. and dealing with LAX and the drive from the airport to the house was just so stressful, and then when we would get there, we just never would really see anybody — you know how L.A. is just so spread out. And most of the people we deal with now with our business are all based in Nashville, and so many people we know have moved here or moved back here. I lived here in the ‘90s and I never thought I would be moving back, but it’s like a whole different place now. And when you’re in town, it’s easier too, like going out to hear bands. I still love L.A. What’s not to love, with the weather? But it’s just easier here.

Does it make a difference for the near future which city you’re stuck in, if everyone is stuck?

Well, I’m glad that we’re stuck here. The first thing that happened when we were here was when the tornado hit. We’d just moved into the house. We were completely overcome with emotion when we saw perfect strangers showing up to help after the tornado. That community spirit and the neighborly things, I’d kind of forgotten how that was. Just little things like our trash cans got blown away in the tornado, and we had to order some more, and it took several weeks for them to arrive. In the meantime, the man behind us —there’s like a sort of an alley that runs behind; we’re in a really old neighborhood called Lockeland Springs, and all the houses were built in the ‘20s and ’30s, with the trash cans in alleys in the back — this older black man says, “Oh, you can use my trash can, just put it in there for now.” That kind of thing.

Tom and I haven’t left the house, and we’ve been able to take advantage of the time that we’re not out on the road to get to do all the press as well as working on songs. Tom and I are night owls, so we stay up late watching TV. I watch and read the news, and all the Trump stuff is just un-freaking-believable. It’s bad enough, the pandemic, and then we also have to have the situation in the White House. We’ve had problems since this country was settled… but It’s unprecedented, really, all of this. Gotta get to the polls, people! Vote blue, no matter who.