Interview: Joy Williams Embraces ‘Deep Desire to Simplify’ on ‘Front Porch’
When Joy Williams set out to make her latest solo album, Front Porch, her recording mantra involved simplicity, and letting emotion and instinct take over.
"Before we would go in the studio I would sit everybody down and just remind them, 'Your empathy is going to be what guides you in how you play. So instead of thinking of a great part, I just want you to respond to what you're hearing. Don't react, respond,'" she tells The Boot.
That directive makes Front Porch Williams' most direct, affecting album yet. Sparse instrumentation — acoustic guitar, pedal steel, bass, mandolin — puts her plaintive, keening voice at the forefront, as she sings about transitions, rebirth and the emotional swells that keep life interesting.
Ahead of the release of Front Porch on Friday (May 3), Williams checked in from Nashville, where the hum of house construction and drilling buzzed around her from the street.
The Boot: You only moved back to Nashville a couple years ago too, right?
Joy Williams: Yeah. I was in Venice Beach, [Calif.], on and off for two-and-a-half, almost three years, but we kept the house here in Nashville. So we bought a house in Venice Beach, and then we also kept our house here. Venice is wild and wooly, and kind of hippy and grungy, which reminded me a lot of where I grew up in Santa Cruz. Venice Beach and Santa Cruz feel like cousins to me.
I was there because I wanted to be able to be in a place where I could do work, make music and be close to my dad while he was passing away slowly from cancer. That gave me the opportunity to do both, and take [my son] Miles to the beach and all that stuff. But then once he passed away, I felt like, "Why are we here? I don't want to be here anymore." I just really missed the community, and the seasons, and I missed feeling known by people that I had spent a decade-plus with, and really just the rootedness of that. And so when we came back, it just felt like I finally landed home, and I think Front Porch really came out of a lot of that feeling.
I was going to ask — with the last few years of moving and change and transition, how did that really shape how you wanted to approach your music going forward?
[My 2015 solo album] Venus, to me, was ... I felt like I really needed to cleanse my palate. I think that there was some fear and some damage that I had to heal from, and I wasn't ready to make the sounds that I'm feeling emboldened and feel confident to make now.
I also like to be creative and push myself as well, so Venus was sort of my stretch, that big stretch that you take. Then after the big stretch, you take a big breath and [takes a deep breath] you relax. [Laughs.] Once I realized I am capable of making this kind of music, but where's my sweet spot?
I will never forget my mom telling me, "The thing with you is, you don't need to try harder; you need to try less." That really started resonating with me as we moved back from Venice Beach. I just felt this deep desire to simplify, to not add to, but to really subtract in a way that felt the most meaningful.
"I just felt this deep desire to simplify, to not add to, but to really subtract in a way that felt the most meaningful."
That fanned out into every avenue of my life: taking my son to school every day, and finding the rainbow in the bubble while I was doing the dishes, and sitting out in the grass and just reading books to my son. In the last few years, what I've been realizing is, it's all the little things that evolve into the really big moments of our lives.
That just seeped into the music. I wasn't rushed in how I made it, in terms of how and when I wrote songs. I was very slow and steady with that process, and I likened it to farming with my co-writers, just planting one seed one spot at a time, and not looking back, just go to the next one. I would wait, at times, for months until the people that I wanted to write with were available. I felt like slow and steady was where the goodness was going to be for me.
When I thought about the sonic content of the record, I just thought, I really do love the way that melody comes out for me when it's largely a more stripped-back approach. I feel like I'm able to tell more of my truth that way.
So when I went in to write with these co-writers, this band of really golden souls, I would tell them honestly that my whole guardrail for this is, "If I can't play it on a front porch, it's probably not for me." That's when, halfway through my writing process, the great Liz Rose was like, "Have you written a song called "Front Porch" yet?" [Laughs.] Which I had not, up to that point.
I think that there's a simplicity, but, hopefully, a fullness within that, that you hear on the record. I don't know, it feels like a front porch. It's like, take your shoes off, no pretense needed here, just pull up a rocking chair and come join me. I got nothing to sell you on, there's nothing to prove, let's just be together for awhile. That just felt like such an easy place to create from.
What you're describing, it's like if you're sitting on the porch, living in the present. Like, if it's a warm summer night, you just want to sit out there, you want it to last forever. You're not thinking, "Oh my gosh, what do I have to do tomorrow?" You're reveling and enjoying in the moment. But that is so difficult to slow down and do that.
I think lingering is where beauty grows, in the gratitude. You know? Maybe it's a reason why some of us like to have a glass of wine over dinner; it makes you slow down. It's the reason why we like rocking chairs as opposed to escalators in our homes. Even though in this busy world — and I can be distracted just as much as anybody else can with two kids and a career — but it's the slowing down that makes me really able to absorb the beauty in what's happening, and find the gratitude that keeps me light even if things are dark.
These are things I like to toy with when I write as well. It's like, "The Trouble with Wanting," it's the ache of desire. How do you access that and talk about it truthfully? How do you remember where you came from, with a song like "Preachers Daughter," and be, like, no-holds-barred about it? What does it look like to talk about the difficulties in a long-term relationship? And when do you know when to hold on and when to let go? When does the heart move on? If you don't linger for a moment to ponder this stuff, then you miss it, and then you're just bulldozing through. Some people do really great things, I suppose, or build big corporations doing that, but that's just never been me. I have to sit and stop for a moment and take stock of what's happening around me in order to be present in the way that I live, and love, and parent, and create.
"It's the slowing down that makes me really able to absorb the beauty in what's happening, and find the gratitude that keeps me light even if things are dark."
And all of those things are not things to rush into either. If you're making big decisions, or weighing big decisions, you really need to live it and kind of savor it, like you said, because those are the type of things that you cannot take lightly. I think there's something to that too.
Over time, the decisions that you make, and how and why, they will line up to opening up whole new chapters of your life. I think that's a sacred path. I'd like to say I take what I do seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously. [Laughs.] So it's sort of toying as well, like as if you had Play-Doh in your hands. It's like, "What can we do this emotion? What can we do with this human experience that I'm fairly certain I'm not the only person that's ever felt this way?"
Besides working with Liz, I know that you also wrote with Caitlyn Smith and Natalie Hemby. What did working with them …
I love Natalie's solo record from a few years ago …
I mean, I just love her. [Laughs.]
These are such golden souls. I count such a total extravagance in my life, and a treasure in my life, to have those women in my life. Not just from a songwriting perspective. But I really did feel very intentional about wanting more women to write with on this record. It felt extremely important to me on so many levels. I felt like there was a nature of … the nature nuance and truth-telling in a way that, I don't know, I think is really beautiful when you gather women together.
I love writing with men as well, but I just felt this deep instinct within my animal body that I needed to write with women. I love what we came up with, and it felt so effortless to do it. We laughed and we cried, and we did it all over again. And we go out to dinner, and we give each other baby presents. It's not just in the vacuum of a cold, sterile studio. I think there's something also that you maybe can feel when you hear these songs as well, is that they were written in conversations with people that know me well, and I think you can hear that.
That's so helpful too, because that makes you more comfortable as you're talking about weightier things, and going through transitions. And it makes you a little safer in a way. It's like you're hanging with your friends, and they're bringing things out of you and creating a safe, creative environment.
Yeah. Then just some of them happen to be total badasses on top of it, which is a total benefit. [Laughs.]
Cherry on top.
As you're talking, and having read about this album, there's such an interesting circle-of-life thing. You recorded Front Porch when you were pregnant with your second child, and you're birthing an album and a child. How much of these parallels occurred to you during the recording process? And how did you find them, if so, kind of influencing it?
I tend to be one of those weird people that likes to create in tandem. I toured so heavily with the Civil Wars when I was pregnant. I found out I was pregnant two days into a 50-city tour with my first [child], and toured all the way up until Bonnaroo , when I was due in, like, a week and a half from then. I seem somehow to get this odd inspiration.
And I guess it was similar with this season as well. I've been writing for a long period of time, but I looked back over the row of seeds that I planted of songs, and realized that they'd all been growing in the same row, and that they could sound really cohesive together as a project, and that was right around the time that I found out that I was pregnant.
I'm not one of those "roses and unicorns" pregnant people. I get sick 24 hours a day for up to six to seven months. But I thought, you know what, it's already ... I'd met Kenneth [Pattengale, my producer], and that had been such a total serendipitous moment where it was like, I absolutely know that we're supposed to make this record together. Everything was lining up — and I was dog sick. And I thought, "You know what? This is gonna keep me even more honest as I sing. And this is gonna keep me from being precious, overly precious, in any way about this. And I think this could actually be to my benefit, and to the music's benefit, if I don't resist where I'm at."
So we went into the studio, and I had already rehearsed all these songs for two months prior with my guitar player, Anthony da Costa, so we had them really, really sorted. I knew all I had to do was just go in and sing. All the other players were so empathic that I had a great instinct that everything would fall into place as I needed it to. So I sat on a stool and drank ginger tea and just sang. And it felt like the easiest thing. We laughed for hours, and we recorded 15 songs in five days. I've actually never had that much fun in studio. Nausea included.
It just felt like this magic was drifting over the record for me. I'd like to think that some of that was just the beautiful presence of my son coming in the studio after school, and my daughter, who I didn't know was a daughter at the time, but knowing that my baby's eardrums were developing that same week that I stepped into the studio. It just brought a whole different kind of ... like, celebration to the process.
I think back to singing "When Creation Was Young," and I wrote that far before I was ever pregnant, thinking, "This could actually really apply to my daughter, to my baby, who I have yet to see." As mothers, we have this sense, like, I loved you before I even meet you. I just feel like her fingerprints are all over this project.
At times I've had people ask me if motherhood is an impediment to my career, or to my creativity, and I would say that it's actually the opposite. It encourages me to work smarter, and it's greatly influenced my creativity.
It makes you realize what matters. Like, "Am I going to fuss over this?" It kind of makes you prioritize things.
Absolutely. Who's got time to be fussy? I ain't got no time for that. [Laughs.] I used to have time for that. I used to spend 30 minutes in front of the mirror getting ready before I had kids, and now I'm like, "What is this? Oh, mascara! I remember this." [Laughs.]
"Does my shirt have something on it? Oh, okay, no, it's clean. Good, let's go."
Actually, now it's like, "Oh, I only have one spit-up stain on my shirt. Okay, I can go out now."
All that being said, were there any challenges involved with doing an album so simple and stripped back? I love the idea of creating under limitations sometimes, because I think that really brings out some wonderful ideas. But were there any challenges?
I'll never forget — this is years ago when I was recording with the Civil Wars — I remember we brought in the incomparable Barry Bales to play upright. He was playing these amazing parts, and I had to chime in and say, "Barry, this sounds really great, but I need to play more simply." After we got the takes that we needed, he came into the studio and listened back, and he agreed that that actually sounded more cohesive. He looked at me and he grinned and he went, "Playing simple is real hard." I'll never forget that because there is a kind of restraint that is required when you're setting out to make something speak and yet be simple.
"Your empathy is going to be what guides you in how you play ... Don't react, respond."
So there were moments when I — along with Kenneth's help, of course — but I was very much allowed to lead in this way, and would sit the players down before we went in because we tracked everything live. I wanted it that way; I wanted it to be as front-to-back live as was humanly possible.
Before we would go in the studio I would sit everybody down and just remind them, "Your empathy is going to be what guides you in how you play. So instead of thinking of a great part, I just want you to respond to what you're hearing. Don't react, respond." And the players were amazing in that regard. Scott Mulvahill, John Mailander, Russ Pahl and Kenneth Pattengale jumped in, and Anthony da Costa. Caitlin Canty came in and did background vocals at a certain point, and Matt Ross-Sprang was at the helm as the engineer, and it just felt like we all knew what direction we wanted the boat to go in. The challenge wasn't so much how do we get there, it was, let's just be patient because we know that we will.
It can be scary. There's a couple parts on the record where, from my singer standpoint, I think, "Man, I could've approached that differently." But I listen to it as a whole, and I go, "No, that tells the truth." The challenge I would say, probably — the biggest challenge — was probably how to quell my nausea and how to continually work with my recovering perfectionism. But I think thankfully both of those things were able to be worked with.
Here's Who Else Is Releasing New Music in 2019