INTERVIEW: Joy Williams finds the way back to her ‘Front Porch’

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Joy Williams, Civil Wars

Joy Williams. Courtesy: Andy Barron.

After her Grammy-winning and critically lauded Americana duo The Civil Wars abruptly imploded in 2014, singer-songwriter Joy Williams felt like she had to get out of Nashville, where the Santa Cruz native lived with her husband, Nate Yetton, and their young son, Miles. The city, where everyone in the music business knows everybody else, became claustrophobic.

Front Porch
Joy Williams
Thirty Tigers, May 3

The family settled in Venice Beach, living right off Abbott Kinney, “a stone’s throw away from the water.” The area reminded her of her hometown and was close to a center of music in Los Angeles, so she could continue to work and stay close to her parents in Northern California after her father was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer. In SoCal, Williams made her first post-Civil-Wars solo record, 2015’s uncharacteristically beat-heavy and electronic Venus.

“Part of my healing process of moving through what was really painful about the duo ending was that I felt like I needed to cleanse my palate; push myself and see what I was capable of,” Williams said, adding that she still created those songs the same way she had always done, with an acoustic guitar and her voice.

Her father passed away some time later, prompting Williams to question what her family was still doing in Venice Beach. She decided that the chapter in her life had ended, and it was time to return home—not to Santa Cruz but to Nashville.

“I remember saying to Nate that I wanna go back home. I’d never really called Nashville home, even though I’d lived here, off and on, for 18 years,” Williams said. “But that was a deep kind of return that is reflected in the music I have made. [Nashville is] where I’ve let the roots deep for my own family.”

That introspection and return led Williams to Front Porch, her forthcoming album (out May 3 on Thirty Tigers) that she created with the straightforward objective that everything on record could be performed without plugging in. When she was recording, she was also pregnant with her second child, Poppy.

Joy Williams made the record with the help of producers Kenneth Pattengale (of The Milk Carton Kids) and Matt Ross-Spang (who’s worked with a who’s who of Nashville artists from Margo Price to Jason Isbell and John Prine). She’d met the former while still with her Civil Wars bandmate John Paul White, but the two hadn’t spent much time together until a friend’s graduation party brought them together.

“I was talking about the record I was wanting to make and how I really wanted it to be a front porch experience; sparse but meaningful, that I was a stickler for harmonies, and that I was having a hard time finding a producer that really got some of the nuance and feel that I was going for,” she said.

On growing up in Santa Cruz:
“It’s in my bones. There’s no way that could ever get washed out of the fabric of who I am. I grew up surfing and hiking in the redwoods; driving over Highway 17 to go up to the City to shop for prom dresses. … My sister and my mother still live there so we go back often.”

A couple days later,gg they met at Cafe Roze in East Nashville and wound up talking for hours. Before the end of the night, Pattengale was committed to Front Porch. He introduced Williams to Ross-Spang. The two of them have kept her on track to make the album she wanted, something she could perform from the front porch of her house.

“What I really wanted to be able to do is just press record and sing,” she said. “I wanted things to be captured front to back, and full performances. I didn’t want to slice and dice the whole performance process. I wanted it to just feel as authentic as possible. Kenneth and Matt both helped pave the way for that. … [They’re] golden human beings with golden ears and a great sense of what sounds honest and authentic in the studio. I’ve never laughed harder in the studio than I did making this record.”

Writing together with close friends like Caitlyn Smith and Natalie Hemby, she found herself digging deep to her roots in gospel, which preceded the Civil Wars.

“The link throughout the whole record is the highs and lows, the ups and downs of [life’s] questions, and how we seldom come to the answers of what we call the human experience,” Williams said.

So far she’s released a few songs from the record. Williams wrote the haunting “The Trouble With Wanting,” about the devastation of desire, while sitting on her front porch with Hemby late one night. The song was inspired by another friend’s long-term on-again, off-again relationship, and is about how wanting something—anything—can cause one’s own suffering.

On playing Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” at shows:
“I was a product of the ‘80s but didn’t listen to the music of the ‘80s until I was a little bit older. But I’ve always loved that song, so when tour came around and I and my husband (and manager) were trying to figure out what would be a fun addition to the setlist that just felt like the right fit. I love the look of happy surprise on people’s faces when they finally connect what the song is.”

The uptempo “Canary,” is a more understated declaration, by Williams, to stand up for herself and those in a position of disadvantage and in need of a helping hand. She wanted to speak about her view of the collective angst of the times and lend her voice without adding to the noise, she said.

“I think there’s lots of ways to quietly riot,” she said. “I’ve been told many times, being a woman in the industry, or as a woman in general, in different seasons of my life, that my voice didn’t count. But something as small or seemingly insignificant as a canary in a coalmine is really the truth teller. There’s a great power in that.”

Williams gained a significant amount of growth to get to her Front Porch during her time healing in Southern California. And that began with the release of Venus, which she quickly followed up with an acoustic version.

“I was working through a lot of heavy things, in the sense of they were hard, and heavy in the sense of writing songs about becoming a mother,” she said. “There’s a depth and a breadth to that record that I will always be really proud of.”

On Front Porch, Williams was again touched about impending motherhood, an experience she shared with Caitlyn Smith, who created her own debut album while pregnant.

“She and I chuckled that somehow we both seem to … create music and create people in similar timeframes,” she said, laughing. “It can feel crazy and it can feel challenging, but at the same time, there must be some kind of generative energy that comes. I feel like in the studio, it focused me all the more. I get tears in my eyes when I think about the fact that when I was starting to record Front Porch, that week was the same week that Poppy was literally growing eardrums. Being in the studio within that timeframe also felt like it was full of beauty—on top of nausea.”

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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