INTERVIEW: The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams Discusses New Album And Band Hiatus

The Civil Wars have been living up to their namesake during these last few months. In November the duo announced an indefinite hiatus from touring due to “irreconcilable differences of ambition,” and now Joy Williams is facing some inner turmoil of her own.

While thrilled about the release of the group’s second self-titled album, the songstress is also in mourning for the loss of her musical partnership with band-mate John Paul White. “Nerves, excitement, curiosity, anticipation,” are just a few of the emotions she lists prior to the record hitting the streets on Tuesday. “I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t mention that it also feels bittersweet, too, what with where we find ourselves as a band right now. Still, I am so proud of this project, and really believe in what John Paul and I created. There’s a lot of heart and soul infused into this record.”

Williams describes the follow-up to their 2011 smash debut Barton Hallow as  “harmony laced, genre-bending emotional roots music, best listened to with a glass of something tasty in your hand.” But despite the harmony on the tracks, she admits to the discord between them personally. “We still recorded together, in the same room, like we did on Barton Hollow. But the dynamic of creating had shifted since the last time we were in studio.” Yet the strained relations between the artists ended up aiding the creative process, producing something totally unexpected, unique and wonderful. “We didn’t have as much ease between us, so we had to really focus on communicating our ideas and working hard to finding middle ground. It took a lot of energy, honestly. We both have very different work styles, but I’d like to think that creative tension actually ended up serving the album well in the end. In my opinion, we created something even more raw and aching and real than anything we’ve done to date.”

Considering that the Civil Wars earned a Grammy double whammy (Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo) with their very first full-length collection, it was impossible not to feel the heat when they went into the studio for round two. The band could have easily taken the “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” approach to recording new material and essentially copy-and-pasted their pleasingly acoustic soundscape, but that was the furthest thing from Joy’s mind. “I remember personally feeling a lot of pressure recording this new album. Not just from the Grammy nod, but internally, creatively. I’m the type of person that always wants to plow new ground, move forward, go deeper. I laid awake many nights during recording thinking of ways we could do that on this album. I’m thankful to say that I think we did.”

The new record showcases the expansion of the group’s sonic scope. “Dust To Dust”, a favorite of Williams’, features the band playing to a drum loop for the first time. White also took a heavier approach to performing his guitar duties. “On the road, John Paul had been playing more electric guitars. Bringing that into the studio felt natural, and brought a real vibrancy & kinetic energy to this album, I think. We experimented with different, darker elements and a fuller sound on certain songs, too.” The results are striking. “The One That Got Away”, the lead single that kicks off the record, owes much to the scorned witchiness of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (particularly “The Chain”), a record that was recorded under similarly fractious band-relations.  Not even something as basic as lyrical language was left untouched. The cut “Sacred Heart” is sung entirely in French!

Even though it’s a beautiful thing to hear new Civil Wars music coming through your speakers, the inherent melancholy of their intertwining voices is amplified even further when you consider that the pair are no longer on speaking terms. The question every fan wants to know is: Will we be able to hear these gorgeous new songs live? “I sure hope so,” Williams insists. “I would love to tour this record. These songs are close to my heart, and I think they deserve to have a life on a stage, in my opinion.” At present, both band members are finding comfort in their families. John Paul White is taking advantage of the hiatus to spend time with his wife and four children in Alabama, and Williams became a mother last June to son, Miles.

Despite the estrangement, Joy leaves the door wide open to a reunion in the not-so-distant future. “My ultimate hope in all of this is for reconciliation, and I’d welcome the chance to dialogue with John Paul about that. Hopefully space apart is giving everyone a chance for clarity. It’s a story as old as time – bands going through hard times. Not seeing eye to eye. Having breakdowns. I’d like to think this hiatus will allow us to ultimately forgive, to realign in a healthier way musically and to reemerge stronger for it as a duo.”

[Photo: Getty Images]

VH1 Music Editor + Seltzer Enthusiast
@jordanruntagh