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The Civil Wars' Joy Williams On The Duo's Fragile Bond

Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars. The duo's new, self-titled album arrives on the heels of canceled tour dates and an ongoing hiatus from performing together.
Tec Petaja
Courtesy of the artist
Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars. The duo's new, self-titled album arrives on the heels of canceled tour dates and an ongoing hiatus from performing together.

The singing duo The Civil Wars is engaged in a civil war of its own.

Joy Williams and John Paul White enjoyed a meteoric rise three years ago with their debut, Barton Hollow — an album built around their urgent, plaintive harmonies. The duo won a couple of Grammys, toured with Adele and collaborated with Taylor Swift for the Hunger Games soundtrack.

But last year, in the middle of a tour, the band abruptly canceled the rest of its dates, citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." The two musicians haven't appeared together since. And it's in that chilly climate that they're releasing their second album, simply titled The Civil Wars, on Tuesday.

To underline the rupture, John Paul White is not doing any interviews. Joy Williams is, and she recently spoke with NPR's Melissa Block. Click the audio link to hear the radio version, and read more of their conversation below.

Can you talk about that "internal discord" and those "irreconcilable differences"? What was going on on that tour?

So much was going on at that moment. ... I wish I had a very concrete and eloquent answer for you about what happened. But the reality is, I'm still trying to make sense of it myself. There was always so much ease involved in working with John Paul, and I feel like that translated in the music, and that translated in our live stage performances. Over time, being on the road, that can be a long haul, and we agreed to a really breakneck pace, both of us. And I think that breakneck pace broke us a little bit.

Was that tension visible onstage, do you think? People watching — would have noticed that?

It was a gradual build, I feel like, and that's common. Bands have disagreements and arguments all the time, and then the show must go on. But the thing that was always really magical was — regardless of how angry we were — we still could find those moments of fun and beauty onstage together. It was like, if we lost the language between the two of us offstage, we could always find the language onstage.

How do you think that worked? I would think that would be impossible to do, to put that aside.

Well, at a certain point [it was]. That's what happened when we were on the road in Europe, and it was heartbreaking to have to make those hard decisions together that it was better, at the moment, to take a break and take a breath and try and recalibrate, because no one wants to see a show like that.

It's just the two of us onstage, so it's not as though you can say, "Hey, you know, tonight we're just going to let the drummer take it a little bit more tonight," or "Hey, we're going to bounce this off the bass player." It's the two of us, and that synergy was something we were really known for. And so I think there was a respect for that synergy that both John Paul and I had that, when it stopped feeling like it was working, neither of us wanted to pretend and neither of us wanted to be onstage like that and put a crowd through something like that. There was a lot of heartbreak involved in making that decision, to curb that tour short. And we even reimbursed fans for tickets that they bought, and even some travel expenses that they had, 'cause we don't take it lightly, you know? So many people have been so supportive of us all around the globe, so it's been hard to be off the road.

I'm thinking about that phrase, "irreconcilable differences of ambition," which implies that one of you wanted to do maybe more, or maybe less, than the other. I'm not quite sure how to take that.

Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people have had similar questions about that. I won't speak for John Paul; you know, I respect him, and I don't want to speak for him. I do know that he's made the decision that he wants to be at home with his family, and I respect that. But that also does curb the ability to be on the road.

I do believe that if we can mend some of the bridges that we burned between the two of us, we can come back as a stronger band and a stronger duo, and I hope for that. ... I love music, and I know John Paul loves music, as well, for sure. But when it came to being in the studio, I think that we definitely saw some of those ambitions clashing at times. And the beauty of it is, even though we were having some personal breakdowns, I think that tension actually made for a more emotional and a visceral project. [The Civil Wars] feels to me more emotional and more raw and more honest than even anything we did on Barton Hollow.

You mentioned that you hope that you can come back together, stronger.

I do.

Does John Paul feel the same way?

I don't know, you'd have to ask him.

You haven't talked about that with him?

No, we have not spoken in — well, since the record finished.

Which was when?

Early spring of 2013. ... Honestly, any amount feels like a long time. He's a brilliant musician who I respect, and someone who I collaborated with in a way that I'd never collaborated with anybody musically. It's really hard; I've gotten emotional on many days about it, just the fact — looking back, you know. Hindsight being 20/20, there are moments that I think we both could have done things differently. And at the moment, not being able to talk about that or even attempt to match the olive branches or lay them out before each other, that's a hard and uncomfortable place to be. And then for that to be in the public eye, in the midst of music coming out that I believe so much in — that's a precarious place to be.

It's hard to listen to a song like "Same Old, Same Old" without thinking about what's happened between you and John Paul. I know it's a dangerous thing to be too literal about lyrics, but do you hear the tension as you listen to this song?

I hear the tension more in the vocals. I hear the tension in the ways that certain things have been produced on the album, that tug and that pull; I feel that every time I listen to these songs. That song's a really emotional one for me too, because I do think it's important to not take lyrics too literally. So many people assumed that we were married, which is not the case. We are married, but to other people. When we were writing that, the discussion was more about what I would call the ache of monogamy. I think a lot of songs have been written in the [vein] of, "It's over, I'm leaving you," or "I'm done with this," or "I'm moving on." But what I thought would be a refreshing take was that gray area you find yourself in when you've been in a long-term relationship, and you take a look at it and go, "It's not like it used to be and it's not great right now, but I want to work on it. And I want to work on it with you.

A very wise woman once told me to think of long-term relationships as if you were backpacking a continent: that I could spend my entire life with bare feet and a backpack, [walking] through Africa, and on my dying day still not know everything there is about that continent. And to me, that's the metaphor of what long-term relationships are — that it's a journey, and you have to stay intentional and you have to stay present. It's so easy to get tired, or to lose track of the path that you're on, or to want a new adventure. I think what I'm learning, if we're all honest, there are moments that we all have that in our long-term relationships. It makes it ache a little bit less, knowing that it's a universal thing in a lot of ways, and that to stay mindful and to stay present and to stay curious about the person that's inches away from you all the time is really a beautiful thing. And that the "Same Old, Same Old" can actually be full of life and full of passion, if you stay connected.

I don't necessarily think of that song in relation to John Paul; I think about that, for me, in terms of my relationship with my husband, Nate. We've been married almost 10 years now, and he's our manager, as well — Nate's the band's manager — and he traveled along with us. Looking back, with the breakneck pace and how intense everything was, I feel like I was guilty of that; of missing the beauty and the wonder and the mystery of my husband who was inches away from me. I think that's what that song was about, that desire to get back to what really matters. And [that's] part of what the hiatus has allowed. ... I've had a great opportunity to be at home and to reconnect with my husband.

And you have a young child.

I just had a baby about a year ago. So I've been able to just be home, be a mom, realign and find myself again. 'Cause I think it's really easy to lose track of friendships, priorities and just yourself on the road, when things are going in a way that I think a lot of people would dream about. I always dreamt about this kind of momentum that the band had. I didn't prepare myself for what it would require; I don't think either of us did, as a duo. And so in metaphor and in biography alike, and the blending of the two — I think that's where we find ourselves on this album.

What are you hearing in "Same Old, Same Old" there that's hard to listen to now, from this distance?

When I think of this song, I think of being in [producer] Charlie Peacock's amazing studio. It's an old Methodist church outside of Nashville that he gutted. ... I remember Miles, my son, was in a baby carrier while I was singing; he was on me, asleep. I kept, like, trying to sway so that he would stay asleep. But I remember feeling this really sweet moment with my son, and then looking over to the left and feeling so very far away from my duo partner.

From John Paul, who was right there.

Yeah, who was right there. There were moments when I felt like I was trying to locate him, but it was through a telescope. The ease that we had wasn't there as much as it was before. ... I still remember looking over and feeling like a great chasm had been created between us, that we ourselves had built — but thinking, there's still magic here. Like, there's still magic when we sing; the way that our voices blend, and the way that it came to fruition on this record, is really miraculous to me, and beautiful and heartbreaking in a lot of ways, and I think people are hearing that. So that's why it's bittersweet to me.

Were there times when you actually wouldn't record your vocals together — that you would track them separately?

No. That's interesting — again, that tension was there, but the music was what always brought us back. John Paul and I recorded all of our vocals, I think, save just a few nicks and tweaks, the same way we recorded Barton Hollow, which was in that studio with Charlie Peacock, just inches away and very seldom with earphones on. A lot of people have wondered if we were sort of not speaking to each other and we were in separate rooms, recording our vocals at different times. It wasn't full of animosity. It was just, at that point, an underlying tension that we felt, that we were trying to navigate in and around.

Are we hearing less of John Paul? Am I imagining that his presence is less on this album than on your first album?

I don't know. I mean, we don't make music by a math equation. You know, Charlie Peacock said something really well one time when he was talking about songs: that each song has its own unbendable arc, and that it's the artist's job to find out and unlock what that arc is, and to be true to it. So John Paul and I never set out [thinking], "I get 50 percent of these vocals and you get 50 percent of these vocals." We just sort of let the music inform us. In my mind, there was no intentional muting or lessening going on. ... But I do — looking back, now that we're talking about it — sing lead a little bit more on this album.

Did it feel like maybe he was holding back more? That there was more distance somehow?

I do feel like I felt a distance — whether or not that came through musically, again, you'd have to ask him about how he was approaching it. But I do feel like we were trying to figure out the new ebb and the flow.

Another song on the new album, "Dust to Dust," is really about profound loneliness.

Yeah, an anthem for the lonely. ... The storyline was that everybody experiences pain and everybody does their best to hide it, but nobody's actually very good at hiding it. So it's that sense of empathy and ache, all at the same time. At the very end of the song, we say, "You're like a mirror reflecting me / It takes one to know one, so take it from me / You've been lonely, you've been lonely too long." And then we switch it to, "We've been lonely, we've been lonely too long." To open that up to that universal experience that it could be for a few hours, that it could be for years, but loneliness meets us all.

It's interesting to watch you listen to these songs, Joy, because you're listening so intently, as if you're hearing it for the first time.

You know, I've always been like that with music. I remember sitting at diners with my parents and being like, "Oh, did you hear that bass line?" And they'd be like, "There's music playing?" [Laughs.] So I can't help but move and be moved.

What are you listening for now?

I guess I'm sort of reliving the moments in studio, and the moments of writing. Honestly, what comes to mind is the ache at this moment in time of not being able to perform these songs live; that's hard. I so believe in this album, and I feel like it deserves to have a life onstage. I would love to be able to do that, and I do believe that John Paul and I could come back stronger from this. It just might be a matter of time.

It's got to be a very strange feeling. Ideally, you take these songs on the road, you play them for people, and you listen to how they react. And that, I assume, won't happen anytime soon.

I mean, never say never. Just as quickly as things took a turn, the same could be said for taking a turn for the positive, too. I just love our fans. ... Our crowds were so respectful: When we went to a whisper, they would drop to absolute quiet, and when we got raucous and fun, they'd get raucous and fun. You know, it's in my veins. I've been doing this a long time; John Paul had been a solo artist as well for a long time before we, you know, linked arms musically. So it's in me. I miss it. I love it. I hope we get to do it soon.

Your song lyrics have always been very intimate, and your stage presence and your videos and your photographs that you took together all played on this notion of coupledom and intimacy. That was sort of part of the narrative.

Yeah, it was. It was part of the sort of unforeseen myth that we inadvertently created.

But also fostered, really.

Yeah, exactly. While John Paul and I were not together, there was the sense onstage that I could represent the female aspect of thought and of feeling — and that could very easily play over into the idea of relationships of some of the people that came to our shows. Conversely, John Paul could also represent that male energy and that male mindset. And the blending of the two, I think, is what drew men and women and all kinds of configurations of romances to the shows — because I think people were intrigued by that and felt their own stories involved in that. They came along with us for it. But that myth was also something that, you know, had to be dealt with and treated very carefully, because we are happily married to other people.

Was that a dangerous thing, do you think?

Yeah, that's playing with fire. Looking back, there was so much power in that, and that's where a lot of the inspiration for the music came from, within that tension. But you do have to treat that with a great deal of respect; if you don't, then other things start falling by the wayside. Family has always mattered so much to me, and my relationship with my husband has always mattered so much to me, and while I can't speak for John Paul, I know his family matters so much to him. He's at home with them right now, and that's where he wants to be. But I do think that that was something that could be confusing, both for the audience and for me at times.

I was watching your video for the song "Poison & Wine," and at the end you're almost kissing; you're very close to each other.

Which is funny, because we're actually staggered. We were actually a foot and a half apart — like, one person behind and one person in the front. And it's meant to look that way, but again, we actually had more space than people could see. I think that might be sort of a metaphor for the duo itself.

Not as close as you think.

Not as close as you think.

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