Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Interview with The Civil Wars

A version of my interview originally appeared at

The Civil Wars turned up on many people’s radars in late 2009, when the title track off their “Poison & Wine” EP got a prominent placement on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Massive downloads for that song and “Live from Eddie’s Attic,” a free concert recording on their website, ensued.

John Paul White and Joy Williams already had impressive music industry
credentials under their belts. A Dove Award-nominated Contemporary Christian act, who released three solo albums from age 17 onward during the early-to-mid 2000s, she later had songs recorded by David Archuleta, Brian Littrell, Natalie Grant, Mark Schultz and others. He produced, did session vocals for Billy Ray Cyrus and claimed Jason Aldean, Rascal Flatts, Meatloaf tunes on his songwriting resume.   

Together, the Americana duo crafted “Barton Hollow” -- one of this year’s most enthralling debut releases, where frequently sparse music (think T Bone Burnett) accentuates a gorgeous vocal combination. The distinct and haunting folk-tinged music sometimes recalls Robert Plant & Alison Krauss or the Swell Season.

Building upon previous media exposure, effusive Twitter praise from Taylor Swift and the first (of two) appearances on “The Tonight Show” last January, “Hollow” sold 25,000 copies in its first week, enough to slot high on the Billboard and iTunes charts.

Recently, The Civil Wars opened shows for Adele and did their first headlining gig in London. The summer acoustic tour starts Sunday at Anthology in San Diego. We checked in with singer/guitarist White and singer/pianist Williams during a phone interview from their homes in Florence, Ala. and Nashville, respectively.

Q: Where did the band name come from?
John: Joy came up with the name while riding around Nashville because there’s so many references to battles in our songs…between male and female perspectives, your job, addiction or God -- anything you’re civilly battling out in your head. That’s what we write about; that’s what’s in our wheelhouse.

Q: Tell me about the 2008 Nashville songwriting retreat where you came in contact.
Joy: We had no knowledge of each other. It was an unusual way of meeting up. Different songwriters were put together at random; almost like drawing straws…It really did strike me, almost immediately, what a familial blend we had. We both sat up a little straighter in our chairs and recognized it. Neither of us
actually spoke about it until a month later.

Q: Didn’t you have to race against the clock to get “Poison & Wine” ready for purchase a just few days before “Grey’s” aired?
Joy: Yeah. We called up a friend to shoot the music video in an afternoon at John Paul’s house and rushed to get everything on iTunes as quickly as possible. As the show was airing, we were literally watching the blue line of the upload on our Mac get further along to the point where it [finished] at the exact moment the song started to play on the show. To our astonishment, the song was played in full during an important moment. We were beside ourselves.

Q: What inspired the song lyrics?

Joy: That was the only one we co-wrote with Chris Lindsey. We’re all in our own individual committed relationships and we [wondered] what you would say to the person you’re staring at the most each day if there were no consequences or what would you scream in their face if they would never hear it…that’s an example of us chasing the muse. We felt like the song found us.

Q: The “Barton Hollow” track, named after John Paul’s hometown, really stands out with that bluesy, swampy vibe.
John Paul: We had the guitar riff, an overview for the song and knew we needed a picturesque name -- a location for the spot where the deed goes down. It was the first thing that popped in my head. It’s a little spot outside of Loretta, Tenn. where I went to school and grew up. It’s not a place you go to do good things; it’s a place where you hide and get away. Not necessarily for legal reasons.

Q: Did you only add instrumentation to the album as necessary?
John Paul: Subconsciously, it probably was that way…we kept opting for ‘less is more’ because adding things would get in the way of the song and vocal and arrangement. There was really never a conversation where we said ‘we really want to do a stripped-down record.’ That usually leads to disaster and when listening back to the record, you can tell there was an M.O. We honestly kept everything at gut level, saying ‘I’m really proud of that; we can move on.’ 

Q: What was your initial reaction after “Hollow” debuted so strongly?
John: Complete disbelief. Because of little bits and pieces along the way, we knew there was an awareness, but we had no idea how that stuff would translate into album sales. We were thrilled and surprised as anybody when the first numbers came in. We’ve worked really hard for everything that’s happened. We’d be lying if we said we expected that.

Joy: Our pipe dream was if we could sell 5,000 records that first week, we’d be over the moon. Then it was obviously above that [laughs]. There were a lot of dropped jaws, arm punching and ‘can you believe this is happening?’

Q: Since your solo work focused on different genres, is making this type of music a refreshing change now?

John Paul: Definitely. We’re pulling stuff from each other’s background that neither of us were leaning on in our solo endeavors…Joy was pulling from my country, soul and Americana background and I was pulling from her crooner, pop and melodic sensibilities she grew up with [in Santa Cruz]. Everything we do is something we’d never do without the other. It’s a complete breathe of fresh air, every song we write.

The Civil Wars perform sold out shows in San Diego (July 12) and Hollywood (July 13-14), then arrive in Los Angeles (July 15) at the El Rey Theatre. 

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