Interview: Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars

CWCropped.jpg
The Civil Wars / Photo by Tec Pejata

Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars met during a professional blind date after drawing straws at a 2008 songwriting workshop. It didn't take long for them to realize they were meant to make music together. Their writing styles and voices blend perfectly—in a manner usually reserved for siblings or Simon & Garfunkel.

The Civil Wars' first full-length album, Barton Hollow, is easily one of the best records of 2011. Thanks to early play on Grey's Anatomy, and support from artists such as Adele, who declared The Civil Wars to be the best live band she's ever seen, the album has done incredibly well and the band has been selling out venues across the United States. They're in town for three sold-out shows this week—two at Largo at the Coronet and one at the El Rey.

LAist caught up with The Civil Wars during a rare day off last Friday, with Williams at home in Tennessee and White in Alabama. We got the scoop on the new album, the real-life Barton Hollow, and the band's "Auction for Alabama" tornado relief efforts on eBay.

LAist: What led you to choose The Civil Wars as your band name?

Joy Williams: Trying to come up with a band name is a daunting process. I imagine it's a bit like naming a child. Once you stick with it, you're stuck with it. We were hesitant to throw out a lot of names. One day I was thinking about all the tension that happens innately in the way that John Paul and I write. I was driving down the I-65 in Nashville, noticing all the Civil War monuments, and I thought, "What if I just made up a fictitious war? 'The War of Something-or-Other' and pick a year to go with it." But that sounded really overwrought. Then it suddenly hit me: "Why not The Civil Wars?"

Obviously, our band doesn't really relate to any of the historical events of the Civil War, but our music depicts the small battles we all have within ourselves and with others.

Which of the songs on the album did you write first?

Joy: "Falling" was the first one. That was a few months after the writing workshop where we met.

When bands start to become known around the world, they often pull all the free downloads off their website, but you've left the Live at Eddie's Attic album download up there. How many downloads have you had?

Joy: I think we're getting close to 200,000 free album downloads.

It's incredible to think that was your second show ever. Did that recording play a big role in the way word spread about your music?

John Paul White: Yeah, it was huge. And the reason we've kept it there is that we want people to have a no-holds-barred way to discover the band and find out if they're into our music.

When we first had it up, word of mouth was pretty quick, but then when the Grey's Anatomy thing happened, it really was pivotal. Once people did their homework and figured out who we were, they navigated their way to that record. So everyone had something they could sink their teeth into even though we didn't even have an EP out yet.

Your lyrics contain some delicious contradictions, and the coyness of a song like "I've Got This Friend" is hard to resist. What was the writing process like for that song?

Joy: The songwriting process is relatively consistent with John Paul and me. It usually starts out with an hour and a half of just catching up with each other, because he lives more than two hours away. When we get together, we talk about movies we've seen or books we've read and what's going on in life.

Inevitably, he starts playing something on his guitar while we're talking, and we stumble upon something we think is winsome. We let the chords tell us what kind of mood we need to be in.

So lot of times it's just us chasing the muse. We don't sit down and say, "Today we're going to write an autobiographical song" or "Today we're going to take the role of storyteller." A lot of times even we are surprised by the songs we end up with, and "I've Got This Friend" is an example of that. We just followed the breadcrumbs the muse left for us.

Now that you've released the album, have you found that the real-life Barton Hollow in Alabama has become a bit of a tourist destination?

Joy: You really have to know how to get there, don't you, John Paul? It's not an obvious spot.

John Paul: It's definitely harder to find, but I have heard that people are stopping through town and asking where it is. Nobody lives in Barton Hollow, so you're not going to be bothering anyone. You can go down there and hang out all you want to, but it's pretty barren.

In the past, you've mentioned that it's a place where people go to do dark deeds...

John Paul: That's exactly why we used that spot for the album name. So yeah, it's high times down there again.

Joy: So to speak.

John Paul: Pardon the pun. (laughs)

Civil-Wars-Tec-Pejata-Looking-Back.jpg
The Civil Wars / Photo by Tec Pejata

Have you changed the way you write music now that you're writing with harmonies in mind?

John Paul: No, for whatever reason, from the beginning, that kind of stuff just naturally comes out of us when we're in a room together. We treat harmonies like instruments in the production. There are times when the harmonies really help, because it's just Joy, me and the guitar. We try to use the harmony parts to our advantage and make things stair-step from one section of the song to the next. Then sometimes the opposite is true. It can become larger and a little more climactic when it drops down to something really simple with just one voice. That kind of thing is always a gut reaction as we're writing the song.

How do you know when a song is done?

John Paul: I don't know if I have a definitive answer for that. I think that typically, at the end of a day of writing, the song is done. There have been a few exceptions to that rule, but most of the time when we walk out of the room, the song is done. Or at least the bones of it are.

Then we'll go out and play it live and there will be obvious sections where we realize, "OK, this is kind of boring" or "This really killed, so we should add a bar here" or "We need some time to breathe here." Usually within one or two performances, it's set in stone and ready to record. That's how it was with our first full-length album. By that point, it was just a matter of getting the right take.

Many of your songs have this great element of mystery in the vein of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat." Have you heard stories from fans who can relate to a song like "20 Years"?

John Paul: We've actually heard a lot of stories. It seems that "To Whom It May Concern" is the song that stirs up the most reactions and stories. For a while, we were kinda asking for it. We know what the song is about, but we wanted to get other people's takes on it. We started asking crowds, "What do you think this is about? What does it mean to you?" There were some very unique responses that we never would have guessed, and if we'd had those in the back of our minds, we never would have written the same song.

We write that way on purpose. If you make the song too specific, then it's only personal to the singer and everybody can sit and marvel at it and say, "That's a well-written song," but they can't really immerse themselves in it. We try to leave the edges blurry and allow the listeners to put themselves in the position of the singer. When I listen to other people's music, those are the kinds of songs that always stick with me the longest.

You've talked in the past about how people sometimes think the two of you are a couple, when in actuality you're married to other people. Which of the songs on Barton Hollow are your spouses' favorites?

Joy: Well, my husband is our manager, so he knows the songs front to back. Sweet man that he is, he's never confessed which one he likes best, but he tends to be a believer in every song that we write. He doesn't seem to differentiate between the children, so to speak.

John Paul: Yeah, it's pretty much the same way on my end. We're fortunate.

"The Violet Hour" is a beautiful instrumental that fits so well with the flow of the album. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to keep it instrumental, or did you ever experiment with lyrics?

Joy: We stumbled into that melody line during a soundcheck, which has been happening more frequently as the months have gone by. We had some free time on stage with a grand piano, and we just started fiddling around with this basic idea I'd been playing on piano and he'd been playing on guitar.

Later, as we started to think about the record, that song came back to mind and we tried to put lyrics to it. But that song basically said to us, "No words, please."

I'm actually really proud of the fact that we have an instrumental on the record, and that it's a little bit of a curveball to some people. Hopefully they enjoy it just as much as the music with words.

You're known for playing some unexpected cover songs during your shows. In honor of the first song John Paul ever performed on stage (during a talent show many years ago), have the Civil Wars ever done a cover of "Back in Black"?

John Paul: (laughs) You know, there has been talk of AC/DC in our future, because I'm pretty much a die-hard fan and I think they're genius. Sometimes on the surface, their lyrics can seem a lot more trivial and male bravado-driven, but I think they're pretty clever.

When we look into the idea of cover songs, we always look for what'll bring something to our set that we don't already have. Many of our songs lean toward the heavier side, so we usually go with a little bit of whimsy with our covers. It's never the obvious choice.

We try a lot of stuff—kiss a lot of frogs—and we typically end up with a song that we never would have expected to rise to the top of the pile.

Speaking of the heavy stuff—I just wanted to ask about the publishing names listed in your album credits: Shiny Happy Music and Mr. Bright Sunshine Music.

Joy: That's what we like to call irony.

John Paul: Yeah, well, just so you know, the publishing company I had before those two was called Chief Black Cloud, so that one probably makes a lot more sense than these. Shiny Happy Music is a little nod to those amazing guys from Georgia…

You visited Europe earlier this year. Did you have any adventures while you were there?

Joy: We've been to Paris and London, and that's been the extent of our European travels together up to this point. We've definitely done some sightseeing and had friends take us to haunts off the beaten path, but we're looking forward to having more time for adventures this fall. We'll be touring with Adele the UK this September, and I'm sure we'll have some fun stories after that!

When you were in Paris, did the French love your song "C'est la Mort" the best?

John Paul: We have yet to find out. Though we got to visit, we have yet to play our first real show there, so we're anxious to learn the answer to that question.

Joy: Plus John Paul's got a great French accent, given that he hails from Alabama.

John Paul: It's probably obvious how French I am.

From what I've heard, you two are voracious readers. What are each of you reading now?

John Paul: I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark. I love his writing but, to be honest, this one wore me out. It was pretty dark, even for me.

I'm now reading Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker. It's essentially a memoir based on baseball cards. Each chapter starts with a baseball card, and he relates each card to a certain time in his life. As soon as I saw it on the bookshelf, I wanted it, because I did the exact same thing when I was younger.

How so?

I sat in my room and studied and memorized every single stat on the backs of cards. I'd stare at the pictures and try to guess what kind of person each guy was. The people who always fascinated me were the utility infielders and the guys with the really bad hair. You knew they sat on the bench and didn't do anything, but you still dreamed that someday you might get to be that guy.

Joy: I just finished a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is the retelling of the Chicago World's Fair and a mass murderer who used that event to carry out many of his crimes. The book talked about the historic ramifications of both things happening simultaneously, and it was fascinating.

I've just moved on to Flannery O'Connor, who's a favorite of mine, and I'm reading her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. I love her Southern Gothic writing. She's dear to my soul.

CWM.jpg
The Civil Wars / Photo by Tec Petaja
You'll be in L.A. for a few gigs this month. What are some of your favorite things to do when you're in town?

Joy: Seeing friends is first and foremost, but I also love to eat in that city! My all-time favorite is Osteria Mozza, which is Mario Batali's restaurant. And a lunch salad at Urth Caffé is a total must.

But we've mostly been in and out so quickly that we haven't had as much time to scour. There's always more to see and more beach to sit on and more ocean to stare at, and that's what I miss after having grown up in Northern California. It's always good to get back to the best coast!

You're spearheading the "Auction for Alabama" on eBay and you have some incredible items up for bid. How did that come together?

John Paul: It came together really fast and extremely organically. Everyone—at least for a short amount of time—heard about all the tornado devastation we had down here in Alabama. One of the many sad things about it is that the hardest hit areas were the poor, rural towns in the middle of nowhere that no one had ever heard of. Unfortunately, the news channels didn't keep reporting about the devastation. It was essentially one day's coverage, then they were gone.

All of us down here have tried to stay mobilized and keep people in the know about how bad it still is. It looks like it just happened, such as houses that have been split right down the middle by huge oak trees.

We had a benefit concert here in the Shoals that we put together pretty quick, and we raised about $20,000 with that one show. Then I just started cold e-mailing all my friends—asking for their help and their friends' help. The response was incredible.

How is it going so far?

Really well. We went live on June 8 and most of the auctions end on the 18th. We have a ton of stuff such as a Taylor Swift autographed guitar, an Adele prize package, tickets to see everyone from Alison Krauss to Hanson to Roseanne Cash, and a lot more.

There are some pretty creative packages in there, too. I'm friends with the guitar player from the band Lit and he said, "Whoever bids the highest can party with us as long as they can handle it for one night."

I'm completely blown away by how supportive everyone has been!

Thanks for speaking with LAist, John Paul and Joy!

The Civil Wars will play sold-out shows at Largo at the Coronet tonight and tomorrow night (June 13 and 14), and the El Rey on Wednesday (June 15). They will also play a free show at Amoeba Hollywood Tuesday night (June 14) at 7 p.m. To listen to more of their music, visit www.thecivilwars.com.