Lucinda Williams hits her stride

October 16, 2008 4:28:04 PM PDT
From the false start on the opening rocker "Real Love" to the fade-out of AC/DC cover "It's a Long Way to the Top," anyone familiar with Lucinda Williams may notice something unusual while listening to her new disc. You'll catch yourself smiling a lot - laughing, even. On balance, it contains some of the most joyful music of her career - this from a woman with a song "Joy" that rages about the loss of it.

"It basically does reflect my life," she said. "Personally, professionally and creatively, I'm in the best place I've ever been, at least in my adult life."

Williams, 55, smiled like a flustered teenager onstage recently while mentioning her fiance/manager Tom Overby's 50th birthday. She sang the new "Honey Bee" for him, describing the extended sexual metaphor as her favorite song to perform now. "Honey Bee" and "Real Love" are straight-ahead rockers destined to be mainstays in her live set for years.

She goes a long way toward shattering a couple of myths about herself - that she's a perfectionist who needs years to write, and can't write without personal turmoil as source material.

The new album, "Little Honey," comes less than two years after its predecessor.

"Everyone's been asking me what makes me so prolific," she said, "and the only answer I know is having done it enough times and learning the craft. As I'm getting better, I'm getting more confident. It's just like anything you do. Everyone's different.

Bob Dylan was 19 when he started writing his masterpieces and it just blows my mind."

She's always considered herself a late bloomer.

Going deeper behind the energetic rock songs, her disc has material that reflects contentment and maturity without seeming starry-eyed. "Tears of Joy," "Plan to Marry," "Circles and X's" and "Knowing" are songs from a woman who doesn't take love for granted.

On "Little Rock Star," Williams is the mother figure offering advice to a young musician facing familiar traps. One song that's a leftover from time spent with a drug-addict boyfriend, "Jailhouse Tears," is hilarious: a country duet with Elvis Costello acting strung-out and promising he's changed while Williams profanely tells him he's full of it.

Her father Miller Williams, a poet and her daughter's literary mentor, once said that there is a pitch-black well, and all of us stand at its edge. Some fall in, and some don't.

"I loved that image," she said. "It made so much sense to me.

And I've seen it happen time and time again ... That's what my writing deals with a lot - what makes someone stand at the edge and jump in and what makes some of us not."

That's plain in older songs like "Drunken Angel" and "2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten." Williams seemed like someone who worked best when her life was a mess.

"That's the oldest myth around and I bought into it," she said. "We all did when we were starting out. I don't think I really thought of it on a conscious level. That's just part of being young and going through the muck and mire that you have to go through. I wasn't consciously making myself miserable so I could write songs. Maybe on some subliminal level I was, I don't know.

Who knows? I guess I would have to undergo psychiatric evaluation to find out."

She and Overby, a longtime music industry executive, have been together more than three years. They met nearly 15 years apart, the first time at a meet-and-greet reception for Williams in Minneapolis, where he lived in the early 1990s.

She was, Overby recalled, the shyest artist he'd ever met. "You got the sense that it was the first time she'd ever done that," he said.

"It probably was," Williams recalled.

Fast-forward to 2005 in Los Angeles, where both had settled.

They had a mutual friend who wanted to set them up, but before that could happen they met by chance at a hair salon and spent hours talking.

"I was immediately smitten with him," she said. "He was so shy. I thought he didn't like me because he was so shy. That was the last night I drank tequila."

Maybe a little too much. He took her home, put her to bed and left a note with his phone number. She called the next day. On their first date, Williams took Overby to a studio to play all the new songs she'd written.

After years without it, Williams seems relieved and delighted to be in a stable relationship with a stable guy.

"I had to get over my bad-boy thing," she said. "Now I realize that all men have some bad boy. You just have to find it."

Overby mildly protests: "I was not exactly wearing a pocket protector."

For someone who was a big fan of Williams' music before knowing her, it must be pretty amazing for Overby to hear her sing "I found the love I've been looking for" and realize she had written it about him.

Except ...

She didn't.

"Real Love" was actually written about an unrequited crush that Williams had in between the drug-addict boyfriend and Overby.

She was ready to toss it away before making "Little Honey," concerned that she would not be able to get into it emotionally.

Overby convinced Williams otherwise, a sign of business acumen and a reminder of a truism about her craft.

"Therein lies the key to good songwriting," she said. "It's irrelevant who the song was written about. If a song can't be universal, then you haven't written a good song."