It’s been quite a year for Joy Williams and John Paul White, better known to their fans as the acclaimed musical duo The Civil Wars. Released on February 1, 2011, the duo’s debut studio album, Barton Hollow, continues to earn rich accolades, culminating most recently in Grammy wins for Best Folk Album and for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.
While most of their energies have been devoted to touring behind Barton Hollow, Williams and White found time last year to team with producer T Bone Burnett on a musical score for the documentary film, Finding North, which premiered recently at Sundance. They also collaborated with Taylor Swift on “Safe & Sound,” a song to be featured as the first single from the forthcoming major motion picture, The Hunger Games.
Remarkably, none of this success would have occurred had it not been for a chance meeting between Williams and White at a songwriter’s camp in Nashville in 2008. While their musical backgrounds are markedly different, the two saw in one another an unlikely partner with whom they could forge a unique musical vision. In the following interview, the duo talks about their mysterious chemistry, their odd band name and why not being a couple in the romantic sense is good for their songwriting.
Was there instant musical chemistry when the two of you first met?
WILLIAMS: From the moment John Paul started playing guitar and singing, it was as if I was meeting someone with whom I had been singing all my life. There was definitely a family-blend aspect to our first session, something that took us both by surprise. But being quite stubborn, neither of us was ready to acknowledge that. It actually took several months before we got back together to write again. The second time we got together, we wrote a song called “Falling.” By the time we did our third co-write, John Paul had mustered up the courage to ask me on a date, so to speak, except that instead of it being a date, it was, “Do you want to be in a band?” We went on from there.
What style of music had each of you been pursuing, before you got together?
WHITE: A lot of the stuff I had been doing as a solo artist was rock-oriented, although it did have a southern tinge to it. I had been inspired, as a teenager, by bands like Queen and ELO and Led Zeppelin, and all the rock gods. I also grew up listening to lots of country music and bluegrass, because that’s what my dad liked. I didn’t like it at the time, but later, after high school, I grew to love it. I became more versed in that music, and bought my own country and bluegrass records. As far as Joy goes, she was a part of the pop world. We could hardly have been more different when we converged, and I think that’s explains the type of music we do.
WILLIAMS: I grew up listening to my mother’s albums, which were things by the Carpenters, The Beach Boys … lots of harmony-based music. I would harmonize with music on the radio, or with my mom, and then, later, with co-writers. That’s been incorporated quite naturally into what John Paul and I do. The chemistry that John Paul and I have together makes the harmonies more or less just fall out. It’s not something we over-think, or something we have to work out extensively. It’s a strange alchemy. I love the chance to back a singer as great as John Paul is, and to have that give and take, as opposed to being a solo artist, where you’re singing lead all the time. It’s especially great on-stage.
Did the style of music that sprang forth, when you started collaborating, surprise you?
WHITE: Yes, completely. When we get in a room together we pull things from one another that neither of us had in our arsenals before, probably because our musical paths are so dissimilar. It’s a true collaborative process. During a co-write, Joy does things, melodically, that I latch onto. It’s our differences that make what we do so novel, and maybe something that’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. We’re thrilled if that’s the case.
Is it necessary to have personal chemistry in order to have musical chemistry?
WHITE: I wouldn’t say that. But I would also say I can’t even pretend to understand how chemistry works. I’ve never clicked with anyone on a musical level like I have with Joy. I would love to know what other people’s experiences with that sort of thing are. Personal chemistry is such a relative term, and a vague term, I don’t know how you could even quantify that. But I do know that musical chemistry is definitely there, and when we perform, there’s certainly a connection between us that other people see, and that we feel. And we’re proud of that.
Does that fact that you’re not a real-life couple, in the romantic sense, affect the things you write about?
WILLIAMS: Our not being together romantically is an asset, because we’re able to bring more experiences to bear, and collect them and sift through them, as friends. Out of those individual experiences we connect lines between us, and then write out of those places we connect. We’re able to say things that we would not be able to say, if we were in a relationship together. We’re able to be more vulnerable, and be more honest. Neither of us has to worry about the possibility of having to sleep on the couch that night.
Do you feel you’re following in a tradition of any other singer-songwriter duos?
WILLIAMS: I can’t say we’ve looked to other duos. We want to create our own trajectory. But we do look at the arcs of the careers of certain other artists, and perhaps want to emulate them in that way. Emmylou Harris is an example. She’s had such a remarkable career, and a long career. We can only hope to do that. But we’ve never had a conversation where we’ve said we would like to do what a certain duo is doing.
How did you settle on the name, Civil Wars?
WHITE: Joy came up with that. She was just driving around, here on the streets of Nashville, and noticed all the Civil War references. She had already been thinking of something having to do with battles, or war. The Civil Wars popped into her head, and she called me, and we talked about it. It made sense, in that we all have battles within ourselves, and with others, about everything from the existence of God to fighting addictions. As songwriters, those things are in our wheelhouse. That’s what we write about.
Has it been a problem that your music doesn’t slot easily into a single genre?
WHITE: We definitely don’t know where we fit in, or what box we fit into. And we’re happy about that. It’s not something we’ve consciously strived for; it’s just how things worked out. Things would be simpler if we fit into a round hole, but that’s not the case, and we’re fine with that. We’re just going to continue to do what we love to do. We’ve been lucky that other people seem to enjoy it as well.