Former Civil Wars vocalist Joy Williams makes creative breakthroughs in Venice
By Bliss Bowen
Joy Williams already had three Christian-pop albums, 11 Dove Award nominations and secular song placements to her credit before she and John Paul White formed the Civil Wars in 2009. The Americana duo became a bit of a sensation, playing major festivals, releasing several recordings and winning four Grammy Awards before abruptly canceling European tour dates at the end of 2012. Following a year of wild speculation about their estrangement, they formally ended the band last summer.
As professionally catastrophic as that appeared, for Williams it was just one thorny piece of a sticky emotional wicket. The Santa Cruz native was not only reconstructing her pop career; she was also reclaiming her solo identity while struggling through a marital crisis, raising a young son and mourning the death of her father.
All of that informs the 11 songs comprising “Venus,” the ambitious new album she co-wrote and co-produced with Matt Morris, among others. Some of the rustic yin-yang atmospherics that imprinted the Civil Wars’ music linger, but a more obvious reference point for “Venus” is Portishead; its tracks are primarily electronic, with acoustic filigree, dressed in synths and intermittently danceable beats.
Cynics might call it a triumph of rebranding, but it’s easy sport to dismiss artists striving to redefine themselves. The triumph of “Venus” is how Williams conveys intimate losses and personal evolution without sounding like she’s just burping out her journal; the songs are true to her experience yet can also speak to listeners.
“I wanted the expression of what I’ve gone through to have my heartbeat while also being able to resonate with other people’s stories,” Williams observes. “That was something I was mindful of in the writing process. It made me have to bring my heart and soul to the table. I definitely had moments when I wondered if I was too vulnerable. But I don’t really know any other way to relate these days.”
“I’d love to write a happy song
One day I will
I’d like to feel a little less alone
One day I will
When I look back I’d like to say
I’m better off on my own
Even though right now I don’t feel strong
One day I will…”
Williams wrote over 50 songs before meeting with Morris, to whom she’d been referred by Justin Timberlake. Their initial session yielded “One Day I Will” and a creative breakthrough, she said, after Morris advised Williams “to stop hiding behind metaphors and run the risk of being misinterpreted and to not care; to be brave enough to say what it was I was feeling and not try to control the outcome. It’s very hard to do. But it was necessary. It was another layer in finding my own true voice.”
She estimates that she recorded 30 songs out of the 80 that she eventually wrote.
“I didn’t write 80 smash hits or anything,” she adds. “I had to write through that many to concentrate on what it was I really wanted to say. …
“I wasn’t trying to flip a middle finger to who I was before. It was really important to me to take what I’ve learned and build off of that.”
Listening to the cosmopolitan “Venus” in reverse sequence with the Civil Wars’ gothic “Barton Hollow” and Williams’ shiny, Nashville-sounding 2001 self-titled debut, it’s impossible to ignore the dramatic evolution in her singing style. She acknowledges the change with a warm laugh, crediting her deeper vocal timbre to maturity and the post-pregnancy effects of testosterone. To her, the through thread connecting her recordings is intent.
“I’ve always tried to put my heart out there and try and put words to the human experience,” she says. “Whether or not it was a lot more conservative worldview, like it was when I first started, to my own world opening up in my 20s, and then to writing with the Civil Wars, where it was like writing out of an archetypal place while still tapping into that deep emotion that we all feel as humans, into what I created with ‘Venus,’ which was always just trying to find the purest heartbeat behind each song. … Early on I was trying to be the most perfect version of a vocalist I could be. Now the broken places and the messy parts of me and in other people are what I find most interesting.”
Williams and husband Nate Yetton still maintain a house in Nashville, though almost two years ago they relocated to Venice with son Miles — for a much needed “change of pace,” Williams says, and so she could be closer to her parents. She definitely doesn’t love Westside traffic, but she is savoring the local community’s open nature and Venice’s accessibility and proximity to the ocean; it reminds her of childhood walks in the redwoods and by the Santa Cruz shoreline that left her “feeling so connected, and feeling so small and feeling so big all at the same time.”
“That kind of mindfulness makes me feel more brave to savor the moments that I have,” she says. “I don’t have to control the outcome of everything. Stay present; wherever you are, be all there. Invest in what you are and what you’re doing in the very second that you have. I think there’s something to the constancy of the ocean; like, this will go on long after I have passed and that’s sort of a comfort. That all sounds very esoteric and songwriter-y, but the reality is I feel more like myself when I’m by the ocean.”
Hear tracks from “Venus” at joywilliams.com/music.