Joy Williams

In February 2011 I interviewed a new group called The Civil Wars, ten days after the release of their debut Barton Hollow. The rest was, of course, history, as Joy Williams and John Paul White went on to huge success, including four Grammys and worldwide critical adulation. The group broke up in 2014. 

Williams released her solo debut Venus this year.  In the 160 or so interviews I've done for this site, one pattern has emerged among the truly creative souls here: they are always songwriters, and they are always thinking about creating. John Oates, for example, told me about his songwriting antennae that are always up. Melissa Etheridge, whom I just interviewed yesterday and as you'll read soon, told me that she's always carrying her "idea bucket" around. And so it is with Williams: the creative process is always at the forefront in some form. She writes every day, she's reading five books at any given time, she loves cooking and the creativity inherent in that process. 

It's no surprise, then, that she's a songwriter every minute of every day.  "I see creativity as a culmination of my life experiences, so song ideas come to me all the time: as I'm cooking dinner or having a conversation with a friend or journaling," she told me. She's a self-described "worker bee" when it comes to the creative process.  She's also interested in the concept of creativity, so even when she's not creating something herself, there's a great deal of metacognition: many of the books she reads are about creativity. As you can see from the depth of her responses, she's always looking to better herself as an artist.

Read my interview with Joy Williams after the video .

What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?

Most of my creative outlets outside of songwriting revolve around journaling. I used to journal pages upon pages when I had more free time, but now that I have a child [Miles, her son] my time is a bit more limited. So I started doing something called Q & A a Day: Five Year Journal by Potter Style. It’s very enjoyable. You answer one simple question a day that ranges from something really introspective to something pretty banal, like the outfit you wore that day. And since it goes for five years, you can look back when you're done and see what your life was like at any one period and also how it’s progressed.

Aside from these journal entries, I also like to do some longer form freewriting. I also love to read, of course, but I also love to cook because I feel like cooking has so many parallels with the writing process.

When you write those journal entries, is there a prescribed page length or time?

Each entry is only about four lines. Let me give you some examples of the topics [Williams leafs through the book as she’s talking]: What is your motto, who is your best friend, what the next book you want to read, what do you have to lose. Since I spend a lot of my time processing my inner world when I journal, I do that internally rather than jotting down those thoughts these days. I don't why; maybe it’s because the stage of my life now. But I enjoy being asked questions that I normally wouldn't think to ask myself. I’ll be able to look back and see the journey I was on as if it were a color photograph.

Do these journal topics ever give you song ideas?

I don't necessarily draw a through line from one to the other. I see creativity as a culmination of my life experiences, so song ideas come to me all the time: as I'm cooking dinner or having a conversation with a friend or journaling. I envy people who can write hundreds of songs a year, but I tend to write in seasons. Not seasons like summer or winter, but more like phases. I write a lot when I have a deadline, and I write a lot when I have something I need to work through and process. And sometimes putting the melody to an emotion is one of the most concise ways that my creativity comes out.

That’s interesting. I’m sure certain melodies are attached to certain emotions.

I love asking people, “What do you hear first, the lyric or the melody?” I married someone who hears the melody first, but I hear lyrics first. Yet, when I write, typically the melody comes first. When I write, the melody always draws out the unexpected. It causes me to feel like I've stumbled into a garden that I may not have otherwise walked into. Obviously, if it’s a melody in a minor chord, I’ll probably end up with something more melancholy, but even if something is upbeat, I try to find the heartbeat in the lyric that feels the most authentic.

Melody is a trampoline for me in that it allows me to find the words in a way that I otherwise would not have found. It’s a conduit for the creative work and ideas that have already been stirring in me. I generally start with the melody, but by that time I’ve already done some work in the form of journaling or just writing down ideas, even if it’s a quote I read from someone like Kahlil Gibran or Robert Frost, whose words were the inspiration for my song “Before I Sleep.”

So you do a lot of mixing and matching with lyrics and melody?

Yes, but the melody isn’t so mathematical as it is like muscle memory. Melody is like that for me. A certain melody will come to me, and if I've done any kind of creative prep for that, either consciously or unconsciously, it will cause my body to react in a certain way.

Do you ever sit down with the urgency of writing a song about a certain topic, and the melody and lyrics happen together?

Laughs. I rarely sit down by myself and say I have to craft a song. I feel more inspired when I'm surrounded by kindred spirits, and collaborating has always been a big thing for me. I always feel that I can express myself more clearly when I work with people who are trying to draw those ideas out of me.

You mentioned the idea of seasons earlier. Do you write in spurts? Many songwriters I interview deliberately take time when they are not writing, so they can “fill the well” of inspiration, to use a phrase they like.

I do that, but I wouldn't say it’s a conscious idea where I'm deliberately taking time off from writing. There are definitely times when there is so much to process and so much to create, or there are times when I just feel like I have to write. That was how Venus started. I never said, “I’m going to write an album.” Instead, it was, “I need to find the creative part within me, because I've been changing a lot of diapers and spending a lot of time at home.” And while that’s a wonderful thing, songwriting also makes me feel alive, so I had to tap back into that.

I wrote almost 80 songs for this record. That kind of output was over the course of almost two years. I put my hands down my throat and dug around for quite a while. Now it’s time to embrace what I've written and let the garden grow for a little bit, rather than picking every flower that grows to make a bouquet.

Has having a child made you a more disciplined writer, since your window for creative output is smaller?

100 percent. I used to think that I was always so busy before I had Miles, and now I realize that I actually had so much free time! Laughs. But having a child has made me more diligent in being creative, because every moment I spend in the studio is time away from my family. I don't suffer fools like I used to. I don't waste time. I try to make the most of every minute I have. When I was making Venus, I booked a studio within walking distance of our house in Venice Beach, so I could come home for lunch every day and put Miles down for a nap because I was working 14 hour days. And from a purely creative perspective, having a child has given me more depth and dimension to write from.

How important is environment to you when you create? Things like a certain time of day or a certain place.

Environment is very important to me. I don't feel very inspired in a boardroom with fluorescent lighting. These days I don't write in the house too often because I get so easily distracted by what’s undone there and also just with my son. I have to plan ahead so that I can write in a certain space. I love writing in old funky studios. I feel like I can sense the creativity in those who have already been there, and I tap into my own bravery in those spaces a little bit more. And a few candles always help. Laughs.

One of the best answers I ever got to that question was from Cory Branan, who wrote his first two albums in a mall food court in Memphis. He doesn't like silence, but there was just enough of a hum there that it wasn't too distracting, and no one was doing anything interesting enough to preoccupy him.

That's a good point about the hum. Maybe that’s why I like to collaborate. That’s my hum. I find that if I'm by myself, my inner red pen comes out quickly. It's my internal editor. It’s starting to loosen its grip, fortunately. But what’s interesting is that even having someone in the room who’s sitting in the corner in silence makes a difference. Just having someone that I know I can bounce ideas off of really helps me.

Do you want until the song is finished to revise?

No, I revise all throughout the writing process. I will read a verse over and over and ask myself if that’s something I want to sing possibly hundreds of times. And then I keep going: is it going to lead me to another place? Does the chorus fit? Do I need to keep digging? Once I've finished writing the song, I sing it. Some lines resonate, others won't. And that’s where I know whether it fits well with the melody. If it sounds clunky, I'll revise again.

I'm definitely a worker bee when it comes to the creative process. What I've learned is that I'm never going to get anywhere if I worry that people are going to misinterpret my lyrics. At a certain point, I had to move past the safety of writing within the metaphor and just going to plain speak. That felt much more vulnerable to me, but it also brought out a new group of songs that I feel proud of. These are songs that I worked hard to revise, but then there are some songs like “One Day I Will,” where someone called me out on how much I was revising and told me to put the laptop down. I was doing too much editing. I was so afraid of saying something wrong that I was actually saying nothing at all.

It sounds you read a lot.  Tell me who you like to read.

Oh boy, this is hard. But I would say my favorite author is John Steinbeck, followed by Harper Lee. I also really love Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.

Have you ever read Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts”? It’s a must read for every writer.

That’s what half of those 80 songs I wrote were! Shitty first drafts! Laughs. Anyone interested in the creative process should read that book. I also really like Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art. It talks about the resistance within the creative process and how that resistance can actually guide you. But right now I'm reading Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It’s all about how relationships drive creativity. I’m also reading a book on parenting, a book by Cynthia Bourgeault, and a few others.

Are you reading all of these at the same time? I’m impressed. I want to ask you about cooking and creativity, since you mentioned that earlier. I’d love to be able to connect cooking and songwriting if we can.

Oh I can do that. There are so few things in life that have a quick turnaround or a solidified start and stop, particularly in our adult lives. Cooking is one of those things. I can stand in one space. I don't like to draw from recipes; instead, I like to improvise. I can draw from the knowledge of spices and what I have in my refrigerator. I can take these ideas and create something that will be different from anything I've ever made before. Then there’s the process of marinating, stewing, and letting things cook down. That’s very much like the creative process to me.

One of the joys of songwriting to me is making something that other people can connect to. That’s the same way I see cooking. It’s a pleasurable experience in itself, but it’s not the same if I just put it in a container then stuff it in the refrigerator. I want to share it. So that’s my link.

Let’s end with this. What song are you the most proud of because it was the hardest to complete. You wanted to give up so many times, but you pushed through and are better for it.

“Sweet Love of Mine” is one I’m really proud of. It came in fits and spurts over a two year period. I remember holding Miles on the porch in Nashville, and it was pretty warm. All of the sudden the melody just came to me. I started humming it over and over again. I put the melody on my iPhone, then put it away. When I got about 15 or 20 songs into the new record, I suddenly remembered that melody. I wrote down some verses, but I couldn't get the chorus right. I finished it in Los Angeles. That song took so many different seasons of my life to finish.