THE CIVIL WARS
with special guests THE STAVES
Friday, January 13, 8 p.m.
Brown Theatre on Broadway
On sale October 28, 10 a.m., via The Kentucky Center box office:
502.584.7777, 502.562.0730 TTY [and in-person at the counter]
"The Year of Living Almost Famously" [from The New York Times]
Published: October 25, 2011
WASHINGTON — It has been a heady year for John Paul White and Joy Williams, who together are the folk-pop duo called the Civil Wars.
Since they put out their debut album in February on their own label, they have been riding a wave of good reviews and lucky breaks. Their album, “Barton Hollow” (Sensibility Music), has sold more than 195,000 copies without a major label’s help.
They have appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and toured with Adele and Emmylou Harris. This week they will appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” and headline their largest New York concert to date, on Thursday at Town Hall.
Their recent successes represent a remarkable change of fortune for two Nashville songwriters who only three years ago had lost hope that they would become recording artists. Ms. Williams, 28, from Santa Cruz, Calif., had given up her career as a contemporary Christian songwriter after three albums; Mr. White, 39, who grew up near Muscle Shoals, Ala., had parted ways with Capitol Records after recording a rock album that was never released.
During an interview at a restaurant near the Lincoln Theater in Washington before their Sunday evening show there, they talked about their vocal chemistry, writing about heartache and love, and the strains of being almost famous. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q. This has been a wild ride this year. What does it feel like?
JOHN PAUL WHITE I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t overwhelming. But we made a conscious decision early on to put blinders on and enjoy what’s going on that day. The idea that record came out February 1 blows my mind.
JOY WILLIAMS It feels quite fast, but at the same time I don’t feel it’s been fast, either, because we didn’t just step into the music business last year. For all the years of banging our heads against a wall, to finally have organic momentum without the help of a major record label, with a little engine that could, so to speak, of a team behind us, I think that makes it so much sweeter and so much more surreal.
Q. You were songwriters for a number of years before you got together. How have you influenced each other’s writing?
WHITE I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but the way she pulls from me, the things she’ll pinpoint have forced me to start digging more into my roots, Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt and people like that. That was part of me but I never called it up till she came along. I do the same thing to her, with her pop sensibilities and harmony-based music, her crooners, but also the Beach Boys.
WILLIAMS Lots of Beach Boys in my house.
WHITE On “My Father’s Father,” she came up with the melody to the opening line, which is a total Appalachian bluegrass melody that I should have come out with.
WILLIAMS After that came out, you said, “There’s an inner hillbilly in there and I’m going to help you find it.”
Q. Is it true you met working with a group of songwriters who were hired to write songs for a new Nashville band, which became Gloriana?
WILLIAMS Literally, they were called Band X at the time. No name.
WHITE I was writing for EMI at the time in Nashville. Joy was writing for Warner/Chappell out of Los Angeles, but she was living in Nashville. We were both asked by our publishers to do this 25-person song camp. Neither one of us wanted to do it. They basically drew straws, and we ended up in a room together.
Q. Was it love at first harmony?
WHITE When we started singing together, there was that click. It was this strange thing where we were kind of tethered together, like we were dancing. She knew where I was going to go before I would lead her there.
WILLIAMS I remember the hairs on the back of my neck going up but blaming it on air-conditioning.
WHITE It was like meeting the female equivalent of my voice.
Q. You’re both married to other people. Do people assume you’re married to each other?
WHITE They assume we are involved. It’s just a natural inclination to see a man and a woman singing about love or the lack thereof, and you just automatically go there. But the way we look at it is more familial, like brother and sister, like we grew up singing together.
WILLIAMS If you see our shows, you’ll notice in between songs we are making fun of ourselves and the other person.
Q. What’s it like to be opening for singers like Emmylou Harris and Adele after years of writing songs for other people?
WILLIAMS I just recently looked back in my journal from just a few years ago. The mood was so head-down, trying to be the best you can. Really no hope or desire to ever be an artist again because you feel so burned out. Then, to fast forward and to read recent journal entries, I got teary because these are pipe dreams coming true for both John Paul and me.
Q. A lot of your lyrics describe the contradictions in love relationships. Are those difficult things to write about?
WHITE Another of the reasons it’s better we are not in a relationship. We can be perfectly honest with each other in the songwriting process. We can stand on the stage every night and sing, “I don’t love you but I always will” and not feel the repercussions of that. We’ve both been married long enough to know there are good days and bad days and there are compromises. And there is usually a contradiction there.
WILLIAMS So much of life is full of those.
WHITE It’s the most boring song in the world if it’s not.
Q. Why did you call yourselves the Civil Wars?
WILLIAMS I came up with the name. It has nothing to do with the historical meaning. There is a great quote that I believe is Plato, who said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” As I was thinking about the music we make, that sense of battle seemed applicable. That sense of yin and yang, of male and female, of our differing backgrounds, all that seemed to allude to the battles that we all face with faith or addictions or jobs or relationships. Every single person walking down the street is fighting a great battle, whether or not you can see it.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 26, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Their Year of Living Almost Famously, www.nytimes.com.