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The essence of Lucinda Williams

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2001

The last time around, Lucinda Williams needed three different versions and three different producers before becoming up with a career masterpiece of an album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

No such "luck" this time in recording "Essence," her 11-song follow-up. For starters, instead of almost six years between albums as with "Car Wheels..." and "Sweet Old World," "Essence" comes only three years after "Car Wheels."

And the recording process was far, far different than the previous album. Instead of of a series of producers like Steve Earle and Roy Bittan, guitarist Charlie Sexton and Williams were the main producers.

But don't expect "Son of Car Wheels" on the Louisiana native's newest music of country, folk, blues and rock. "Essence" adopts a more subdued approach musically, less of a guitar driven sound. Williams' vocals grab more of the focus.

The songs are less story oriented than previous albums and more often on affairs of the heart and relationships.

"There's no point," says Williams from Nashville, on her cell phone just after finishing a visit to the dentist's office, about repeating an album. "It's like apples and oranges. If I made a more narrative record, they would have said I made another 'Car Wheels' record. You can't win for losing."

As a result of that attitude, a lukewarm review in Rolling Stone left Williams perturbed.

"When I look at people like Dylan, Waites and Neil Young, they all get bad reviews too," says Williams.

"I kind of look at that and thought if they're going to get bad reviews, I'm not going to worry about it any more. They're the best, and they're getting slammed. What are you going to do? They don't quit making records. Neil Young (does) what he wants to do."

The Rolling Stone review "made me paranoid. (Onstage), I was paranoid about it the whole time. It was making me self-conscious."

"But then everybody else I talks to loves those songs."

Going into "Essence," Williams says she felt a lot of pressure in trying to follow up "Car Wheels," by far her most successful album commercially and an album that also increased her already high standing among critics.

"I definitely put that (pressure) on me. No one else put any pressure on me. I did it all by myself. Just because of the obvious comparison to 'Car Wheels.' It's inevitable. They're going to compare this record to 'Car Wheels' because I had a record that went gold and won a Grammy. What are you going to do? You got to move on. You can't stop. That's why that Rolling Stone (review) affected me so much. It was my worst nightmare realized."

Then, the question was how to come up with material for the album. That would prove even harder given that Williams had not written a song in five years!

"It's kind of hard to talk about because then it's going to sound like I'm blaming someone else. A lot of times when I'm in a relationship, I don't write very much. I don't want to get into it. It's my screwed up head."

Williams quickly offers a knowingly lame excuse. "It was either I was in the studio or the road promoting 'Car Roads,'" she says.

In reality, Williams had just broken up with her boyfriend of five years, Richard Price, also her bassist.

"Once I got off the road for awhile, I got in the mode of getting into a new project," she says.

"Any time there's a major change in your life, it provides a catalyst for creativity or whatever," she says. "Any time there's a loss or you move to a new city or you break up with somebody or you meet somebody, it's those pivotal kind of comments, they always provide these moments for this whole creative spurt."

Williams holed up in her house for several weeks, writing away.

She remembers thinking, "There's something wrong with this picture. I wrote about 14 new songs in a 6-week period. I've never done that before. They can't all be good enough. There's got to be a catch here. I started playing the songs for people. I played the songs for Bo, and people started flipping out over them. They responded positively. I started getting a feeling, 'I guess they're okay. Maybe I should go with this.'

"I was surprised myself actually to some extent," she says, referring to her productivity. "I knew I had something in me. It was kind of a combination of going through that real major life change and my manager Frank (Callari) telling me we had a (record company) deadline staring us in the face. They already had given us an extension as it was."

"Everything just all sort of came together to create this amazing kind of flurry of creativity," Williams says. "Yeah, it's definitely a surprise to me - that I was able to finish that many songs to put on a record in that amount of time. I've never done that before. With my other records, up until this last one, I had songs that I still had left over that I hadn't recorded yet. I had a catalogue of songs (in general). I had less by the time I had done 'Car Wheels' because I had done two records before that."

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