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The essence of Lucinda Williams

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2001

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"It requires more time and more work," she says, recalling her thoughts about the quickly written material. "That's probably the main difference between this one and other ones. I worried in the beginning that this wasn't going to be as good. It wasn't going to stand up to these other records because I hadn't spent as much time on these other songs. If I'm going to write more narrative songs, I'm going to need more time. I can't sit down and write eight or nine narrative epics. That takes a lot of work. It's one thing to write a song like "Are You Down" which is really sparse. Then again, it's kind of liberating to write a song like that and not feel pressure of having to do that heavier, lyrical kind of thing."

Williams says there was no grand plan to de-emphasize story songs at the expense of "feeling" type songs.

"I usually don't think about it that much. It's not much of a conscious, thought out plan. When I'm writing the songs, I'm sort of doing everything step by step. I'm writing the songs. I have no idea what's going to happen with that, you know how they're going to come out."

A longstanding influence for Williams - Bob Dylan - resurfaced for writing this album.

"The closest I could tell you as I was going along the songs were coming out, I was sort of thinking about (Dylan's) 'Time Out of Mind,' the vibe on that record. That's the closest I could get to get as preconceived idea. Even that changed as we got into the studio. I didn't realize I was going to write these kinds of songs this time. Then when I demoed the songs - I demoed them acoustically with (band member and basic tracks producer) Bo Ramsey to start with - the acoustic (versions) are totally different with what we ended up with, but there's still a connection. There's still a common thread. We made sure we used the acoustic demos as a reference because there was such a cool, magical thing that we wanted to capture on the final CDs."

Many songs on "Essence" display an overt sexuality. The title track for example starts "Baby, sweet baby, you're my drug/come on and let me taste your stuff."

"Are You Down," where the coup de grace comes with the final three words, is more of a kiss-off song, closing 'nothing will make me take you back/are you down babe/down with that?"

"Blue" also concerns the end of a relationship, ending 'so go to confession/whatever gets you through/you can count your blessings/I'll just count on blue."

In fact, the only true story song of the lost is "Bus to Baton Rouge," about a trip from childhood of visiting Williams' grandmother.

As a result, Williams acknowledges she had a lot of concern about the songs that would end up on "Essence."

Referring to "Are You Down" and "Steal You Love," Williams says, "I thought are these okay? I don't have enough songs like 'Drunken Angel' (from "Car Wheels" about the late Texas songwriter Blaze Foley) and these narrative songs like that. I was as worried that I didn't have enough of those kinds of songs."

"It was liberating," says Williams. "Every record doesn't have to be a narrative record. I asked people about that, and they said this is great on its own. It's really a departure for me to let go of that (and say), 'okay this is cool. Let's go with the groove of the thing.'"

Not every song was of recent vintage. "Baton Rogue," for example was a song Williams "had started...years ago and had never finished it. That was from earlier stuff. That's how I write. I bring everything out - bits and pieces of old songs. I don't throw anything away until I use it.

"'Lonely Girls' and 'I Envy You' were the first new ones I wrote," says Williams. "Some of the other ones were culled from songs I started years ago that I'd just never finished."

"With my songwriting, sometimes I'll work on something a little bit, and then I'll put it away because it's not ready to be finished. That's the way that song 'Blue' was. It's from an older song that I started years ago. I would work on it a little bit here a little bit there, I just didn't finish it until now. Who knows why? Every song has their time."

"Out of Touch" was first written by Williams in 1981 "if you could believe that. I actually had a finished version. It's completely different. The original version is sort of a slower balled kind of thing, but I had that around for years. It almost ended up on the 'Car Wheels' album, but didn't. I'm glad now because it's a much better song. I was kind of messing around with it and then all of a sudden I took it to this other level."

Many would say that about Williams' career.

It's the sort of career that certainly has had its ups and downs, more than most any musician.

Even Williams' childhood was not your typical upbringing. Her father, Miller, was a poet, resulting in the family bouncing around from location to location for college teaching jobs. Stops like Santiago, Chile, Mexico City, Jackson and Vicksburg, Miss., Atlanta and Macon Ga., Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La.

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