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Keep It Civil

They’re adored by everyone from Adele to Taylor Swift, who recently collaborated with them on the Hunger Games theme tune. Ed Power catches up with the increasingly massive The Civil Wars.

Ed Power, 03 May 2012

They are still new enough to all of this to be starry-eyed about the Grammys, where they received awards for best folk album and best country duo, and got to share cocktail chatter with Rihanna and Paul McCartney. “We saw a lot of stars there with whom we had never brushed shoulders,” says Williams. “We had a few pinch-me moments. It was like, ‘Oh my god, there goes Paul McCartney…”

There’s an awkward moment when White, in a misguided attempt to ingratiate, starts blathering on about what a joy it is to be ‘in the UK’. As Hot Press cocks a quizzical eyebrow, Williams – who seems to have the better grasp of geo-politics – shuts her partner up and makes it clear that what he really meant to say is that they love Ireland and the country’s rich folk tradition.

They aren’t simply blowing smoke. At Burnett’s prompting, last year they shared a recording booth with The Chieftains, contributing a track to the trad warriors’ 50th anniversary LP. By way of thanks, the band’s Paddy Moloney took the pair on a tour of his favorite haunts in Wicklow while they were town for a Sugar Club date last autumn.

“It’s so gorgeous,” gushes Williams, in the traditional style of starry-eyed Americans confronted with random Irish ephemera. “The heather up in the hills… everything…”

“Everybody knew Paddy,” continues White. “He was a legend. Walking about town, all these people were coming up to say hi. He brought us to this tiny pub, then to his house. He treated us like family, and he’d only met us. We are such huge admirers. To have done what he did, to have collaborated with whoever he wanted – and still have a twinkle in his eye about music… it’s an example to us all.”

The Civil Wars began when Williams and White got together at a musician think-in in Nashville. Both had been through the singer-songwriter mill and concluded they were better suited to working behind the scenes. He was a jobbing composer in Nashville; she got by penning songs for Disney’s TV wing. Neither was much inclined to go back on stage and bare their soul.

“We’d both had our involvement in big record deals and hadn’t enjoyed the process,” says John Paul. “We left that world, were burnt out – we knew that solo careers were something we didn’t want. Joy had had a record deal at 17. I’d done something similar. We were past it.”

The moment they sat down together and began writing, however, they sensed a connection. There was a long conversation as to whether they wished to put themselves through the major-label grinder again. Their conclusion was that what they had was too special to ignore. Within a few months they’d assembled the bones of what would become their debut LP, Barton Hollow.

Given the chemistry, it is no shock that they are often assumed to be a couple. In fact Williams is married to the Civil Wars’ tour manager (she is expecting their first child in the autumn) while Williams has a wife and four kids back in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

“We weren’t totally surprised audiences think we’re in a relationship,” says Williams. “The dynamic is a male/female thing. We play off each other. We sing about broken hearts, about love and the lack thereof. Of course we also sing about addiction and real world events. So there’s more to it than you might think at an initial glance.

“People see how passionate we are and how involved and connected and they can misconstrue that,” says White. “It’s more a brother or sister thing. I liken it to the bands my dad loved – brother acts like The Everlys. What we do isn’t very scientific. It just feels right.”

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