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.
John Paul White and Joy Williams, the good-looking, non-romantically aligned duo who make up alt. country sensations The Civil Wars, sit in a busy Dublin hotel, exhausted but cheerful.
“We’ve kind of got the blinders on,” says White, in a syrupy Alabama twang. “We focus on whatever is happening right now. We don’t step back and look at the big picture. It keeps us sane.”
Starving singer-songwriters for most of their adult lives, as The Civil Wars, White and Williams are hurtling towards the big time on rocket boots. They recently won two Grammys, Adele is a tireless cheerleader, ‘Safe And Sound’, the Hunger Games theme song composed with Taylor Swift, is all over the radio. Six months hence, it’s difficult to imagine them passing anonymously among the lunchtime crowd as they do today.
“A lot of it is due to the Hunger Games,” confesses White, referring to the soon-to-be-inescapable post-Twilight tween franchise. “Not only because we did the song with Taylor. Just ‘cos it looks as if it’s going to be the next big thing. I think everybody would be surprised if it isn’t huge.”
He smiles. “Actually we’re missing the premiere. We had to be over here on tour. When we heard it was like, ‘Oh shoot…’ Then again, coming to this part of the world with our music is the best excuse we could think of to have to skip an event like that.”
A hook-up with a teenage idol like Taylor Swift would be a kiss of death to the reputation of most alt. country acts. It says something for Civil Wars’ uncanny ability to court the mainstream while keeping purists onside that they’ve breezed through whatever controversy surrounded the collaboration (it helped that the get-together was midwived by T-Bone Burnett, the impeccably credentialed roots producer).
“We could care less what people think,” says White, who will continue to distract Hot Press throughout the interview by dint of being a dead ringer for Pirates Of The Caribbean-vintage Johnny Depp.
“We don’t draw any lines in the sand in terms of who we work with,” chips in Williams, a northern Californian whose perkiness is in contrast to White’s somewhat brooding nature. “We assess everything on a case-by-case scenario. With Taylor, it so happened she’s been an unbelievable supporter of ours. She’s a fan, incredible though that may sound.”
“Some folks might surmise we aren’t a good fit,” continues White. “All I can say is that to be in the room writing with her that day… it was a revelation. She had some great ideas. We had complete freedom. It truly was a collaboration. We brought the melancholy and the darker angle, Taylor was bringing the melody and the chords.
“What people forget is that T-Bone was a co-writer on the track. If anyone has an issue with it – well, we didn’t do that song to please them. We did it to please ourselves. Before we said yes we looked at each other and asked, do we want to do this? We both knew it was the right decision straight away.”
Swift and Burnett aren’t the only cheerleaders who have rallied to their cause. As already mentioned, Adele is a vocal supporter. She sought The Civil Wars out as support for her US tour and, for good measure, brought them across the Atlantic for her British dates. She also took to her website to proclaim their brilliance.
“It is so amazing that, with a few clicks, someone like her can turn people onto you,” says White. “After that the ball is in our court. It’s up to us to get people’s attention.”
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.”
Barton Hollow is out now. The Civil Wars play The Olympia, Dublin on October 29.
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