The Civil Wars: Marching into the unknown
When John Paul White and Joy Williams perform one of the gentle, yearning songs they’ve recorded as the Civil Wars, they lean in toward each other, as if to get the weave of their harmonies just right. Williams might lift a hand to push back a strand of White’s shoulder-length hair. Their musical connection is seriously joyful; it carries them out of themselves and into a space that glows.
White and Williams are a couple onstage only; in conversation, they’re more like teasing siblings than sweethearts, giving each other witty little verbal pinches as they discuss their mounting success. "Barton Hollow," the duo’s debut album on its own Sensibility Music label, has topped the iTunes charts for the last three weeks, and its physical release debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200.
An appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and a coveted closing-montage spot on an episode of "Grey’s Anatomy" have helped this unknown act vault to national attention. Yet no one, least of all the sparkly, serious Williams and the graceful, amiable White, expected the Civil Wars to start out this strong.
“We really don’t know when it actually happened, because until the record came out we didn’t really have a gauge,” said White, a native of northwestern Alabama, in an interview conducted last week in the back of Oz Records in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after an in-store performance. The standing room-only crowd matched those greeting the Civil Wars on nearly every date of their current tour.
“The only gauge we had was Twitter followers, Facebook, comments on Youtube,” White continued. “We didn’t have any kind of sampling or anything, because we’re completely independent. Joy and our manager [Joy's husband, Nate Yetton] are the label.”
The Civil Wars provide a powerful example of how musicians who can’t afford or aren’t suited for grand pop spectacle can make a mark in today’s changing music industry. The pair met 2½ years ago at a songwriters’ workshop in Nashville, where the California-born Williams, now 29, had moved as a teen. They were disillusioned young veterans of the old system who both had doubts about continuing in music at all.
Williams had recorded several Christian contemporary albums, but had grown weary of that niche. White had been dropped from Capitol Records before his solo debut, an effort poised to introduce him as a Jeff Buckley-style melodic rocker, was even completed. He was in the middle of a string session when he got word that his entire label team had been sacked.
“I had put most of my life into it; you know, it was my first album,” White said of his smashed grab at leather-pants stardom. “So, I thought, 'I can do without it. I am honestly just fine without it.' ” White had settled back in the Muscle Shoals, Ala., area with his wife and kids, hoping to get some work as a songwriter for hire. “And then I met her,” he said, nodding at Williams.
Williams, whose effervescent nature succumbs to earnest gravity when she’s talking about her music, believes just as strongly in the blessedness of her chance encounter with White. “The process of being with John Paul is this wonderful discovery of creative freedom that I didn’t know that I had,” she said. “I started in a very restrictive genre of music. But the reality is that I’m able to write a lot more about the world around me, if it’s about faith or about cigarettes, or about murder or adultery, or about a movie that I saw, or a book we’ve both read.”
Artistic fulfillment, sadly, doesn’t pay for studio time or a home where you can keep your instruments. Williams and her husband, Yetton, a former executive at EMI’s CMG Label Group, had been struggling with the question of how to live a good life within the music business before they met White.
“Nate has been in the industry for about a decade, doing A&R and radio,” said Williams. “Contracts were getting so much more constraining for artists that he in good conscience didn’t feel that he could hand them out any longer, so he actually left his post. I had left my label deal at that point too, and we were like, 'What do we want to do? What’s next? The way that the industry’s changing, what do we need?' "
White answered Williams’ musical needs; the rest they had to build from the ground up. Forming Sensibility Music, they released a live recording of their second show ever, from the soundboard of a club in Decatur, Ga. "Live at Eddie’s Attic" is available on the Civil Wars' website with no strings attached. “You didn’t have to give us your e-mail address, anything,” said White. “Download the whole thing and give it to your friends. Please spread it as far and wide as possible.”
More than 100,000 downloads later, the Civil Wars are seriously bubbling up. "Barton Hollow," produced by Charlie Peacock, who’d worked with Williams during her Christian artist days, has become a favorite on progressive radio stations such as KCRW-FM (89.9) and KEXP-FM (90.3); the band’s videos are getting played on CMT; the album is getting great reviews in major outlets such as USA Today. Its sound is reminiscent of the Grammy-winning work of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, but with a looser, more unpredictable energy.
“The beauty of working with Joy is that she’ll find things that interest her and pull them out of me,” said White, who has allowed the hard country influence he picked up during his Southern childhood to come through, though he retains the swagger he nurtured as a hard rocker. “And vice versa. So a lot of things that have infiltrated this act have been things from my past that I’d never accessed in my solo stuff.”
Williams, in turn, revels now in her love of harmony singing, something she couldn’t much indulge as a solo performer. Her fixation on the Beach Boys and the Carpenters adds the bright color and refinement of midcentury pop to the band’s palette. “People haven’t been able to put their finger on what it is,” she said of the Civil Wars' style. “Is it folk? Is it country? Is it Americana? Is it pop? We don’t know. And we love that. And it was not intentional; it was just a byproduct of us joining forces.”
The Civil Wars' partnership comes most alive onstage, in the duo’s interplay of voices, which, though not motivated by romance, is still highly romantic. “We’ve both done plenty of gigs before we met each other, and I think we know the difference between really feeling it or not,” said Williams. “I’m so thankful that for us, every night we step onstage it feels like something new, and John Paul surprises me. Hopefully, that’s something people are moved by too. And then they’ll tell their friends, and those friends might tell their friends.” And so on and so on until, through bands such as the Civil Wars, a new music industry is born.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Tec Petaja