Musician Lucinda Williams keeps sticking to her ways

Singer's new CD stays true to sound her fans enjoy most

April 17, 2003|By Glenn Gamboa | Glenn Gamboa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUSTIN, Texas - Lucinda Williams is apologizing - in her own way.

"I'm torn," she tells a packed Austin Music Hall. "What do I do? I'm trying to introduce y'all to some new material. If we had two hours, we'd play the new stuff and the old. But we don't."

At this point in her recent showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference, she has played "Drunken Angel" from her classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and followed it with seven new songs from World Without Tears, her latest album.

It's clear she's debating whether she wants to please the crowd with some familiar songs or if she wants to please herself. Williams pauses, looks at her band mates and nods her head - before launching into the new album's title track. She follows that with another new song, "Atonement," before she has to leave the stage because she has gone over her allotted time.

"That's the music business for you," she says. "Music and business, they try to get along, but somehow, they manage to [hurt] each other."

So much for fans' worries that Williams was growing too cozy with the music industry.

Sure, World Without Tears, which arrived in stores last week, comes an industry-friendly two years after her last release. Yes, it's got some possible radio-friendly hits such as the stunning ballad "Over Time" and the first single, "Righteously," which even floated through a recent episode of Crossing Jordan. And Williams will be the first to say she is embracing parts of the L.A. lifestyle - the yoga, the nightlife, the ocean.

But fans can rest easy. Williams, dubbed "America's Best Songwriter" by Time magazine, hasn't changed too many of her ways.

"I choose to be in control 24/7," she says. "Consequently, that means that I'm exhausted all the time. ... It'd be a lot easier if I just went in and said, `Whatever,' if I could hire a producer and just say, `Produce me.' "

World Without Tears is the first time she's recorded with her touring band - guitarist Doug Pettibone, drummer-keyboardist Jim Christie and bassist Taras Prodaniuk. It's also the first time she raps, on the song "American Dream."

"I had the song, sort of. I had the melody and the `everything is wrong' chorus, but I wasn't sure what to do with it," she says. "The band deserves a lot of the credit. We just started jamming on this thing ... I jumped onstage and started speaking the lyrics, and it sort of worked. I thought, `This is cool.' "

She knows the song may take some of her fans by surprise, especially the ones yearning for the lilting alt-country of "Still I Long for Your Kiss" or "Right in Time." The song surprised her as well. "It's actually my favorite track on the record."

Williams, whose spoken-word style owes more to Allen Ginsberg than Lauryn Hill, says the song's lyrics were inspired in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I was thinking of the knee-jerk patriotism happening after it," she says. "I've always had issues with that. I mean, I got kicked out of school in 1969 for not saying `The Pledge of Allegiance' during the Vietnam war."

Another departure is "Bleeding Fingers," Williams' ode to former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg. "I had just discovered his solo records, and he's a great writer, really underrated," she says. "There aren't that many great songwriters, not that many great lyricists. But he and Ryan Adams have a really great literary slant to them. They have that Dylanesque style of writing. I love the idea of pairing in-depth lyrics and a really great rock-and-roll backdrop."

That's a stretch for the woman who helped create the whole alt-country movement, but she's fine with that.

"I like to think that I'm continuing to grow and explore," she says. "I'm glad to try things that are a little bit different. It's real liberating.

"That's why I like being enigmatic," she adds with a laugh. Williams freely admits she is awash in contradictions.

The yoga is helping her deal with the anxiety of releasing World Without Tears.

As part of that, Williams is trying to embrace the process of releasing a record - the appearances, the interviews, the concerts.

"I'm just insecure," she says, trying to explain the contradiction of worrying about one photographer, yet feeling comfortable in front of thousands at a concert. "I think I'm an honest artist, so it's hard for me to try to appear to be something I'm not. It's not that I just make a living this way - I'm the same person onstage and off stage."

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