Duo interview: Inside the sweet harmony of the Civil Wars
In a way, Joy Williams and John Paul White owe their success to uncertainty. Williams had stepped away from her career as a Christian artist and White had seen his debut album for Capitol get hung up in record business purgatory when they met at a songwriting camp and found an unexpected connection in collaboration. In 2008, the pair began performing as the Civil Wars and broke through the next year when their song "Poison & Wine" appeared on the TV medical drama (and music placement kingmaker) Grey's Anatomy. The music hails from the darker side of Americana, but these shadows are offset by the loveliness of the duo's harmonies. The Hook recently had a chance to talk with both of them.
The Hook: Did either of you have plans to do collaborative work when you met?
John Paul White: We're both control freaks. It makes no sense. We should have repelled each other.
The Hook: Why is that?
Joy Williams: We joke often about the fact that I grew up singing in church, and John Paul cut his teeth singing in bars. I grew up on organic food, and John Paul grew up on fried chicken. John Paul grew up on Americana, country, folk music, and metal. I grew up listening to crooners and pop music, and even rap.
The Hook: What were the advantages of working without traditional label support?
John Paul White: As we grew as a band, we figured, 'Okay, what do we need to take this to the next level?' It might be a booking agent. We would hire that person. Now we need PR. Little by little, we assembled. Every time that a label would come calling, we would sit down and say, "What can they do for us that we cannot do for ourselves?" Some of those things are appealing. We don't need a big tour support budget to go out on the road. It's pretty much Joy and I. Our entourage is getting bigger, but we don't have to travel around with a big band and drums and amps and all that.
The Hook: So how do you write, particularly your vocal parts?
John Paul White: It by and large just falls out. You treat it as an instrument in the band. You add it where it needs to be added so that the song grows and where it can die and can grow again.
The Hook: Did you make a conscious decision to focus on death as a lyrical theme?
John Paul White: We won't lie; we lean toward songs with a little of the darker edge. Over the course of our lives, that's the songs that always stuck with us, that have always been the most powerful. We've got valleys and peaks in your life. Typically, the valleys are the ones that are deepest and the longest. There are people that are out there that sing [about] how good life is.
Joy Williams: We're just not those people.
John Paul White: And that makes us happy.