Now/It's: An Interview with Joy Williams

For all the talk of Nashville’s growth in the past decade (!!!), it can still feel like a small town. Claustrophobic, even. Suffice to say, as Nashville aims for urban sprawl, its social and professional circles have become increasingly airtight. So much so that the occasional Nashville sabbatical might be in order. Such was the case for Joy Williams, who left Nashville - the city she called home for the better part of two decades - for Venice Beach, California. While it was a brief stint on the West Coast, it was a significant one for Williams - she moved to be closer to her ailing father, as well as escape the inexorable scuttlebutt of Nashville. But as life has its beats, after the passing of her father, Williams returned to Nashville, knowing it was always home. It was where her children were born, where two decades’ worth of experience originated, and where much more was to come. Williams’ return to Nashville helped invigorate her newest LP, Front Porch, a proverbial homecoming record of identifying what’s most important in a life centered on connectivity, passion, and love. It was in her time away from home that Williams came to realize that Nashville is and will always in some way be home. And it’s good to have her back.

Now/It’s met with Joy Williams at Barista Parlor Golden Sound in The Gulch neighborhood of Nashville. Photo credit to Andy Barron.

Joy - I was just watching the Brene Brown documentary…. Or the Brene Brown “talk” on “daring greatly” - I read the book, too - but it was fun to watch her talk about it. If you dare to dream, you will get your ass handed to you on a somewhat regular basis. And I can very much relate.

N/I - I’m sure most people can. For myself, I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and I realized I like talking to people, and seem to do it well enough. I worked at a record label a little while, too.

Joy - Is your family in the music industry?

N/I - No. Far from it. My dad works in medicine, and my mom owns a boutique. But I wound up in and around [music] somehow. It’s been nice. It’s been fun. But it’s also been a number of Brene Brown type situations of once again getting my ass handed to me, but understanding that through looking down the line, things will be alright.

Joy - And that’s all you can do. I say I’m an experiential creative. I really do have to try it. Obviously, within realistic measures, but I have to learn sometimes by doing. Sometimes you learn by seeing what not to do, but sometimes you have to learn by having to pull your sleeves up and get your hands in the dirt and see what works and what doesn’t. I guess I’m getting closer to forty now… That’s exciting! But in my twenties, it was so much of “How can I make the world say my name?” and “How can I prove my presence to the world?” I kind of giggle about it now, but I have a compassion for that version of me too. But I don’t know - getting my ass handed to me a couple times now has really made me realize it’s not about trying to assert, it’s mostly just “How can I be?”

N/I - Exactly - through existing naturally.

Joy - And how can I be my fullest self in the process. How to be present with people and create within a space that’s authentic and honest and release the outcome. I think that’s the scary part of living, in general.

N/I - Very much so.

Joy - I think [releasing the outcome] I can see that in my son. Consistency and sameness for him is really important. It’s the building blocks for what feels like stability, then as we get older, there are fewer of what I would call “chain links.” Or maybe there are more chain links, but there’s less finality to other things.

N/I - That’s fair. I would imagine with the “chain links,” so to speak, you can see where it’s come from in terms of the connections, but as far as where it’s going, that’s where your perception of stability is there, to a certain extent, but looking forward, it becomes more of only being able anticipate your own thoughts and experiences.

Joy - And I think what you’re saying probably, Sean, is the connection that we look for as we’re younger is more outward, whereas when we get older, the connection becomes more inward. That’s how we grow. That perception of stability has to start inside.

N/I - I think so. It seems to progress that way.

Joy - It will push you that way. Some people fight that hard for their whole lives.

N/I - Very much so.

Joy - I’ve been there too.

N/I - Not to sound cliche, but everyone does follow their own path, wherever it may go.

Joy - We just went super…. We did not splash around in the kiddie pool, did we [laughs]?

N/I - I suppose not. I like that, though.

Joy - Me too.

N/I - It helps endorse the conversational aspect of things, or so I hope.

Joy - I think it does.

N/I - Good. Good. But on that same thought of pathways - in reading some other features on you, something that stood out to me was the fact you called yourself a “recovering perfectionist.” I would imagine that was some version of what we’re talking about with understanding that things, whether it’s yourself or your music, you have to start inward to find what the next thing is. And in that search, things very rarely turn out “perfect.”

Joy - No, but it’s quite boring if it is, actually.

N/I - How soon did you arrive at that realization?

Joy - I would say I still haven’t arrived at a certainty, but I would say it’s like small hinges on a large door. That’s been happening in different versions for a really long time. I started in faith-based music as a teenager. And then my worldview starting shifting and I started feeling really constrained by the lyrical requirements. That felt scary. I displeased a lot of people by moving through that. There were a lot of assumptions made, and then The Civil Wars happened, and it was such high highs and such low lows, and people making assumptions that weren’t accurate, and being called every name under the sun. Which is….

N/I - Something that nobody wants to ever be the subject of.

Joy - Especially when it’s untrue. But I think all of these things show that it’s hard to do things in public. It’s hard to share and be open and be creative in public. That’s not a “woe is me” story, that’s just the reality. It’s much easier to critique someone that’s stepping out versus stepping in. So I think just the nature of being creative and vulnerable and sharing that can lead to not everyone liking your music. Not everyone is going to get it. Some people just hate it, and that’s okay. Some people really resonate with it, and that’s their choice. I think that’s where the recovering perfectionism has come in. As a kid, I thought if I didn’t do everything perfectly, I would be abandoned, and I wouldn’t be loved.

N/I - Especially starting out in this world at seventeen. You’re still a teenager.

Joy - Absolutely. There are things like body issues, and you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you even think in the world. But this has all been my path, and I look back at all of it with gratitude. That being said - this is long winded….

N/I - That’s okay. I invite it.

Joy - I think this record is a good example of that to me. Showing little teeny, green chutes of growth along the way. I wasn’t trying to make it something other than real for me.

N/I - I remember reading somewhere else that you had said your feet are on the ground with this record, and there’s something distinctly familiar from a sort of control view, but you still can’t always know what lies beneath you. You just have to feel it.

Joy - Yeah. I think I feel more integrated. Just to take the influences and the experiences I’ve had, and hopefully finding a way to metabolize those, as opposed to “that was that, but this is now.” Some of this sounds esoteric, but what I mean is just trying to take the parts of the music and the parts of my life that have grown me, and write from that spot.

N/I - Right. And trying to keep with that transcendental view - the human experience is different for every person that’s in this coffee shop, but we’ve all had some similar version of a certain type of loss, or heartache….

Joy - Or disappointment. Celebration. Or bewilderment. Or things feeling unended. That to me is what I get fascinated by, whether I’m sitting down to coffee with you, or I’m writing a song. Those are the things I like to put in my hands like putty and see what kind of things come out melodically and lyrically. Then like we were talking about before, once you release the album, the hope is that it does connect. I cook in the same way. It’s fun to cook for myself, but at the end of the day, it’s way more fun to cook and invite other people and share it with other people. Not so I can try and get a response, but really just for the nature of creating and sharing - it feels very regenerative to me. And meaningful. At the same time, some people might not like what you cook, but at least I showed up and I gave. If I look back at my life and I say “I always tried to be loving and generous and always aimed to give” I feel like I might want to line up on that side, even with the criticism or if people don’t connect to it. But I’m really glad to say that Front Porch, at least up to now, really seems to connect with people.

N/I - I would say so.

Joy - And I finally feel ready to tip my hat to a duo that I’m largely more known for, but not be afraid to be really proud of my musical involvement and co-writing and everything. It’s in my bones. To bring that out as well was really empowering.

N/I - So in doing the record through your own perspective, but still co-writing with people like Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose - so many amazing people….

Joy - I know! They’re so good. I feel so lucky.

N/I - Keeping that in mind, and adding to the fact that Venus came out in 2015, so almost half a decade until Front Porch comes out…

Joy - I never thought about it that way [laughs]. You’re right.

N/I - Sometimes context can be surprising, I suppose [laughs]. Of the songs that are on Front Porch, how many of them did you have small inklings of? Or was it more so getting with people like Natalie Hemby or Liz Rose and really endorsing a “front porch” mentality?

Joy - I think I’ve had murmurings of this over the years. Even when I wrote Venus, I still wrote almost all of those just on the guitar. I don’t play guitar well enough to write - I’d get so pissed off at myself that I’d stop writing. But when I was writing for Venus, it was still guitar, vocal. But I think the life experiences I remember, I tried to do so with Venus. I tried to write about my dad passing, and he was in the process of passing at that point. During that time, I had a songwriter tell me “With all due respect, you’re really not going to be able to write anything about him until he’s passed away.” And it stung, but I heard that.

N/I - How did you deal with that?

Joy - It stung, but it was true. It took me this long to be able to write a song about my dad. And over the course of those years, a song “When Does a Heart Move On?” that was a life experience that I’ve had the feelings of and then I had friends who I talked to that understood what that feeling was like over the years. And even in my own relationships. It’s all kind of in there. It was sort of bubbling, and then when I sat down with these amazing friends, I was able to talk about it. I felt much more stripped down. I was interested….

N/I - But not necessarily exposed?

Joy - Definitely, but in a way that is clarifying. Not like the dreams where we don’t have any clothes on and we have to go to school….

N/I - Where you have a test the next day….

Joy - Right. Not like that. But in the sense of “I’ve got nothing to hide.” I’ve got nothing to prove. All I can do is show up. So moving back from Venice Beach and going back home, and finally being able to call Nashville home was a big deal to me. Both of my children were born here. The home that they were born into was here.

N/I - And that kind of goes back to that original sense of stability you were talking about earlier.

Joy - And there’s stability in place, which leads to stability within. But I’m finding that takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. I feel much more grateful for the simplistic, small moments. It’s the small moments that mean so much more to me. So I wanted to write for that. So that’s where Front Porch came from. There is no pretense. You do take your shoes off. There might be sidewalk chalk and a Razor scooter up on my front porch with a “Howdy” mat on it, but it’s real. That was the place I wanted to write out of.

N/I - I would imagine where most people, whether it’s songwriting, creative writing, the type of writing I do, it would come from a place like that, where it’s wholly genuine. It’s interesting, as you talk about taking these smaller moments and appreciating and understanding them, it makes me think of Lucia Berlin. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work at all….

Joy - I’m not. Please tell me.

N/I - She spent a lot of time in New Mexico, and the American Southwest in general.

Joy - I do love that state.

N/I - So do I. There are a lot of writers of her ilk who have led me to obsess over the state. But that’s for a different conversation. What led me to bring her up is that her stories are very small in scope, very intimate in nature, and I think because of that, they’re experiences that are born out of her own….

Joy - But they feel universal as well?

N/I - Totally.

Joy - Lots of shared human experience.

N/I - And yet they’re so small, almost seemingly insignificant, but so many people have experienced something similar. Things like getting lost of the Fourth of July when you’re twelve years old.

Joy - Oh! Did you hear me? I had my own feeling of being lost in a mall when I was seven.

N/I - Exactly! That’s the thing, everyone has their own reference points. It’s nice to have that immediate reference point for myself…

Joy - It’s a touch-point for you.

N/I - That’s right. Because myself not being a songwriter, I can still understand it to some degree. So I feel like if everyone can come to that same realization one way or another, that’s an achievement for everyone involved, whether it’s you or the person listening.

Joy - And that’s the beauty of art, writing, music. If we count that moment of “Oh, you too?” that’s such a good feeling. I think just to have that feeling in general, it’s a sense of being seen. I think that’s what so many of us want, is to be seen. Perhaps it’s not just to be seen, but to also be seen and accepted. “Canary” is kind of like that, actually.

N/I - It absolutely is. I love the parallel you use for it - the historic use of canaries as a barometer for something going wrong. Granted, the literal use was a little more grotesque….

Joy - [Laughs] Truly. That’s because it meant they’d passed. But before they were probably chirping.

N/I - Exactly. Anecdotally, they just stop singing.

Joy - I remember writing that during a particularly politically charged Fall, and just thinking that we’re only going to survive if we stay connected to one another. I talk about that with my son a lot - that everybody matters.

N/I - That’s great.

Joy - And so where that came out of was to speak our truth.

N/I - How do you broadcast that to a child?

Joy - As best as you can, all the while still learning from it. It’s kind of an extension of that recovering perfectionism [laughs]. There it is again. But I think it’s in the little ways. It’s on the playground, it’s in the car. It’s noticing people around you. I call it “sharing the space.” You can honor people in your the space, you can acknowledge them, and I’ve known adults who can’t do that, so it’s important for me as a mother to hopefully influence that mindfulness. I think if we’re aware, and we’re looking around, and are aware of ourselves and other people, then hopefully that turns into gratitude, and hopefully that gratitude leads to wonder, and then hopefully wonder leads to creativity and respect and all those other things. But what do I know? Parenting is like jazz, you just try and find out what key you want to be in and figure out the rest along the way.

N/I - Well, myself not being a parent, I’ll just have to take your word on that. But at the same time, it kind of parallels or mirrors the experience that you want someone to take from an album or a song or a performance. So it’s nice to see that everything you seem to be doing in service of that general gratitude, and the gratitude in existence.

Joy - Hopefully. I mean, “The Trouble With Wanting” is sort of an example of all of that. I remember sitting on the back porch - please forgive me, it wasn’t the front….

N/I - We can redact such a detail if need be [laughs].

Joy - It’s totally fine. It was the back porch, and it was great, and we had wine, and it was awesome. We’d already written a song called “Look How Far We’ve Come” and we had it done in like thirty minutes, and that was so fast. It was so fun and easy, which doesn’t always happen. But then we got to chatting, as we do, and we talked about the ache of desire, and what does desire actually do? How does it affect us? We’ve all been touched by it at different times for all sorts of different reasons. I remembered reading a quote that said “If you want to suffer, just want a person, place, or thing.”

N/I - That’s fair.

Joy - It’s the ache of what you don’t have. So it’s the idea of what I don’t have versus what I do. I felt that so strong. I’m sure we’ve all felt that. So I couched that in the vein of a relationship that one of my friends, we had been talking about their on again off again relationship for the better part of a decade….

N/I - Wow.

Joy - It’s an ache to desire and want something. It’s vulnerable because you don’t always get what you want, but you do get what you have. So what do we do with what we have? How do we stay with that? How do we work with that? These are things that I think about when I’m getting groceries, and when I’m sitting down to dinner. I feel like this record has a lot of everyday heartbeat, and hopefully people can feel that, and feel a little less alone. But even “When Creation Was Young,” we did that intentionally to turn it on it’s ear. I like playing with the form and turning it. But I wrote that before I even knew I was pregnant with Poppy, my daughter. Looking back, I tell [my son] Miles that my kids were twinkles in my eye before they came about, and I just think, “I wonder if she was twinkling in my eye before there were even words for the song?” From the beginning of time, I loved you. There’s something very profound in meeting somebody who you’ve been growing. So these songs actually change in time with me, even since I wrote them. So I get excited and hopeful about what could happen with other people’s lives and experiences if they take the time to listen to it. Which I hope they do.