Joy Williams would like you to know something: She’s not perfect. Not even close.
It’s been a long road for Williams—whose new album, Venus, dropped this week—to come to that realization. The life events leading to her self-acceptance have been dramatic—the birth of her son, death of her father and disbandment of her band, The Civil Wars.
“It felt very much like an untethering,” she says of everything she has gone through recently. “When you get untethered, you also get more free in a way that I would have never realized I needed, had I not gone through the crucible of all those things at the same time. It’s made me more grateful for what I have. It’s made me more brave.”
Finding Her Footing
Williams takes care to lay out small details as she speaks. A discussion of 2001—the year she released her self-titled debut album featuring earnestly titled tracks such as “It’s All Good,” and “Do They See Jesus in Me?”—comes riddled with small, seemingly throwaway facts. It was her graduation year. School mascot: The Warriors. Musical favorites: ’NSYNC and Ricky Martin. Fashion: Pink nail polish. She blushes a tiny bit when revisiting this part of her past.
“Are your memories available to view on YouTube?” she says. “Because mine are. If your high school yearbook is put to music and viewable at that era, you’d be feeling what I’m feeling right now.”
Make no mistake though: Williams is not dismissing her past as a CCM star.
“It was a great place for me to start,” she says. “What I’m doing now is a continuation of growing as a human, growing as a woman, growing as a sensual and spiritual being.”
Spirituality, Williams says, is still a big part of her life, even if she left Reunion Records in 2005 to make music that wasn’t as explicitly spiritual. After being nominated for 11 Dove Awards, it was time for a change.
“There’s this question of how do I grow in the depths of belief and still remain open to how connected everything is and how connected everyone is?” she asks. “How do I learn to be more present in this moment? That’s when awe and wonder really start to grow. To me, those are the seeds of awareness, the seeds of belief, the seeds of so many things—wonder and curiosity.”
Fleshing it Out
In 2008, Williams met a musician named John Paul White at a songwriting workshop. Both were immediately taken with each other’s creative style and the way their voices effortlessly blended together.
“I’d never had that kind of marriage between two voices before in my days.” White told RELEVANT in 2011. “We both [had] never felt that before. The origins were out there in that ‘first sight’ kind of thing.”
White and Williams pooled their talents, creating The Civil Wars, in which they fused the down and dirty with the divine. The Civil Wars removed the “Christian” prefix from Williams’ career, exposing her to an audience outside the Church. In two short years, it seemed as though there wasn’t an area of culture the duo hadn’t touched. “Poison & Wine” appeared on Grey’s Anatomy. Taylor Swift fawned over their debut album, Barton Hollow (and later recorded “Safe & Sound” with the band for The Hunger Games companion album). Their time on the road featured a slew of shows with artist Adele and late-night television stops. When all was said and done, they collected four Grammy Awards.
Contrary to popular belief at the time, the members of The Civil Wars were married—but not to each other. Despite the whispered intimacy of their music, Williams made it clear that off the stage, their creative chemistry was enhanced by the fact they didn’t go home together at night.
“One of the many hundreds of thousands of benefits to not being a romantic couple is that we can disagree and we can talk it out, and we don’t need to worry about how we’re going to feel later, relationally. We don’t have to use kid gloves,” Williams remarked to RELEVANT in 2011.
But things began to change quickly. On November 6, 2012, the band canceled a string of tour dates. The announcement was made via Facebook, where citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” the duo announced their split as a “touring entity.”
By the summer of 2014, the duo was no longer on speaking terms, and on August 5, the split became official.
Williams prefers not to speak too much about the events leading to The Civil War’s unraveling. Sure, she’ll tell you anything you want to know about herself, but even now, she avoids putting words in her former partner’s mouth. Looking back on it, though, she will say the breakup left her at loose ends creatively. Sure, she had planned to make another solo album. But she had never anticipated doing it so soon.
“As I got older, I started realizing that true creative chemistry can’t always happen with every single person you’re in a room with,” she says. “After The Civil Wars ended, there was a moment when I wondered if that would ever happen to me again. I’m glad to say that it did.”
Venus is a different beast than any of Williams’ previous albums. Yes, “Before I Sleep” and “Until the Levee” bear traces of The Civil Wars’ sweet-and-sour folk past, but those songs sit side-by-side with bass, 808 and hip-hop beats that Williams swears could have been lifted directly from her teenage car stereo.
The album’s central figure, Williams is given the chance to stretch her soprano from a whisper to a scream, her strong vocal style serving as a powerful tribute to the trailblazing women she grew up listening to—Annie Lennox and Kate Bush.
“I think, in making this record, I couldn’t look away from everything that had happened,” Williams says. “To look away and create something other, that would have been completely disingenuous. I had to stare into the darkest parts, and the scariest places, and the places I felt like I was drowning in, in order to find a new way to live. I feel like the things that mattered the most to me deepened because of having to fight for it. I think I learned to let go of the things that don’t serve me anymore.”
But there was another, more equally powerful truth at play: fear. Williams calls honesty one of the great themes of her life, but with all the events in her past creating an emotional bottleneck, she found herself unsure how to express them all.
“I’m a little bit of a reluctant artist. In order for me to write, I have to stick my own hand down my throat to get a pulse,” she says. “It’s not a very comfortable feeling. But it felt like the only authentic way to go about doing it.”
Laura Studarus is an editor at Under the Radar magazine and a regular contributor to eMusic, Filter, and RELEVANT among others. Follow her adventures in Norway, Sweden, Poland and England this August at twitter.com/laura_studarus.