Joy Williams tries to explain the Civil Wars break-up: 'It's been a hard, painful season of my life'

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Image Credit: Allister Ann

They officially have the number-one record in the country this week — and one of the most-acclaimed albums of the year so far — but the Civil Wars’ Joy Williams and John Paul White won’t be touring to support it. In fact, the estranged duo are very famously not talking to one another at all. Williams did talk to EW, however, about making the album, separating truth from artistic license, and generally setting the record straight:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it weird approaching every interview for your new record knowing you’ll have to address the hiatus?
JOY WILLIAMS:
Yeah, some days it’s really difficult just because I believe so much in the caliber of the music that we made that it’s hard for me that we can’t just focus on the music. That being said, I understand why people are curious about it. It’s something that I’m curious about, too, frankly.

Is it difficult to talk about since you essentially have to speak for two people? [John Paul White is not doing press for the new album.]
Well, I don’t feel that I have to speak for two people. I would never speak for John Paul. I think that that would be disrespectful. I respect John Paul, and I respect the fact that he’s home with his family right now. Certain days it feels really difficult to be the only one talking about the album, but the reality is, neither one of us would have put this album out if we didn’t believe in the caliber of the music. All I can do is speak for me and bring my voice to a project that I’m really proud of, that we worked on in the midst of considerable tension. I think the end result is even more powerful than if we’d really truly been getting along like aces.

I’ve read that you think people should listen to the album to understand what went wrong between you two. I’ve listened a dozen times, and I’ve gotta say, I haven’t constructed any kind of narrative.
When I said that, I wasn’t saying that it was straight out of my journal. When I say you can hear it through the music, I think it’s strung throughout. It’s alluded to musically in the emotion felt within the way it’s produced. It’s in there lyrically, but it’s not one particular narrative. It’s multiple perspectives on layers of relationships, not just the working relationship that John Paul and I had. It’s not like it’s one big autobiographical tell-all. But honestly, I feel like that tension brought the music to an even more authentic place, so that’s also what I mean when I say that if you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album. I feel like this album is much more raw and emotional than what created on Barton Hollow.

When did you record it?
We recorded in the fall of 2012. John Paul and I recorded together in-studio all of our vocal performances that you hear on the album. We recorded in that same big room together like we did for Barton Hollow at Charlie Peacock’s studio, which is this old Methodist church that got gutted. There’s a sanctuary that they have made into a living room with a beautiful fireplace, and there’s a disco ball hanging from the center.

Have you been in touch since finishing the recording process?
No. I would like to be, and I would welcome the chance to do that, and I think maybe at some point we will be able to meet in the middle about that.

So what happened?
I’m still trying to figure it out too. It would be so much easier if it were just one particular situation that blew something up, but that’s not the case. I think what’s the hardest part is how gray everything feels right now. Looking back, I feel like John Paul and I — over time it became apparent that we both wanted different things. That fleshed out in a professional way, and when that happens, it can feel really personal as well. And then that cycle can continue until hard decisions have to be made in terms of taking a break in the hope of recalibrating and gaining perspective. That’s what this hiatus is. At least for me, it’s been very clarifying. I have hope about what can happen with the band. When we put our heads together, we make music together, and when it’s all about the music, it’s a very beautiful thing. I believe very much in that process, and I respect John Paul as a musician, and I really desire to get back out on the road so this music can have a life on the stage.

Are you aware of the people who think your feud is contrived because it plays into the idea of a civil war?
Yeah, I can’t say that it makes me laugh because this has been such a hard, painful season of my life. The idea of it being contrived seems absurd to me just because I’m the one going through it. It’s not a marketing ploy. There would be a dozen other ways to market this album that are far less complicated, but the reality is that John Paul and I are not on speaking terms right now, and that’s not contrived, and that makes me really sad. I get really emotional sometimes thinking about it. I understand that people have their opinions, but sometimes it’s really hurtful when people make their assumptions online and then make character calls. That can be really painful.

Are you referring to speculation that the two of you got together or had an affair?
There’s a million hypotheses, and to me, that’s a really painful thing to assume certain things like that. It’s also a really personal situation, you know. Having a breakdown with someone you work with on a professional level — that’s a really difficult thing to weather. This isn’t a contrived situation. This is my life, and I take what I do for a living seriously, and that matters a lot to me, and the bridges that both John Paul and I burned between us, I hope they’re ones we can mend.

Is there anything you’ve read about yourself you’d like to set the record straight on?
I don’t spend too much time online because it’s hard not to take things personally, but I think one thing that I’ve seen that has been hard for me is that certain people have made assessments that I couldn’t hack it out on the road being a new mom and having a baby. That’s not the case. My husband, our manager, travels with us, and I was really enjoying having my baby boy out on the road, and I feel like becoming a mom has made me take a deeper look at my life in a lot of ways, but it’s also helped me tap into a greater passion for life, and that, in part, is music. So I think my ambition has not diminished, it’s grown, after having my son, Miles. It’s hard when people assume that having a child is what caused the hiatus because that’s not the case.

So are you saying that, with regards to the “irreconcilable difference of ambition” cited as the reason for your hiatus, you’re the more ambitious member?
I mean, you’d have to ask John Paul. I am a very ambitious person, and I have always been, and I think there’s a great beauty to having goals and wanting to accomplish them and wanting to explore new territory. I think that that ambition informed, from my part, the way this album came out. But again, we put our heads together on it. In my opinion, there was no one person leading the way. We work well when we work as a team, and we don’t work well when we don’t work as a team.

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