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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

Music fans know the drill. You go to a show, the band plays songs from their new CD, throws in some greatest hits, does a couple of encores, the house lights go up.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. LUCINDA WILLIAMS (Singer-Songwriter): Hey, everybody.

COHEN: Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams decided to do something else.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: This month, she came here to L.A. and played for five nights at a small theater. At each show, Lucinda performed one of her albums in its entirety, track-for-track, going back nearly 20 years.

(Soundbite of song, "Right in Time")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Not a day goes by, I don't think about you. You left a mark on me, it's permanent, a tattoo. Pierced the skin and the blood runs through.

COHEN: Tomorrow night, Lucinda Williams will kick off another five-night, five-album stint in New York City. I caught up with her between coasts to find out what it was like revisiting her musical past.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I was pretty nervous. I mean nobody saw me before the shows, but what was challenging for me was I wasn't sure what people expected. I didn't know if they expected me to go out and have this polished, completely tight together show, or if it was okay to make mistakes.

(Soundbite of song, "Steal Your Love")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Lay down the law, lock up you heart...

I don't want to start this one off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: In a couple of instances, you'd start a song over again.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

COHEN: What was that like?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, when I first started playing, I was just painfully shy on stage. But over the years, I've - at some point along the way, I decided rather than feel embarrassed and all that onstage if I made a mistake, I just got to the point where I would stop the song and admit that I've made a mistake and start over.

(Soundbite of performance)

Ms. WILLIAMS: It's my fault. It's my fault. You know, I was ordering sheets and towels for the bus. Instead of going to sound check and rehearsing my song like I should have been doing.

You know, I kind of just would laugh at the situation, which would really then enable me to relax. The audience would relax. And then I was able to perform better.

(Soundbite of song, "Steal your Love")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Give me your strong hand and go away with me and I'm gonna have to steal your love. C'mon and let me kiss you, and set you free, and I'm gonna have to steal your love. All right.

COHEN: Can you give an example of a song that maybe you hadn't played in a while and you played it again and heard something different or new?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I would say there's one song called "He Never Got Enough Love."

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Actually, I got the idea for this song from an article I read in a newspaper one day, where a guy one night out of the blue shot and killed some people. And the one that stood out in the article was it was bound to happen. He was driving down a dead-end street. And I was going to call it "Driving Down the Dead-End Street," but then Bob Dylan came out with that song, "Driving Down a Dead on the Street" right about that time, so I had to rewrite it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: I never really considered it one of my better songs as far as songwriting goes. But there is something real emotional that grabbed me the second time around.

(Soundbite of song, "He Never Got Enough Love")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) His mama ran off when he was just a kid. So he never really knew her at all. Just a picture of a girl in a sad blue dress, hanging beside a cross on the wall. His daddy used to drive...

COHEN Emotionally, what's it like for you to go back, especially to these songs that might have come from some of the darker chapters of your life? What's it like to go back and play them live again?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I find myself going back to the past all the time. I kind of live in that head space, you know? I think for me it was more about when the album was being recorded, how old I was, how long ago it was...

COHEN: It almost seems like it must have been like looking at pictures of yourself.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly.

COHEN: You know, when you look at yourself and you're not much younger...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

COHEN: ...you'd think, oh, gosh, you know?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.

COHEN: Not embarrassing and nothing that you should be embarrassed about.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No.

COHEN: But is there anything now when you listen back to it that you thought, oh, I wish Lucinda now could go back and tell Lucinda then this thing? What would that message be, do you think?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It would probably be just to enjoy, you know, where I was at the moment. You know, when you go back and look at earlier pictures of yourself, we're always very self critical - like I'm 54 now and of course I'm, you know, as self-critical as anyone else. But I'm sure when I'm 74, I'll be looking back at pictures of myself at 54 and say to myself, well, I looked pretty good, you know. But we never appreciate it at that moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Bus to Baton Rouge")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Had to go back to that house one more time to see if the Camellias were in bloom.

COHEN: You've been explaining the origins of a lot of these songs. The night that you played the album "Essence," you talked about "Bus to Baton Rouge." Can you tell us the story of that song and what's it like revealing that story in front of an audience?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. I don't know what - how - I just started, you know, I guess kind of testifying during the song, and it wasn't planned out at all.

(Soundbite of song, "Bus to Baton Rouge")

Ms. WILLIAMS: And my mother studied piano. She started taking lessons when she was four years old. And she wanted to go on to music school and do all that kind of thing. But her family didn't really give her a lot of support.

There's something about Sylvia Plath's story that reminds me of my mother's story a little bit, you know, because they were from the same generation. And my mother, she suffered from mental illness; you know, anti-depressants hadn't been discovered back then. I always say that if Sylvia Plath had been on Effexor, she wouldn't have stuck her head in an oven. But anyway, that's, you know.

COHEN: Speaking of emotions and moods, you seemed throughout these performances...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Speaking of emotions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Speaking of emotions - uh, yeah, moving right along, Sylvia Plath has her head in the oven. Okay. Yeah.

COHEN: Well, and actually right to the other end of the spectrum, you seemed really happy. I would say, like, downright jubilant throughout these shows. Am I wrong?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I'm pretty happy. You know, I have my moments. I finally met the love of my life. I've worked on a lot of stuff, you know, with myself over the years - and, you know. So better late than never. That's what I always say.

(Soundbite of song, "Passionate Kisses")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Do I want too much? Am I going overboard to want that touch? I shouted out to the night. Give me what I deserve 'cause it's my right. Shouldn't I have this. Shouldn't I have it. Shouldn't I have all of it, and passionate kisses. Passionate kisses, oh, passionate kisses from you.

COHEN: Lucinda Williams, thank you so very much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you. I enjoyed it. It didn't feel like an interview. It just felt like a conversation.

(Soundbite of song, "Passionate Kisses")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Passionate kisses from you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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