The Civil Wars' Joy Williams On The Duo's Fragile Bond The second album from Williams and John Paul White comes on the heels of an abrupt, public falling-out. Williams says the duo's relationship was always built on a precarious kind of tension.

The Civil Wars' Joy Williams On The Duo's Fragile Bond

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The musical duo The Civil Wars is engaged in a civil war of its own. Joy Williams and John Paul White had a meteoric start with their debut album three years ago, "Barton Hollow." It was built around their urgent, plaintive harmonies.


BLOCK: They won a couple of Grammys, toured with Adele, collaborated with Taylor Swift for "The Hunger Games" soundtrack. But last year, in the middle of a tour, The Civil Wars abruptly canceled the rest of their dates, citing internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition. They haven't appeared together since. And it's in that hostile climate that they're releasing their new second album, titled "The Civil Wars."


THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) Oh, I wish I'd never ever seen your face. I wish you were the one. Wish you were the one that got away.

BLOCK: To underline the rupture, John Paul White is not doing any interviews. Joy Williams is, and she joins me here in the studio. Joy, thanks for coming in.

JOY WILLIAMS: Yeah. Thanks for letting me be here.

BLOCK: Can you talk about that internal discord and irreconcilable differences? What was going on on that tour?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. There was always so much ease involved in working with John Paul, and I feel like that translated in the music and that translated in our live stage performances. And over time, being on the road, it can be - that can be a long haul, and we, you know, agreed to a really breakneck pace, both of us. And I think that that breakneck pace broke us a little bit.

BLOCK: I'm thinking about that phrase irreconcilable differences of ambition, which implies that one of you wanted to do maybe more or less than the other. I'm not quite sure how to take that.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, I won't speak for John Paul. You know, I respect him, and I don't want to speak for him. But I do know that he's made the decision that he wants to be at home with his family, and I respect that. But that also does curb the ability to be on the road. And I think for a long time I felt like as a woman I couldn't say I had a lot of ambition because it would - different adjectives could come to mind when you think about that. But the reality is, is I do have a lot of ambition. I've got great goals and great passion, and I love music. And I know John Paul loves music as well, for sure.

But when it came to being in the studio, I think that we definitely saw some of those ambitions clashing at times. And the beauty of it is, is even though we were having some personal breakdowns, I think that tension actually made for a more emotional and a visceral project.


WARS: (Singing) Oh, if I could go back in time when you only held me in my mind just a longing gone without a trace. Oh, I wish I'd never ever seen your face. I wish you were the one. I wish you were the one. Oh, I wish you were the one. I wish you were the one that got away.

BLOCK: We should explain that you and John Paul White are both married to other people.


BLOCK: You have a child.


BLOCK: But your song lyrics have always been very intimate, and your stage presence and your videos and the photographs that you took together all played on this notion of coupledom...


BLOCK: ...and intimacy. That was sort of part of the narrative, really.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It was. It was. And it was part of the unforeseen myth that we inadvertently created.

BLOCK: But also fostered, really.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and I think, too, that myth was also something that, you know, had to be dealt with and treated very carefully because we are, you know, we are happily married to other people. And I think, you know, that dynamic was something that a lot of people connected with, which is why I think a lot of people are also feeling that so intensely right now that John Paul and I are not on the same page.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a little bit of the song "Same Old, Same Old."



WARS: (Singing) I want to leave you. I want to lose us. I want to give up, but I won't. I want to miss this. I want a heartache. I want to run away, but I won't.

BLOCK: And I'm thinking, Joy, that it's hard to listen to a song like this one, like "Same Old, Same Old," without thinking about what's happened between you and John Paul. I know it's a dangerous thing to be too literal about lyrics.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it is.

BLOCK: But do you hear the tension as you listen to this song?

WILLIAMS: I hear the tension more in the vocals, and, you know, that song is a really emotional one for me, too, because, you know, when we were writing that, the discussion was more about what I would call the ache of monogamy. So I don't necessarily think of that song in relation to John Paul. I think about that for me in terms of my relationship with my husband, Nate. And we've been married almost 10 years now. And that looking back with the breakneck pace and how intense everything was, I feel like I was guilty of missing the beauty and the wonder and the mystery of my husband who was inches away from me.


WARS: (Singing) I'm going to name names. I'm going to call us out. I'm going to say it if you won't. Do I love you?

BLOCK: What are you hearing in there that's hard to listen to now from this distance?

WILLIAMS: Well, for me, when I think of this song, I think of being in Charlie Peacock's, our producer, Charlie Peacock's amazing studio that we were in. And it's an old Methodist church outside of Nashville that he gutted and made it into his home/studio. And I remember Miles, my son, was in a baby carrier while I was singing.

BLOCK: Oh, wow.

WILLIAMS: He was asleep.

BLOCK: He was on you.

WILLIAMS: He was on me, asleep. And I kept being like, trying to sway so that he would stay asleep. But I remember feeling this really sweet moment with my son and then looking over to the left and feeling so very far away from my duo partner.

BLOCK: From John Paul, who was right there.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, who was right there. And that there were moments I felt like I was trying to locate him, but it was like through a telescope. The ease that we had wasn't there as much as it was before. But even in the midst of that, why it's bittersweet to me is because I still remember looking over and still feeling like there's still magic here. Like, there's still magic when we sing and the way that our voices blend, and the way that it came to fruition on this record is really miraculous to me.


WARS: (Singing) You're like a mirror reflecting me. Takes one to know one, so take it from me. You've been lonely. You've been lonely too long.

BLOCK: Joy Williams, thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me, Melissa.


WARS: (Singing) We've been lonely too long.

BLOCK: The Civil Wars' new album is "The Civil Wars."


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.