Most musicians would sooner give you their house keys and credit card numbers than talk about their private lives.
Lucinda Williams talks about little else. An interview with Williams has a shrink-couch intimacy, full of disclosures that threaten to blur any line between art and life.
"Art is about self-expression," the singer says. "My songs reflect where I am in my life. It's like writing a journal. I have to do it. Otherwise I'll die."
Some listeners think she sounds like she's dying right in the songs. For years, Williams has been known as the alt-country queen of heartbreak -- to her great displeasure. On her latest studio album, West, out Tuesday, love lies bleeding in seven of the cuts. Two more deal with the death of Williams' mother, who passed away in April 2004.
Yet Williams sees the album as being about "moving forward, not getting stuck in a rut."
A closer examination of the songs reveals a will to find hope in the embers of a burnt-out love. In "Are You Alright?" Williams generously worries over the welfare of someone who left her. "Learning How to Live" sees her vowing to "make the most of what you left me with," while in "Where Is My Love?" she transcends loneliness to envision a stranger who'll one day be by her side. Even the title itself, West, likens Williams' love to America's optimistic push toward the California coast.
The singer credits her expansive attitude to maturity and age. (Williams recently turned 54). "It has taken me a while to learn not to make the same mistakes over and over," she says. "I'm older now than I was when I did Car Wheels [on a Gravel Road].'"
Ah, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That's the 1998 album that changed everything for Williams. Before that CD, she was a cult writer, known mainly by critics and fellow musicians who prized her for her brutally realized love songs -- and for a voice marked by an untamable Southern twang (she hails from Louisiana). At the time, Williams was also known for her lack of productivity. In the first 13 years of her career, she produced only four albums.
But Car Wheels, which won a Grammy and went gold, kicked off a prolific period. With the boutique label Lost Highway solidly behind her, Williams has churned out four releases in the past six years, selling up to 400,000 copies of each. On March 25, she'll headline the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall for the first time (a bump up from her usual niche at the 3,000-capacity Beacon).
If Williams' career has heated up in the past decade, her love life has been slower to boil. She has often talked publicly of her bad relationships. One old lover died of a drug overdose. A more recent one abused her as well as drugs. "I was addicted to bad boys," she admits. "It was almost a drug in itself. I had to get past it." She says she finally has in the past two years.
Halfway through making West, Williams met Tom Overby, whom she calls the love of her life. "Some people find that when they're 19 or 20," Williams says. "It took me a bit longer."
The singer cites a key difference between Overby and her other lovers: "He's not a musician. We're fairly close in age. He's five years younger than me. He's a record company executive, so he's a music guy but he's on the business side. And we like each other. We're friends first."
The two met briefly at an in-store appearance by Williams at a Best Buy in Minneapolis five years ago. (He was managing the store at the time.) They were re-introduced by mutual friends in Los Angeles in the past two years and from there, things heated up. Now they're engaged.
Williams admits she "struggled with accepting [Overby] into my life at first. It felt too comfortable. I was so used to the drama."
There's still plenty of that left in the music. Half of West was written pre-Overby, accounting for a totally painful song like "Unsuffer Me" -- or a humorous ode to sexual frustration called "Come On."
The album also covers her sadness over her mother's death in songs like "Mama You Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral." The latter reflects her anger at feeling bamboozled by relatives and a funeral parlor into spending thousands on a ceremony she says her mom wouldn't have wanted. "Funeral parlors should be shut down," Williams says. "All they do is lure people."
Williams was so mad, she didn't even attend her mother's funeral. She did, however, go to a later memorial service.
Yet now, with that loss behind her, and a new marriage to look forward to, Williams may have lost what has long been her great muse: unrequited love. She's hardly worried. "The whole idea that people who are happy can't write is absurd," she says. "Writing comes from within. If you're a good writer, there's always another level to explore."