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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Waging The Civil Wars

When The Civil Wars released their first album, Barton Hollow, in the States in February it went straight to number one in the iTunes chart in a feat of awe-inspiring serendipity. This month Joy Williams and John Paul White are bringing their southern gothic, alt-folk sound for a spin around the UK, where they are on tour with Adele (as well as doing some of their own shows). She went the other way, from Hackney to the US, and brought them back with her as support. Joy's from California, John Paul from Alabama.

I first stumbled across them on the internet and was momentarily dazzled: it was as if Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder had sold their souls to the devil for music in an episode of True Blood. (But then I haven't felt composed about southern gothic since seeing Anne Rice's house on a walking tour of New Orleans's Garden District.)

So, drawn by the dark allure of dangling Spanish moss, moody videos shot in black and white, and the opportunity to discover whether the music industry in the US is more sorted than it is here - where wide-eyed confusion seems to reign at the moment - I went to find them when I heard they were in town. At the time of writing I believe their headlining gig at Union Chapel in Islington next week is the only one of their UK shows not yet completely sold out - though it's close - which is surprising because their first album hasn't been physically released here yet. It's available on iTunes, though. It's a whole new, digital world.

"The rules are out of the window," said White, from a rather low-slung sofa in a glass box at the office of a PR company. "We're all just making this stuff up as we go along because the old models are defunct. I don't think anyone's going to shed any tears about the label system falling apart. But we're independent because we keep working through the options of whether to go to a label or whether to do everything ourselves. And we just keep thinking 'No, we don't need to give this up yet.' We still haven't given up control of anything."

They'd each been in the music business for some time when they met three years ago at a song-writing workshop in Nashville: sent along by producers, they each had a music publishing deal but neither had really wanted to be at that workshop. Then they were put in a room together.

Despite feeling jaded by the occasion, the industry and the lowly position of musicians in it, their connection was instant - but professional. "We were both happily married when we met and remain so," said White, in an explanation made necessary by the emotional intimacy of their music: many people assume they're a couple. "We had a big family meeting when we first met up, to make sure that everyone was comfortable with the arrangement. She'd been married for five years and me for ten, with children." Williams's husband, Nate, eventually became the band's manager - he's a former executive at EMI.

"These days we have an unbelievable patchwork quilt of people who help distribute the music and get the word out. But we hire them instead of giving a percentage to a higher power and then having no control. So: producer, radio plugger, PR company. By hiring each of these things ourselves we are able to control every square inch.

"Something else good about it is that, whereas before it used to take weeks to get a marketing and a radio team on the same page, we sit down with just the three of us and say 'What do we need doing?' And," she added with a sweet rush of enthusiasm, "if we'd been on a major label we would never have been able to give away our first download for free. We recorded our second ever show, which was at a place called Eddie's Attic in Atlanta, Georgia. That was a really good conversation starter for a lot of people. We were brand new and we thought 'Just put it out and see what happens'."

To say that it worked would be an understatement. "Someone from home told me that he was in South Africa on a business trip, heard someone listening to us on his headphones and asked who it was," said White.

Williams added: "And once, coming through customs, we were approached by an Indian guy asking if it was us. He said he'd been put on to our live recording by a friend of his. Word of mouth is at the centre of our story: it's the best gift you can give a musician because you'd listen to a friend's advice before most other things."

Which is all very well, but the theory doesn't work without a strong emotional connection generated between the music and the mouth-owners. "Yeah," said White. "We've talked to people who are like 'What else did you do? Because we released our music for free too but nothing happened.' But that's something you can't control. The only thing you can do is make a record that you dearly, dearly love and hope that other people love it too. You hear that said by musicians when you're growing up and you think 'Don't tell me that! I want to hear that there's a pill!' But there isn't. There's luck..."

So what do they think might have given them the edge this time around? "The songs are more honest, hands down," said Williams. "Having been through major labels with marketing teams, I knew that there are certain things you can do with songs to get them played on the radio. But I couldn't do it any more. I promised myself that whatever I did next I would be free to do whatever I wanted. Meeting John Paul gave me a strange catalyst to speak about things I wanted to, things I couldn't have said on my own."

"We keep each other honest," he agreed. "If something's said and it's not exactly right we'll say 'We can better that.' It's the male/female perspective. We see these things from both sides of the fence - rather than just seeing things from the point of view of my male bravado. And there are no blinkers on because we're not in a death-do-us-part relationship."

But they're obviously close, filling out each other's sentences, she making a mildly reproachful, sarcastic remark about how he's so humble in response to a query about how they get along. But maybe there's a professional wariness and competitiveness that keeps them in a fixed orbit, one that will work for them and the stability of the project?

"We bring our individual relationships with other people to the table," she said. "It can seem as if we are singing to each other, when we're not."

It was Poison and Wine (directly above) that gave them their big break. About a year after getting together they had a phone call one day to say that the editors of Grey's Anatomy, the moody US hospital drama in which the cast appears perpetually on the verge of tears, had included the song in an episode that was to be broadcast a week later.

"We were scrambling," said Williams. "We'd just recorded the EP and then suddenly we had a week to get Poison and Wine up on iTunes. We made the video for it in literally a day. Luckily as a result of the Live at Eddie's Attic show someone had already put the lyrics online."

When the episode went out their efforts were rewarded with an avalanche of attention: thousands upon thousands of individual viewers were moved by the power of the song to find out what it was. Half a million views for the hastily made video followed on YouTube and sell-out shows ensued.

So is it possible to give advice to young bands? "Well, John Paul would say don't enter the industry 'cos we don't need the competition," said Williams, not entirely joking.

"But you must be present to win," she added, far more seriously. "We have to work continuously, meeting people - and we've worked harder this year than we've worked in any other job but it's also been more rewarding than ever before. I'd also say play out - do as many shows as possible - and if people like it they will come to you."

White was musing. "The thing we did that I'm really happy about is that we rarely opened for other people in the beginning. We played smaller shows but headlined them. It's nothing to do with ego, it's to do with selling tickets to people who are there because of you and then getting their full attention. So instead of trying to convert people who weren't there for us, the crowd just got a bit larger every time we went back to a city."

"I'd say be mindful that every person counts," said Williams. "In this day and age of Facebook and Twitter you can have as many friends on there as you want, but if they're not really interested it doesn't make any difference. We are trying our best to cultivate true fans because people who jump on the bandwagon will jump off again. So you've got to be OK with gradual growth.

"And if you don't love it, don't do it. Because it requires so much of your life and energy to make a success of the music industry."

"It's strange really," said White, "how many people have the cart before the horse. They still have the idea that you get a record deal, then the fan base will come along. But with us it's been the other way around. Play, play, play. Get your fan base up as much as you can and then go find a business partner. I think now that if you had a partner come to you right at the outset it would provide a false sense of relief, that everything was going to be OK, when the work's really just starting. At the end of the day no one's going to be more mindful of your career than you."

And then my slot was kind of up and as I was leaving John Paul was explaining about how they ended up looking so... gothic, which was something to do with him seeing a picture of himself in a suit at a wedding and hating having to decide what to wear on stage. "He's learnt to tie his own bow tie," she said. "Though it rotates almost imperceptibly as the set goes on," he added.

On the way out I realised I'd forgotten to ask how old they are... So to be on the safe side I'd say somewhere between 30 and a century and a half.

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  1. Great interview--thanks! I heard part of Barton's Hollow on an indie station then bought the whole album. I know every lyric and note and have turned a lot of people onto the band. It's always an instant connection.

  2. You're welcome. It was a complete pleasure doing the interview and then reliving later when I came to write it up :-)


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