It’s been nearly three years since that November 2012 show at London’s Roundhouse, when the Grammy-winning Civil Wars played their last songs as a duo. The break-up between Joy Williams and John Paul White was messy, public and, ultimately, final. It’s partially why Williams chose London for her first show as a newly solo artist on the tour for her upcoming release, Venus — her first full show on her own onstage since the split.
"It was a way for me to commemorate where I've been and to start where I felt like I left off," she says, over the phone, of the short May tour with a full band. "It was emotional for me, walking around the city of London. But when we got to the venue, I remembered the last time I did a gig in London and then remembered how much I love to sing. I kind of imagine gigs as being in the living room, you know? I really enjoyed being in the living room, so to speak, with whoever comes to the shows. And I felt so much good will that I got really teary at a certain point."
Listening to the songs on Venus, Williams sounds like she has a no-nonsense clarity about the years that have taken her to this point. After an uncertain hiatus beginning in 2012, the Civil Wars finally broke apart. Despite a debut album, 2011's Barton Hollow, that won two Grammys and a second album released during their hiatus that went straight to number one on the Billboard 200 chart, Williams posted on the duo's website in August 2014 that they were officially done — "a band that I thought I would be in for decades ended more quickly than I had ever anticipated," she told Amazon Front Row. She and White haven't spoken since that Roundhouse show years ago.
But that's merely the (very) public piece of it: Williams also gave birth to her first son, lost her father to cancer and "hit the glass ceiling" in her marriage to Nate Yetton, as she describes, who also managed the Civil Wars.
At times, Williams says, she felt like she was drowning under it all. And if you take a full listen to Venus, front to back, you can identify some clear points along the way: "Before I Sleep" was the first song she wrote for the album, in June 2013 — it "sort of chronicles this idea that I have so much to work through and wade through and so many miles to go. But there's also a sense of determination in that" — while "What a Good Woman Does" begins with Williams singing "I can’t carry the weight of this war," a direct line to White and what happened between the duo. "Until the Levee," mid-album, marks a breaking point with herself: "I’m gonna stand here in the ache until the levee of my heart breaks." The last track, "Welcome Home," crescendos to a pitch that would befit any Hollywood love story, but the song makes it clear that Williams is at home with her family, Yetton and her son.
Venus is pure pop, which may alienate fans of the slightly gothic Americana for which the Civil Wars were so acclaimed, but Williams did begin her singing career as a teen Christian pop star years ago. At times, Venus is Blockbuster big in its musical emotion, but it is always raw and honest if stripped down to Williams’s powerful, unapologetic voice. When asked how she made it from turmoil to some form of balance, Williams laughs loudly before responding.
"Not very gracefully. But definitely honestly. I wrote about 80 songs for this record, and it took about two years to do that. I had a lot to process … but I think writing was one of the ways that I began to heal. And I think for me it was about accessing the messiness of it all, staring into the darkness and realizing that once I did that, things weren't as scary as I thought they were, and that the pain that I felt could transform me instead of just overtake me."
It’s no coincidence that it took 80 songs for Williams to find her album. When she was about 50 songs in, Williams says that Justin Timberlake — whom she met in 2011 on Letterman and considers a close friend — suggested she meet up with Matt Morris (Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera), who eventually became a co-writer and producer on the album, along with Charlie Peacock (the Civil Wars).
"I remember Matt stopping me in the middle of the co-write, and he was like, 'I just get this sense that you’re so afraid to say something wrong that you're at risk of not saying anything at all,'" recalls Williams. "And that was a gut punch that I needed, and that's when I wrote 'One Day I Will' and that's when I wrote 'What a Good Woman Does' in two days' time. And I think that that set me on a different path to freeing myself up."
Standing at the end of Venus, about to step off into its tour, Williams is no longer holding back. It’s clear in her voice as she talks about the album and how she’s moving forward, but also in those lyrics she wrote after talking with Morris.
"I'm almost sticking up a middle finger to that idea [of a 'good woman'] anyhow, because this idea of quote-unquote what a good woman is, I think has changed for me over time," she says. "I mean, I used to think that being feminine in a way meant that you are amiable and that you always find ways to stay calm and stay level-headed. As I've gotten older, I'm way more interested in women who are raw and real and that's been, I think, part of my evolution, too. This idea of I'm not just one thing, and I do get angry, and I do get pissed off and I do speak up for myself now. And I didn't used to do that."
"That being said, I think there's a way in which you can communicate anger where you can still hold your head high, and that was something that I was interested in," she clarifies. "And mindful of as I was writing 'What a Good Woman Does.'"
What concerns Williams now, artistically, is her own voice. In the same song, she says, "I haven’t lost my voice without you near me" — something that took some work.
"I had [determination] even then when I was sort of doubting my inner resolve," she says. "But thankfully, I found places to ground myself, and I found spaces in myself to accept myself. And I found my voice, again, in a way that maybe I've never even come across until having gone through the crucible of everything."
And while everyone is asking about the Civil Wars, or her marriage, or any other relationship Williams may have, she’s focusing on another that she’s redefining: the one with herself.
"For so many years, I always looked left onstage. But I don't have to do that anymore. I'm enjoying the view from where I am."