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The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams on the heartbreak of hiatus

Holly Gordon

“If you’re not sad now, you’re gonna be,” warns John Paul White in his southern drawl, to a chorus of laughter. “Yeah, sorry ’bout that,” quips Joy Williams, right before the two launch into their sultry tune “If I Didn’t Know Better,” the start of a nine-track, sweaty and, yes, heartbreaking set. This warm banter is from a 2009 recording called Live at Eddie’s Attic, when Williams and White were just starting out as the Civil Wars. And that opening line of Live was both honest and prophetic.

Now, after their debut 2011 album, Barton Hollow, became certified gold and garnered two Grammys, Williams and White are no longer speaking. They announced a hiatus in the middle of a European tour early last November, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” It was divorce speak from a still young, unmarried duo (Williams’s husband, Nate Yetton, is the band’s manager, and they have a new baby boy; White is married, with four children).

But while Williams and White aren’t speaking to each other, they are not silent. Aug. 6 marks the release date of their followup album, The Civil Wars, despite almost a year apart (you can stream the album on CBC Music next week). It’s a record rife with the tensions and pain that have evidently plagued them both.

“It’s been said before that ‘out of great tension can come great art,’” explains Williams, over the phone from her Nashville home. “And I feel like that was the case, was even in the midst of the difficulty, I feel like we forged something really raw and really honest. And beautiful and human. And even more so, I think, than Barton Hollow that we created before.”

The source of that tension is something Williams says she’s still wrestling with.

“I think the question is … was it one moment in time that sort of tilted things on its head?” she asks, of the split. “I’m still in the midst of letting myself feel it all. Of the hurt and the pain and the confusion and all in the hope that I can gain more clarity from it. And what I sort of come back to is the fact that John Paul and I are two very different people, and we wanted very different things, and over time that became more and more apparent.”

Williams and White began writing and recording the vocal tracks for their self-titled album as soon as Barton Hollow was out of the studio, more than two years ago. Williams says there was no plan and no real conversation about a followup, just inspiration and opportunity, as the two were touring so much that they would write anywhere.

“My iPhone got very full of voice memos and I still have them and they’re all by city and date and the mood that it is. So it’ll literally be like, ‘Portland, Oregon, guitar riff, sad,’” Williams says, laughing.

The bulk of The Civl Wars’ vocal tracks were recorded by fall 2012 — “in studio, inches apart, in the same room in the same vocal booth like we did with Barton Hollow” — getting out what Williams calls the skeletons of each song, with White playing guitar (adding electric this time around) and both of them singing. Post-production came in early spring 2013, with Barton Hollow’s Charlie Peacock producing once more, and Rick Rubin stepping in on “I Had Me a Girl.” The duo’s respective teams communicated decisions through the break.

But logistical details and distance aside, The Civil Wars is an intimate project. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on Williams and White during their toughest moments, listening to them push and pull each other through the tension until they’ve reached the breaking point. “You’re like a mirror, reflecting me,” sings White on “Dust to Dust.” “Takes one to know one, so take it from me,” counters Williams, before they both join in to sing, “We’ve been lonely too long.”

"The process of writing, creating and recording this album with John Paul was a really emotional one and challenging at times and difficult at times and also really great at times,” explains Williams. “And so, you know, whether it’s the arc of regret like in ‘The One That Got Away’ or it’s the truth about loneliness that is spelled out in ‘Dust to Dust’ or it’s the ache of monogamy which is, to me, ‘Same Old Same Old’ or the victorious fun of our take on writing a new sort of spiritual, which is ‘From This Valley’ … I really am so proud of the body of work that John Paul and I created from front to back on this album.”

Williams admits it’s sometimes difficult for her to listen to the new album, after everything she and White have been through. It’s bittersweet, having a new album out that she can’t tour.

“John Paul has chosen to be at home with his family. And I would love to be out on the road and playing these songs,” she says. “I believe so much in the project that I ache over the fact that we’re not touring right now. But it’s where we are, and I think this space has been needed to recalibrate and to reprioritize and see things more clearly.”

At this point in time, it looks like there’s no end to that space in sight. But Williams says she holds great hope for the future, and the belief that this isn’t the Civil Wars’ swan song.

“It’s a little bit of a to-be-continued, which is an uncomfortable place to be in, frankly, but I have hope that the space will bring perspective for both of us, and I would love to continue being creative and making music and performing onstage with John Paul,” she says.

“It’s definitely not over, it’s just a little bit of a dot dot dot.”

Follow Holly Gordon on Twitter: @hollygowritely