It's fitting that a duo called The Civil Wars would start off with a little spat. Well, sort of.
John Paul White says that when he first met musical partner Joy Williams, "She was a hideously shallow person who really needed me to get her career off the ground. She's using me, actually."
Williams, a former CCM star, takes the verbal punch with a smile. Because she knows they've got a good thing going—great buzz (including Paste magazine's Best of What's Next), a song ("Poison and Wine") played on Grey's Anatomy, a recent gig on Jay Leno's show, and even the endorsement of megastar Taylor Swift, who calls one of their songs "my favorite duet. It's exquisite."
Today, the Civil Wars celebrate the release of their first full-length studio album, Barton Hollow, produced by Grammy winner and CCM vet Charlie Peacock.
Williams has kept herself busy with her new band, songwriting, and running Sensibility Music with husband Nate Yetton. Williams was Sensibility's first signed artist, The Civil Wars second.
Williams and White, a native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, met more than a year ago at a songwriting camp in Nashville. They were put in a room together and asked to write some songs. They knew nothing of each other, but there was instant chemistry—and almost immediate talk of forming a band.
"As we began singing and writing together, it was magical," Williams says. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We didn't talk about doing music together for another six months. We wrote again months later and kept writing duets, and we were asking, 'Who's going to sing these?' Then, we recorded 'Falling,' and the light popped on for both of us."
Adds White, "I can't believe how quickly we were in tune—pitch-wise, yes, but also in that weird brother-sister-twin sort of way. From the beginning, we've kind of known where the other one is heading or where the other is coming from."
White plays the acoustic guitar, and Williams sometimes plays the piano. Their music is laced with harmonies and southern-flavored melodies, influenced mostly by White's background.
Williams came up with the band name while in the car with her husband.
"There's a subconscious tension in the music when John Paul and I get together," she says. "There are small wars we have each day as individuals and in a relationship, in a job, and with your faith. I thought, 'How can we capitalize on that?' I told Nate, 'What if we made up a war?' All of a sudden, The Civil Wars popped into my head. John Paul liked (the name)."
They released an EP, Poison and Wine, last November; it debuted at No. 4 on iTunes' singer/songwriter top albums chart. The title track was not only played on Grey's Anatomy, but its video has been viewed almost 500,000 times on YouTube. A live album, Live at Eddie's Attic, was downloaded more than 90,000 times.
Williams says she and White are overwhelmed by the response, "practically blushing over the enthusiasm."
Of Barton Hollow, she says there's "a progression of sound with the new album," noting that they wanted to capture a "live" feel. "We opted largely for vintage over modern. We said no to AutoTune. We said no to a click track. We recorded entire performances in the same room together as if we were playing a show. We wanted to truly capture the essence of each song.
"Hopefully listeners will hear something organic, authentic, emotional, memorable. We put our heart and soul into every track. We are hopeful that this will be one of many records to come. John Paul and I are in this for the long haul."
After the hiatus
Williams has come a long way since her days of CCM radio hits like "Serious," "Surrender," and "By Surprise." In June 2004, she married Yetton, and after her 2005 release, Genesis (Reunion Records), she decided to take a hiatus.
"With CCM, I got to see the world, but at the same time, I started to feel tired and restricted (creatively)," she says today. "I thought I'd never want to do music for myself again. I felt worn out. So, I did odd jobs to reengage and realign."
She also started writing some of her own songs, and soon realized she had found another calling.
"I love the process of co-writing with an artist," she said. "It's like psychology with music: finding a way for the artist to feel comfortable in the room and making sure the song stays true to who the artist is. That's exciting to me, to engage another artist and listen to their stories."
For a couple of years, Williams worked for Los Angeles-based Warner/Chappell Music, writing songs for many different artists, including American Idol runner-up David Archuleta and Jennette McCurdy, an up-and-coming country singer. She has also written for and with other CCM artists in recent years (including a co-write on Shawn McDonald's new album, coming in March) and that she isn't trying to break away completely from the genre.
"I'm not that involved (in CCM) anymore," she said. "But I haven't made a point to separate or move away from (Christian music). If it's something I can lend my hand to, and I feel good about it, I can do songwriting with any genre of music."
While writing for others, Williams realized she had her own stories to tell, from various aspects of life—not just those relating to her faith.
"I don't really worry if it will attract a broader audience," she says. "I'm more concerned with making music that connects with people. I just want to make honest music that speaks of truth and beauty in life."
Williams and her husband, who has a background in marketing and public relations, founded Sensibility Music in 2008. She says they "risked literally everything we owned" in the start-up of the company. "We're not calling it a record label. We're calling it a music company, because it's just me as an artist and him as a marketing person."
Since January 2009, Williams has released five EPs, including an album of remixes. She's also released several singles. She says Nate spurs her on creatively, and she enjoys the idea of releasing less music more frequently, rather than waiting for "full-length" projects to come together.
"Through Sensibility, I want to create music more consistently and release music quarterly so we can keep conversations going and keep people intrigued and aware of what's coming next," she says. "We're making it more cheaply, because it's not 12 to 14 more people making it in the process. The frequency of music and freedom, this makes it feel more like me, and people gravitate toward that."
She says she also feels more connected to listeners than ever, especially online.
"CD sales have continued to go down," she says, "but iTunes and the Internet are a great resource. I've been able to engage people on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, keeping conversations going. Free downloads have been a great thing. This forces all of us to really roll up our sleeves and make music that matters. Gone are the days of white collar music. It's now the era of the blue collar musician. This forces us to be ingenious and think outside the box."
Williams says she's grown through the recent adventures.
"I think your faith is always stretched when you venture into something new and foreign, like when you get married," she says. "My faith has definitely shifted a lot since I started making music. I was much more vocal about my faith. But as I got older, I've learned to live out my faith. I feel it's more important to live out practically the mantras of what you believe rather than just talk about it.
"I've found it to be an exciting journey. It continues to be deep and personal to me, and it goes beyond words."
Andrea Osmun is a freelance writer living in Elyria, Ohio. All photos (except album cover) by Tec Petaja.
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