Looking Up to Lu

Jesse Malin pays tribute to a dear friend and collaborator, the great American songwriter Lucinda Williams.

Photo credit: Danny Clinch

To celebrate the release of Lucinda Williams’ new album, Good Souls Better Angels, we asked her friend and collaborator Jesse Malin, an acclaimed singer-songwriter himself, to reflect on their shared history and on her unmatched artistry. - Ed.

In the ’90s I heard Lucinda Williams singing on a Steve Earle record called I Feel Alright, and her voice just popped out. I’d never heard a voice like this; it stopped me in my tracks. I bought the record, and then I bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and all her records. In those days I would talk to Joey Ramone about what we were listening to, and I mentioned her. I figured he wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but he goes, “Oh, I know her. I did a songwriter-in-the-round at [legendary NYC club] the Bottom Line with her,” so that was wild.

Then I met Lucinda and [her husband and producer] Tom Overby at a show at [NYC jazz club] the Blue Note, and we’ve stayed friends over the years. When I started working on my new record, Sunset Kids, my manager kept pushing me to think of somebody different to produce it, and I said, “I’m thinking maybe I’ll ask Lucinda and Tom.” We talked to them and they seemed really open to it.

I have such mad respect for her writing, her detail, her storytelling, her singing, her attitude. She’s got this kind of tough voice and these great, smart lyrics that are about real things and people, but she’s this very humble and fragile person in a way, who has a sweetness. Her whole world is about her friendships and community. She just doesn’t fit into one box. She’s got more attitude and punk rock and swagger than most rock and roll people. Lu also has a great inner soul, kind of a mojo detector.

A lot of artists, as they get older, it becomes a formula or they burn out. Some people can’t make good records anymore. But she’s still so connected. She still has a lot to sing about: We’re living in such intense times with our government and our environment, and it was all just boiling up even before this pandemic. I think she could sense this heaviness. Good Souls Better Angels is a very earthy record; it’s so real. I’ve told so many people about it. Critics say it’s back to form or this or that, but I don’t even think it’s that. It just goes to a place that is very appealing and raw and real, and it’s filled with great songs. I really look up to Lu as I move through life.

“Big Black Train”
Good Souls Better Angels (2020)

We’re all trapped during this time, and I’m trying to stay positive and get through it and stay busy. I think it’s like fighting a depression and there’s that big black train that I don’t want to get on. It’s not only just the way her voice is; the song just kinda creeps in and snarls and has this guttural thing that’s so soulful from the bottom. I’m really trying to avoid falling into that hole, being trapped in the house, isolated, off the road, in my own box, in my own head and my anxiety. I think the best part of great rock and roll is that it lets you know you’re not alone, and a song like this, and so many of hers, speak to me.

“Dead On”
Jesse Malin
Sunset Kids (2019) (written by Malin, Williams and Derek Cruz)

I was sending music back and forth with Lucinda and Tom and I knew that they would both connect to this one — I just had a feeling. The lyric came from an Iggy song called “Head On,” from [the Stooges’] Metallic K.O. She took it home one night from the studio, and once we started making the record, she said, “Oh, we want to do this one.” I think she was thinking real ’60s Stones, a lot of attitude, really pointed. I told her a story about Patti Smith and how when you see her come onstage, wherever she is, whether it’s Carnegie Hall or some little club, she spits on the stage. That story made it in: “You talk like an angel, but you spit on the floor like the girl next door.”

“Lake Charles”
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

It’s such a beautiful song; she has such a feeling for the characters. When she plays this live, she tells a story about a guy who came from one part of Louisiana, but he wanted to say that he was from Lake Charles and he portrayed himself that way. We all meet people that want to break away from their history, their roots, their family, and they want to be something else. I’ve never heard a story like that; when she first told that, it was such a detail. It’s like, “Oh yeah, we all know that kind of person who really wants to be someone else and they try to create that.” There was just a such a lovingness to it, and a sadness, and the way she sings it she has a real yearning in her voice.

“Plan to Marry”
Little Honey (2008)

It sounds like it’s almost her alone in the kitchen, like a home demo. In these days, and in any days, turning to love is the answer. I see that so much in Lu as a person and how she lives. Leaders can’t be trusted and the heroes let us down and all that stuff, but we turn to love. It’s just her alone putting the song forward at the end of this album. We all live these rock and roll, outsider lives that are social and full of people but also very lonely. I felt like it was an open concession in a way — surrender to love. It connected with me.

Essence (2001)

Just the way it creeps along, it’s so desperate. It almost feels like “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana. It just has a pulse, the feeling of when you’re really obsessed with somebody and you find yourself in places that you normally wouldn’t be and you don’t care, and you’re just like, “You know what? I want you.” You’re going to a scary place but you don’t give a shit. The way the band sounds, the way the acoustic and electric guitars pulse along, it has a cool spookiness that is very haunting. And it has a very honest lyric.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]


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