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The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars
Buy The Civil Wars

Release Info

Album: The Civil Wars
Release Date: August 6th
Label: Sensibility Records/Columbia Records (a Division of SONY Music)

Band Members:

John Paul White
Joy Williams

About Civil Wars (pre-breakup)

In some ways, music doesn't get much more modest or minimalist than it is in the hands of The Civil Wars, a duo comprised of California-to-Nashville transplant Joy Williams and her Alabaman partner, John Paul White. They travel without a backup band, and on their first full-length album, Barton Hollow, the bare-bones live arrangements that fans hear on the road are fleshed out with just the barest of acoustic accoutrements. Each song is an intimate conversation, and no third wheels or dinner-party chatter are going to interrupt that gorgeous, haunting hush.

On the other hand, there's been something distinctly loud about the duo's introduction to the world, even prior to the album's release. Their signature song "Poison & Wine" was heard on Grey's Anatomy—in the foreground, in its entirety, over a key climactic montage, prompting hundreds of thousands of viewers to Google the mystery music. And they got a wholly unsolicited endorsement when America's biggest pop star gave The Civil Wars a seal of approval. After first tweeting her love for the duo, fellow Nashvillian Taylor Swift included "Poison & Wine" as a selection in her official iTunes playlist, saying, "I think this is my favorite duet. It's exquisite."

Swift took the words right out of the folk-country-Americana world's mouth. If it looks like The Civil Wars' appeal might cast a net that extends well beyond the typical audience for acoustically based music, that may be due to the inherent sensibilities Williams and White bring to their collaboration, which are quite disparate, if not necessarily warring. Both were gigging and recording on their own prior to teaming up a year and a half ago, neither solo career quite suggesting what their conjoined sound would turn out to be. "I do naturally bend pop," says Williams, who adds that she "grew up on Billie Holliday and The Beach Boys." White, meanwhile, was raised on Kristofferson, Cash, and Townes Van Zandt by his retro-country-favoring dad. "Somehow we're pulling from each other what we crave and what our strengths are," he says.

If the music ultimately leans more toward White's native South than Williams' northern Cali roots, he says, "I think Joy's got some hillbillies in her ancestry or something like that. There's a song on our record called 'My Father's Father' that we wrote on the day of the inauguration down in Muscle Shoals, not long after we got together. I started playing the guitar figure and she starting singing this amazing Appalachian kind of melody, and I'm like, 'Don't even pretend that you're the pop girl and you come out with shit like that!' I don't know where this stuff is coming from, but she's drawing it from somewhere, and it's amazing."

"Poison & Wine" isn't just The Civil Wars' breakout song. It's also a thematic declara-tion of intent for this utterly complementary odd couple, encapsulating everything suggested in the duo's name when it comes to exploring the conflicts that arise as part of couplehood. Speaking of which: They aren't, that—a couple, that is. But they're far from insulted if you mistake them for An Item in the storied tradition of the Swell Season, Richard and Linda Thompson, or other famous duos whose on-again, off-again relationships offstage complicated their stage relations.

"A lot of people think that we're married, and I think that's actually quite flattering, to be honest," says White. "Because we don't want people to think that we're up here acting and feigning the emotions that we write and sing about and show on stage. But one of the things that really make this special in our eyes is that if she and I were in a relationship together, it'd be a totally different act. We would write totally different songs. I don't think we would be able to go on stage every night and sing 'I don't love you.' I don't think a healthy relationship could withstand that every single night. There's areas we can delve into that wouldn't make sense for somebody that's till-death-do-us-part. I think there's also a tension there that wouldn't be there if it was something that was just rote, something that was an everyday relationship. We try to use that to our advantage."

"Poison & Wine" fits the paradigm of subject matter too true to be spoken, as opposed to sung. "That song probably does sum us up—The Civil Wars, the name of the band—as well as any song that we've written," White says. It's the one song on the album written with an outside collaborator, their friend Chris Lindsey. "We're all married, and we were all talking about the good, the bad and the ugly, and just felt like: What would you say to someone if you were actually brutally honest—the things that you could never say because it would turn them away or let the cat out of the bag or reveal yourself to be weaker? What would you actually say if you had this invisible curtain around you and could just scream it in somebody's face and they'd actually never hear it? We were all being very painfully honest, because we're all very comfortable around each other and know that things like that never leave the room, except in a song. I'm pretty proud of that song, to be honest."

When "Poison & Wine" was heard in its entirety on Grey's Anatomy—versus in the background, for a few seconds, as Williams and White had expected—they knew that if the show's audience liked what they heard, it would put their search skills to the test. The title only pops up in a verse, not the chorus, so it involved some ingenuity or intuition to track the tune down. Fortunately, viewers proved up to the test of finding, and choosing, their "Poison." At last count, the song's official YouTube video had been viewed 400,000 times.

White and Williams met in 2008 on what he describes as a "blind date, getting stuck in a room together, not knowing anything about each other." This was a strictly professional blind date. As Williams recalls, "I got a call for what's called a writing camp, where several writers were called together to work on trying to write several radio singles for a particular country band. Though I live in Nashville, I worked mostly in L.A. and came more out of the pop world, so I was like, why did they call me? John Paul definitely wasn't bringing a Music Row sensibility in when he was coming into the write, either, but neither of us knew that about each other. In that room, it was almost 20 writers, basically drawing straws and getting to know each other a little bit. And when he started singing, I somehow knew where he was heading musically and could follow him, without ever having met him before. And that had never happened to me."

"I've done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I'd never felt that weird spark," agrees White—"that weird familiarity like we'd been in a family band or some-thing most of our lives. The beautiful part of it was that neither one of us would let on, so we both played it cool for a while, saying 'That went well, we should write another," and so on. I worked up enough nerve to—so to speak—ask her out. But there was a lot of scuffing my heel on the floor and 'I don't know what you're doing for a while, but I've got this guitar, and you sing pretty good, but you probably don't want to. You're so much better than I am. Never mind. I'm just gonna go.' Luckily she felt the same way."

Months later, they did their first show as The Civil Wars at the French Quarter Café in Nashville—where their future producer, Charlie Peacock, was in attendance and definitely taking notice. Their second show was at a club called Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia, and it was attended by roughly 100,000 fans. At least, that's how many people have downloaded Live at Eddie's Attic, a free digital album, from their website.

The set included eight originals plus a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love." "We didn't even rehearse that much for that show, and we were flying by the seat of our pants," recalls White. "But Shalom Aberle at Eddie's is legendary for doing really great board takes, and we listened to the tape on the way home and were pretty amazed at the quality of the recording. So we thought, 'What the hell, let's see what other people think about it.' The beauty of putting that thing out as early as we did is, we could always fall back on: 'Well, it was our second show'," he laughs.

"Looking back, John Paul and I can't believe we put out our second show ever," Williams says. "Hopefully you can hear the growth from then to now. But I'm really glad that we did. To get emails now like 'A buddy of mine in South Africa just sent me Live at Eddie's Attic,' or somebody coming up to us and saying 'Yeah, my friend in New Zealand was the one that told me about you guys'—in Alabama, where we were doing a relatively local show—that really took us by surprise, the way it started a conversation nationally and internationally."

The Live at Eddie's Attic release also had some other happy, unintended consequences. Williams feels that the loose chatter between songs helped establish that, as personalities, the two of them aren't always (or even usually) as somber as their breakout song might suggest. More importantly, it established them as a fully functional duo that might be harmed more than helped by the addition of a slew of hired hands.

When it comes to keeping "the band" to an un-band-like two people, "there's probably 10 different reasons for that," explains White. "Some of it is logistics. It's so much easier for two people to get into a car. But it just felt like releasing that record with just the two of us also put that stripped down, more organic, more raw kind of sound in people's minds. And we felt like it was more emotional and told the story a lot better. It's just she and I and a guitar and piano. If there's something that is lacking, it's gonna be painfully obvious. So the song's guts have to be strong, at least for us, from front to back."

No frills means no distractions from the quality of their blended voices. "It's the strangest thing when I sing with her," White says. "Even the things we do with vibrato, typically, they're the same—we speed up and slow down at the same pace. She'll ad-lib something live, and the next time around, I'll sing the harmony to it. But if I sat and thought about it, I couldn't do it." For Williams, who's sold hundreds of thousands of records recording on her own, sharing the vocals is "one of my favorite things about The Civil Wars, because when you're a solo artist, you can't harmonize while singing the lead. To me, all harmony is active listening."

There's something circuitously satisfying about the fact that "active listening" is taking place on-stage at The Civil Wars shows as well as among the audience, heightening the sensation that it's a conversation being eavesdropped on, not just a performance. So much synchronization to go around… but also so much delicious tension, as the duo hardly shy away from the conflict that gives them their moniker. Harmonious discord, thy name is The Civil Wars.

White and Williams are never going to forge a complete meeting of the minds. "You'll be a redneck once I'm through with you," he tells her, teasingly. "Oh, just try!" she taunts him. Still a northern California girl after this many years in Nashville, she says, "I still can't say 'y'all.' I still can't say 'fixin' to.' John Paul, you say 'might could' a lot, which freaks me out. But yeah, somewhere in there, if it's only in the melodies, I'm happy to absorb all that."

And to dish it back out in the form of universal narratives that are both elliptical and emotional. "After all the writing I've done for other artists or writing for TV/film or solo music," says Williams, "the ability for John Paul and I to share stories of what's happened in our lives, either current or past, and let those inform the way that we write intrinsically makes us care more about it. We've got songs that deal directly with loss that we've had in our own pasts. The opening song, 'Twenty Years,' is actually about a family secret, more on my side of the family. We love to write about these things and hint at it while not giving the whole thing away. If the stories that we're singing about and the things that we're speaking of are true, hopefully they'll draw out the stories of the people who are listening, and that can create some invisible cycle of safety and exhilaration and freedom, and of being transported somewhere else for a little moment in time."

Somewhere like… Barton Hollow? Where is the titular location, anyway? "I guess it's something to do with the picturesque quality of the phrase," admits White. "It's a phrase that you're not gonna Google and find, whatsoever. I found that out the other day. There is no Barton Hollow, that I can find." But a few minutes later, he's changed his tune, de-claring: "Barton Hollow is actually a place that I grew up. It's a little geographic place close to where I grew up and did a lot of illicit activities," White continues, embellishing as he goes, while his partner dissolves into helpless laughter. "I have a soft spot for that place." Maybe the transporting Williams talks about has worked its magic on her partner, too.

Post Breakup and the making of The Civil Wars album

Courtesy of The New York Times, written by James C McKinley Jnr

A year ago, the folk-rock duo the Civil Wars seemed to be golden. Their 2011 debut album, Barton Hollw had sold a half-million copies without a major label and won them two Grammy Awards. They had toured with Adele and Emmylou Harris and collaborated with Taylor Swift on a hit song. More success seemed certain.

But in November, just two months after they had begun recording a follow-up album, the duo abruptly broke up in the middle of their first European tour. They canceled the rest of the performances and put out a statement citing “irreconcilable differences of ambition.”

Now, they are releasing that second album, simply titled Civil Wars on Columbia Records with a cover showing billowing black smoke. It’s an anguished collection of songs about troubled love, breakups, heartaches, murder and infidelity that mines many of the Appalachian and folksy themes of their debut and pushes them into darker territory.

The two singers — John Paul White and Joy Williams — are no longer speaking to each other, however. Mr. White, 40, has retreated to his home outside Muscle Shoals, Ala., to spend time with his wife and four children and declines to talk about the breakup or the album. Ms. Williams, 30, has granted interviews, some of them tearful, lamenting that the duo cannot perform to promote the record.

“There are moments when I do feel like my hands are tied, because I would love to be performing these songs,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Nashville. “I’m wrestling with it. I’m losing sleep over it.”

Rob Stringer, the chairman of Columbia, acknowledged that the impasse between the estranged partners presents a problem for the label. “I’m aware of the pitfalls, but believe you me, there are plenty of records that have permeated through that haven’t had standard marketing promotion practices,” Mr. Stringer said. “I know what we have. We have a body of songs, and that’s what I’ve got to work with.”

There are precedents for albums succeeding after a band has splintered. One of the best-selling albums in history, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” (1977), came out after the divorce of two members and a stormy love affair between two others fractured the group. But if a band already has a fan base, stories about internal turmoil can spur sales, said Errol Kolosine, a music marketing expert at New York University. “In our business today, the No. 1 challenge for any artist it is to get people’s attention,” he said. “So it’s already a positive, isn’t it?”

Ms. Williams and Mr. White met in 2008 at a Nashville songwriting camp, where two dozen musicians had been thrown together to brainstorm about material for a country star. Both of their careers had stalled: Ms. Williams, from Santa Cruz, Calif., had given up recording as a contemporary Christian singer after three albums, and Mr. White, from outside Muscle Shoals, had parted ways with Capitol Records after recording a rock album that was never released.

But they soon discovered their voices melded beautifully, and the songs they produced had a haunting, folksy charm. They started performing together in clubs around Nashville and released a digital album, “Live at Eddie’s Attic,” in 2009. Then they teamed with the producer Charlie Peacock to make “Barton Hollow,” released in February 2011 to rave reviews. For the next 21 months, Mr. White and Ms. Williams had a dizzying ride, collecting awards, appearing on national television and singing at the Grand Ole Opry and at the White House.

Onstage there was a crackling romantic energy between them, although both were married to other people and always maintained that their lovelorn duets and ballads were pure artifice. Ms. Williams’s husband, Nate Yetton, managed the band and was literally in the wings. In July 2012 Ms. Williams gave birth to their first child, Miles, who traveled with the duo during its last tour.

Ms. Williams said that creative disagreements had been building for several months and came to a head in the songwriting sessions on her screened porch after her son was born. “I have a lot of ambition,” she said. “I believe in pushing borders and finding new territory and expanding. I personally felt like John Paul was more of the ilk that things would happen organically and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ ”

Ms. Williams said becoming a new mother had nothing to do with the breakup. She also dismissed rumors that she had romantic feelings for Mr. White. “I was not in love with John Paul,” she said. “But I was, and am, in love with the band.”

Yet she acknowledged that the frantic pace of touring had also taken a toll on both marriages, and that last year their aesthetic differences had grown personal. Mr. Peacock, the producer, said the strains were evident when the duo went into the studio to record the album last September. Making the first album had been almost effortless — “like taking a Polaroid,” he said — but this time Ms. Williams and Mr. White seemed to be pulling in different directions. “The emphasis of their collaboration had shifted,” he said. “If they were on the side of John Paul’s ways of working before, Joy’s ways were now dominant. While John Paul is nothing if not a total pro, I could tell that too much analysis, talking and the creating of options is just not his sweet spot. Joy on the other hand, loves to turn over every stone in search of the best among a thousand choices.”

There were no shouting matches or ugly scenes, Mr. Peacock said, but the music seemed to reflect the underlying combat. Mr. White pushed to add a growly, sharp-edge electric guitar to a few tracks, while Ms. Williams “led the charge toward the darker, grittier sounds.”

While the tension increased, “the chemistry remained,” Ms. Williams said. Saying it would be “unladylike,” she declined to say what event or words precipitated the split, which came after a performance at the Roundhouse in London on Nov. 6. “It wasn’t one thing,” she said. “It was a lot of little things. Each of us wanting something separate.”

Their last performances were excruciating, she said. “There were times that I would look over at him, just inches away, and I felt like I was looking through a telescope to find him,” she said. The final night, she recalled fighting back tears. “It really had gotten to the point where we just weren’t speaking to each other, and I felt like I was simultaneously reaching for something.”

The duo last stepped onto a stage together in February to accept a third Grammy Award for "Safe & Sound" the song they wrote with Ms. Swift. They did not embrace. Mr. White used his acceptance speech that night and his dedication on the album to stress his love for his wife, Jenny. “This is for the only thing that has ever really mattered, although I sometimes lost sight of it,” he wrote in the liner notes. Through the winter, Ms. Williams and Mr. White visited the studio separately to rerecord some parts, while Mr. Peacock acted as a go-between — “like Switzerland,” he remarked — and brought in studio musicians to lay drums, dobro, strings and bass parts over the tracks.

The album departs from the minimalist folk of “Barton Hollow.” The first track, "The One That Got Away" is a minor-key ballad that like several of the songs describes a love gone sour: “Oh I wish I had never seen your face/I wish you were the one that got away.” The next tune, “I Had Me a Girl,” which was produced by the rock and hip-hop maven Rick Rubin and Mr. Peacock, is built around Mr. White’s wailing vocal, a distorted electric guitar and pounding drums.

The album was finished in late January, and Mr. Yetton, the manager, began shopping it around to major labels. With no tour on offer, it was a tough sell. “I had to be up front with them that the chances of performances were not probable,” he said.

But Mr. Stringer said he was persuaded the songs were strong enough to warrant taking a chance. Part of the label’s strategy has been to make the music available free to fans in many ways, from radio to YouTube. It has released two singles, along with two music videos, in the three-month prelude to the album’s release on Tuesday. Columbia also arranged for the full album to be streamed at no cost on iTunes during the week preceding the release, with television spots on the big networks to plug the album.

Danny Goldberg, a veteran manager and former label executive, said that such measures can make up for the lack of a tour if there is a pent-up demand for a band’s new material. The Civil Wars, he noted, built a sizable fan base with their Grammy Awards. “It’s always nice to tour, but it’s not the only way to tell an audience you have a record out,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 11, 2013

An article last Sunday about the duo Civil Wars, which has a new album out despite breaking up, omitted one of the producers on the song “I Had Me a Girl,” which is on the new album, “Civil Wars.” Charlie Peacock, who produced Civil Wars’ first album, “Barton Hollow,” produced the song along with Rick Rubin. The article also misidentified a vocalist on “I Had Me a Girl.” John Paul White provided the wailing vocal, not Joy Williams.

The Civil Wars: Track by Track with Joy Williams

Joy sat down to describe the origins and story behind each of the album's tracks:


This song pays homage to regret. Nearly everybody I've come across has somebody in their life that they wonder what life would be like if they'd never met that person. It's that sliding-door moment -- in the blink of an eye everything could change. Either for the positive or the negative.

John Paul and I wrote this song in the screened-in porch of my and Nate's new home. I remember warm breezes blowing, a mild day. I had recently had my son, Miles, who happened to be asleep with Nate in the living room, right next to the porch. I remember asking John Paul to play quietly so he didn't wake up the baby.


This song always conjures up an image of a glass of whiskey and a lit cigarette. It's a little brooding. A little dangerous. It smolders. It has swagger and grit. It's full of innuendo and Southern Gothic tones. I love the feel of this track, and the way this song came together on the record. "I Had Me a Girl" is one of those musical moments that makes me wish I knew how to play electric guitar. Or any guitar, for that matter.


This song, to me, represents the ache of monogamy. This isn't an "I'm leaving you" song. It's a vulnerable confession of "I don't want to leave. I want to work on this -- with you." Having said that, someone once told me a story about long-term relationships: to think of them as a continent to explore. I could spend a lifetime backpacking through Africa, and I would still never know all there is to know about that continent. To stay the course, to stay intentional, to stay curious and connected -- that's the heart of it. But it's so easy to lose track of the trail, to get tired, to want to give up, or to want a new adventure. It can be so easy to lose sight of the goodness and mystery within the person sitting right in front of you. That continent idea inspires me, and makes the ache when it comes hurt a little less. To know that it happens to all of us. What I'm realizing now is that sometimes the "same old same old" can actually be rich, worthwhile and a great adventure.


This song is an anthem for the lonely. Sometimes you come across somebody who thinks they are hiding their pain, but if we are all honest, nobody is very good at it. "You're like a mirror, reflecting me. Takes one to know one, so take it from me.” When John Paul and I wrote this late one night in Birmingham, England, we decided to change the pronoun at the end of the song. We wanted to represent that we all experience loneliness in our lives.


We brought in our producer, Charlie Peacock, on this song. He helped with arrangements and really helped take the song to a totally different place. Sometimes as an artist, you can't see what needs re-arranging when you're so "in it." Charlie brought perspective. Almost like an eavesdrop within an "Eavesdrop."

Strangely enough, this song always reminds me that my voice has changed since the last album. I have my son to thank for that, truly. When I was first pregnant and performing on the road, I thought something was wrong with my voice. I was having a hard time hitting high notes, while my low notes kept getting deeper and deeper. I did some research with the help of a vocal coach, and learned that hormone levels affect a female singing range. Having a boy, naturally, upped my testosterone levels, making low notes easier to hit and higher notes harder to reach. But the great thing? After having Miles, I regained my high range AND have kept my low range. Pregnancy literally changed the makeup of my vocal cords. There's a different timbre to it now, and I love that I can hear the story of my son in my singing.


This song is our take on an Americana murder ballad. It's dark, prickly, anxious. It was fun writing because we just imagined some dust-bowl scenario, a broke-down town, and a man awaiting being hung for something he did in the name of trying to provide for his family. The woman who loves him is watching him standing there on the gallows.

This song always reminds me of when the melody first came to mind. I was doing my makeup in the tiled bathroom upstairs, with my newborn Miles in a yellow rocking bassinet next to me. I started singing, and turned on the voice memo app on my iPhone so I wouldn't forget it. As I sang, Miles started cooing along with me. Not on pitch, mind you, but I'd move a note, and he'd move a note. I'm never deleting that voice memo. It's become one of my favorites.


That's our Grand Ole Opry song. A new spiritual. It's actually the oldest song written on the album. We wrote it before Barton Hollow came out. Even though we didn't have our own recording of it, we started performing it live and it became a fan favorite. It made sense to finally put it on an album. One of my favorite moments on stage every night was singing the a cappella part together.


We recorded the performance at Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, a place we'd written a few songs before that made it onto Barton Hollow. I always felt the musical ghosts in that studio, one of whom was the great Etta James. We're a band that's known for covering songs live in our own way, and we thought it would be fun to take a stab at "Tell Mama." I found out later that where we recorded was the same room she recorded her version. That might explain why I kept getting goosebumps.


We wrote it one week before Barton Hollow, in the mountains of Salt Lake City during our first Sundance Festival. We conjured up a story about a woman who was married to a philandering man. She is begging her man to level with her, and letting him know she can only take so much, a la "it's gonna kill me or it's gonna kill you."


Again, we're the band who loves to do covers. Both John Paul and I have always been huge Smashing Pumpkins fans. Nate mentioned it might be a cool cover, and we actually wound up working it out the same day that we wrote "Oh Henry" up in Salt Lake City for Sundance. It turned into another on-stage staple that people asked for every night. We found out later from his then-manager that Billy dug it.


We wrote this song in a flat in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in full view on a cold night. Tall windows, Victorian furniture, and somehow the atmosphere of all of that seeped into the song. Nate and our friends were there in the room as we wrote, all of us drinking wine together. I also loved getting to try out my flawed French. I wrote what words I knew in French, and then had a Parisian friend named Renata Pepper (yes, that's her real name) look it over later and help me translate. When we recorded the song for the album, I called in a French professor from Vanderbilt named Becky Peterson, who has now become a good friend.


We wrote this song in the studio behind my house in Nashville, on a warm summer day, with the windows and doors open. This song is a sweet lament, of loss and the belief that you'll never be able to love anybody else again. I stumbled across "Letters of Note" on Twitter, and was struck by the title of a letter written by a famous physicist named Richard Feynman: "I love my wife. My wife is dead." A little over a year after her death, he wrote his wife a love letter and sealed it. It was written in 1946, and wasn't opened until after his death in 1988. He ended his note to his long-lost wife with "Please excuse my not mailing this -- but I don't know your new address."

Another aside to this song: While we were recording the song together, John Paul and I could hear crows cawing in the background that I've since named Edgar, Allen and Poe. This recording and performance of the song is the first and only in existence, a work tape recorded simply on my iPhone.

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