Just finished listening to their record again. Truly incredible. Gotta thank T-Swift for introducing them to me. And the super sweet success story of them as true indie acts is just the icing on the cake.
In one weekend last summer, the Civil Wars started writing the second chapter of a story so full of accomplishment that they have crossed off nearly every entry on a bucket list the duo created late in 2010.
The pair -- Joy Williams and John Paul White -- was booked to write and record a song for a documentary on hunger at T Bone Burnett's West Los Angeles studio-a coup in itself. But by the end of the weekend they had scored their first film, written and recorded songs for the documentary-and the much anticipated "Hunger Games" film-and laid down a collaboration with the Chieftains. Soon thereafter, the Civil Wars would be back at Burnett's studio co-writing and recording with superstar Taylor Swift, whose enthusiasm for the band helped jump-start its career in February 2011.
At the time, Williams and White were relying on the skills they'd developed as songwriters-in his case, for Nashville acts, and in hers, for Disney pop singers. Burnett, whom they met at an Americana Awards event, was interested in working with them and put them in touch with director/producer Lori Silverbush, who had placed the Civil Wars' music as a temp track in her untitled documentary."We loved the direction [of the documentary] and what it was trying to say, and they asked our input. It was pretty amazing that they welcomed us in and made us a veritable partner," White says. "They asked us, 'Would you write one song?' and we said yes. When we went to see T Bone, we recorded the one song, and he said, 'Know what, guys? We really need an outro, an ending song for the credits with a little more energy, a little more tempo.' We said OK and wrote a song called 'Long Time Gone,' and then he said, 'We have this little Dust Bowl scene-why don't you just go in the studio and just play?' We were messing around and he recorded every bit of it. T Bone added some more of his own stuff, but within two days it became music by T Bone Burnett and Civil Wars."
Perhaps the greatest tribute came when Silverbush used the song they wrote, "Finding North," as the film's title. Distributed by Participant Media, "Finding North" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Key occurrences in 2012 in the Civil Wars' career are the results of White and Williams living the DIY story of the year in 2011. What began as a self-released album (Barton Hollow) and tours with Williams' husband, Nate Yetton (the band's manager, who drove the duo around the country in the group's Honda Element), led to two Grammy Awards, a well-received appearance on the Grammy telecast, a "Hunger Games" cut and a single/co-write with Swift, not to mention a European release of the album this month to coincide with a tour (March 8-April 4).
The Civil Wars had one minute of screen time at the Grammys on Feb. 12, yet scored the second-largest percentage spike in album sales, trailing only Adele, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Up 178%, Barton Hollow sold 36,000 copies in the first full sales week after the band's Grammy wins in the categories of best folk album and best country duo/group performance. It has sold 358,000 copies since its Feb. 1, 2011, debut.
"The Grammy stage and performing almost a trailer for the song was kind of the next natural step in the progression of the band, being exposed to a much broader audience," Yetton says. "That's how we've gone about this whole campaign, not forcing anyone to look at the band, but really allowing everyone in their own way to discover them and feel like they're coming across them by whatever channel would be natural. We've never wanted it to feel like the band is being marketed or really forced."
For example, the connection with Swift began randomly-a member of her band turned her on to Civil Wars.
"We were doing a West Coast run and Taylor got in touch with us to say she was working with Burnett on 'The Hunger Games,'" Williams recalls. Swift invited them to Burnett's studio before sound check for a concert at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. "We wrote ["Safe & Sound"] within two-and-a-half hours, got in the studio and recorded vocals and the temp version in another two hours. Less than a month later it was up on iTunes. We had no idea an afternoon would culminate in a thing like that. She had great ideas-everything was really easygoing with her. Walking into the studio with Taylor and T Bone felt like the most natural thing in the world."
Natural. That's one of those words that flows regularly during a conversation with Williams and White. "Organic" is another. "This project started as a safe haven from any confines-commercial, songwriting or genre," Yetton adds. "They didn't really have any intentions to fit in a certain genre, but to be embraced by several is so ideal."
The two performers (White plays guitar, Williams plays piano, and both sing) take pride in never making a move that felt forced, from the songwriting to the song arrangements to the distribution of their music. They've built a team: Management, a booking agent, a publicist and a staff photographer joined early, followed by a physical distribution specialist. A front-of-house soundman and a merchandise seller are now onboard too.
Williams and White met in late 2008 while on assignment for a Music Row project that involved a large group of songwriters collaborating with one another. On paper, the pairing didn't make much sense. White is 39 and a native of the Muscle Shoals, Ala., area, where he lives with his wife and four children. His initial taste in music veered toward Black Sabbath and AC/DC, though as a budding songwriter he learned to enjoy his father's music-Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and the like. A new source of inspiration was such iconic blues players as Mance Lipscomb.
Williams, 29, grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif. An outdoorsy type who alerted the world through Twitter on Grammy weekend that she's due to give birth to her first child in June, her mom adored the Carpenters and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, and her dad was a Beach Boys fanatic, which led to her believing she could find a career in the youth pop world.
At that initial meeting, which both say they tried to cancel, White was signed to EMI and Williams to Warner/Chappell. She had been a staff writer for about two years who was trying to get her songs into the hands of pop producers and Disney shows. He was the guy with a bit of a darker edge who Nashville writers brought in to give songs to Gloriana, Jason Aldean, Rascal Flatts and others.
The more they shared with each other, the more common ground they found, whether it be in the way the vibrato in their voices aligned or the frustration and resignation that comes with giving up on the dream of being a performer. Once they started writing, they found an affinity for a soft, intimate sound infused with the echo of rural country music, pop lyricism and a folky balance of instruments.
"If John Paul and I had met at a different time I think we would've had an afternoon of a co-write and maybe missed something that could have been special," Williams says. "It set the tone surprisingly at an early stage. We said, 'Let's just do what we love and write music that we're proud of and throw everything else to the wind. We can't control people's opinions; we can't control whether people want to use [our songs].'"
They wrote and sang together for a few months before White popped the question: Want to form a band? Williams says. "It was like being asked to prom."
Their first gig was in East Nashville's now-shuttered French Quarter Cafe in April 2009. The second gig was in Atlanta, which White had taped and posted online in June 2009 so that users could download the performance as an album for free with no strings attached, not even a request for an email address. They had posted a static video of their take on Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and would soon post a clip of the first song they wrote together, "Falling."
"I don't want to paint us as so forward-thinking in this," White says. "There was a bit of naivety on our part. We didn't have a label so we didn't have anyone stopping us. It was just us following our noses."
An EP followed, which featured the song "Poison and Wine," a track that "Grey's Anatomy" used in its Nov. 12, 2009, episode along with a solo track from Williams. "When people heard ["Poison and Wine"] and wanted more information, they could go to that free record," White says. "And it just spread like wildfire. We started figuring out the power of the Internet and the power of word-of-mouth. We wondered, 'How much of this is us? How much is technology?'"
Williams says, "That was instrumental, too, in the realm of live shows, because we would play cities we had never played before and they'd be full and people would be mouthing the words . . ."
White finishes his thought: "And we hadn't even released a record."
Their popularity increasing, they hired Frank Riley of High Road Touring to book their shows and tapped photographer Allister Ann to document their lives on the road for their blog and Tumblr (tcwtour.tumblr.com).
Williams recalls that during their first tour, "the promoters had no clue who we were. They were only doing it because Frank said, 'Trust me.' We were playing 100-capacity rooms. As soon as tickets went on sale, they sold out. Promoters were asking, 'What is going on? Who are these guys?' We were saying the same thing because we had no clue we could sell out."
Barton Hollow, some of which was recorded at the time of the EP, took less than four weeks to create at the Art House in Nashville with Charlie Peacock producing and Richie Biggs engineering and mixing. Advance copies started to circulate in late 2010 and found a fan in "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" music booker Barbera Libis, who said she was interested in having them appear in May 2011. When a cancellation opened a spot in January, they got the call, making their national TV debut on Jan. 13, 2011, two weeks prior to the release of the album on their Sensibility label.
As great as that exposure was, nothing could have prepared them for the tweet that would change their lives. Swift attended the Barton Hallow release show at the Bellacourt in Nashville, where Williams spotted her "in the third row wearing our T-shirt. That was surreal." Swift tweeted-to more than 5 million of her fans-that she was a fan of both the Civil Wars live and Barton Hollow.
"We thought 5,000 the first week," Williams says of their album sales expectations just before Valentine's Day last year. "We were going to celebrate with champagne and pizza if we hit 5K. Not sure how we were going to pay for it, but we were going to celebrate it anyway."
It sold 25,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, bowing at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and topping the Digital Albums chart. "We were absolutely floored," she says.
Throughout the course of the year the venues grew increasingly larger until the Civil Wars were playing such halls as Los Angeles' 2,200-capacity Wiltern-10 times the size of the venue where they made their L.A. debut, Largo at the Coronet. (White estimates he was home for only about 40 days in 2011.) The duo was also on hand in L.A. when the Grammy nominations were announced in December.
Whether onstage as a young group at Largo, backstage prior to the nominations or meeting the press after the Grammy wins, White and Williams present a cool and welcoming fašade, the look of two people calmly absorbing the world.
"We are so polar opposite in so many ways," White says. "It's never push and pull or compromise. It just seems to flow. And it works unlike any creative collaboration she or I have ever been a part of-if I may be so bold as to speak for you."
Williams smiles and responds, "Yes, you may be so bold."