2012 Grammy Awards for Joy Williams '01
A little country, a little Santa Cruz: Former resident Joy Williams enjoys musical success with Civil Wars
By Shona Sanzgiri-Santa Cruz Sentinel
MEMPHIS, Tenn. —
For Joy Williams, a blind date led to a Grammy. Two of them, actually. But it was a working date, not a romantic tryst, that united the singer with ties to Santa Cruz with guitarist John Paul White.Together they form The Civil Wars, an Americana duo blending the best of gospel with alternative-country. Last month, their accomplishments were acknowledged with two Grammys: Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album.If their backstory doesn't impress you much, consider this: Brit-soul sensation Adele said she believes they're the “best live band” playing today, and brought them out to the UK to prove it — where they even got matching tattoos.“It's an ellipses,” Williams, 29, says by telephone from Memphis. “You know — to be continued,” she said with a lilting laugh that appears frequently in conversation.But while having Adele as a cosigner is probably a guarantor of success, there's a sonic distance between the two artists that can't be ignored.“We had no idea how her audience would or would not take to us,” she said. “We learned really quickly that her fans are drawn to a style of singing where it's all laid out on stage, and they're there to tap into something emotional — as Adele has said herself, the kind of music that isn't for the eyes necessarily, but for the ears.” Even if Williams thinks The Civil Wars are “nowhere near [Adele's] caliber,” she acknowledged a common “simplicity” in their performances.“No backup dancing, no dry ice or smoke!”Though she's spent the last 12 years in Nashville, this quintessential Southern modesty was actually bred in the West — Santa Cruz, to be precise. “My family and I moved around a lot, and so I got to see a lot of different quadrants of the country. When I got to Santa Cruz at age 9, I felt like ‘this place has ‘my people.'”
And success followed soon after. After graduating from high school, Williams, already signed to a re
cord label, hopped on a tour bus, “dropping her bags off” at various places throughout the country before settling in Music City. This duality shows its roots — she sprinkles sentences with “man” and “dude,” and her accent is pure California sunshine.But Nashville has left an indelible mark. “It's really communal here. There's always something percolating, something that inspires me. I mean, I wouldn't have met my husband if I hadn't moved to Nashville!” she said, as if realizing it herself. There's a touch of the deeper South in the music of The Civil Wars, a world of gothic folklore whose influence is most felt through the works of authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy. And Joy is thrilled to make the connection.“John Paul and I are very bookish. People like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy are definitely in our libraries. It's odd, even though I grew up in Northern California, the South has been steadily seeping into my life. John Paul grew up here, so he lives, eats and breaths it. And it's this strange thing where we brought our worlds together and started making music we could never have on our own,” she said.To be clear — she's no carpetbagger.“Joy's a very quick study in terms of understanding culture language and art,” said father Roger Williams, with the same laugh as his daughter's. “She picks this stuff up and gets it way quicker than [I do].”Music brought the William family together. The elder Williams met wife Rachel, then a singer in a “girl trio” group, some 40 years ago at a concert. “I heard this incredible voice and I had to know where it came from. When they did their solo riffs, I found out,” he recalled.This voice and a preternatural ability for harmony was passed on to both Joy and her older sister Sara, both of whom would sing with their mother at banquets, retreats and churches.If you detect a note of gospel in Joy's style, you needn't look far. Roger is the executive director of the Mount Hermon Christian Camps and Conference Center, and faith figured in Joy's youth. Early categorizations placed her in the Christian genre, and while religion and spirituality still play an important role in her life, Williams acknowledges that her “world view has changed a great deal and doesn't look very similar to how it used to” but that she's “still on the path, and enjoying it.” It was this ‘path' that kept the then-15-year-old Joy to resist the temptation to flee the coop. “She felt it was more important to stay grounded, especially having seen some folks that weren't,” Roger said.Williams turned down a recording contract while a teenager, opting to finish school at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, where she graduated as valedictorian.
LIFE IN SONG
If Joy is reticent to discuss what's real or unreal about her personal life, it's because she exorcises her demons through song.“Our music is very true to us, and it's equally made up of life experiences, and family secrets,” she said. “We love to play with the light and the dark, and write around the edges, in a more nuanced way so it doesn't become navel-gazing — to draw out the emotions of others so it can be inclusive, not exclusive.”The ambiguity and inner divide
also explains the name The Civil Wars. “It's about the different perspectives and backgrounds that we share. And the reality is that we're fighting something everyday — whether it's relationships, or belief or the lack of it, it seems like everybody has something to explain what The Civil Wars could mean for them. There's a quote by Plato that I really love — “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”She's certainly fought, but you wouldn't know it by talking to her.“To win one Grammy was unexpected, but I almost went into a catatonic state when we won two. It hasn't settled in. I'm still taking out the trash, returning curtains. Life is back to normal, but I'm happy to say there are a couple gramophones in my house,” she said.
At a glance
Civil Wars tour
The Civil Wars is on tour in Europe through April. The band returns to the U.S. on May 6 to play at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Tenn., and wraps up the U.S. portion of the tour at Bonaroo Music Festival on June 10.
The Valley Christian Schools and Valley Christian Alumni communities congratulate Joy on her great success!
See the full list of 2012 Grammy winners here. See The Civil Wars perform their hit "Poison and Wine" on the David Letterman show by clicking the "Alumni in the News" tab.