Since healing from her November, 2020, stroke, the indomitable country-rock singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, who turned 70 in January, has been back at it in a major way. She has a packed touring schedule, with a stop in Vancouver slated for August. She just announced a new record, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart (June 30), featuring appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Margo Price and Angel Olsen. And she just released her clear-eyed new memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, in which she shares intimate thoughts and details about her childhood, her craft, her “guardian angels” and – endearingly – her myriad crushes.
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You dedicate so much space in the book to people who inspired and helped you – your ‘guardian angels.’ What was it like to reflect so deeply again on all those relationships?
Well, just like it probably would be for you or anybody, you know? It’s like writing in a journal. I was doing that, except when you’re writing a book that all these people you don’t know are going to be reading, you don’t want to pull the covers back too much. You kind of have to walk that line a little bit. Of course, it depends on what kind of book you want to put out. I read a lot of other people’s memoirs before I started writing mine, just to see how they did theirs. And it really varies. I mean, some of them said things in their books that I would never. Things that were kind of, I thought, ‘Wow.’ I was surprised they put that in there because it was so private.
Was there anything new that you learned about yourself or your work writing the book?
I remember feeling kind of embarrassed, because I kept writing about all these guys I knew. This one and that one and this other one. And: ‘I had a crush on him and a crush on that one’ – the ideal man, the poet on the motorcycle. I felt really shy about that after I’d been writing that over and over again. It started feeling like, ‘Oh, god, this is gonna look really stupid and silly.’ Like the story about the guy I was interested in and got all the candles and incense and music and invited him over to my hotel room, and he comes in and it just goes right over his head.
You’ve moved around a lot. Have you figured out how to navigate the tension between saying goodbye to people you care about and the desire to keep moving?
I hadn’t really thought about it that much. Because everybody’s leaving all the time, I guess. A lot of people I know move a lot. It seems to be the nature of things right now – motion. And I’ve always loved taking trips on a train, where I can just sit and look out the window and write. Now that I think about it, it’s a way to sort of be by myself, be alone, and yet take in all of this world outside. And I like the feeling of being in a town or city where I don’t know a lot of people. I can be there and just sort of be alone. Nobody knows me. I don’t have any responsibilities or commitments, appointments or anything. I can just hang out in my motel room or hotel room or whatever and watch the world go by without having to interact. I like that feeling.
Taking a long-distance train ride is like being suspended in time. No one can really get to you, but life goes on.
Yeah, that’s how I feel. I love that feeling. It makes me want to write. It always stimulates that writing thing in me. I’ve written a lot of songs in hotel rooms. It’s hard to describe what that feeling is, but it just comes over me. I feel inspired and I get in the mood and come up with a song. And the song won’t necessarily be about what I’m doing right at that moment. But it just inspires that creative part of me.
Your father’s poem near the end of the book – The Caterpillar – floored me. How has his poetry helped shape your own body of work?
Well, I mean, you can read his poetry and see the connection. Sometimes it kind of amazes me – I was looking at a couple of his poems recently, I can’t remember which ones they were, but I was kind of like, ‘Wow.’ I didn’t realize that my writing was so close to his poetry, but it really is. If you delve into it a little bit more, dig a little deeper, you can see. Some of my songs and some of his poems, you can just see that he taught me a lot. I remember one time, he said, “As a writer, as an artist, never censor yourself.” That was one of the things. And he taught me about the economics of writing.
I also read his poem Compassion the other day, and it nearly made me cry.
That was a real labour of love on my part, taking Compassion and making it into a song [for 2014′s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone]. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to tackle it. It was difficult doing that, as a writer, because it wasn’t a song yet. I had to make a refrain. I used to talk with my dad a lot about the difference between songs and poems, because a lot of his creative-writing students would debate whether Bob Dylan was a poet or a songwriter. And my dad would say, “He’s not a poet. He’s a songwriter.” Which didn’t mean that his songs weren’t as good as poetry. But his point was that those are two different animals. And I never understood that as deeply as when I tried to take Compassion and turn it into a song. That’s when I really understood the difference.
What do you think the purpose and value of poetry is?
I would say the purpose and value of poetry is the same as the purpose and value of songs, or music, which is to move people and communicate.
This interview has been edited and condensed.