Alex Chambers: Regardless of how we lean politically, the past couple of years have shown us how unhappy a lot of Americans are with our country. Also, that great resignation. Turns out a lot of us are pretty unhappy with our work places too.
Ilana Gershon: The problem with work places, just like the problems with countries, is you can't really quit your country without going to another country that also is set up around government in the same way.
Alex Chambers: But as anthropologist Ilana Gershon found out, a lot of us still think that quitting our jobs is gonna make a political statement. This week on Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, how we've let our employment contracts limit our imaginations. That's right. Contracts. Trust me, it's actually really interesting. And if that's not enough, we've also got an interview with Lucinda Williams. That's all coming up after this.
Alex Chambers: The Great Resignation – that wave of workers quitting their jobs – it peaked about a year ago. But even just a couple months ago, in September, over 4 million Americans quit their jobs. It’s not just people leaving their jobs for greener pastures. Some are older workers who decided to retire early. Other people left because the pandemic forced them to stay home to take care of kids or other loved ones. Even so, a lot of people quit because they were unhappy with their work situations. That was especially the case for low-wage workers. A year ago, a million people left leisure and hospitality jobs. And a lot of those people left for political reasons. They wanted to make a statement. Did it work? Was the Great Resignation akin to a general strike?
Alex Chambers: According to anthropologist Ilana Gershon, who’s spent the past couple years talking with people about work and how decisions get made in workplaces, those attempts at political statements didn’t have their intended effect. Which maybe isn’t that surprising. Most of the people who quit did it individually. Quitting isn’t the same as striking - although there’s been a big uptick in strikes, too. So why are so many people leaving work feeling like that’s how to show their employers how badly they’ve been treated? Ilana Gershon thinks it’s about our relationship to contracts.
Alex Chambers: Okay - if you’re listening to the radio, hearing someone say “we’re going to talk about contracts!” is probably the kind of thing we’re you’re like, okay, time to tune out. Or suddenly you’re thinking about your grocery list and you don’t even notice that that radio voice has just turned into a background hum. But stick with me for a second. This is interesting.
Alex Chambers: According to Ilana’s research, for most of us in the workforce, our imaginations are limited by those contracts we sign with our employers. It doesn’t even matter what the contract actually says. Turns out, most of us aren’t totally sure about what our contracts say. Also, contracts can’t spell out every part of a job. But even so, for most of us, the process of signing our contracts, usually means accepting the fact that we’re trading away certain kinds of freedom for a paycheck - and health insurance in a lot of cases. (Because this is America.)
Alex Chambers: But then the pandemic started, and suddenly those contracts - which is to say, what our employers could tell us to do - suddenly those mostly unspoken agreements came into sharp focus. They had to be spoken. Who gets to decide whether you can work remotely? How much does your employer really care whether you’re exposed to a deadly virus? Whether you live or die? Those questions came into focus, and it turned out, so many of the answers had to do with our relationship to contracts. And that is what my conversation with Ilana Gershon is about: who gets to decide what in the workplace, how employees and employers wield power, and ultimately, what that says about how we relate not just to our employers, but to our government. Stay with us.
Alex Chambers: Ilana didn’t start out fixated - her word - on work cultures. Her first book has been described as an ethnography of Facebook and other new media, but more specifically, it’s about how people break up using new media. Somehow, she didn’t expect the book to be as popular as it was.
Ilana Gershon: This is over radio, so no one can see me, but let me just reassure all the listeners that if you saw me in a grocery store you would not think, oh, I bet this person is a Cosmo expert. Or, oh I bet Team Vogue contacts them on a regular basis to get their opinion. But the Break Up two point oh comes out and I'm suddenly talking to journalists who I never dreamed that I would talk to. And I began to think, oh, this is really interesting. You sprinkle new media over a topic and all of a sudden you get this kind of attention. And that made me think that I had a political obligation to do something that was more meaningful in people's lives in a kind of broader sense. I mean people care a lot about their break ups and I'm not saying that's not meaningful. But I didn't think that I was the kind of scholar who could turn it into something that had a larger reach.
Ilana Gershon: And, this was around the time of the Great Recession, and I was trying to think of what were people using new media to do that might let me say something kind of more insightful about the ways in which people were dealing with contemporary problems and capitalism these days. And I realized hiring. Hiring was a space where people were really concerned about how to use new media to seem employable. All these new media technologies didn't have standard forms of etiquette around them, so, they needed to figure out how to use Linked In profiles in ways that they just didn't have kind of comparable genres to draw upon already. Like how much is a Linked In profile like a resume. That was just really an open question.
Ilana Gershon: And so I began to do research on hiring as a way to make my work more relevant. I mean part of what was also going on was that, you know, I'm a professor and I realize that most of my students don't actually want to get a job as a professor. And what they most want to do though is figure out how to get a job. And I realized I didn't have much to tell them on that front at all. And that maybe if I had a time off to do research, maybe I should do something good for my students and figure out a little bit more about hiring. And so that's another reason why I ended up studying what was hiring in contemporary corporate America these days.
Alex Chambers: So, I came to this through reading the text of this talk that you gave, because the book is still in progress. And in reading the talk, to me if felt like the employment contract was still fairly central.
Ilana Gershon: It is. And the talk that you read makes it very clear how central it is. It's central in the following way, right. So, employment contracts and social contracts are both really relevant for people in the pandemic. And the pandemic has made the social contract and the employment contract almost one and the same thing. Like you can have a social contract that is not shaped like an employment contract, and there can be gap. Kind of the gap between the employment contract and the social contract can be large or it can be small. And during the pandemic it really shrank. And what became really clear to me in talking to people was that their understanding of what political strategies were available to them in the workplace, how they could have a voice, and make a difference. And what their recourse was when they really were very unhappy about what was happening, were all shaped by their understandings of how contracts functioned in some sense.
Ilana Gershon: And it wasn't necessarily how the actual text of the employment contract functioned. That wasn't what they were focusing on. But they were focusing on the fact that they had agreed to work and they were bartering a certain amount of autonomy. They were exchanging what they were going to think about, or what they were going to do with their body, whether they were flipping hamburgers or at a register. And they were trading that for a wage, and they were trading that for health insurance often. And, during the pandemic that bargain became something that they were really rethinking, because all of a sudden, economic security and health security began to clash with each other. And so that kind of question about do I want to keep this particular contract became a motivating question for many people that I was talking to.
Ilana Gershon: I mean in the very first interview that I did, she said to me that people were beginning to rethink whether their employer cared whether they lived or died. And that this grips me in my stomach to hear this. And when she sent this, I realized part of the social contract is that you are going to care that your employee lives. And that you are going to do what you can to make sure that your employee keeps living. There's no moment in an employment contract, the actual text that it ever says that, right. And so that's what I mean. Like there's kind of all sorts of ideas about how you have a relationship with someone in the workplace, that is thinking through a contract, even though the actual text doesn't necessarily matter. And I should say we have lots of relationships in our lives that are not contractual, right. Like our family relationships aren't based around a contractual logic.
Alex Chambers: Right, and I think one of the interesting things that came out of your research too is that often our work relationships aren't that much based on the employment contract either. But you know, that you already sort of alluded to this, but a number of the people you were interviewing, you talk about in the paper, they don't necessarily even know what's in their employment contract specifically.
Ilana Gershon: Right. I mean this is part of why interviewing them about their employment contract went so badly is because you sign the contract and you kind of have the sense that as long as I don't behave incredibly badly, that people are going to behave reasonably towards me, and the actual employment contract isn't going to matter.
Alex Chambers: So, during the pandemic people suddenly had to deal with power relationships in the work place, I think, in a different way, or it became much more stark the power relationships and the ways that people were allowed to make decisions or able to make decisions. And there are a number of different ways we could try to deal with that, you know. During the middle of the 20th century when unions were a lot more powerful, these decisions would have been maybe much more collectively based. But one of the things you observed was that it turns out now a lot of these decisions are being made on an individual level. Can you talk about what you realized about that and maybe how that sort of stems from this contract relationship?
Ilana Gershon: One of the things that I was wondering about when I began doing these interviews, and I have to say look, because I was interviewing people remotely, I was interviewing people all over the country right and I was, like the pandemic is not only the focus of my research, but it really shaped my methodology and it's not something that I would necessarily be doing if I wasn't in a pandemic. But I was talking to people in Hawaii, I was talking to people in Massachusetts, I was talking to people in Iowa and Oregon and Texas. Like I was talking to people all over the country about their experiences working in person. And one of the things that I was planning to track was moments in which there was collective action in the workplace, moments in which co-workers came together and made decisions together about what they would like to have happen in the workplace and if someone was making decisions that they didn't like, they would come together and try to get these decisions reversed. And I was expecting a lot more of that. And I really didn't find that much of it in my interviews. People weren't doing that.
Alex Chambers: One of the things that did happen was that often there would be one person in the workplace who was kind of in a position that was different than anybody else in the workplace for any number of reasons. Maybe they had been hired two years earlier from a company that everybody really respected in the workplace and so they had kind of cache that way. Maybe they were in a kind of anomalous position in the workplace and weren't necessarily under anybody's direct report in a particular way. They were kind of a floating voice so to speak. And so people who were in these anomalous positions would sometimes become a kind of informal union rep, where the people who were unhappy about what management was deciding, would come to them and say you tell management this. And the people often also had to have a certain kind of personality to be able to tell management this, but they would become a kind of informal union rep, became a pattern that I was seeing in the workplace interviews that I was doing. But I have to say, I didn't see that turning into collective action very often.
Ilana Gershon: And the other thing that I have to say about this is if you were thinking in terms of contacts, the first political move that most people thought of as a way to protest was to quit. And quitting was something that was, for them, a way of having a strong critique of what was happening in the workplace. And what I also found was that it didn't work very well as a critique of the workplace. So that the people who were being quit, the people left in the workplace, saw this as an individual decision, oh, this person was unhappy, or this person had Covid reasons for not wanting to be in this workplace. And they didn't hear it or engage with it as the critique that the person who was quitting wanted it to be and meant it to be. And so you had to work really hard, maybe get into the media, maybe do a kind of major performance of quitting, to even make it visible as something that you intend to have as a critique.
Alex Chambers: Even co-workers didn't necessarily see it as a political critique. I had been thinking when I read it that it was mostly employers who didn't see it that way, but it was even co-workers.
Ilana Gershon: Yeah, I think it was even co-workers.
Alex Chambers: Wow. Were you surprised by the lack of collective action?
Ilana Gershon: It was really sad. I mean I don't know, like, was I surprised? Maybe I was a little surprised. I was more really, really sad. I mean one of the things that did surprise me in my research was people weren't always thrilled with democracy, because you can have deliberative discussions where people end up deciding to do something that makes you feel like you were really at risk by going to work. You can have a shared conversation in which people say "masking, let's decide not to mask at work." And so people were happy in their workplaces, even if the boss was making all the decisions, if what the boss was doing in making all the decisions was trying to decide to be as safe as possible. And that cut down on really uncomfortable, awkward deliberation, where you discover that your co-workers have very different ideas about risk in a way that might make you incredibly anxious to be working alongside them, because you are then thinking, wait a minute, what do you do in your private life? And so I didn't understand the degree to which, even deliberation, carries with it possibilities for decisions that would make people very unhappy.
Ilana Gershon: Look one of the interesting things about how contracts were playing out in all of this is, I began to realize that one of the major tensions people had in the workplace is that Americans find it highly inappropriate to tell another person what to do unless they are bound by contract of kinship, some kind of family tie. And even then, people in families know very well that you don't always get to tell someone else in your family what they should do. Like mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, that can be a really tense situation in which it's not clear whether the mother-in-law gets to tell the daughter-in-law what to do. Like this is up for grabs, but it's up for grabs in a way that is still available to people, that there is a chance that they really can tell someone else what to do. But it's really considered highly inappropriate if you are not already agreeing by contract to be in that kind of relationship, or you are connected by family, it's considered highly inappropriate to do that.
Ilana Gershon: So, people had a lot of problems in moments where they were trying to figure out how to tell someone else to follow Covid protocols in moments where they weren't bound by contract. And often what people found helped them in these moments was that they could point to an authority figure of some kind. If it's store policy, if it is state mandate, if it's what the Federal Government insists, or what the County Health Department insists on. As long as they could point to some other form, a kind of top down authority, they could then ask someone to obey the Covid protocols. And so that kept coming up in my interviews too. And I ask people, well, how do you make sure this is enforced? They might try other strategies and discover that these other strategies just weren't working, and this is the one that they would hit on that would be effective.
Ilana Gershon: I have to say there's another option available for Americans that I was also surprised that I only found one instance of it. In which I was also looking at Reddit for any stories that might be relevant for my research. And I came across a story on Reddit of a woman who had been working in a large retail store and was approached by a customer who said "what do you think of this mask" And she says "well you know, I actually think it helps prevent the spread of Covid. And I'm kind of glad that the store masks." And the customer nods and says "Yeah, you know, I don't actually think that about masks. I don't think masks are gonna help very much, but you do and a lot of people around me do. And I think I wanna keep you feeling comfortable and so I'm gonna continue masking just because it makes everybody else around me feel better that I'm ready to do this, even though I don't believe in it."
Ilana Gershon: And that was a moment of thinking about the social contract, right. That's a moment of thinking about the common good. That even if you don't actually believe in the protocols, you can still be willing to do this for your community. And what was striking for me was how this was the one instance that I found about this. Like I should have been getting stories like this all over the place. This is a way to think about how to mask and then how to vaccinate, that really is available to people.
Alex Chambers: It's time for a short break. You've been listening to a conversation with anthropologist Ilana Gershon about workplace politics in the pandemic. When we come back, Ilana offers us some job related insight into the phrase America, love it or leave it.
Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers. We're talking this week with anthropologist Ilana Gershon about decision making in the workplace and how people really feel about democracy. Let's get right back to it.
Alex Chambers: And why do you think it is then that people are more willing to be told what to do in relation to a corporation or maybe through their job, versus the government?
Ilana Gershon: No, I mean I think it's not a job versus. I think that's why the contract does this kind of work. When you are signing a contract, you are agreeing to be told what to do, and you just understand that that's what you're committing to. And that that's the locus of choice. Like freedom is get to choose whether someone else is gonna tell you what to do or not, which I find a very odd version of freedom. But I think that that's what is happening here. I am really interested in the ways in which government doesn't seen to be coming out of deliberative conversation anymore. And so people don't think of the government as doing something that they themselves have a voice in any of the decisions that the government is making. And so they don't feel like it's part of a social contract. I mean that's what I'm really struck by.
Ilana Gershon: And I'm also really struck by the ways in which people's understanding of workplace dynamics become the kind of metaphor that they use for understanding what's happening in the government. So, because I've been talking to you about quitting so much, I started hearing the slogan "America love it or leave it" in a very different way than I ever had before, because now I'm hearing it as a, well you can always quit your contract. But of course, the problem with workplaces, just like the problems with countries, is you can't really quit your country without going to another country that also is set up around government in the same way. Like it's not like there's a space, there are not many spaces in which you can make a living without being engaged in a contact.
Alex Chambers: You're drawing an analogy I think, right, between the ways that people are experiencing power relationships or contracts in work, and then what they are then saying this is how government works or is supposed to work.
Ilana Gershon: Right. No, I think part of what the break down is, is that some people do not think of themselves as being in a contract to the government. They don't think that they have a social contract with the government. And they don't have an experience of a social contract with the government that goes along he lines of my representative is obligated to represent the interests that are coming out of shared, deliberative conversations, in which people are trying to do the best for a range of interests, and trying to figure out how to compromise effectively. I think the idea of deliberation and compromise is really not available for some people anymore.
Ilana Gershon: And part of it is because if they really are relying on the workplace as a site for that, the workplace doesn't have many moments. Well some workplaces do and some workplaces don't. They don't have many moments in which people are trying to figure out how to make everybody's lives better and understand that there are conflicting interests and that people have different things that they're worrying about. And that a decision is threading a needle through a very tiny hole sometimes.
Alex Chambers: Right.
Ilana Gershon: I think one of the things that people have learned during the pandemic, and I don't know how it's going to play out, is how many of the ways we make decisions and the rules that we have are actually arbitrary, are socially agreed upon and could be done a different way. And I think people are getting very visibly concerned with why are we doing something in a way that makes us deeply unhappy. And so I think there's a chance for people to be more imaginative, but the problem is to choose an alternative way creates, you have to have a lot of deliberation, you have to have a lot of consensus to go in the different direction.
Alex Chambers: Right. You have to be able to bring a group of people together and make a collective decision that is then gonna push against some, you know, pretty deep ruts.
Ilana Gershon: Right. And the ways that things have always been done, is actually very efficient. It's nice to know, oh wait here, this is how people have done this in the past, that we can easily agree to.
Alex Chambers: Which is also the benefit of autocracy in the workplace. Someone is making a decision. We don't have to worry about that anymore. It does seem, just to go back to this a little bit more, it does seem concerning that the workplace is the primary site of figuring out what it means to be a democratic citizen, in so far as it's not really a democratic place generally speaking.
Ilana Gershon: But sometimes it is. Like with an employee owned associations, then you have an organization that really is much more democratic. Like every workplace is on a continuum between democracy and autocracy. They have moments in which you have more democracy, and then you have moments in which you have more autocracy in every workplace, even the employee owned associations that I'm saying are much more democratic. And I think being conscious that there are larger implications for choosing democracy or choosing autocracy in your workplace would be really helpful, right. Like we need to start thinking about the fact that when we are running workplaces in the ways that we are, there are real consequences for the country when we do it this way.
Ilana Gershon: I also think it's really important to realize we talk about how there isn't that available anymore, but actually I think that it really is. I think people are now very upset that other Americans don't commit to the common good. And so there's a very strong sense for many people that the common good is something we need to go back to, that we need to commit to more and more, that democracy is in fact extremely important. And I think there's more of a shared sense about this with those other people being the people you are defining yourself against. Right, I mean I'm really struck now when I myself am in meetings, how easy it is for me to persuade other people to do something by telling them that it's for the common good, or this is an issue of democracy. And all of a sudden, like this is really rhetorically effective. And I think it's rhetorically effective because we hear now many of us are now really committed to the common good.
Ilana Gershon: And I also think that the people who we think of as not being committed to the common good, have also been dealing with government and regulation in a way that doesn't seem to be connected to the common good at all. So, when we start telling them, but wait, here is a regulation that is about the common good, what they hear is a complete lie, because they've never seen regulation as something that they have a voice in, in getting to decide what the regulation is supposed to be. And they don't understand how it's connected to the common good. It seems fairly arbitrary. And so I think that that's one of the major tensions is when and how are you going to articulate the common good. And I think more people would like to engage with the common good than the pandemic has left people believing.
Ilana Gershon: Like, I think people are deeply cynical about their fellow Americans, when I think in fact there's more opportunity there than we realize, and there's more commonality there than we realize. God I can't believe I'm being so optimistic. Oh, I'm sorry, Alex, like that's--
Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS] But do you actually like you actually believe that?
Ilana Gershon: I believe that when I'm not on social media. Like what I read on social media are people refusing the vaccine mandate, saying like you cannot tell me what to do and I'm angry that you're trying to persuade me. I'm not trying to persuade you to do anything. This is supposed to be a space that is not around persuasion. But, I'm still continuing to do interviews. I have a post doctoral research associate who's doing interviews for me. And these interviews reveal that it's actually much more complicated than what people are saying on social media. We've interviewed people who end up getting vaccinated, they just don't wanna be told to be vaccinated. And so when they have been told, it takes a month or two before they end up actually vaccinating, so that the telling and the act are separate enough in time, so that it doesn't feel connected.
Ilana Gershon: But I think it is in practice people are working out the ways in which Covid has gotten politicized. They're trying to work their way around that in order to kind of still stay behaving ethically towards other people.
Alex Chambers: They still want to behave ethically towards other people?
Ilana Gershon: I think they do. It's just there are strong disagreements [LAUGHS] about what ethical behavior actually is.
Alex Chambers: Unfortunately we're not gonna be able to resolve what counts as ethical behavior in this hour of Inner States. Maybe next week. In the meantime, I wanna thank Ilana for coming on. When we spoke last spring, Ilana Gershon was Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. She’ll be starting at Rice University in January. Her book based on this research will be coming out in 2024. It’s called The Pandemic Workplace: How Work Shapes Americans' Political Imaginations. It’s time for a break. When we come back, a conversation with Lucinda Willians. This is Inner States. Stay with us.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I’m Alex Chambers. Coming up next, a conversation with Lucina Williams, who performed in Bloomington last April. Bloomington is a regular stop on Nashville-based Lucinda Williams’ touring schedule. Since her previous show at the Buskirk in August 2019, the pandemic and Williams’ own health issues preempted a couple years’ worth of tours. As WFIU’s Yael Ksander was happy to hear during their conversation over Zoom, Williams was doing well after suffering a stroke in the fall of 2020, writing her memoir, and back out on tour promoting her latest album, Good Souls, Better Angels. In their chat, Lucinda reflected on the twists and turns of her career, the cost of sticking to your guns artistically, her relationship with the dark side, and … men.
Yaël Ksander: The sound is unmistakable. But getting that sound heard was no inevitable. Record company executives didn't know what to do with Lucinda Williams' sound in the early days.
Lucinda Wiliams: I did a demo tape and it was sent to CBS or Sony in LA, who said it was too country for rock, and then Sony in Nashville said it was too rock for country.
Yaël Ksander: One producer she got passed along to in the 80s remixed her songs with a big base and heavy drum beat, like disco.
Lucinda Wiliams: They wanted to try to find a song that would be a single for the radio. So they were sending certain songs to this guy in New York to remix for the radio. That's what that was, yeah, and I didn't like the sound.
Yaël Ksander: Was it ever tempting to sell out? Or did you just stuck to your guns? What was that struggle like?
Lucinda Wiliams: No, I mean, I don't know if it was as much bravery as stubbornness. You know, I have this deep seated fear of, you know, being too slick, my music being too slick and too commercial, you know. So, I was just terrified of that, you know. So the slightest little thing, I just would get worried about, you know, too much reverb, or too much this or too much, you know. Like the remixes, a lot of the sound that came back was, you know, it had to do with what was popular on the radio, the sound that was popular back then. So that bass and drums would be, you know, pushed more up front, the vocal would be pushed back, you know, in the mix, that kind of thing. And I basically wanted the opposite of that. When I look back on it now, you know, I probably overreacted a lot.
Lucinda Wiliams: Now I think back and I think well maybe you know, what if I, because I was working with Rick Rubin a little bit, you know, and he wanted to do some stuff and I always like no, no. And now I'm thinking, well, what if I had allowed him to just do whatever and, you know, maybe I would have been more successful sooner and, you know, 'cause look what he did with the Beastie Boys and, you know. He took me aside one time and played me a PJ Harvey album and said this is what I had in mind for you kind of.
Lucinda Wiliams: But, I was so paranoid and freaked about, you know, even working with an outside producer, you know, just letting him take the reins, you know, kind of thing. But now I think back and I think oh maybe I shouldn't have been so uptight about that.
Yaël Ksander: That point is debatable. Williams' commitment to her creative vision ultimately resulted in her inclusion on the big lists of greatest songwriters of all time, greatest women in rock and roll, and an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berkeley College of Music. Admittedly, the glory took its time. Williams was already in her 40s when she received the Grammy for Best Country Song. For someone else's cover of a song that had appeared on Lucinda's own album six years earlier.
Yaël Ksander: That's Lucinda's recording of Passionate Kisses. Mary Chapin Carpenter's version of Williams song reached number four on the billboard hot country singles and tracks chart in March 1993, and number 54 on the billboard hot 100. But the track had barely made it on Carpenter's album.
Lucinda Wiliams: Well Chapin - that's what everybody calls her who knows her - she wanted to record Passionate Kisses, but she got some resistance from her label, who said that it wasn't country enough.
Yaël Ksander: All over again, huh?
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah. There we go. So but she stuck to her guns and said I don't care, I'm gonna cut this song and I want it to be the first single on my next alum.
Yaël Ksander: The song, which put Lucinda Williams on the map as a songwriter at least, is a simple anthem of self esteem, a sort of I am woman with a little less bravado. It starts with an assertion of entitlement to the humblest things. Is it too much to ask, the song begins, that I want a comfortable bed that won't hurt my back, food to fill me up and warm clothes and all that stuff? Over the course of the song, she musters the verve to travel higher up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, wondering whether it's not also reasonable to expect a few intangibles, such as cool, quiet time to think, and most of all, passionate kisses. A healthy set of expectations for thriving as a human. At the same time, all along, Lucinda Williams' songs traverse a counter current toward a place where healthy expectations don't stand a chance, a place populated by derelicts and duct taped shoes, charmers and scoundrels, men who like to flirt with death.
Yaël Ksander: Your ability to fathom the darker and more depraved places in the heart has endeared you to many fans, including this one. And you have a particular gift at expressing the allure of dark and dangerous relationships and individuals. So, but recently I've seen some songs that are like rebukes, like exorcisms of bad behavior, songs like Waking Up or Bone of Contention.
Yaël Ksander: Now when I listen to some of those songs from the eponymous Lucinda Williams album, or even Car Wheels, and compare them to the songs on Good Souls, they sound almost like nursery rhymes. And so what is your relationship with the dark side these days? And should we read the arc of your discography as a cautionary tale?
Lucinda Wiliams: Well, I'm trying to, you know, nowadays I'm trying to navigate around, you know, the really dark spaces and, you know, dark relationships or unhealthy relationships and stuff. Yeah. I'm trying to grow basically and, you know, I think my music is, and my songs are, if you listen to everything, you can hear the, see kind of what I was going through and growing going through it, growing out of it. I'm trying to exorcise these daemons, you know.
Yaël Ksander: I remember Joni Mitchell talking about not being able to sing some of her early songs anymore because, she says, I don't sing that anymore, that's an ingénue role. And I'm wondering if it's at times really painful to revisit those places?
Lucinda Wiliams: No, because I look at it as, you know, it's just kind of cathartic and something I have to do. I mean, first, I write the songs for myself and, you know, sometimes, going through it, I have to just kind of purge this stuff, you know, and get it out. And put it on paper. When I revisit it, I don't think it's any different really to looking at a photo album and looking at old photos, which can make you sad sometimes, or it just depends, you know. But that's kind of how it is for me when I go back to those songs.
Yaël Ksander: So, a lot of artists feel like they have to lead really turbulent lives and have a chaotic mental health in order to produce good work. And I know that in the past maybe you admitted the same, that you felt like you needed some of that chaos in order to make good work or to get really--
Lucinda Wiliams: Maybe a little bit. But as I've gotten older, I've become more aware of doing that and trying to control that a little bit more, you know, 'cause it's not really healthy. [LAUGHS] It doesn't have to be that in order to do good art. I think that's kind of a myth.
Yaël Ksander: Maybe. I mean I'm just wondering for you has it been the opposite, where the art making has in fact been therapeutic?
Lucinda Wiliams: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah, I feel like as I've found a place that's a little more calm and a little more peaceful, that I can work in and, you know, be more productive.
Yaël Ksander: Do you have a particular creative practice for writing? Do you wake up and do your morning pages or something like that?
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah, I like to write right after I wake up 'cause that's when the magic happens for me. You know, I get my coffee, you know, and just something just makes me wanna sit down and work on something. I don't know what it is, but I'm not worried about what it is, as long as it's happening. You know, as long as I have that urge.
Yaël Ksander: Yeah, and is it sometimes a writing urge and sometimes a playing urge?
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah. Well, yeah, they both kind of go hand in hand of course, 'cause I'm usually working on a song or I'm just starting a new one, so I'm working on lyrics and the melody, both. It seems like lately my pattern has been writing lyrics first. I write something, I just get something out there, it might just be a stream of consciousness almost at first, and get something on the page. And then I'll sit with my guitar and go through it and see if I can come up with some kind of melodic pattern. And then, once I get that, then I go back and edit the lyrics to fit the tempo and the melody and everything. Just kind of put it all together.
Yaël Ksander: Writing, art making. It's in Lucinda Williams' bones. Her father was poet and University of Arkansas professor Miller Williams. The author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, read at President Clinton's 1997 inauguration. You had a strong relationship with your dad too, sounds like.
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah. Yeah, he was my role model as far as men definitely. Brilliant, funny, good looking, creative, you know. Yeah.
Yaël Ksander: Yeah, yeah, he sounds incredible. And so why did you decide to become a singer songwriter instead of a literary scholar or a poet or something?
Lucinda Wiliams: You know, I kind of wish I'd gone in that direction now. [LAUGHS]
Yaël Ksander: No! No! [LAUGHS]
Lucinda Wiliams: Well, sometimes I wish I was a short story writer, more like Flannery O'Connor, I don't know. 'Cause there's a lot of stuff that goes along with being a musician and, you know, that comes with the territory. I just grew up loving music and listening to so many great artists and like Bob Dylan and a lot of the other great songwriters, Leonard Cohen and, you know, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Hendrix, 'cause he wrote some great songs. And the Doors songs, I loved, you know. I was really into the lyrics and I paid attention to the lyrics and studied the lyrics. I'd look at it, or read them and listen to them, you know, so.
Yaël Ksander: Yeah. Jim Morrison thought he was very profound I guess.
Lucinda Wiliams: You didn't think he was?
Yaël Ksander: I don't know. I think he thought he was. The jury's still out on whether he was or not. He sure looked good when he was saying it. [LAUGHS]
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah, he did. That doesn't hurt, you know.
Yaël Ksander: Talking with Lucinda Williams about guys. It doesn't get much better than this. Has anyone you've written about ever complained, you know? Or has everyone been honored by being the subject of a Lucinda Williams song? Or have there been some who--
Lucinda Wiliams: Sometimes they get a little embarrassed about it, you know. I know this one guy, he was, kind of, his friends were kind of teasing him a little bit, you know, about that. But I'm working on a book now, memoirs, so, you know, I'm talking about some of that in the book. Like who I said this about, who I wrote that about. 'Cause everybody always wants to know.
Yaël Ksander: The promise of a kiss and tell from Lucinda Williams is pretty tempting. But for my money the characters in her songs don't need for their identification. The authentic detail with which she renders her characters allows a listener to extrapolate from them to our own experience. In other words, her powers of observing and representing specific people in situations allow them to resonate with a listener's own experience. You know, one description that I have heard of artists is that artists are intrepid explorers who are willing to navigate the far reaches of the human experience, and then come back to tell the tale of what they saw, and they might not make it actually, you know, at the risk of not coming back. And that's one of my favorite definitions of what an artist is.
Lucinda Wiliams: Yeah, that's pretty good, yeah.
Yaël Ksander: And I would say that that's the kind of artist you are, and that I think you are an artist who's uniquely positioned to help humanity in these dark times. Kind of like a superhero, Lucinda.
Lucinda Wiliams: You don't always make it back though. I wouldn't do anything that would threaten my existence, you know.
Yaël Ksander: For WFIU, I'm Yaël Ksander.
Alex Chambers: Yael spoke with musician Lucinda Williams over Zoom in anticipation of Williams’ performance last April at Bloomington’s Buskirk Chumley Theater. Williams was touring in promotion of Good Souls, Better Angels, her 15th release since 1979. You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington Indiana. We've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Yane Sanchez-Lopez, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Ilana Gershon, Yaël Ksander and Lucinda Williams. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time for some found sound.
Alex Chambers: That was the sound of Turkey Bayous, all the way over in Southern Illinois. Thanks to Emily Miles for sharing that recording. And don't forget I wanna hear from you too. Go to wfiu.org/innerstates. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.