How We Met: Joy Williams & John Paul White

'It was like a dance where I knew I could lead her, but she could lead me, too'

Simmy Richman
Sunday 18 March 2012 01:00 GMT
White says: 'When we started singing together, there was this weird click; it was like there was a dance going where I knew I could lead her but she could lead me, too.'
White says: 'When we started singing together, there was this weird click; it was like there was a dance going where I knew I could lead her but she could lead me, too.' (Eva Vermandel)

Joy Williams, 29

A singer and songwriter, Williams was born in Michigan but grew up in northern California. She had always sung in church and, at 18, moved to Nashville to record gospel albums and write songs for other artists before forming the double-Grammy-winning duo the Civil Wars with John Paul White. She is married to Nate, and is expecting her first child in June.

We met in 2008 at what, in Nashville, is known as a "writing camp", a gathering of songwriters for the purpose of writing radio singles for a band that didn't even have a name at that point. I thought it was going to be a waste of time, but my publisher wanted me to go, so I said OK.

It was literally a drawing of straws to see which songwriters would be put into which room together, and by the time I got there the straws had been drawn. I was like, "OK, I'm going into this room with somebody named John Paul White." I had no idea what I was walking in to.

After about half an hour of getting-to-know-yous, he started plucking at the guitar. In Nashville, it's not uncommon to harmonise with someone but what was strange was that when he started singing it was like I knew where he was going to go before he went there – it tightened my stomach and made me pay attention.

I really needed that moment in my life. I was fried from the solo experience; fried from writing lacklustre pop songs. But meeting John Paul brought this weird feeling of falling in love with music again.

Thankfully, I married a very confident man with whom I have a great deal of trust, so when after the session I went back and said, "I met this guy today," it didn't ruffle him. He has a lot of years of experience in the music industry and he said, "Well, if you like writing with him, keep writing with him, and who knows where it will lead." My husband is now our manager and travels with us full-time. It feels like the best of both worlds.

John Paul is like family – we can get on each other's nerves but that's part of it. One of the many things I enjoy about him is that he's so very grounded in the sense of he knows what he wants to do. I tend to overanalyse and he's good at simplifying. There is a healthy tension involved in the creative process but, because we're not in a romantic relationship, we can be brutally honest and not worry about not talking to each other over dinner.

John Paul White, 39

A singer and songwriter, White grew up in Alabama and played in a range of rock bands while working at menial jobs and studying for a music degree. He is married to Jenny and has three children.

I was being paid just enough, writing songs for other artists, to get by when my publisher told me to go to this writing session. I was so burnt out, I'm still not sure why I went, as I had no reservations about cancelling things at that time.

I was in this room with the other person who was in our group, Greg Becker. I'd written some songs with him before, so I was sitting there thinking, "At least I'm not in a room with two strangers." Then Joy walked in; we both peppered her with questions and it soon became clear she had the same kind of story and that none of us really wanted to be there.

When we started singing together, there was this weird click; it was like there was a dance going where I knew I could lead her but she could lead me, too.

We immediately made another appointment to write at her house. That day it was just the two of us and we wrote "Falling", which is on our album. We were both like, "Who cares what or who this song is for; this is really cool." So we went into the studio to record it. I played the result to a close friend and she said: "She's the female you, vocally," and I totally understood what she meant. I still wasn't sure what was going to happen but I thought to myself, "From now on, she's going to sing everything that I write."

It's total yin and yang. We feed off each other – she's a bit more outgoing, more extrovert and being Californian she's forced me to be more health-conscious and to take more care of myself.

But there's things that she's interested in that I don't want to be anywhere near and vice versa. My give-a-shit bar is really low but Joy will be there to say, "John have you answered that email?" or "Are you sure you're going to wear that?"

It's hard for me to be away from my family. I've been married 13 years and my wife and kids are in Alabama, as they need to be near her support network as I'm away so much. Joy's husband, on the other hand, is a huge contributor to what we do, and when I see those two together on tour sometimes I have to admit I want to punch them both in the face. But they are mindful of my situation and understand what I go through on the road. And when I get to phone my wife and tell her, "We have a top 10 record, or we just did BBC Breakfast," it makes it easier for her to change that next diaper and understand why I'm not there.

The Civil Wars play the Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, tomorrow. Their album, 'Barton Hollow', is out now

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