If you had asked around a year ago, you would probably be hard pressed to find many people outside of Alabama who were familiar with Country/Folk duo The Civil Wars. Yet somehow in just 8 short months, Joy Williams and John Paul White have been able to propel themselves from a place off the radar to a place in the spotlight. Their new album Barton Hollow has garnered them two Grammy nominations in the categories of Best Folk Album, and Best Duo/Group Performance, and their rising popularity has even secured them a spot on the upcoming The Hunger Games soundtrack.
More recently the duo has teamed up with legendary music producer T-Bone Burnett, to score the soundtrack to one of Sundance 2012’s best documentaries entitled Finding North. The documentary chronicles the seldom talked about issue of Food Insecurity in the USA, and attempts to sweep it out from under the rug, and into the forefront of humanitarian debate. The soundtrack itself comprises of both original numbers (made specifically for the film), as well as old favorites from 2011’s Barton Hollow.
I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Joy and John Paul to talk about their work in music and film, and discovered that not only are The Civil Wars one of the US’s best kept secrets, but they’re also two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in the industry.
HeyUGuys: How did you an T-Bone Burnett get started on this collaboration? Did it begin when you did that song with Taylor Swift?
John Paul: We actually met him at a nomination party for the Americana Awards in New York, and during our conversations he mentioned that he had a lot of things coming up and really wanted to work with us.
HeyUGuys: So he was a fan of yours already?
John Paul: Well we were big fans of his. He had us do a song of our own for Hunger Games and then we sort of moved into the Finding North soundtrack. It all just grew kind of fast! We initially were only going to do one song, but we got along so well that it just took over.
Joy: Yeah, before we even met up with him we wrote a song called ‘Finding North’, which we didn’t realize would become the title of the actual Documentary.
John Paul: Yeah, that was very flattering.
Joy: So being able to stay in the studio with T-Bone for a good solid 48 hours of creative revelry was a really, really exciting experience for us. And then that also allowed us to work on another collaboration for The Chieftans and then another original song of our own for Hunger Games
HeyUGuys: So you guys worked on about 4 or 5 new songs for the Finding North soundtrack?
John Paul: There are a couple things that are actually from our record.
HeyUGuys: I believe I heard ’20 Years’
Joy: And ‘Father’s Father’
John Paul: Then the song ‘Finding North’ and also ‘Long Time Gone’. We wrote Finding North before going into the studio, and then we wrote Long Time Gone with T-Bone inside the studio that day. We also did some composing stuff too, so there is a lot of acoustic and instrumental music in there as well.
HeyUGuys: Do you plan on collaborating with T-Bone again for your second LP?
John Paul: Who knows?
HeyUGuys: Do you have anything written yet?
John Paul: We have quite a bit written actually, but we are just starting to point our heads towards a second record. We still haven’t released Barton Hollow overseas so we’re actually going over there in a month for awhile.
HeyUGuys: Well I don’t know if you know this but HeyUGuys is actually a UK-based blog, and there is a pretty good market for your kind of music.
John Paul: Well I’m sure the whole Mumford and Sons thing didn’t hurt.
Joy: Although that’s kind of polarizing now.
HeyUGuys: Well then you also have people like Laura Marling blowing up over there.
Joy: Laura is great. We actually got to do Jools Holland the same night that Laura was playing and it was so much fun. I actually knew her music before that, I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile.
HeyUGuys: Wasn’t she like 17 when she made that first record?
Joy: She was super young, and she’s so talented and so great. We were excited to have already played dates in the UK and then we’ve got a sold out gig in Shepard’s Bush coming up soon.
HeyUGuys: Have you guys screened the film yet?
John Paul: Yeah, last night.
HeyUGuys: What did you think of it?
John Paul: I loved it. We had seen rough versions of it before. They were showing us how the music was going to be placed in the film, but this was the first time we had actually seen it in a group setting. I feel like it was a lot more powerful because of that. I thought it was extremely moving. It’s not heavy handed in the way that everything is awful and it can’t get better. I feel like they did a good job of showing that there are answers and that each person can make a difference. Hopefully it creates an awareness because I don’t think people even knew the term ‘Food Insecurity’ even existed. When you think of hunger and when you think of obesity you don’t think of them together.
Joy: Yeah, you kind of see them as neighbors.
HeyUGuys: I think people actually tend to think the opposite.
Joy: Yeah, exactly.
HeyUGuys: “They’re so big, obviously they can afford food” is kind of the outlook and that’s not really what it is. It’s a nutrition thing.
John Paul: I think when people watch it, it will be kind of like a lightbulb effect and people will think, “You know that makes perfect sense. I’ve never really thought about it, but that really makes sense.”
Joy: That’s how I felt about it seeing it for the first time as well. Even in the initial stages I was blown away by the information that was coming my way, what with the subsidization of farming, and the way that the government has, during certain points in history, actually eradicated for the most part food insecurity in America, and the thought that it’s returned is a challenge to us now for us to all get active and educated. For me it’s not a ‘woe is me’ documentary, it really is a call to action, and something that’s achievable.
John Paul: The main thing is that it’s possible. Like someone says in the film, it’s not a cure for AIDS or cancer, it’s something we actually have the ability to do. There’s proven ways that we can fight it so it’s just a matter of doing it.
HeyUGuys: Well the whole humanitarian thing isn’t exactly something new for you guys. In the past you did something for the victims of tornados in Alabama. Do you guys have any causes that you’re currently active with?
John Paul: She and I are kind of putting our heads together to decide where our collective interests lay on a more national scale. Typically we’ve just followed our noses and something just comes up. Alabama actually just got hit again and I’ve been getting all these messages from my friends there in Birmingham about it.
HeyUGuys: In the past 8 months you’ve gone from playing these small intimate venues, to working with Grammy Award-winning artists, garnering nominations yourself, and selling out these big venues like the Paramount Theater in Austin, TX. Did you ever imagine this could happen so fast?
John Paul: A year ago we would have never dreamed that any of this stuff would have happened. Honestly we didn’t dream it. We had much lower goals, and so it’s far exceeded our expectations
HeyUGuys: Have you processed it yet?
Joy: Uh, journaling is about the only time I feel like I can actually sit down and put pen to paper, and really sort of look back over past entries and notice the differences. I do think that every day we’re working really hard. This is the hardest we’ve ever worked in our entire lives, and it’s been that much more rewarding because of it. I think that there’s lots of ‘pinch me’ moments and our goal is to just be as present as possible every day.
HeyUGuys: If in the future you guys ever decide to part ways, do you see yourself doing that kind of bitter thing that Jenny Lewis kind of did and write sort of hate songs directed at each other? I mean you aren’t a couple but still.
Joy: That’s actually a huge benefit to us though, actually not being romantically linked, since a lot of people think we are.
HeyUGuys: Well yeah because you’re a guy and girl duo.
Joy: Exactly, and we sing songs about, as John Paul says at times, love or the lack thereof. But the reality is that we don’t have that tenuous relationship that deals with romance or how we’re feeling about each other that particular day, nor could our relationship, if we had one, withstand some of the topics that we write about. So hopefully that will make for a longer stint.
HeyUGuys: Are there any bands right now that are influencing you?
Joy: Honestly we’re pretty old souls when it comes to music.
John Paul: Our manager, who is her (Joy’s) husband, is totality the music geek, so he’s the one that’s been turning us on to people like Daughters and Gotye.
Joy: Oh I love that guy, so phenomenal. We also just wrapped up a run with a trio called The Staves, whom we love.
John Paul: Oh and Milo Green.
Joy: Yes we just toured with them. They’re a new band from L.A.
John Paul: I feel like the music we listen to, we’ve had to listen to for 10-15 years before it actually starts influencing what we do. It’s not a coincidence that we always hawk it back to people from our past. I don’t tend to get influenced by things that I’ve just been influenced by.
Joy: I don’t know if I’d say main influences as much as just music that’s a part of the journey as we go. Maybe it’s the soundtrack more than actually the influence of our music.
HeyUGuys: Well maybe you can get Gotye to produce your next LP.
Joy: Oh that would be awesome, if you run into him you can ask him for us!
Come February 12th, The Civil Wars will hopefully be the proud owners of two very well deserved Grammys. However I imagine the wins will be just a tad bitter sweet. Their debut album Barton Hollow drops March 5th in the UK, and will be followed up by quite a bit of touring. So in the event that you haven’t yet been introduced to this wonderful duo, you most certainly will have your chance soon!
Check out the title song from the movie Finding North here and don’t forget to pre-order your copies of Barton Hollow!
To find out more about the film Finding North, and what you can do to help reduce Food Insecurity in America, go to http://www.takepart.com/findingnorth.