The Civil Wars Biography

The Civil Wars photo courtesy of Aristo Media.

In some ways, music doesn’t get much more modest or minimalist than it is in the hands of The Civil Wars, a duo comprised of California-to-Nashville transplant Joy Williams and her Alaba-man partner, John Paul White. They travel without a backup band, and on their first full-length album, Barton Hollow, the bare-bones live arrangements that fans hear on the road are fleshed out with just the barest of acoustic accoutrements. Each song is an intimate conversation, and no third wheels or dinner-party chatter are going to interrupt that gorgeous, haunting hush.

On the other hand, there’s been something distinctly loud about the duo’s introduction to the world, even prior to the album’s release. Their signature song "Poison & Wine" was heard on Grey’s Anatomy—in the foreground, in its entirety, over a key climactic montage, prompting hundreds of thousands of viewers to Google the mystery music. And they got a whol-ly unsolicited endorsement when America’s biggest pop star gave The Civil Wars a seal of ap-proval. After first tweeting her love for the duo, fellow Nashvillian Taylor Swift included "Poi-son & Wine" as a selection in her official iTunes playlist, saying, "I think this is my favorite duet. It’s exquisite."

Swift took the words right out of the folk-country-Americana world’s mouth. If it looks like The Civil Wars’ appeal might cast a net that extends well beyond the typical audience for acoustically based music, that may be due to the inherent sensibilities Joy and John Paul bring to their col-laboration, which are quite disparate, if not necessarily warring. Both were gigging and recording on their own prior to teaming up a year and a half ago, neither solo career quite suggesting what their conjoined sound would turn out to be. "I do naturally bend pop," says Joy, who adds that she "grew up on Billie Holliday and The Beach Boys." John Paul, meanwhile, was raised on Kristofferson, Cash, and Townes Van Zandt by his retro-country-favoring dad. "Somehow we’re pulling from each other what we crave and what our strengths are," he says.

If the music ultimately leans more toward White’s native South than Joy’s northern Cali roots, he says, "I think Joy’s got some hillbillies in her ancestry or something like that. There’s a song on our record called ‘My Father’s Father’ that we wrote on the day of the inauguration down in Muscle Shoals, not long after we got together. I started playing the guitar figure and she starting singing this amazing Appalachian kind of melody, and I’m like, ‘Don’t even pretend that you’re the pop girl and you come out with s*** like that!’ I don’t know where this stuff is coming from, but she’s drawing it from somewhere, and it’s amazing."

"Poison & Wine" isn’t just The Civil Wars’ breakout song. It’s also a thematic declaration of intent for this utterly complementary odd couple, encapsulating everything suggested in the duo’s name when it comes to exploring the conflicts that arise as part of couplehood. Speaking of which: They aren’t, that—a couple, that is. But they’re far from insulted if you mistake them for an item in the storied tradition of the Swell Season, Richard and Linda Thompson, or other famous duos whose on-again, off-again relationships offstage complicated their stage relations.

"A lot of people think that we’re married, and I think that’s actually quite flattering, to be hon-est," says John Paul. "Because we don’t want people to think that we’re up here acting and feigning the emotions that we write and sing about and show on stage. But one of the things that really make this special in our eyes is that if she and I were in a relationship together, it'd be a totally different act. We would write totally different songs. I don’t think we would be able to go on stage every night and sing ‘I don’t love you.’ I don’t think a healthy relationship could withstand that every single night. There’s areas we can delve into that wouldn’t make sense for somebody that’s till-death-do-us-part. I think there’s also a tension there that wouldn’t be there if it was something that was just rote, something that was an everyday relationship. We try to use that to our advantage."

"Poison & Wine" fits the paradigm of subject matter too true to be spoken, as opposed to sung. "That song probably does sum us up—The Civil Wars, the name of the band—as well as any song that we’ve written," John Paul says. It’s the one song on the album written with an outside collaborator, their friend Chris Lindsey. "We’re all married, and we were all talking about the good, the bad and the ugly, and just felt like: What would you say to someone if you were actually brutally honest—the things that you could never say because it would turn them away or let the cat out of the bag or reveal yourself to be weaker? What would you actually say if you had this invisible curtain around you and could just scream it in somebody’s face and they’d actually never hear it? We were all being very painfully honest, because we’re all very comfortable around each other and know that things like that never leave the room, except in a song. I’m pretty proud of that song, to be honest."

When "Poison & Wine" was heard in its entirety on Grey’s Anatomy—versus in the background, for a few seconds, as Joy and John Paul had expected—they knew that if the show’s audience liked what they heard, it would put their search skills to the test. The title only pops up in a verse, not the chorus, so it involved some ingenuity or intuition to track the tune down. Fortunately, viewers proved up to the test of finding, and choosing, their "Poison." At last count, the song’s official YouTube video had been viewed 400,000 times.

John Paul and Joy met in 2008 on what he describes as a "blind date, getting stuck in a room to-gether, not knowing anything about each other." This was a strictly professional blind date. As Joy recalls, "I got a call for what’s called a writing camp, where several writers were called to-gether to work on trying to write several radio singles for a particular country band. Though I live in Nashville, I worked mostly in L.A. and came more out of the pop world, so I was like, why did they call me? John Paul definitely wasn’t bringing a Music Row sensibility in when he was coming into the write, either, but neither of us knew that about each other. In that room, it was almost 20 writers, basically drawing straws and getting to know each other a little bit. And when he started singing, I somehow knew where he was heading musically and could follow him, without ever having met him before. And that had never happened to me."

"I’ve done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I’d never felt that weird spark," agrees John Paul —"that weird familiarity like we’d been in a family band or something most of our lives. The beautiful part of it was that neither one of us would let on, so we both played it cool for a while, saying ‘That went well, we should write another," and so on. I worked up enough nerve to—so to speak—ask her out. But there was a lot of scuffing my heel on the floor and ‘I don’t know what you’re doing for a while, but I’ve got this guitar, and you sing pretty good, but you probably don’t want to. You’re so much better than I am. Never mind. I’m just gonna go.’ Luckily she felt the same way."

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