Any singer-songwriter stuck for inspiration knows there's one surefire way to get the creative juices flowing: a good old breakup.
Apparently, that's what kicked Lucinda Williams' muse into high gear. After splitting with her boyfriend and former bandmate last year, the songs started flowing like water.
"I just got lucky there," she says via telephone from her Nashville, Tenn., home. "That was a miracle. I don't know how that happened."
To her fans' delight, the result is a new album, arriving three years after her Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. On June 12, Essence, a collection of classic-sounding Williams tunes — plus a few surprises — is due from Universal's new Americana boutique label, Lost Highway.
"I hadn't written anything in five years before that," she confesses. "That's what happens in life. Usually, some kind of major change will create that sort of space whereby all these songs tumble out."
Her last creative spurt of this magnitude was also caused by a breakup, plus a move from Austin to Los Angeles.
Upheaval may motivate her writing, but she credits her father with teaching her the craft itself.
Friday night in Pittsburgh, fans got to hear firsthand how well she learned her lesson. In a rare event titled "Poetry Sung … Poetry Said," Lucinda and her father, poet Miller Williams, took turns delivering verse in their respective mediums.
Williams, an English and foreign languages professor at the University of Arkansas, provided the official poem for President Clinton's 1997 inauguration.
Though she's now 48, his daughter still seeks his counsel and approval when creating lyrics.
Miller, describing what their work has in common, said, "We both tend to rely on ordinary people in the vulnerable … moments of their lives."
It's true. They share an uncanny knack for writing simple, eloquent verse full of imagery so vivid that observations of life's minutiae become moments of major significance. His poems have a sweet humanity — a gentle, conversational way of conveying love and compassion. Her songs have a confessional feel, creating a sense that she's offering full emotional exposure.
They've shared stages a few times in the past, but for this International Poetry Forum program, Lucinda also tried something she'd never done before: playing with a full orchestra, the Duquesne Wind Symphony. The student ensemble backed her on two songs; bandmate Bo Ramsey provided electric guitar and backing vocals on the rest.
After performing a lovely "Something About What Happens When We Talk," she said, "It's such an honor to have this wonderful orchestra behind me. It's so beautiful. I want to do this all the time now. I want to do a whole record like this."
Of the 11 selections she performed, four were from Essence. One of them, "Get Right With God," will likely be a highlight. She described the slithery, bayou-influenced tune as a song about her fascination with Pentacostal rituals like snake handling as a means of getting into heaven.
After her first offering, a lovely "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," her dad commented that, when he heads toward heaven, "If there is a moment when one's standing before St. Peter and he says, 'Why should I let you in here?' I'm going to say, 'I read my poems between Lucinda's songs.'"
Later, after she delivered two lyrical masterpieces — "Sweet Old World" and "Joy" — he said proudly, "It's wonderful to have a daughter who's hard to follow."
As she smiled at him from across the stage, she made it clear the feeling was mutual.