That’s the retreat, of sorts. Two days later comes the advance, as Williams stretches in a different direction by making her acting debut in the first of two guest appearances on Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series Roadies, taking a fleeting but prominent role as Janine, the not-so-crazy ex-girlfriend of one of the show’s fictional band leaders.
Williams doesn’t have a song in Roadies -- her role is a non-singing one -- but the near-simultaneousness of the acting gig and music release isn’t coincidental. “For people that might get to know me through Roadies and don’t know that I do music, it’s a fun way to let people know that I have a whole other life, if they didn’t meet me prior,” she says. “And for people that are familiar with me doing music, it’s a way of letting them know that music’s still very much a passion for me.” Even if, as she admits, working with Crowe and company in Hollywood did give her The Bug.
With the song “Someone to Love You,” she says, “in a way, I feel like there’s a strange sort of cross-pollination,” since the song doesn’t appear on the Roadies soundtrack but easily could have, at least for thematic purposes. “As I was shooting the scenes for Roadies, that song felt to me like it sort of inadvertently could have been Janine’s song. There’s a willingness in it to admit that you might not be the one, while you still hear a yearning of ‘Maybe in a different time and place I could have been.’ The sentiment of that song feels really fitting with the character of Janine, and it was another arrow pointing in the direction of, yeah, now’s a good time to put this out.”
It was just over a year ago that Williams released Venus, her first post-Civil Wars album, and she knows that it threw some fans for a loop, both figuratively and (in the EDM sense) literally. Though the songs felt intimate and emotional at the core, the electronic textures couldn’t have been more the opposite of the Civil Wars’ all-acoustic, completely band-less approach. A year later, Venus Acoustic is the release many of those fans were expecting. She doesn’t apologize for her point of departure or her return to more familiar ground.
“I had to go where the inspiration was,” she says of Venus. “It felt like it would have been safer to stay in one lane, but I’ve never really been that way. I think taking Venus up into the sky, so to speak, and creating a mood like that was, that was something I really needed to do. But before we took Venus into the ethereal realm, we did just bare acoustic/vocal performances. Coming back to Nashville and sitting on my front porch, it was like, man, these songs still have a magic to them completely undressed, and I wanted to share that. With the two songs that have previously been unreleased, I thought that was a good home for them, too, because I they shine in the bare-bones state as well. So it’s kind of coming back home sonically into something that’s a little bit more simplified. It felt good to go into outer space, and it feels good to come back down. I feel so proud of Venus, but if that took you for a left turn, I want people to know I’m still on the path, and I haven’t forgotten where I came from. ‘All those who wander are not lost’ is the famous quote.”
The other previously unheard song on Venus Acoustic is the closing song, “Venus,” which follows in the great tradition of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue,” Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy,” and other should-have-been title tracks from albums that didn’t actually appear until subsequent releases. “True -- I’m an old soul!” she laughs.
As for the songs that do carry over on Venus Acoustic from Venus, there’s a method to why she picked some of the gentler ones, and not the heavier, more dramatic songs like “What a Good Woman Does.” “I wanted to create a tighter, almost more hopeful kind of listening experience. Because Venus was such an emotional record, it felt like open-heart surgery making it. But as life has continued to progress, I wanted to compile the songs that had a little bit more of that forward motion.” Both musically and thematically, it was “turning the jewel a different angle to see a different shade.”
The genesis of Williams’ appearance on Roadies actually pre-dates even the original Venus by quite a bit. She and Crowe became Twitter buddies four years ago and had frequent lunches together in which the writer-director shared his vision for a TV series and suggested she might have an acting future. Williams moved back to Nashville from Venice after making Venus and, with the lunches having grown more infrequent, “one of my new year’s resolutions was just to let that opportunity go, and not keep wondering what was going to happen with it. Then [in the spring] Cameron called and said ‘Hey, we’re headlong into the show, and I really want you to come try out for Janine. Can you come this Thursday?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I live in Nashville now!’ He said ‘Well, just fly out. I think it might be a good thing for you to just try.’”
She did, but things didn’t seem to be going well. She did an on-set audition with one of the cast members, which she thought went well, but somehow the tape was ruined. Then she did a more traditional audition with casting directors, which she thought she had “whiffed.” “Cameron called me afterward, and I asked how he was, and he said ‘Well, I’m really sad.’ And I thought, oh, man, he’s calling to just gently let me down -- I really did bomb this audition. And finally he mentioned that he was really sad that Prince died. I was like, ‘I am too, but I had no idea that that was what you were talking about!’” She had the role.
Two things to know about Joy-as-Janine: “I’m not playing myself” and “it’s not like a pop-in-and-out. Janine gets mentioned all throughout the entire show -- there are mentions even as early on as the very first episode -- so the entrance gets to be a bit of a fun one for me.” The character is “smart and complex and a fighter and she’s got a really soft heart underneath it all,” so maybe it’s not the most enormous stretch, although Williams’ settled home life with a husband and almost 4-year-old isn’t something the still-torn Janine would necessarily relate to. “The backstory goes that she removed herself and tried to find a new life for herself apart from the Staton-House Band and apart from Christopher House, but it’s amazing what happens when we find ourselves attached to people we maybe wish that we weren’t, still. And that tug still happens when you hear about the band rolling through…”
She’s half-dreading seeing the July 24 and 31 episodes she appeared in, but thinks she might have come through -- other than the moment on day two of filming when she saw executive producer J.J. Abrams in her line of sight and immediately started overacting. At least Crowe didn’t throw her to any wolves; although he wasn’t directing her episodes, he was on-set every day, and DJ-ing. “As you may know, Cameron literally has a playlist for the day that sets the tone. He heard Rafe Spall and I talking about our mutual love for Kate Bush, so he just started playing ‘Hounds of Love’ 45 seconds before our scene starts, and then he mutes it. It’s like an art form, his ability to turn the music off right as ‘Action!’ happens.”