Mix together a pop-EDM smash from last year, a songwriter best known for acoustic country music and an insurance company. What do you get? One of the more improbable commercials of the year: an affecting State Farm ad, titled “The Following,” that features a fragile piano version of The Chainsmokers’ 2016 hit “Don’t Let Me Down” (featuring Daya). The commercial has aired nationally, including during CBS’s telecast of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this past weekend, and boasts over 6.5 million YouTube views.
The voice soundtracking “The Following” — which features an ordinary man being haunted by the less fortunate, and encourages community outreach through State Farm’s “Neighborhood of Good” campaign — belongs to Joy Williams, formerly of the Americana duo The Civil Wars. As half of The Civil Wars, Williams has won four Grammys and dueted with Taylor Swift, but tells Billboard that covering “Don’t Let Me Down” for State Farm was one of the more exciting moments of her career.
“I got contacted by the team within State Farm, and they told me about the concept for what they wanted to create,” she recalls. “As soon as they started talking to me about it, I was in. I loved the heart and the depth and the call to action. The song ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ came up, and I’ve danced in my kitchen with my son to that song a thousand times. I was thinking about doing it in a way that really fit ‘The Following,’ and the lyrics took on a new life.”
Williams is an unabashed fan of the Chainsmokers, and says that “Don’t Let Me Down,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 last year, is a personal favorite. “They’ve had a huge year,” she says, “and in particular, I really love how well-written that song is! I love how the arc of that song came together, and I’m a huge fan of [co-writer] Emily Warren. Emily plus the Chainsmokers made a song with a heartbeat.”
When The Civil Wars, which Williams formed with John Paul White in 2008 and achieved national acclaim over the course of two albums, split in 2014, the singer-songwriter pivoted to a fuller, slightly electronic sound on her 2015 solo debut Venus. Her cover of “Don’t Let Me Down” is a marriage of her past and present — a vulnerable interpretation of a massive bass drop — and her first exploration of a single (aside from the Civil Wars’ 2012 Swift collaboration “Safe and Sound,” from The Hunger Games soundtrack) breaking into the mainstream.
“This is where Shazam and YouTube comes in in the modern era of music,” says Williams, noting that the State Farm commercial doesn’t explicitly identify her as the performer of the “Don’t Let Me Down” cover. “People are discovering it, and I think that lends a type of excitement — not just [for] the song, but that it’s me singing.”
Williams’ version of “Don’t Let Me Down” has yet to chart, but it’s reached over 150,000 total streams and sold 6,000 downloads this week, per Nielsen Music; a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the song will go towards the Red Cross. Meanwhile, Williams says that she has been “brewing my own new season of music,” and writing songs that will explore an as-yet-unknown new direction from The Civil Wars and her first solo album.
“What I love about making music is the ability to evolve,” says Williams. “It’s exciting to me when I’m able to lend my voice to something that I feel like I can add a dimension to, and which also encourages people to make a positive difference.”