Internet buzz helps The Civil Wars find success
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Here’s a question the members of the duo The Civil Wars have been contemplating a lot lately: What’s the value of a star’s tweet? Or two? Or three?
For Joy Williams and John Paul White, tweets by Taylor Swift, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum and Sara Bareilles, among many others, helped drive first-week sales of their debut album, “Barton Hollow,” to levels they didn’t expect. They sold out one tour and now have a more ambitious schedule down the road, had their video added by CMT, and now have at their fingertips limitless possibilities that good old-fashioned word of mouth brings in the Internet age.
“Instantly, with one click, five million people knew our names,” White said of Swift’s tweet.
Swift threw her support behind the duo when she told fans she was listening to “Poison & Wine”: “You can’t push ‘repeat’ on vinyl so I keep setting the needle back on my record player.”
And that — combined with other unexpected national word-of-mouth opportunities — helped the band sell five times as many copies of “Barton Hollow” in its opening week in February than expected. The album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 with about 25,000 copies sold. After five weeks it’s climbing steadily at 50,000.
After catching a show in Nashville, Swift told fans she and a friend bought T-shirts “cause we’re superfanssss. They RULE live!”
Perhaps not coincidentally, a tour earlier this winter sold out with fans looking in through the windows at some venues. A larger tour later this year is already approaching sellout.
Add in an endorsement from Bareilles, an out-of-the-blue appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and a song placement on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Williams and White are feeling the love, which is just as good as a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.
“It’s actually better ... ,” White said.
“... because it’s word of mouth,” Williams said. “No one’s being paid to do that.”
The Civil Wars are at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, this week looking for more buzz. They’ll perform at least 10 times at and around the conference, including a few high-profile events that will surely bring more clicks.
Of course, word of mouth usually doesn’t happen when there’s no basis for it, and the duo has earned the kudos with an exciting debut that’s satisfying in a couple different ways.
The musicianship and songcraft are simple, direct and evocative, simultaneously old-fashioned and new with a focus on mood. The music, which relies on White’s dynamic guitar and soaring dual harmonies, is almost impossible to classify. It’s been called country, folk, Americana, Southern Gothic and sliced and diced by bloggers and critics into a number of subcategories.
“I don’t really know where we fit,” White said. “But I’m extremely happy about that.”
Williams and White — both married, but to other people — didn’t set out to make the kind of music they do. Williams, a native Californian who lives in east Nashville, was attempting to make the step from gospel music to pop. And White, of Muscle Shoals, Ala., was a rocker whose record deal fell through.
They might never have met if not for “Band X,” a country project both were asked to write for by their music publishers. Neither saw how they fit in the picture.
“And we both tried to cancel,” White said.
White and Williams agree there would have been no reason to put them together in a writing room on the first day of the songwriting sessions. It was random chance that made no sense on the surface. But the results were immediate.
“To be honest, the first day when I was with her, we weren’t too concerned about getting cuts on the project,” White said. “We were just like, ‘Who are you.”’
“‘Where have you been my entire musical life?”’ Williams said.
“But neither one of us said that out loud at any point,” White said.
The two got together for another songwriting session and the chemistry was undeniable. Yet still neither broached the idea of teaming up in a permanent way.
“I was a little jaded and so was she,” White said. “I thought, I’m just going to write songs for a while. We went into the studio and we clicked again, so I finally got up the nerve to ask her out as it were.”
“In a musical way,” Williams said.
“It was very awkward — ‘I don’t know what you’re doing later ...,”’ White said. “And she totally could’ve just let me hang out there.”
Instead, she chose a path neither of them really ever envisioned and it has led them to a kind of freedom they’ve never felt before.
“I can see your wings getting larger and larger as we do this, too,” White said to Williams near the end of the interview. “There’s no confinement. There’s no walls. There’s no hole that this has to fit through, no topic that this has to fit under. It’s like we have no rules with what we do. We’re lucky in that what we do together seems to have this general nucleus to it but we just chase the muse wherever it takes us.“
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