NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There are still helium balloons clinging to the ceiling and new toys scattered across a table in the living room when Joy Williams answers the door. The Civil Wars singer recently found cream cheese icing in her hair, she notes with laughter, more remnants of her son Miles' first birthday party the night before.
It is one of the happiest times for Williams, but as is often the case with life, it's also one of the most difficult. Over the next hour, Williams will laugh and cry and express a range of emotions from pride to fear and hope as she talks about the status of her Grammy Award-winning duo with John Paul White and their new self-titled second album. The group is officially on hiatus even as a single hits the airwaves and the album nears its Aug. 6 release date.
She is fiercely proud of the new music and can't wait for everyone to hear it. But she knows she has to tell the story of how things fell apart before she can expect anyone to pay attention to the music.
"This album chronicles loss and regret and anger and victory and sweetness and loyalty and I hope that people get the chance to listen to it," Williams says as she sits at her kitchen table. "What I've noticed is people may be curious about it, but once they listen to it, they are hooked. ... It's so honest and it's so rich and, not to toot my own horn, I'm just really proud of what we created together. And we created it together — we just happened to be in a bit of a civil war ourselves."
The last we heard from The Civil Wars, they were ending a European tour in abrupt and unexpected fashion, issuing an unusually honest news release that attributed the decision to "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." Williams says eight months later she and White aren't speaking, but she hopes time will bring them back together to perform the new music live. There are currently no plans for them to tour together, however.
In her first interview since the decision to come off the road, Williams says the hiatus is meant to be "a deep breath of 'What's next?'" and inhales in search of a moment's serenity. She hopes in time there will be healing and friendship and collaboration again.
White was not available for an interview and he did not respond to a message from The Associated Press.
"John Paul and I aren't speaking right now but to me that doesn't determine the outcome of the band because if we're not speaking we can't determine the outcome of the band at this moment," she says. "So the other elephant in the room is what's happening with the band? The reality is I'm not even quite sure."
The added subtext increases the interest in the duo's new Charlie Peacock-produced album, with its cover photo of a column of smoke and intriguing first single, the electrified "The One That Got Away." But there already would have been plenty of attention paid to "The Civil Wars." The duo's independently released first album, "Barton Hollow," rode White and Williams' emotion-laden boy-girl harmonies, vivid storytelling and the new interest in folk rock to gold status.
They met after being randomly paired for songwriting sessions for a put-together mainstream country group in Nashville and their chemistry was immediate and undeniable. Fans thought they might be a couple. They were claimed by the country, folk and Americana worlds after their initial success. They won two Grammys in 2012 and in their only public appearance together this year, they took home another Grammy with Taylor Swift and T Bone Burnett for their contribution "Safe & Sound" to "The Hunger Games" soundtrack.
Underneath all the success there was unseen tension, however, Williams says. She took some time away to have Miles last summer, but the weeks apart didn't solve their growing problems. The two met for writing sessions and though they were able to work together to create the songs that would make up "The Civil Wars," the relationship continued to deteriorate.
They left for Europe, but eventually they chose to retreat to their homes and families. They apologized and even offered to pay expenses and service charges for fans who'd already committed to traveling to their shows.
As in many separations, explanations didn't come easy. There was no band-ending argument. They didn't start fighting in Europe and then quit the road. Tensions built up over time and reached an impasse.
Williams believes in retrospect canceling the tour was the right thing to do, though it made her sad.
"It was getting close to impossible for us to perform together on stage, and nobody wants to see a show like that," she said. "I don't want to be on stage like that."
Nate Yetton, Williams' husband and the group's manager, said everyone was so focused on the future, they didn't notice when things went out of balance.
"I think our marriages suffered," Yetton said. "I can't speak for John Paul, but I know Joy and my marriage suffered. We've always been very close, but we had to really reconnect."
Yetton wonders if they'd slowed things down, taken more time between shows and tours or pushed back the album, if the relationship wouldn't have been better. He was able to travel with Williams and Miles, while White was forced to leave his wife and young children at home in north Alabama.
"I think for me, not to get too philosophical, it's not really about being together" as a group, Yetton said. "It's about being together and being able to be present where you are and enjoy what you have. And I think that's something I really want to speak about that I've become really passionate about as a young 30-something, is that ambition can be incredibly suffocating sometimes."
The duo's hiatus shouldn't really come as a surprise. One of the great rock 'n' roll truisms is that most groups break up. For duos, it's even harder to keep things together.
"A band is the most volatile thing that you can get involved with," Peacock said. "I swore 20 years ago that I'd never produce another band, and this is kind of par for the course."
As with their music, White's voice is a critical part of the duo's real-life story. Without it, something important is missing. After the hiatus began, Peacock became something of a musical go-between and White has not spoken publicly about the album.
"John Paul does not want to talk, but he is very proud of the record," Peacock said. "John Paul is a serious artist. I can guarantee you that this record would not be coming out if he were not proud of it."
Peacock calls speculation that White was not involved in completion of the album "absurd," as is much of the speculation over how the tour ended. Williams says out-of-line musing on the Internet has been among the most difficult things to deal with in an already tough situation.
"I have been more hurt by some of the things that people have said than I ever knew was possible..." Williams said as she wiped away tears. "All I can do is just be myself and be vulnerable and sit here and talk to you. And so on some level let people think what they think. All I can do is move forward, and that's what I'm doing. This is part of life. Sometimes that's what I think people miss. This isn't some marketing ploy to make things more interesting for a second album. This is my life, and my life is on this album. And if you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album."