To get there, you get directions that are less exact than they are descriptive: "You know you're close when you see the nursery . . . you've gone too far if you see the post office." Along the way, you pass sights that could easily show up in one of Williams' songs -- Kickapoo Street, Old Woman Springs, and a barbecue shack that rubs shoulders with a sushi bar. But the most notable aspect of Joshua Tree, California, is the town's namesake -- a stubby, craggy crone's hand that looks like untamed American bonsai.
Still, some people manage to miss it, and it's not unusual for Olson to hop into the couple's truck and lead people to the house. It's hard to imagine professional musicians -- or anyone, really -- more gracious and welcoming, and once at the house, Williams and the couple's three dogs greet guests warmly. This afternoon, Williams is excited; she's just heard that the aurora borealis might be visible that night. "Wouldn't that be something," she marvels, wide-eyed.
Slight and delicate, Williams speaks with a wobble in her voice, an occasional stutter that may be an effect of the multiple sclerosis with which she was diagnosed in 1992. It's a well-documented story: Already established as a songwriter and widely respected within the music industry, Williams became familiar to the general public mainly after a circle of famous friends (among them Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Olson's former band, the Jayhawks) contributed covers of Williams' own songs to a 1993 tribute album called Sweet Relief, the proceeds from which helped pay the songwriter's medical bills. Williams has since released three albums of original work, including 1994's Loose, 1996's Musings of a Creekdipper and Water to Drink, just out this week.
Recorded partly in their house and partly at Chaparral Bottom, the studio the couple built in a guest house about a quarter-mile away, Water to Drink was originally conceived as an album of standards, but the project underwent a metamorphosis after Atlantic Records objected. "They didn't want me doing other people's songs," she says, sounding downcast. "My manager said they signed me as a songwriter and wanted to hear my songs. So I wrote a bunch of songs." She ended up writing more music than she could use and combined the two projects into one, with standards "Young at Heart" and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and the title track by Antonio Carlos Jobim joining Williams' original work. "I wanted to account for all the sessions," she says.
During those sessions, the house was turned into something resembling summer camp. The musicians, including violist Petra Haden, pedal steel player Greg Leisz, bassist David Pilch and clarinetist John Birdsong, trekked out to the desert and stayed over, sleeping on the floors and couches. Williams even sent a few of the songs to legendary songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks, who added string arrangements.
The resulting album is typical of Williams' work: "Lagniappe" is redolent of Louisiana, while "Gladys and Lucy," "Junk" and "Claude" (about a squirrel with a withered paw who helped Williams get sober) strike a unique balance between the humid languor of the bayou and the arid, enveloping swelter of the desert. Like the Joshua trees that surround Williams' home, her music draws its appeal from the mesh of its tangled branches, a confounding, unexpected beauty that manages to seem severe and lush at the same time.
Still, Williams sounds ambivalent about Water to Drink. "It's a mélange of stuff. We could have taken out 'Young at Heart,' and we would have been okay," she muses. "Or we could have taken out all the standards. I don't know." Williams brightens when the subject turns to the title track, "Water to Drink." "It's a wonderful song," she says. She originally heard the song in Portuguese, and had a friend translate the lyrics into English. "There's something refreshing about it." Williams and Olson moved to the desert five years ago, mostly for Williams' health, she says, though heat is known to cause flare-ups of MS symptoms. The couple's one-story house is "swamp cooled" by a contraption that uses water and a series of fans in lieu of air conditioning, and there's a wood stove in the living room for the cooler months. The whole place has a vaguely Western feel, with books and CDs haphazardly stacked and piled on the desk and shelves. The only things that keep the house from feeling like the rustic retreat of English professors are the thrift shop paintings that Williams collects and the vintage organs that line the sun-bleached porch.
Although water seems to be on Williams' mind a lot these days -- liquid imagery runs throughout her lyrics, including, obviously, the album's title song -- the Louisiana native has adjusted well to life in the desert, and there's a magical quality when she talks about the land. "I know all the critters around here . . . I talk to them," she drawls. "Last night I was out there painting the sunset, and the dogs started barking. I looked and there was this big snake right next to the door." A natural storyteller, Williams pauses a moment to let the image sink in. "And I knew this snake. I'd seen it before. This big black-and-white snake. I was scared at first, but then I said, 'Oh, it's you.'"
Williams laughs when her story is compared to Survivor, but she admits there's a real pioneer spirit to her life. "Everything's a project," she mock complains. They dug a well and Olson built a stone-lined swimming pool, which sits behind the house, between the solar panels and a donkey corral. Walking from the house to the chaparral bottom, Williams stops to check on the fruit trees -- peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines. A family of quail hops through the grove. Williams picks some fruit, taking a bite of a peach that's been pecked at by some birds. "They manage to find the sweetest ones," she comments, "and I'm not worried about bird spit." Asked about her health, Williams says she's fine, though she has to watch herself; instead of walking around the property, she often bicycles, which she says "puts less stress on my body." And while she's always preferred to act as her own roadie, lugging her amp on and offstage, she now lets others do the job. Still, any physical frailty is countered by what Williams calls her "stubborn, self-sufficient streak." Recently back from a tour opening for Lou Reed, she says that the road can be exhausting and a strain on her health -- but in the same breath complains that the time allotted for her set was too short. "After an hour I'm just getting warmed up," she says, adding that two hours is her ideal set length. "I feel fine these days."