It’s safe to say that one of the biggest buzz artists of the past six months has been indie duo The Civil Wars. With a coveted appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and major tweet shout-outs from Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Sara Bareilles and Taylor Swift, former CCM solo artist Joy Williams and John Paul White are just as surprised as anyone by the band’s instantaneous success. The two met during a chance songwriting session two years ago, and their mysterious chemistry was palpable. One listen to the group’s full-length debut, Barton Hollow (Sensibility), and there is no doubt their voices were made to intertwine.
Barton Hollow sold 25,000 units its first week out, peaking at No. 1 on the iTunes overall album charts and No. 12 on the Billboard 200. In the short time since its February release, the debut continues to climb at 50,000 units, a nearly unheard of feat for a new independent artist. So, what makes The Civil Wars different from any other independent artist out there struggling to find broad success? Here are just a few theories as to why The Civil Wars have experienced such immediate popularity.
1. Social Media: Long before they even released their first song, Joy and John Paul have been social media mongrels. They’ve consistently posted honest musings about their success as it unfolds as well as humorous tidbits about their travels and their writing and recording process. Before their full-length even released, fans already felt like they were acquainted with the duo. Then, when reviews, interviews and videos started rolling in, they were quick to share these links consistently with fans, personally fueling their online buzz. And it paid off considering superstars started talking about them online. And let’s not forget that the fact they gave away their first live recording was a brilliant move. They weren’t afraid of free. To date, hundreds of thousands of curious fans have downloaded their live recording. It was perhaps the very best introduction (and gift) they could ever give future fans.
2. Keeping It Simple: The duo’s haunting melodies are completely stripped down both on and off stage. John Paul plays the guitar, while Joy occasionally plays the piano. But normally, it’s simply their meshed vocals set against an acoustic backdrop. The result is a beautiful, melodic simplicity that today’s overabundance of Auto-tune and slick production just can’t compete with. This is music in its purest form.
3. Authenticity: It’s immediately obvious that Joy and John Paul share a unique rapport which translates both through their recordings and their live shows. He’ll tease her on stage, and she’ll straighten his bow tie. Their interaction is striking, and with these two talents, what you see is what you get. There’s no pretense about them–either in the lyrics of their songs or in their banter during a live set. And that genuineness shines through in every performance, every interview and every interaction with fans. It’s evident they enjoy their craft and want to make it work because they believe in the power and beauty of music. They’re in it for all the right reasons. Their songs speak of unrequited love, pain, beauty, hardship, grief, laughter–the stuff of life. And fans recognize the real thing when they hear it.
4. No Gig Too Small: Since the beginning, The Civil Wars have taken advantage of nearly every opportunity offered to them, large or small. While their breakout song, “Poison & Wine,” was playing on “Grey’s Anatomy,” they were playing in local, intimate venues performing in front of a hundred people or less. One of their first gigs was at The Basement, a dark, cramped venue located on the outskirts of Nashville’s downtown in the basement of Grimey’s Record Store. (Last month, fans were wrapped around Grimey’s waiting for the band to perform in front of a packed crowd.) Today, the band is selling out shows on its nationwide tour, but the key is that they have been out in front of people since Day 1 relentlessly touring. You have to start small to build a fanbase to the point where you can play larger venues, and The Civil Wars realize the value in building their career one fan at a time.
5. Blood, Sweat & Tears: They would undoubtedly agree that their success has not come without cost. Williams and husband Nate Yetton took a big gamble financially several years ago to start Sensibility Music. Yetton personally manages the duo, and although they have been afforded the opportunity to hire some help in recent months, they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty; and they do everything themselves, from soliciting people to work their merch tables to stuffing CD mailings. They are extremely hands-on with their career. They show no signs of slowing down even after hiring some professionals to help with booking, pitching and publicity. They aren’t afraid to work hard, and frankly, it’s paid dividends.
This is only the beginning of what looks to be an incredible story for The Civil Wars. And those of us in Nashville are proud to cheer them on!
Have you discovered The Civil Wars yet? If so, how did you first find out about them? What do you attribute to their fast rise to success?