Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Welcome To The Machine
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Welcome To The Machine
There’s a jaunty folk-blues story-song that Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings didn’t write called “Monkey and the Engineer”; they get a real kick out of Rawlings singing it. “The monkey watched that engineer drive the train for a long time,” he summarizes, obviously amused.
“Then the engineer went to get a sandwich and the monkey said, ‘I can drive that train,’” she adds, finding it funny, too. Congenial as it is, their wry humor hasn’t been prominently featured on past recordings.
Welch and Rawlings have a thing they’re known for, a thing they’ve done for more than a decade with such singular commitment, chemistry and finesse that critics invoke them as measuring rods, their fans display particularly unwavering devotion and—perhaps, most tellingly—other singers and songwriters, unknown and well-known alike, covet their songs and their sound. And that thing is an arresting, modern distillation of an old-time spirit; music of quiet intensity and austere beauty, guitar-vocal duets that are often minor-key and never hurried, carried by Welch’s straight-and-true singing, Rawlings’ nimble guitar runs and their near-familial harmonizing.
For a while, they averaged a new Gillian Welch album every couple years, making something a little different out of their generations-old inspirations on each one. By Soul Journey, the fourth and final release in an eight-year stretch, they were slipping Neil Young-ish country-rock into the mix. But that’s the last we’d heard from them—recorded, anyhow—for six years.
A bit longer, it seems, than they would’ve liked. Welch and Rawlings have been working up new material. But the album that’s ending the break isn’t a Gillian Welch one at all (they promise that’s in the works, though), but the debut album by the Dave Rawlings Machine, aptly titled A Friend of a Friend. The personnel’s the same, but the roles aren’t. Welch isn’t the lead singer here, which, by process of elimination, means Rawlings is—the lead singer and the monkey character. That’s the joke, of course.
Even if Rawlings has been seen as a highly involved sideman—co-writing, soloing on his small, mid-‘30s archtop, harmonizing and producing—the fact that he and Welch have always called themselves a two-person band named “Gillian Welch” left the door open for a serious side project. Say, another band.
Having Rawlings as frontman is just about as new to them as it is to everybody else. They’re still exploring what role-swapping actually means. Clearly, it changes things. Rawlings—more or less an honorary member of Old Crow Medicine Show—likes having their rollicking string-band energy behind him some of the time, prefers framing his voice with layers you’d never find on a Gillian Welch album (muted horn and an eight-piece string section, for instance), has a playful vocal delivery, and mingles covers with new, original material, as well as songs he co-wrote that Ryan Adams and Old Crow previously recorded. Which is to say, this other band’s album is a reminder that Welch and Rawlings are two distinct, yet uncannily matched voices. And they enjoy many approaches to music-making.
Are you working on the new Gillian Welch record?
GW: We kind of started my record a little bit when we were making his record. It was sort of accidental. We were really just trying to work on his record. But I ended up singing a couple things and we recorded them.
I’d imagine there could be a lot of overlap or fluidity in terms of songwriting. Was there a sense that you were writing for this record or writing for that record, or was it more organic than that?
GW: I don’t think it was pre-decided. Well, one of the songs on Dave’s record, I didn’t specifically start it for Dave. …I don’t usually think about who’s going to sing the songs when I start them. It’s more, like, just what type of song I want to start.
How did you determine whether a song ought to be a Dave Rawlings Machine song or a Gillian Welch song?
DR: How do I put it? If we like either of us singing it, we’d be happy, you know. It doesn’t necessarily matter who was more involved with the writing of a song. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with who should sing it—or hasn’t really. I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever recorded any of the songs. So I couldn’t tell ya how it’s going to be.
GW: It was good, though, because there have been songs through the years that we’ve written that I was never able to do, or that I never liked me singing, or we never liked me singing. And so, it’s not like we reached back for all of those. But this has always occurred. We don’t cut everything; I don’t cut everything we write. So it’s really nice to have another outlet. And we’re very different singers.
DR: Yeah, one of us is good.
Dave, you’re a fine singer and frontman. DR: Blah, blah, blah. [Laughs]
I’d read a couple of interviews where you joked about filling those roles.
DR: I think over a little bit of time of doing it, it’s not as bad as it could be. Or maybe it was. [Laughs] I mean, I always sang one song in the show. That usually felt like about the right portion. But, you know, if it’s gotten better I’m really glad of it, because I like to sing. It’s fun.
“Ruby” and “Bells of Harlem,” from a songwriting standpoint, are something I hadn’t really heard from you before. The first time that I heard the melody of “Ruby,” I thought, ‘What is that making me think of?’ And I realized it was the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl.” “Bells of Harlem,” with the strings and graceful sway, made me think of Sam Cooke pop-soul. I wondered if soul music inspired where you’re coming from.
GW: You’re not the first one to hear the “Oh Girl” similarity. I actually hadn’t ever heard that song before I [wrote “Ruby”].
Do you think performing with Dave singing lead has taken you somewhere else melodically?
GW: It may be part of it. It may trace back to, like, starting to do the Machine shows, playing different types of songs and, then, it eventually filtering into the writing. That’s a legitimate hypothesis. You know, it’s a pretty mysterious thing still, why you start the songs you start, and the specific flavor of them, the nature of them. I don’t know about other writers, but, for me, it’s still somewhat out of my control. It’s not really a logical process.
Especially for someone well-listened like you.
GW: Right. Like, for instance, I’m kind of happy when you say the thing about hearing a soul influence in there, because I love soul music. I listened to a ton of it. It’s never really seemed like it’s informed my work. You know what I mean? And so, if it’s finally trickled through, if it took me 10 years to digest and, finally, I’m able to use the minerals, the soul minerals, that’s really cool. But I do think it takes longer than you’d think to have the stuff that influences you come out in an organic way. Because it takes a long time. It’s funny, you know. I mean, the other little flash of it before was the day Buddy Miller called us and he was like, “You don’t have any country-soul songs, do you?” And I’m like, “Well, actually, yeah.”
DR: He was making that Solomon Burke record [Nashville].
GW: ‘There are some. We just don’t know what to do with them.’ [Burke recorded her song “Valley of Tears.”]
On past projects, you’ve done very few covers. Just a couple of traditionals on Soul Journey. On the new album, not only are you doing covers of Bright Eyes and Neil Young songs, you’re doing songs identified with other contemporary performers, like Ryan Adams and Old Crow. I wondered how that change in selecting material came about.
DR: Particularly, “I Hear Them All” was a song that Ketch [Secor of Old Crow] and I worked on for a long time. I’d sung it a lot while we were writing it. As soon as we started doing any shows under my name, I’d started singing that. I was going to say about the Conor [Oberst] song, a few years ago…Conor called me to play guitar on this tour. “Method Acting” was one of the tunes that we played every night. Playing it every night sort of cemented the words in my head. And then one day I was sitting around and I happened to sing it. …I thought, “Oh, I’ll try that live sometime and see how that goes.” Because Conor had talked about the fact that not that many people had covered his songs. And I thought, “Man, I’ll cover a dozen of your songs. I love your songs.”
I don’t know if this was a sequencing thing, but on the copy I have that song runs straight into Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
DR: Right. That’s how we played it in the studio. I had done that live a couple times and I sort of liked the way they went together.
Was there something that inspired that?
DR: Just two songs that have always meant a lot to me. I don’t know that it was anything more than that.
GW: The feel of the harmony.
DR: We’ve always done dirges fairly well. So I sort of turned Conor’s song into a dirge.
It’s also the only track on there where you stretched out on guitar.
GW: It’s true. It was funny. His album started to become song-based. Like, it’s not the typical record that the guitarist makes. It didn’t have that much guitar playing on it. It’s kind of weird. And so the “Method Acting”and “Cortez the Killer” jam became really important to the guitar aspect of the record.
What was the turning point where you decided the Dave Rawlings Machine was something worth seriously pursuing, that you’d put new material into this and record it?
DR: It happened gradually, as most things like that do. …I had recorded some stuff earlier. Like a year ago I went in and recorded a few of the covers. I’d thought about maybe releasing some of that stuff—nothing that’s on the record, but just another batch…
GW: “Sweet Tooth” kind of got put in first. DR: Yeah, maybe so. I mean, we initially thought that I would just probably sing “Sweet Tooth” on Gill’s record. Because I had had an idea to write that song, and then we had just sat down with Morgan Nagler [of Whispertown 2000], who wrote it with us, and knocked it out in a day, or a couple days. And then when we were trying to arrange it, we had decided that we kind of liked me singing lead on it.
GW: Well, the whole idea to write that kind of blues was so you could sing it.
GW: Like, part of the initial idea was, “Oh, Dave would sound good singing this kind of whatever-you-want-to-call-that kind of country-blues.”
DR: Well, I just call it “Candy Man [Blues].” I wasn’t singing “Candy Man [Blues],” though. I had heard a version of a song like that and I’d liked it. I really like that particular little blues form that that song exists in. I thought it was really interesting that the lines don’t have to rhyme.
GW: And the rhyme can move.
DR: And I thought, “Well, that’ll be a ball, to try to write a song with a bunch of verses that goes like that, because you’re not tied into anything.” And so it worked really well, to collaborate with Morgan and Gillian, and sit and all come up with verses, and then smash them all together. And use the first half of this, and the second half of that, and turn it into a little story. But this was actually a question about how did it occur to us to make this record.
GW: Like, when did we start working on originals for it.
DR: I mean, I don’t think that I was even remotely sure that this was something that we would do or release until we were most of the way through the studio stuff and we had a little pile of stuff that seemed like it was OK. It was only nine songs, so there weren’t that many, but when there were four or five things that seemed like we shouldn’t throw them away, then we were somewhat serious about it. Previous to that, it was just sort of like, “Well, we know we could play these things, and we could go in the studio and record them and get decent versions.” It seemed like the responsible thing to do. [Laughs]
But when you played the Newport Folk Festival under Dave’s name, and a few small shows leading up to it, that was before any of the original material for the Dave Rawlings Machine existed. That was just covers.
GW: We were playing “I Hear Them All” and we were playing “To Be Young.”
DR: I was playing the older stuff. Yes, that was all. Because the point of the Newport gig was actually that we had a few songs for Gill’s new record that we wanted to put into a set without playing her entire show. But, yeah, the songs came from different places. Like the version of “It’s Too Easy to Feel Good” that’s on there, Ketch and I were out on Broadway a few months ago. We were busking here in Nashville. We went down there one night to play on the street with a fiddle and a banjo, and we had that song “It’s Too Easy.” We were singing a bunch of old-time tunes, and I wanted to sing something that I’d written. I thought about that song and I just rearranged it, because Gillian does sort of a slow, minor version of it, which is how it originally got written.
GW: Yeah, that’s not the way the song went.
DR: And I rewrote it a different way. I thought, “Well, if I play it like this, then Ketch can play fiddle on it and sort of bust it out.” And it went really well. We made some money. Some people stopped—which I figured, considering the other stuff they were stopping for was, like, “Wagon Wheel” and “Rocky Top”—I felt like it wasn’t that bad of a song.
Over what period of time were you writing those? Since “How’s About You” has such timely subject matter, people experiencing hard times, I would think that was within the past year.
GW: Actually, that’s the oldest one. I wrote that years ago and, basically, stuck it in a drawer, because I was like, “Oh, that’s funny. It’s a song about a Depression. Like that’s ever gonna happen again.” Yeah. Honestly. And put it in a drawer.
DR: I think there might have been a Democrat in the White House.
GW: It seemed like a laugh. Like, “When is that ever gonna be topical?”
DR: Again, that might be a song that never was released in the first place, because we weren’t crazy about singing it.
GW: Well, there was a funny thing. Just, in some way, the language of it, it just kind of seems like a dude song.
DR: And me being a dude, you know.
GW: I just kind of liked it better with a guy singing it. And I’m the last person…I don’t care. I’ll sing from the point of view of a guy. But it just is one of those things. It just seemed to work better. Have you been writing off and on during the whole period since Soul Journey?
DR: We’ve been writing pretty much constantly since Soul Journey, I would say.
I’m sure you’ll get questions about timing and what you’ve been working on the past several years, there being the general expectation out there that you need to put out a new album every couple years.
GW: Which is pretty arbitrary. Pretty, like, artistically arbitrary. I mean, I’m not saying that I’m happy about the rhythm of our record output. However, you know.
DR: That would be crazy talk.
Especially because people care very much when you put out new music.
GW: Right—which is nice.
Did investing energy in a number of different things, bringing Whispertown 2000 onto your Acony label, guesting with a lot of folks on stage and in the studio, affect the timing?
DR: I mean, there’s been other stuff going on. I feel like, as soon as there was a group of songs that went together as a new…that made sense…I don’t know. I’m speaking in fragments. You should…
GW: There have been songs over the years. But they didn’t really play well together. It seemed like I made a start on, like, 10 different projects. And nothing ever stepped forward and said, “This is the next project.” Not until Dave’s record.
DR: That’s about what I was trying to say.
GW: Even when we got up to a little batch of songs that you could have made a record out of, they didn’t seem like they wanted to be on a record together. So what are you gonna do? I guess some people would put it out, but we just didn’t want to.
The Dave Rawlings Machine is a different way of assembling a repertoire for you, with a little more emphasis on interpretation.
DR: Right. In Gillian’s show, having played primarily, or almost entirely, covers through the years, I guess that’s how I learned to… I’m a way more natural collaborative writer than I am a natural solitary writer. I’m just sort of social, and I enjoy the process a lot more if I’m working with someone on a song than if I work by myself. Because of that, through the years I never had a batch of songs that were my own. I mean, strangely, a couple years ago—I should say, the beginning of this project, part of it was…I went out to California and was sort of couch-surfing around Los Angeles and during that time had started writing a batch of songs.
DR: Yeah. …None of those songs ended up on this project, but the project wouldn’t have happened without them. Because that was the first time that I started singing songs that I had written with some thought—even if it was just sitting with good musician friends, and sitting in a circle and everyone playing songs they’d written—where I felt that I wasn’t there as the guy who was gonna play guitar on everybody else’s stuff. I felt like, when it got to be my turn, I was gonna be singing something. And I think that informed, sort of, the shift in feeling different about the feasibility of the project.
Gillian, it seems much the opposite with you. You’ve written on your own quite a bit and I couldn’t put my finger on many instances, if any at all, that you’ve had a co-writer other than Dave.
GW: I tried to do it when I first moved to Nashville, because it’s the Nashville thing to do. …I mean, I did successfully write with other people a couple times. But usually what happened is I felt so uncomfortable and so constrained, and on edge and not myself trying to do that, that I would come home and my complete joy at getting to write alone again would make it so that I would dive in with renewed vigor, whatever I was working on. So the funny thing is the main impact…that co-writing had on me was it made my writing by myself better. So it’s really not natural to me to write with other people. Writing with Dave is an exception that, I think, has just grown out of our, you know, this longstanding collaboration.
The fact that you’ve always presented yourselves as a band with a lead singer, rather than as a duo duo like Buddy and Julie Miller, gives you the opportunity to switch roles and do something different.
GW: Which is also a great part of this. Because I feel like we did want to expand what we do, you know, more than we could have if Dave had just, say, sung lead on a couple songs on the next Gillian Welch record. That’s not nearly as much of an expansion as what has happened.
DR: I think both of us ended up feeling, like, that we definitely considered making some sort of a project where we both, you know, where we were splitting the singing duties. There’s never really been any need for that on Gillian’s records, to my mind.
GW: No, it’s kind of better to just sink into that texture and just live in that world for a little while. And I mean, both of us really like B-3, we like horns, we like drums. We don’t use any of that stuff very often on my records.
DR: Well, on Soul Journey, we used a decent amount.
GW: A little, but that in itself was an experiment.
I wondered if you had any sense of what people might be expecting after Soul Journey.
GW: Well, in a way, Dave’s record is a really natural next progression out of that.
DR: Yeah, we’ve been planning this for years and years. You know, we’ve got the next 10 years planned out. There’s a board with pushpins up on the wall. [Laughs] And I mean, we know. It’s just, it’s all mapped out.
Gillian, we’ve talked a lot about where your music isn’t headed. What feels right to you musically now?
GW: It’s been very interesting. Having worked on Dave’s record and done all the problem-solving for that, it’s kind of—I don’t know how to put this—it’s sort of given me renewed interest in our duet recordings. Because we really didn’t do that on our last record. We were looking around for other sounds and other things to sort of put around my voice.… I guess, I just have more of an appreciation for this funny little duet thing that we do. And so, at the moment, I’m just really interested in doing more of that. Because we didn’t do much with Dave either. That was the interesting thing is it didn’t really suit his voice, for the most part. And so that’s why we used other musicians on his record and, you know, had to find other things. It had never really occurred to me that the way we play with the two guitars, it largely developed—I don’t know—just to compliment what I do. I guess what I’m saying is, I thought there were going to be more duet tracks on his record, and it didn’t work out that way. …Now, I feel like I’ve been away from this two-guitar thing that we do, in a recording sense, been away from it for a little while and I’m really excited to do some more of it. [Laughs]
From American Songwriter
Photos from AP’s collection