The Delines & The Imperial Voice Of Amy Boone
It’s been a few years since The Delines were up and at it. A lot has happened since the night-dusted retro country soul of their debut album Colfax landed in 2014, and the ensuing tours brought their very specific ambience out into the open.
The Delines was formed by Willy Vlautin around the luxurious, world-weary voice of Amy Boone. Vlautin is also the founder of much-missed alt country troubadours Richmond Fontaine, and author of five novels recounting the lives and the dreams and sins of those who inhabit the margins, the people who slip through the net. Stories and characters of the same ilk inhabit the world of The Delines. Vlautin writes their dreams and their mistakes between the velvet-long vocals and the pedal steel of his songs. The glories, and the blame, and the landscape of their youth, are noted and arranged. Sparse and sumptuous. Self-fulfilling. Easy listening with a backdrop that’s not so easy to hear.
Since Colfax, Tr*mp has blustered his way into our lives, one way or another, and Brexit continues to divide and conquer. Vlautin was recently musing all this on a long distance phone call – Belfast to Portland – as we discussed the life and times of The Delines. (“I don’t think [Trump] is an anomaly, and I don’t think he’s the cause of it. I think he’s just the mirror.”) But closer to home, The Delines have had other issues to focus on that hit them all hard. In 2016 Amy Boone was involved in a car accident that caused injuries so catastrophic they required repeated surgery over two years, ongoing physiotherapy, and have left a legacy of PTSD.
“She couldn’t work,” Vlautin recalled. “She had no money, and she was in chronic pain … that’s brutal to be in that kind of haze for a couple of years.” Everything went on hold as they tried to gauge what was happening. “We were all scared that she wouldn’t want to do the band anymore … we were really worried that she wouldn’t be up for it physically or mentally, but luckily for us she’s tough enough to want to keep going.”
“I was so focused on getting up and getting back into the world,” Amy Boone recalled as we talked over the phone. “I was thinking about my injuries, physically, I wasn’t thinking about how it would have messed up my head … I used to be more, I guess, happy go lucky. Foolish me.” She started laughing. “It’s kind of turned my world upside down in a way. I just saw things in a different way. I saw danger everywhere is what I saw, and I still do. It’s pretty trippy to look at the world in a whole different way. I don’t know if that is ever going to go away. It’s eased up for sure. Willy and I talk about it all the time, just me getting up to Portland, getting in a car, and getting on a plane. I really had no idea I was going to be so fearful. And going on tour is pretty scary to me too, but I’m just pushing myself to get over those blocks.”
Of course it was more than The Delines that mattered here. They’re a band of close friends, one of whom had been hurt badly. “I wanted her to be happy. I wrote her a lot of tunes but I was just hoping she would find some peace and not be in pain all the time,” Vlautin continued. It was time to step back and let the healing begin.
“We did take a big break,” Vlautin explained. Before Boone’s accident they had actually reached the latter stages of their next album, The Imperial, but the pause button had been hit and plans were changed. During that break Vlautin, drummer Sean Oldham, keyboard and horn arranger Cory Gray, and producer John Askew “went down the rabbit hole” working on the record. Then all went on to work on their own projects, waiting for Boone to return.
In 2018, after nine surgeries, skin grafts and therapy, Amy Boone returned to the fold, moved from Austin, Texas to Portland, Oregon, and The Imperial was born. A slow-burn, smooth-drawled collection of songs, the album bears witness to the loss of innocence, to broken love, to wasted years. Salved by the understanding comfort of Boone’s voice, the protagonist’s choices are relayed, not judged. The consequences are human. Atmospherics are painted through pedal steel, landscapes made widescreen through horn arrangements. These are stories, they’re ballads, they’re populated by people who don’t have it easy – the least we can do is listen. Put ourselves in their shoes and listen. Loneliness punctuates the record. “It’s about trying to get to closeness,” explains Vlautin. “Or trying some kind of connection, and oftentimes not being able to.”
There is the now unmistakable Delines’ sound and sense to The Imperial with that accepting, world-worn voice, and particular soul-heavy atmosphere. Colfax was an experiment, a happy relief that Vlautin’s obsession with Boone’s voice had paid off. But The Imperial is a hard won vindication for an established band, that Boone’s voice is worth waiting years for. They all knew it, The Imperial confirms it.
“[Amy’s] voice marries those two things for me,” Vlautin was keen to explain. “What I was always hoping for with The Delines was to marry the lyrical sensibilities of the folk song with the sway of soul ballads. Soul country ballads. Because that gives you that kind of dented heartbreak but it also feels good. It’s not suicide music, it’s music to kind of have a cocktail to and be just kind of like blue. I think a lot of that just comes from Amy’s voice and the instrumentation around her. She just has that thing.”
It was always going to be called The Imperial. “It’s got that kind of melancholy, a little romantic, and disillusionment, all wrapped in one,” according to Vlautin. “It’s the idea that they lived in just an average apartment building called The Imperial. But when you’re in love and when your life is going OK, every time you pass that in the future you would think, ‘yes, I was alright there, I was decent there, I had a good life there, I was in love there.’ Then suddenly that mediocre apartment building can become like a mansion, like a fancy high-rise because of your memories of it. It’s just the idea that this woman was in love with this guy. They had a really decent life together. Then he went and did a bad drug deal. You don’t really know what’s going on but he’s done something bad and gets sent to prison and ruined their life together.”
And with Boone at the helm, Vlautin is prepared to take risks, think bigger. “With Amy, she is such a cool person and such a great singer that I do tend to write more romantically, in my head at least. Maybe they don’t come out that way, but they’re kind of bigger themed songs maybe, and maybe more heartbreak … we did want a bigger feel to it and I guess maybe with Amy’s voice and her presence, and Corey is such a great arranger of strings and horns that we wanted to go for a bigger more cinematic feel than I usually am able to do on my own.”
“Roll Back My Life is a pretty common idea,” he explains of the fifth track on the album. “Jesus if I could go back and not fall for that person, or if I would have just stood up for myself there, if I wouldn’t have crumbled there, if I wouldn’t have been too scared to do that, if I would have stayed with that person or that job or whatever, Jesus what would have happened to me? And granted, the feel of the song, the music of the song, the way she sings it is melancholy … Kind of like when you take assessment of your life and you’re kind of beat up I guess. Maybe the blood that runs through The Imperial is just being beat up. Being beat up by life but you haven’t quit yet … I definitely live in that world and I think Amy, just what she’s gone through, can get behind of the songs.”
Vlautin’s straight-as-a-die honesty comes to the fore as he explains the background to, and the challenges with the haunting Holly The Hustle. “I was a chronic gambler at a local track here maybe 15 years ago,” he recalls. “I saw kids, they call them track rats, they’re the kids of the trainers, the jockeys, the people who work at the track. Their kids will be hanging out at the track most of their lives. I remember seeing one who was just a cute kid. I watched her from when she was about seven, and then hits puberty and starts dressing really provocatively and all of the sudden by 15/16 she’s hanging out with 30 year old men … I just personally saw her a couple of times a week over the course of 10 years, so you see this kid grow up. I didn’t know her name, I kind of knew her family … You just kind of watch this kid fall apart in front of your eyes, turning from like a cute goofy kid to dressing way too sexy for her age and hanging out with really questionable dudes. . That’s where that song came from.”
“I really wanted to write a big song you know, my own version of those old classics, like a Bobbie Gentry song. Those kind of bigger tunes. The life story of a hustler. It was a really tough song because it’s such a big tune, and again it was Cory and the producer John Askew who saved that song in production because it was so unruly and long. I think Amy did have a harder time with it because it is a rough tune. But for me it isn’t that rough because she survives. She’s beat up but she’s smart enough to survive. I’ve always admired people who can keep going so I’ve never thought of it as quite as sad as they did. But obviously when you look at it in the light of day, Holly is a really rough, sad story. .” Indeed Boone did have a harder time with this one to begin with. “Having a child have this idyllic life taken away from her and ending up in such horrible circumstances where she is being beat up, it was just too much for me,” Boone recalled of the song she adores now. “The horns are really beautiful on this song,” she continued. And the production. When you’re singing a ballad, however long that one is, like six minutes, you really have to keep people interested by the production and one came out really good.”
What makes any of Vlautin’s songs tough going is where they come from. “I’ve always grown up wanting to write about the people I know where I grew up,” he went on to explain. “I’ve always wanted to write about working class people for a couple of reasons. One is I don’t know anything else, that is how I grew up. I also really wanted to write stories about the people around me. I’ve always wanted to write songs where – why can’t someone in my family be a hero? I was a house painter for years, why can’t a house painter be a hero? Why can’t a clerk in a grocery store be a hero? I’ve always wanted to write those stories. I think it was a combination of listening to The Clash, and Springsteen, The Jam, at a very susceptible age. And reading too much John Steinbeck and reading too much about workers’ rights at a really susceptible age.”
“I do know that America now is a mess,” he continued as the conversation turned to the backdrop within which he is writing, developing his characters and their stories. “I think it’s not the end of the mess but we just kind of opened up the beginning in admitting there is a mess. America to me is like your relatives, your aunt and uncle or whatever, you knew they weren’t getting along and their kids were messed up but you didn’t rather deal with it. Then you go over to their house to see that they’re hoarders, that they got real problems. And I think Tr*mp just shows us, it’s like looking inside the house and saying there are some real problems here … It’s hard to be able to see that, but at the same time like most countries, and most people, and most societies, there are good things too. We voted a black man in before him so we have good things too.”
“I’m not a very smart man but I knew years and years ago it was going to go this route just because I grew up with right wing radio. Right wing TV was the only thing allowed in our house and I watched how It shaped my mother. My mother was kind of a liberal hippie and she became really right wing. So you can just see the power of years and years and years of right wing radio and TV shows. They really transform and change people’s views. It is a mess”
It’s a frenetic backdrop within which Vlautin continues to work. “I have no idea if this will be a book that works but I am like four draughts into a book right now. And we have Amy back so I’m hoping that we can make another record. I’ve got a pile of songs that I’ve been writing so I’m hoping just to keep writing, tofinish this novel and record more Delines. I’m always kind of working on a book and trying to write songs.”
The Delines are releasing The Imperial on 11 January 2019, and will spend January and February touring Ireland and UK with the new album. “It’s going to be a five-piece [band]. We’re going to be doing most if not all of The Imperial.” Bass player Freddy Trujillo will be in the line-up. “It feels good to be playing the majority of new songs. I purposely didn’t listen to the record too much to not burn out on it over the past couple years. Another thing that is new this time is that Cory has been there from the start. We didn’t make Colfax with him. He is a huge contributor on The Imperial. So it is good to recreate those tracks with him. I didn’t know him before the first tour promoting Colfax. We had to room together and by the end of that tour we were pretty close. I’m looking forward to going out again.”