Talking with Gillian & David (Part II) “We’re closer to The Stanley Brothers than we are to Tool”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings interview Part II
By Douglas Heselgrave
In the first part of this interview, Gillian and David discussed how they first got interested in roots music, their early acceptance from the ‘hard core’ bluegrass community and the challenges of arriving in Nashville just as Garth Brookes hit the charts and changed everything.
David: Yeah, at that time, people just thought if they could pry us apart, they could do something with Gillian. And, you can’t blame them. If you look at that time period in Nashville, you could see what was going on and it didn’t exactly fit what we were doing.
Doug: To say the least.
David: But, there was this other thing going on and that’s where I was going with this. You look at Mary Chapin Carpenter and there was this other thing going on. There was this female singer songwriter thing and it was popular and on the radio. And, that’s actually how Gillian got signed in a publishing deal.
Gillian: They were looking for ‘another.’ Truly, that’s what it was. My publisher said to a friend, ‘I’m looking for a female singer-songwriter’ and this woman who ended up being my manager, said ‘I saw a girl….’
Doug: A girl! (laughs)
Gillian: Yeah. (laugh) ‘I saw a girl, a girl named Gillian Welch’ and then I went and played him some songs.
Doug: Did all of these attempts to separate you put any stress on your relationship?
Gillian: How did we stick together, you mean? We stuck together because this was the sound we were interested in.
David: T Bone was at least partly interested in the sound we were working with. That’s how we ended up doing the first record and most of the second record with him.
Gillian: And those were at least half duet.
David: It was funny the first record; we cut all the duets within about four days. Then, we spent six weeks trying to bang out band tracks we liked.
Gillian: We don’t know how to do that.
Doug: But, with ‘Soul Journey’ you had some drums and other instruments.
Gillian: We did, but that was a different thing. We had some songs that were less in the Appalachian vein and they wanted backbeat. They wanted drums.
Doug: And they worked. The songs with more instrumentation aren’t at all jarring in the flow of that record.
Gillian: So, we made our sort of abberant you know drum record.
David: And we put on some solo stuff.
Gillian: What it wasn’t was a duet record.
Doug: Did you ever or were you ever tempted to recreate any of that larger sound on stage?
David: We just had a great time playing with Levon in Nashville and Larry Campbell had done an amazing horn arrangement for two songs.
Gillian: Yeah, he did some beautiful Last Waltz style arrangements –
Doug: He is amazing. I really admire a lot of his work with Dylan and Levon Helm.
Gillian: We did a tour with Bright Eyes and played some songs with his whole band.
David: We did ‘Miss Ohio’ that way.
Gillian: So, it happens and we’ve got this little catalogue of stuff that will take drums.
Doug: That’s fun.
Gillian: It is fun, but it’s also funny. Being away from the duet for long enough because ‘Soul Journey’ wasn’t a duet record, and then you’ve got this big eight year gap I feel like we had a lot of pent up passion to return to the duet. Like, we went into this record and the first thing I felt was ‘this is a duet record. Nobody else is playing on this. This is just the two of us.’
Doug: Well, you certainly know each other’s playing, and it’s like you breathe for each other and every time I’ve heard you play, there’s a point where you kind of melt together.
Gillian: You know, we’re interested in certain sounds and there’s a tremendous freedom in the duet.
David: It’s kind of the worst way to play when you think about it. It’s the hardest thing to arrange for because with a solo act you just accept certain things. It doesn’t matter if it’s not all there. It is unified.
Gillian: It’s sort of inherently commanding because it’s just one person.
David: In a duet, you lose all that and you don’t gain all that much.
Gillian: You don’t gain any reinforcements. (laughs)
David: You know with a band, if you add a bass player and you just have so much more latitude. However, the way we’ve tried to deal with that is when you play guitar as though it was one large instrument or instruments….
Gillian: If we do the mind meld properly, it’s like we’re just one performer.
Doug: Like in ‘Revelator’ tonight. You both went so far out, I didn’t know how you’d get back.
Gillian: Mind meld. This album is pretty spontaneous, but you have to remember that as a writer, I’m pretty slow. Dave’s pretty quick at working on a song. I have to play a song for hours and hours to get a feel for it.
David: In this case (for ‘The Harrow and the Harvest’), a lot of what would happen is arrangements or last minute writing. A song like ‘Tennessee’ was substantially rewritten at four in the morning the night before we went in to record it. And, then you’d get the third performance of that on tape. Now, there’ll be some of it that carries over, some of the melodic outline, but none of the feel from earlier versions. But, because the song is in there in a particular way it can….. But, say on a song like ‘I Dream a Highway’ we’d never played it before. So, we played it twice and I edited both versions together. But, I wanted that because I knew it was a minor song that had…Hmmm…. There was a lot that could happen with the harmonies and the guitar playing than if we’d done it a lot of times, so we could just travel through a lot more of it than if we knew where we were supposed to start and where we were supposed to end. We got lucky. It’s always good to do that because if you fuck up, you can play it to death and get that sound. But, you can’t ever get back to the beginning again.
Gillian: You only have take one or two to get it that way. Then, it changes into something else. Then you’re past that. Sometimes the immediacy of the story goes away. Sometimes in the first couple takes I‘m truly living the thing and then once you’ve done it a couple of times, part of your brain is trying to remember what you did that you liked. And, then part of your brain, I feel like as a person, my first take of a vocal is pretty honest and actually how I feel.
David: That’s why live performance is interesting. You do song after song. I mean, ‘Revelator’ was a song we’d played a decent amount of times before we went in and tried to put it on a record. But, we hadn’t played it for a long period of time. We’d been working on a number of other songs that weren’t quite as good…
Gillian: …and we’d been building a studio
David: We were a long way away from it. One day, we’d done a couple of tests on this other demo, and this song we were working on sounded very good, but we just didn’t like the song that much. So, it just crossed my mind, hey why don’t we try ‘Revelator’ again and see what it sounds like in here.
Gillian: It was a mike test – the version on the record. Dave just said, ‘play ‘Revelator’ and it was okay, let’s try it and we used the mike test.
David: We played it once and it was great because we hadn’t played it in months. We got that first take feeling. You can always get that feeling back if you are away from a song long enough. Your brain goes through that thing again. It’s a little like voodoo. You try to trick yourself.
At this point, Steve Edge a local promoter interjected to suggest that the songs sounded not so much written as found in a time capsule.
Gillian: That’s so funny. The record is many things to different people. It’s a bit of a Rorschach thing. I wouldn’t disagree with that statement, but to me they represent last year. They’re not time capsule – y to me. That was my year.
Doug: Tough year –
Gillian: That’s how we talk and that’s how we express ourselves. Of course, we work in a traditional vein, but the sound –
David: By the same token, no one who is deeply familiar with thirties and forties stuff would ever mistake us for that.
Gillian: We don’t actually sound like the Stanley Brothers.
David: Most of the time I see that written, I assume those folks who say that haven’t heard that music.
Doug: I couldn’t agree more. It’s always seemed to me that you’ve absorbed or you communicated a spirit of time and place, but that it’s filtered through you and sounds like a blending of you and your influences. There are lots of people out there who recreate period music and you’re doing much more than that.
David: Yes, there are similarities, but we’re closer to The Stanley Brothers than we are to Tool for instance.
Gillian: (laughs) a little bit
David: But, then again if you want to go home and play a few Depeche Mode songs on the acoustic guitar, they sound a lot like the songs on Revelator. Apparently, they write all their stuff all that way and then just go in and arrange it differently.
Gillian: There’s a harmonic thing, there’s Dave’s improvisational palette that stretches way beyond a roots palette.
Doug: Which is of course a huge part of the appeal.
Gillian: This new album – for all of its darkness – may actually be our warmest record.
Doug: In terms of the sound?
Gillian: There’s a lot of blood in this record
David: Yes, you mean warm in terms of tone.
Gillian: Yeah, when I hear ‘Revelator’, I think of winter.
David: That’s a very cold record.
Gillian: There aren’t any leaves on those trees there.
David: It ends with ‘what will sustain us through the winter?’
Gillian: This one seems kind of earthier. Wry-er. I think this is our most humorous record.
David: Gallows humour.
Gillian: Gallows humour to be sure, but I think if Woody Guthrie was around, he’d get a few chuckles out of this one. I’m happy about that. I’m happy that after all the time that passed, this record basically comes from fall of 2010 and the winter. It’s from a chunk of time.
David: ‘The Way it will Be’ was old, and ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Tennessee’ were from before that, but so much stuff got finished during that period of time. At least six of ten songs on the record were written during a specific time. We did a lot of writing during that eight year gap, and I’m sure a lot of what we did influenced how this one sounds, but I just don’t feel that we were writing that well over the course of that time. The best way I can describe it is that when we write songs we like they really balance between the modern and the traditional, the narrative and the confessional, and rock and roll and country. They just walk this weird line and I feel like the stuff we were writing that we didn’t release somehow didn’t have that funny balance.
Doug: Were you trying for something else consciously? Trying to break into a new mode?
Gilllian: We were just trying to write songs –
David: And, that’s a hard enough job. Trying to write songs and thinking ‘I’m going to write them like this’ is really setting yourself up –
Gillian: We were just trying to write songs and our life seems influence what they are.
David: Every song on this record does come from an emotional or an experience based place. None of them are exercises. Because with music like this, people may want the songs to come out of a ‘holler’ somewhere, they want to call it academic. But, it never has been for us. You know, sometimes its not implicit, and we don’t know at the beginning where a song is coming from necessarily….
Gillian: This is about as forthright as we can be. I can’t actually be –
David: It’s like if you want to talk to the people who wrote the songs, you’re not talking to them now.
Doug: So, I should be looking for astral plane Dave and Gillian? That whole Stephen Hawking thing about parallel states –
David: Yeah. It’s a different headspace and a different thing. I mean, Gill can write ‘Orphan Girl’ and not even be aware that it’s touching on her birth history of being adopted….
Gillian: Yeah, I can write that whole thing about my life and not even be aware enough to realize what I’m writing. (laughs) You know, that’s just how it is. Whew!
Steve Edge commented on David singing ‘Sweet Tooth’ from the DRM record during the Vancouver performance.
David: Yeah, we always have tried to sneak one in. I’ve always sung at least one song in a show. But, before I had a record, I just sort of picked something. I’d have lots of traditional songs or songs I’d like to sing.
Gillian: The big difference is that you used to sing covers and now they’re always originals.
David: That was the beginning of things turning for us.
Gillian: It was really good for us to write for a different band.
David: It bought us more time to get this thing together.
Gillian: We did some work for the Decembrists, too. At the very end of the project, Collin had called me while he was still writing the songs. He said, “I’m writing these songs and I keep hearing your voice in my head and it’s freaky.” He was so concerned that his record not slow down work on our record. He said, ‘I really want you to do this but I’d feel terrible if it got in the way of your record.’ Finally, he called when they were mixing the album and it just timed out great. We were already driving across the country. We got to LA and we knocked out our contributions in two days and it was great. It was a testament to his craftsmanship and how good the songs are.
David: The vocal blend was great. We’d previously sung on stage and expressed a mutual admiration for Robyn Hitchcock.
Doug: That was a pretty cool record you did with him.
Gillian: With Robyn? Yeah, that was fun.
Doug: Okay, this may be a little off topic, but I read that you opened for the Buffalo Springfield shows. I’m an old fan and loved the records when I was a kid. How were the shows?
Doug: Did you have a chance to play with them?
David: Ha. No. Their first six shows in forty two years and they didn’t necessarily need sit ins! I wouldn’t have done it if they’d asked. Ha
Gillian: It was spectacular. It was some of the best music I’ve ever heard coming off a stage.
David: Ritchie sung so great. Everybody was playing incredibly well. I actually believe in a way they sounded…. I mean, they actually sounded closer to their peak than when they started. They were just so young when they made those records. After doing the shows, we went back to listen to the old records and – wow – maybe there would have been some magical time in the middle where that would have happened, but what we heard was them at their best.
Gillian: Just phenomenal. Four out of the six shows were out of this world.
Doug: What an honour to have been part of that.
Gillian: I think of all of them – Stephen Stills watched our set every night.
Doug: How’s he playing these days?
Gillian: He’s playing great. He’s got some tendonitis issues. He’s singing great. Just wonderful.
Doug: Well thanks so much. You’ve been really generous with your time. It’s getting very late.
David: Yeah, didn’t we just promise you ten minutes?
Gillian: Thank you. We’ll see you some time. We just have to figure out if we’re going to drive or stay tonight. Our next four dates have huge drives between and we’re currently not doing airplanes.
Doug: You drove from Nashville?
Gillian: Yeah, we’ve seen a lot of country in the last few days. (laughs)
The sounds of the festival filtered in through the tent where we’d been talking as we all got up to leave, but just as I was packing up, David came over to me again to talk about his reaction to the early posting of ‘The Harrow and the Harvest’ Review at Nodepression. Like a lot of artists, he and Gillian have had problems with leaked music and unfortunate press. Gillian came over and joined the discussion to describe the first review of the CD that comprised of nothing more than ‘you can’t dance to it.’ David added, ‘our first official music in eight years and the first review is people using scorecards to say it’s not a dance record.’
As we kept on talking, David confessed that he missed the pre-Internet era when no one knew a new record was coming out until two weeks before it dropped. In today’s market, releasing music has become a high security venture steeped in secrecy and intrigue. We discussed how much marketing music had changed since ‘Soul Journey’ was released, and how eight years is a short period in a lifetime, but an eternity in terms of how technology has upended everything.
I remember when I began writing for print, advance copies of music had to be sent out months early to accommodate the longer production time needed for a review to see the light of day. David noted that the long leads were still in effect for print journalts, which results in some outlets receiving advance copies far before other – usually online – sites do. Balancing the demands of the diverse media platforms has become a situation that’s virtually impossible to manage.
I offered that as far as I could see the main difference and advantage of online reviews vs. print reviews is their longevity. As much as news dates quickly and stories are forgotten, most online reviews are archived while newspaper reviews are lining birdcages a few days later. Reviews I wrote five years ago are still available online and people use search engines to access them all the time. So, even an early review will be read years into the future – something not possible in traditional journalism.
We went on to discuss the reception ‘The Harrow and the Harvest’ has received and how different the reviews have been in Europe than in North America. In Europe, Dave said, ‘All of the reviews have been about whether they like the music or not. It’s about the record and the songs themselves. Full stop.’ Whereas, in North America ‘it’s all been about where we fit into the history of country music or roots music. There’s this intellectual thing going on and endless discussions about how authentic we are or we aren’t. It’s all about that thing and never so much about the songs.” I offered that part of that difference must exist because here in North America we’ve had access to all of the old music they have been inspired by and can make easy comparisons while in Europe the music traditions are different and they can experience Welch and Rawlings’ music more ‘purely’ and without any accompanying baggage. This got us talking about how so many musicians from jazz artists to blues singers used to have to leave America for their work to receive the appreciation and respect they deserved. Gillian picked up on this to say that she finds it ironic how on the one hand they get pigeonholed as traditionalists while on the other certain camps question how authentic or entitled they are to play the music they do.
By this time, the site began to close down for the night and David looked at his watch, trying again to decide whether to try and get some sleep or get in the car, cross the border and start down the road to Olympia, Washington for their next gig. We shook hands, and exchanged ‘see you sometimes’ before Gillian and Dave left the tent we’d been sheltered under to meet a small group of fans that had been waiting patiently to say hello.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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