Talking with Gillian & David – “When she sings, she sounds lonesome – what are you going to do?”
Talking with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival
July 15, 2011 Vancouver
By Douglas Heselgrave
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on the Main Stage
Photo by Sam Parton
I had spent days trying to line up an interview with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but had had no success at all, so I’d pretty much resigned myself to simply reporting on their concert at the Vancouver Folk Festival. I hadn’t had a chance to hear them play live together since 2003 when a friend and I drove down to Seattle to take in their show at the Moore Theater. I still had lingering memories from that night of a concert that verged on life-changing. The dedication, focus and absolute commitment Welch and Rawlings share and the musical vision they’ve have nurtured and developed over the last decade or so continues to grow with an integrity that is truly unparalleled in today’s popular music. So, needless to say, I was happy to have the chance to take in their new show after so many years and knew that I would have a lot to write about.
I was settling in at the festival’s kitchen back stage and talking with my friend, Sam Parton when we ran into Gillian and Dave. Being naturally shy, I hung back but Sam (a happy extrovert) took me by the hand, made introductions and suggested to Gill that we talk. David came up and introduced himself at that point and said he’d telephoned me when the Nodepression review was originally posted to discuss the problems that advance reviews posed for artists and record labels. He said he’d like to speak later and would try and make time, but I didn’t take him very seriously. Surely he was too busy – there were dozens of musicians surrounding us – all of whom seemed to want to talk to him and Gillian, so I went to hear Justin Townes Earle’s excellent set and forgot about it. But, then, just before the two were due up on stage, Gillian ran over to me with a piece of paper and asked me to meet them after their set to join a discussion.
Their concert – if anything – was better than the show I saw in Seattle. In the eight intervening years, the duo has become closer musically. Their singing and playing has become so intimately woven that it is often difficult to hear them as distinct entities. It takes a lot to excite me these days, but I had chills up and down my spine throughout their set as Gillian and David played most of their new album as well as offering up a few old songs like ‘Orphan Girl’, ‘Miss Ohio’, ‘Caleb Meyer’ and the most intense version of ‘Time: The Revelator’ I have ever heard. They are the real deal. Lots of other artists can mention the River Jordan in a song, but when Welch and Rawlings sing about it, you can hear the mud falling from the banks and drifting downstream. They are that good.
After the performance ended, Gillian, Dave and I – and three other local journalists – sat down for a ‘quick ten minute interview’ that stretched on into the night. Gillian began the conversation by saying that it was a rare opportunity for them to play in a natural setting like Vancouver’s Jericho Beach.
Gillian: It’s always easier for us to play indoors. We find it really challenging to play outdoors. Our music is kind of like chamber music. We really use the space that we’re in to get the sound that is very atmospheric. We think of filling the space, so when there’s no container it just kind of goes out into the atmosphere and dissipates.
David: It’s an incredible site. The sunset was beautiful. It’s always nice to have the chance to play somewhere like this.
Gillian: Yeah, all of the freighters in the ocean. Their lights all came on as we played.
Doug: What I really noticed was how uplifted the crowd was by your set, and I think that’s so interesting because you two sing about such dark situations all the time. How do you account for the effect your music has on the audience?
Gillian: Hahaha. It’s funny. Even though the subject matter and some of the circumstances are kind of dark, usually the narrators in our songs are singing from a place of perseverance or having gotten through the trouble. It’s a pretty stoic, realistic, occasionally verging on optimistic outlook.
David: There are plenty of blues singers who have remarked that singing the blues makes them feel good, makes the listener feel good.
Gillian: It’s true.
Doug: Why do you think we need that – people in general, I mean – to hear sad songs to uplift us?
David: Hmmm…. That’s possibly more than a thirty second answer.
Gillian: Or, better yet, that’s probably a question for you to answer. I just know for myself that I always like – hmmm…. Let’s think of an example. When I bought‘Guitar Town’ , it was guaranteed that I’d like the saddest song best. What’s the saddest song on that record? ‘My Old Friend The Blues.’ Guaranteed that’d be my favorite song.
David: – or we’d like ‘Tecumseh Valley’ more than ‘White Freight Liner’
Gillian: Even though ‘White Freight Liner’ is a great song. A lot of people are that way. Yeah, I guess you could say that we don’t really write dance music.
Doug: But at the same time, a lot of people out there tonight were dancing.
Gillian: Yeahhhhhhh, you can dance to it, but it’s not really party music. It’s not even terribly social music. It’s funny, now we’ve gotten to the point where we can contrast the Gillian Welch catalogue with the David Rawlings catalogue.
Doug: Meaning ?
David: One of the best things I read about my record was that the show and the record felt a lot more social than they were used to. It’s much more extroverted as opposed to this kind of thing we do this way with Gill’s music.
Gillian: Yours is more about – a community there. It’s much more social.
David: It’s not so much about a difference in personality (that exists between us) as it is about a difference in instruments – vocally speaking.
Doug: But, you don’t ever sound as if you’re holding back vocally when you’re singing with Gillian.
Gillian: My voice lends itself to a certain expression, a certain type of story.
David: When she sings, she sounds lonesome. What are you going to do?
Gillian: That’s one of the reasons I was cast in ‘O Brother’ as the downtrodden share cropper wife. When I got the script, my character’s name was the sad eyed woman.
David: Wasn’t it the sad faced woman?
Gillian: I thought it was sad eyed woman.
David: No, that’s the Dylan song.
Gillian: Well, that’s just the kind of way it goes with me.
At this point, a local reporter asked Gillian about her background in a psychedelic surf guitar band, and she and David used this as an opportunity to set the record straight.
Gillian: Well, I grew up singing folk music. I went to a really progressive, liberal, hippie type grade school.
David: The type you might find in California in 1973.
Gillian: Yeah, we didn’t wear shoes, we didn’t get grades. We sang folk songs and every Friday we’d have a communal lunch and sing songs for our parents. So, yeah I was into folk music! Hard core!
David: Gillian was the guitar player.
Gillian: So, from the time I was about nine or ten, I was the guitar player for these things because I had asked for a guitar when I was about seven. So, I was the guitar player for these things. So, mine is a kind of weird history. I think of everyone who is singing roots music in 2011 has a weird history with it.
David: So, there’s some confusion around the fact that Gill is from California. The real confusion should be that we’re from the nineties. NO one was doing the music we play then.
Gillian: So, I had a real background in folk music, but I’d never heard the records. I’d never heard the original versions, but learned the songs by singing them in my community.
David: If you think about the time period between the seventies and 1985, for the early part of that period what was king on the radio? Neil Young had put out ‘Harvest.’ There’s James Taylor, Paul Simon….
Gillian: Male singer songwriters with acoustic guitars are kings of the radio at that time.. This was what was in my head while growing up. I wasn’t rebelling against my background with the surf punk thing. You shouldn’t make too much of it; it was just for a couple of parties. It sounds good on paper.
David: You know if you play electric guitars and go to college, you’re going to end up in some bands.
Gillian: So, there I am in Santa Cruz going to college and my roommate is a bluegrass DJ and he’s got an incredible record collection. So, for the first time, I hear the songs that I grew up singing. I hear the records. I hear the sound that just completely devastates me – in a good way. It’s that strident, gritty harmony sound, that great thing that happens in country, bluegrass and old time singing. What did you like about it, David?
David: I was drawn from the time I was very young to story songs of any kind. I didn’t hear much country music, but some of it made it to the radio during that time period. I was in Rhode Island and you heard Jim Croce songs thinking this was music I liked. I spent a lot of time outdoors. Summers I spent a lot of time fishing by myself and singing these songs in my head. I can probably still sing ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and any of those story songs from the seventies by heart. That’s what I did. I discovered Neil Young and I discovered Bob Dylan – which at that time was pretty old music. From there, I heard ‘Nashville Skyline’ which takes you to country – which takes you to bluegrass…. You just chase the source back.
Gillian: Because you want the purest, you want the strongest stuff you can get.
David: For both of us, it stopped there. It stopped in the thirties in this country. I know people who followed the path that we follow and ended up loving Irish music.
Gillian: They then went across the Atlantic to chase that music.
David: …and came back wearing jackets with elbow patches.
Gillian: We’re decently well versed in this style of music, but it’s kind of opportunistic in a good way. I listen to find what I can use and see what I can take from it.
Doug: Like cowboy pirates
Gillian: Yep. This is related to what Dave’s saying where, as much as I love James Joyce, I kind of stick to American authors unless I’ve got loads of time and feel I can just goof off because the language and the settings are good for my brain.
Doug: When you talk about American authors, do you mean authors from the same period as your musical interests – like Steinbeck?
Gillian: I do, but I read from all different periods. I usually read a lot of Kerouac too which is good for my head. James Agee….
Doug: These are a mixture of rural and urban voices. There’s also a pronounced influence of the deep south whereas I think of Steinbeck as a Californian voice.
David: Well, we’ve lived there for about twenty years now. It’s pretty hard to have that thing – the surf punk thing – in the media that represents something that happened 25 or 30 years ago. It’s ridiculous to have it out there as something we have to talk about. So, having lived down south for so long, it’s kind of confusing to give such attention to what was just a little blip really. We’re on the road a lot and have seen a lot of country….
Gillian: But, the South does figure prominently for us. It’s kind of the cradle of our work. It’s where we first started to sing as a duet. It’s where the tradition of the duet with The Stanley Brothers, The Munroe Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys on into the Everly Brothers – that whole rural acoustic tradition – got its start.
David: And, it meant something to us that Doc Watson recognized us, or that when we went to see Ralph Stanley at his festival and he invited us to come up and sing a song with him and then invited us to come back and play next year. This is a tiny little festival at his home place.
Gillian: Just tiny – maybe 700 people
David: And, we were the only people who stood outside of Stanley Brothers type bluegrass who were invited there.
Gillian: We’re okay up there (with them) because they hear us coming out of the hardcore bluegrass duet tradition.
David: We used to sing Blue Sky Boys songs a lot and really early on before we had a record, we went to see some friends on Whitetop Mountain…
Gillian: In Virginia
David: We sang a couple of Blue Sky Boys like we often did, and this guy came up to us and said, ‘I’m touched. I haven’t heard anyone sing my uncle’s songs like that in so long. He was a guy named Glen Bullock who became a friend of ours. We were accepted by that community long before…..
Gillian: Yeah, Ralph Stanley, the Blue Sky nephew, Doc and that community….They were the first ones to kind of say ‘wow, you guys have a cool sound.’ So, we just kind of kept on with it. We had a lot of pressure when we first started out. People wanted to put us with a band and they wanted us to sound a lot more Nashville. I feel like for a good solid two years, we just went around saying ‘NO’ to everybody.
David: Everybody hated me.
Gillian: They thought if they could just pry us apart, they could put me with a country band.
David: You can’t blame them. If you look at that time – the early nineties – at what was going on in Nashville…. Part of the reason we moved there was because of the New Traditionalist movement that was happening. Townes Van Zandt was there, Steve Earle was there, John Prine was there, Emmylou was there.
Gillian: Nashville was swinging.
David: Sammy Kershaw was there. Randy Travis. Dwight Yoakam. There were some pretty decent records coming out. So, we thought, ‘Okay, cool. Let’s go down there and as soon as we got there in ’92, Garth Brooks hit and BOOM it all changed.
Still coming in Part Two – how about the drums, sticking to their guns, recording Revelator, finding the right songs, Buffalo Springfield, the ancient and the modern and more.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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