“Until a song is right, we basically exist in a state of misery” and "The Harrow & The Harvest" by John Mulvey 8/11 from Uncut

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In the second week of May, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings drove from Los Angeles to Nashville. The journey took 31 hours, and Welch filmed a small portion of it on her iPhone. The clip is framed by an open car window, and outside you can see the flooded Mississippi stretching away from the edge of the road to the horizon: a new inland sea for the beleaguered American South.

The car radio is audible in the background, tuned to a digital station that plays nothing but The Grateful Dead. As Welch and Rawlings speed through this submerged part of Arkansas along the I-40 highway, the station is broadcasting, with at least partial serendipity, “Rain And Snow”. When they reach the Tennessee state line, “Tennessee Jed” will be on the air.

This epic journey has become a routine for the couple; in the past year, they have crossed the States by car ten times. Rawlings has developed a “terrible phobia” of flying and, while it has been eight years since the duo released an album under Welch’s name, work on The Harrow And The Harvest has ended in something of a rush, precipitating a good few concentrated expeditions through the southern states. This time, after last-minute adjustments to the mastering and the artwork, they left their apartment in LA on Monday and arrived back at their Nashville base around midnight on Wednesday.

“Travel is much more enjoyable by car,” explains Welch, sitting in the lobby of Woodland Studios, their expansive Nashville complex, “and it’s contributed to this record immensely. There’s the tremendous freedom when you get in the car and drive. Dave put it rather nicely: he had this feeling of gathering weight – mental weight, personal weight – whereas when you fly, you dissipate. You switch off in a bad way, and that’s really bad for both of our brains.

“I mean, I’m doing everything I can to not switch off. We live in a fairly isolated world – our band is very small, our world is very small – and so I actually struggle to remain of the world. It’s way easier for me to separate, but when I drive I’m confronted by beautiful language and poetry constantly in the shape of highway signs and town names. I’m confronted by history, to a shocking degree.

“We drove in this time on I-40, and we spent a solid eight hours driving through the Cherokee nation and the Seminole nation and the Creek nation, and then we hit the Mississippi and it was flooded three miles over its bank. I’m aware that people feel really dislocated most of the time from events that occur in folk songs, but I’m just here to tell you it’s not any different. What did I encounter on my drive? I hit a dust storm and a flood, y’know?”

Between 1996 and 2003, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings released four albums – 39 original songs, plus two covers – and appeared on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which has sold seven and a half million copies in the States alone. It’s a small body of work, but a powerful one, in the way it makes vital new art from the bones of tradition, with a clarity and lack of ostentation that borders on the uncanny.

Much of Welch’s music features little more than her calm, authoritative voice following the strum of her guitar, while Rawlings harmonises and improvises around her. They are a totally collaborative duo, who use the name of their lead singer as a convenient brand name. “You get the sense that there’s a direct channel between her heart and her lips,” says an admiring Colin Meloy, who employed Welch to sing backup on the last Decemberists album, The King Is Dead. “I don’t think the girl has an oesophagus – she’s got some kind of weird, fleshy soul-conduit.”

Welch and Rawlings’ albums are beautiful and potent, and they often wish this music could stand totally apart from their personal histories. “I would’ve loved to see what happened if our records had come out and people knew nothing about who we were,” says Rawlings.

But their backstory has rankled with some country fans ever since Welch’s debut, Revival, appeared in 1996. For those hung up on unrealistic notions of authenticity, it grated to hear Welch sing of leasing “20 acres and one Ginny mule from the Alabama trust”. She was, after all, the adopted daughter of an LA showbiz family who had met Rawlings in the cloistered environment of Boston’s Berklee School Of Music.

Mostly, Welch is irritated by the supposed disparity between her music and her upbringing. But sometimes it puzzles even her why she has always been so attracted to old folk songs, predominantly from the American South. Around the time of 2003’s Soul Journey, she discovered that her unnamed birth mother was an Appalachian girl studying in New York, and began speculating that her father could have been a musician – Levon Helm, perhaps, or Bill Monroe – passing through town. “It was interesting how much it confused things,” says Rawlings, who occasionally speaks for his partner on awkward subjects. “Because then,” he turns to Welch, “you don’t even know whether you’re on the nature or nurture side of the argument.”

She laughs. “I don’t even know what team I’m on!”

Welch remains a pleasingly human bundle of contradictions: a cowboy boot-wearing romantic who venerates old Nashville – “I arrived 34 years too late,” she says – while drinking organic raw Kombucha (a wholefood store speciality of fermented and chilled green tea) and filming Dixie on her iPhone.

“I’m sorry that I confuse people, simply by being what I am,” she says, not altogether penitently. “But I’ve constantly marched towards where I am today. In urban environments, I continuously found the sounds that I liked, and they were often quite hard to find. The main thing is, Dave and I just think about music. All the time. That’s all we do. And I kinda feel like all decisions are musical. We’re not even thinking about how it looks to people. I can barely, barely, do this. Barely. I can barely satisfy myself. There’s not a chance in hell I could do stuff to satisfy other people.”

“Gill and Dave clearly work in a completely different way to many people I know,” says Colin Meloy. “I get the feeling, for all their love of simplicity and clarity, that they come from a kind of insanely finicky place. So many of her songs feel so off-the-cuff, so underthought, but there’s a lot of thinking that goes on, I think, to get to that place.”

At the end of June, Gillian Welch released her fifth album, The Harrow And The Harvest, a collection with a creation myth that bears out Meloy’s suspicions. Unlike Soul Journey, which was fleshed out with a full band, The Harrow And The Harvest features just Welch and Rawlings in their studio, playing ten new folk songs that sound like they have been fastidiously whittled down to their essences. This process seems to have taken eight years. Hence the agrarian metaphor of The Harrow And The Harvest: before you reap any rewards, an awful lot of hard work has to be done preparing the land.

Friday May 13. Gillian Welch, 43, and David Rawlings, 42, are conducting a guided tour of Woodland Studios, Nashville. Built in the 1920s as a cinema, Woodland was converted into a studio by Glenn Snoddy, the engineer who cut “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Ring Of Fire” straight to acetate, and who purportedly invented fuzztone. By the 1970s, Woodland’s two studios were producing country hits around the clock, while also opening their doors to rock musicians; Neil Young recorded Comes A Time there.

When Welch and Rawlings bought it a decade ago, however, Woodland was a run-down digital establishment, in an unfashionable neighbourhood, that had been on the market for a year. “People were looking to tear it down,” says Welch.

Nowadays, this stretch of East Nashville is home to the city’s more bohemian residents. There is a yoga studio nearby, and a restaurant that sells quinoa salad rather than barbecue. At one end of Woodland, the offices of Welch and Rawlings’ label, Acony, reflect the local ambience: quietly modern, impeccably organised, busy this afternoon trying to put an end to internet rumours that The Harrow And The Harvest even exists.

At the other end, though, the pair have built a temple to analogue recording, a meticulous homage to old Nashville that has been tailored entirely to their own ends. In the ten years they have occupied this sizeable building, only their own projects – and a couple more on their Acony label – have been recorded here, with just one significant visitor from the outside world: Robert Plant, who made Band Of Joy in the cavernous Studio A.

As Welch and Rawlings stand in the control room, proudly discussing their antique kit (the mixing desk, it transpires, comes from Boston and was used to record Sesame Street tunes), it becomes apparent that, even by the standards of most musicians, they are peculiarly obsessive about sound. Rawlings, in particular, has extraordinary ears: at a radio studio later in the afternoon, he will be distracted during a live session by a clock whose ticking only he can hear. “He’s like a bloodhound,” says Welch. “He won’t stop working.”

The extent of Welch and Rawlings’ mania becomes apparent when they open up Woodland Studio B, where The Harrow And The Harvest was recorded. 2001’s outstanding Time (The Revelator) was recorded on the other side of Nashville at RCA Studio B, a cramped facility where artists jostle for space with tourists admiring the old haunt of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

“We’re very private people,” says Welch, and it seems odd that they could ever have worked in such a public environment. But given how much they liked RCA Studio B’s vintage, unsullied sound, they took what, to them at least, seemed the only logical course of action. They built an exact recreation of RCA Studio B in a room which Rawlings had previously used to practice his golf swing.

The photographs on the inside sleeve of Time (The Revelator) attest to the success of the reconstruction. The chequerboard linoleum is the same, as is the cypress wood skirting, and many of the instruments – a Hammond B3, a xylophone – lined up along the walls. There is, shockingly, a slight disparity in the size of the wall tiles. In the middle, there are two old wooden chairs and a small table, sat on a rug and surrounded by microphones. The microphones are covered with small plastic bags, and have not been moved since The Harrow And The Harvest was completed in early March. This is how plenty of the last eight years was passed – designing the perfect, historically redolent, recording environment. “We got to a place,” says Welch, “where we had such confidence in our set-up that if we didn’t get something right, we didn’t question the sound, we questioned what we were doing.”

And that, perhaps, was where the trouble really started.

“Until a song is right,” says Welch, “Dave and I basically exist in a state of misery, and a constant – I mean a never-ending – process of problem-solving. It’s one of the things that I don’t see in our peers. We’ll leave no stone unturned and we will go to the very last millisecond. I love to hear that other people are that crazy, because we are. So when I heard that Peter Jackson was still editing one of the Lord Of The Rings movies until the last moment, that warms my heart. We have done that. I’ve thrown Dave the car keys and we have raced to Fed Ex with the masters, because we were working to the last second we had.”

It seems strange that a record conceived over eight years should be so rushed, but Welch has an explanation. “It’s not as if we were working on this record for eight years. This is a record of the stripe that I like. I love to hear that someone made a record in a consolidated length of time and that it represents a focused moment, a focused look at their mind and what they were thinking.

“This record was written basically in about four months between October and January, and recorded in February here. There’s one really old song – ‘The Way It Will Be’ – that we always had in our head as the beginning of this record.”

Which was written in 2004.

She laughs. “And then we never wrote anything that went with it that we liked. Any number of people would have put out three, four records in this span, and we could have too. There were songs. We did stuff. We didn’t stop. But we were usually were too pissed off with stuff to even record it. We have a very similar inner compass that we can’t lie to or fool for very long.”

That’s mind-bending patience.

“It is mind-bending. I went through so many peaks and furrows of stress and despair and frustration. It’s eight years of knowing that the next thing is going to be scrutinised, and wanting it to be perfect, and I’m so happy that this record isn’t perfect, and errs on the side of spontaneity and honesty. It’s so pared-down, it’s so of the moment. They’re live performances, usually the first or second take. There’s no overdubs, there’s no fixes, there’s no tuning. I feel it’s a very mature record for us because there is this certain confidence in the recording technique and in everything: this is what we do. Here’s what we sound like – in fact, here are the sounds we like. If you don’t care for them, that’s fine.”

For years, then, Welch and Rawlings recorded guest appearances (harmonising with Bright Eyes and Tom Jones, among others), worked on new songs, and played a few of them at live shows. “The Way It Will Be”, an elegantly wracked duet with an air of Neil Young, became so feted (under its alternate title of “Throw Me A Rope”) that one blogger offered to send a high-quality live MP3 of it to anyone who wrote to him articulating their love for Welch. Other songs, like “Lawman” and “Knuckleball Catcher”, sound excellent in multiple Youtube versions. Their fate, currently, remains unknown.

“I would love to say we took six years off, we had this amazing vacation and alternate life,” says Rawlings, whose manic exuberance seems at odds with such creative paralysis. “Largely it was failed attempts at making music, and horror.” Rawlings has a good theory about how songwriters go on streaks, only to be interrupted by promotional and touring obligations. He fears the songwriting glut that produced The Harrow And The Harvest may dry up again when they head out on the road for the rest of the year. Welch agrees.

“We don’t want to step away from it too far this time,” she says. “Not many people go and come back that many times in their career. It doesn’t get any easier. I was talking about writing to Garrison Keillor the other day, and about the problems with it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, y’know, it only gets harder.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

Eventually, prompted by a song called “Ruby” that it seemed logical for Rawlings to sing, they came upon a novel way of circumnavigating the block. “People just gave up,” says Welch. “They thought another record would never come. And I definitely had come to wonder if I was ever going to be happy with anything we did again, enough to put it out. That was one of the important things about making Dave’s record.”

Gathering some of the friends who had contributed to Soul Journey’s Basement Tapes vibe, the pair reconfigured themselves in 2009 as The Dave Rawlings Machine, with Rawlings fronting an easy-going collection of revisited old songs, new ones and covers. “I thought the record that we finally made as Gillian Welch would be so much better if we figured out again how we made records,” says Rawlings.

“Dave,” says Welch, “threw his first solo record under the wheels for the sake of my next record. I’m making a joke of it, but you’ll rarely find a more self-sacrificing man.”

“We played this show in Manhattan,” continues Rawlings, “and the reviewer said he liked the show, but we played one or two songs with Gill singing, and he wrote about what a ‘waste of resources’ my record was, about how much better it was when Gill sings. In the course of what has now been a 15 year career we took five weeks to make a record of mine. And he made some snide remark about how it was like watching someone wear a jacket inside out. I got his point; it was very writerly, it was clever, whatever. And then later I thought, well sometimes you have to turn a jacket inside out to fix the seams. There was truly something useful about turning our music upside down.”

From there, it only took a couple more years to reach a point where a Gillian Welch record could be made, one full of songs that – like Woodland Studios itself – used history to create something new. Certain critics might worry about authenticity, but Welch and Rawlings understand how folk music can be a constantly evolving beast. “I love,” says Rawlings, “that there’s a verse added to ‘I’ll Fly Away’ that Gill wrote, it’s on the O Brother thing, and it’s now part of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. People sing it.”

There’s a song on The Harrow And The Harvest called “Hard Times”, that Welch began work on during the sessions for Rawlings’ album. Levon Helm was scheduled to come down and play (he eventually had to cancel due to laryngitis), so Welch tried to write a song, rich with images of a Camptown man and his mule, that she thought Helm would like. One particular line, “It’s a mean old world, heavy and mean, that big old machine is just picking up speed,” reads like a lament for how the world progresses in great leaps. Welch and Rawlings’ preference, one suspects, is for something more cumulative, where nothing is left behind in the slow push onwards.

Rawlings says provocatively, “I have no interest in traditional music except to steal from it and to enjoy it as a listener,” and claims they are terrible at being traditional musicians. But he also says, “When things move forward or change, there is a sense of loss and things are forgotten.”

“It’s like airplane travel,” Welch continues. “You’ll get there, but you might not realise what you’ve missed. You may have some bizarre sense of loss, and not even be aware of what was lost.”

The next afternoon, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings return to Woodland Studios for photographs. The previous night, they had driven to their favourite restaurant in Nashville, a Japanese place, only to find it had closed down. It was their fault, they speculated, for having been out of town so long.

They remove the bags from the microphones in Studio B, and discuss how to preserve the exact alignment of the set-up; they are pondering the use of lasers, says Rawlings, and it is difficult to tell whether he is joking. It’s difficult, too, to equate these lanky and engaging people with the artists who memorialise their “Dark Turn Of Mind”, whose songs have at their most positive a certain fatalistic air, and more often a forensic fascination with the grimmer aspects of life. “With one of my penpals,” grins Welch, “we end our letters, ‘Please enjoy my pain.’”

Sitting down in the studio, they start distractedly playing their guitars as the photographer circles, and soon songs emerge out of the jam. One is a 1920s country number by Kelly Harrell called “My Name Is John Johanna”, collected by Harry Smith on his Anthology Of American Folk Music. Another is “Tecumseh Valley” by Townes Van Zandt. Both are timeless songs about poverty and travelling away to find work that end, with a certain relish, very badly. As she sings, Welch seems so rapt, so consumed, it is as if she wrote them herself yesterday.

Later, David Rawlings remembers buying a Dries Van Noten suit from Barney’s department store. He wore it onstage, he says, and reviewers called it a sharecropper’s suit. It’s the same as how writers always think Welch wears gingham dresses. They are both animated now, droll but indignant. She has, as a matter of record, never worn gingham.

“People are funny,” Rawlings decides, wonderingly.

Welch looks up from her lunch. “People are funny,” she agrees.

REVIEW OF "The Harrow & The Harvest"

When an artist spends eight years working on – or at least working towards – a new record, it is easy to expect a certain extravagance: complex arrangements, perhaps; an unusual number of songs; possibly even a challenging new direction.

When an artist spends eight years working on – or at least working towards – a new record, it is easy to expect a certain extravagance: complex arrangements, perhaps; an unusual number of songs; possibly even a challenging new direction.

Those who come looking for any of this on Gillian Welch’s fifth album, “The Harrow And The Harvest”, are likely to be disappointed. In fact, Welch and David Rawlings have delivered the exact opposite kind of record: ten simple songs, featuring just the two of them singing and playing guitars, banjo and harmonica, with no great stylistic departures to spook the horses. Eight years passed, it seems, with the duo pathologically refining what they had, rather than elaborating upon it.

The result, as a consequence, is an album with ten new songs that in many cases – “Down Along The Dixie Line” and “Silver Dagger”, especially – could be mistaken for standards, so crafted and evolved that they feel like the work of many discreet hands, over decades. The title of “The Harrow And The Harvest” is a metaphor for the record’s lengthy gestation, I think, as well as a manifestation of Welch and Rawlings’ rurally-inclined aesthetic. Check them out on the cover, drawn as almost pagan deities amidst wild symbolism by metal artist John Baizley, a kind of art-deco companion piece to the cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Ys”.

If “Soul Journey” and the Dave Rawlings Machine albums suggested Welch was tending more and more towards a full band sound – a full Band sound, even – “The Harrow And The Harvest” strips everything right back (“Hard Times”, mind, has a certain Band-like gait). Fans of “Hell Among The Yearlings” and “Time (The Revelator)”, who treasure Welch and Rawlings unadorned, will be well satisfied here. The austere passion of their voices and the virtuoso elegance of their playing have never sounded stronger, or been recorded with such unforgiving clarity.

The comparatively jaunty outlook of “Soul Journey” has been rolled back, too, though some of the gothic extremes of Welch’s earlier work have been replaced by a certain rueful fatalism: three songs here are called “The Way It Will Be”, “The Way It Goes” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends”. A sultry country torch song called “Dark Turn Of Mind”, meanwhile, highlights the charms of gloom-infatuated women with, surely, a wry self-awareness.

Rawlings’ conjoined covers of “Method Acting” (Bright Eyes) and “Cortez The Killer” (Neil Young) on “Friend Of A Friend”, seeming to emerge out of an elevated duo jam, give an indication of how some of these songs sound. “The Way It Goes”, for instance, is a rollicking folk song given extra filigree and nuance by Rawlings dancing around it in a style somewhat reminiscent of Django Reinhardt.

Elsewhere, the album stylistically picks up more where “Time (The Revelator)” left off, orbiting somewhere between deep tradition (“Six White Horses” feels like the work of two particularly assiduous scholars of Harry Smith, and would sit neatly next to something by, say, The Black Twig Pickers) and Neil Youngish balladry (“The Way It Will Be”, a song previously known as “Throw Me A Rope” that’s been a highlight of their live shows since 2004).

The reference I keep coming back to, though – and I’ve played “The Harrow And The Harvest” about twice as many times as any other record this year – is Richard & Linda Thompson, though it may be down to accidental similarities rather than design. It’s there in the calm forcefulness of Welch’s voice, and the way it cuts through the dazzling invention of Rawlings’ accompaniment, from the start of “Scarlet Town” onwards.

“Tennessee”, meanwhile, is one of Welch’s languidly unravelling narratives, which in this case sounds at least a little like the Thompsons working their way through a hitherto undiscovered Townes Van Zandt song. High praise, perhaps, but then Welch and Rawlings have written to my mind some of the best songs of the past decade or so, and “Tennessee” is right up there with “My Morphine”, “Barroom Girls”, “April The 14th”, “I Dream A Highway”, “Caleb Meyer”, “I Made A Lover’s Prayer”… I could go on. The point is, “The Harrow And The Harvest” is one of the least surprising comeback albums in recent memory, and also one of the very, very best. Questions?

 

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