A Conversation with Gillian Welch On Her Way To Canada by Mike Ragogna 8/3/11 from The Huffington Post

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  • August 4, 2011 5:45 AM PDT
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Mike Ragogna : Hi Gillian, let's talk about your new album The Harrow And The Harvest . Personally, I would love to go through this record with you and explore each song.


Gillian Welch : We can try. I usually don't like pinning down exactly what a song is about because one of the things I'm most interested in is, you know, letting other people connect with the song however they choose to. Like, if someone comes up to me and says, "Oh I love your song about blah blah blah," I'm not going to tell them it's not about what they think it's about. Do you know what I mean?

 

MR : I do. How about this--can we talk about the inspiration behind a song or two?

 

GW : Yeah. Let's totally talk about them, and I'll tell you what I can--assuming that I know what they're about. (laughs) Some of them remain somewhat mysterious to me, even. Let's talk about them.

 

MR : Can we start with "Scarlet Town?"

 

GW : Oh, yeah. Well, that one--it's funny, people have heard a lot of connection to more, like, English folk music in that one, which was kind of accidental. Dave (Rawlings) and I have certainly listened to our share of, say, Richard Thompson and that type of stuff, but that one, for me, kind of came out of more of an old Joe Clark-type American storytelling tradition, kind of erring some grievances against your host. (laughs) So, that one...it's hard to remember exactly, but I know that one got written basically in order. The first verse came first, and the chorus got spat out, and that's about all I can remember.

 

MR : Okay, that begs the question what's your creative process like? How does the inspiration hit you?

 

GW : Well, this was one of the interesting things about this record. Dave and I had been, to some degree, trying to write this record for seven or eight years without a terrible amount of success. We kept writing, but no group of songs ever developed that really seemed to be a "record." We're pretty album-oriented artists, you know. I really care about the overall flavor or theme or cohesiveness of the album, and so does Dave. So, one of the things with this record was that a lot of these songs--most of these songs--got started in Nashville, where we live. And then, part of the process of writing this record was that Dave and I took about ten cross country trips in the car--just back and forth across I-40, across I-10, across I-70--and these songs got worked on in numerous hotels all across the U.S.

 

MR : So, the album was basically written on the road.

 

GW : A lot of it, yeah. It's funny. The songs...most of them got written in October, November, December, and January of 2010 turning into 2011. We do tend to work on stuff somewhat simultaneously. We'll have a couple songs going at any given time. But as the record started to come together and it looked like we had songs that were starting to actually kind of connect to each other, that's the really exciting moment for us. That's when it actually feels like we have a record on the line. We had one song, "The Way It Will Be," which is the oldest song on the record. It dates from around the time of Soul Journey . In fact, it got written before Soul Journey was finished. But we kind of knew immediately that it was for a different record. It had a different sound, and so we just kept waiting for the other songs that would sort of sit with it. Those are the songs that started to get written in the late fall of last year.

 

MR : So, basically, songs have been gestating since 2003.

 

GW : I guess. I mean, I feel like we did a lot of work on our song craft. Basically, because it wasn't working--we weren't happy with the songs we were writing. And so, I kind of feel like we sort of tore our whole thing down and kind of rebuilt it to see how it works. But it's a tricky thing. Our songs--when they're working for us and when they're satisfying for David and myself--I feel like they kind of strike a funny balance between, say, country and rock 'n' roll and bluegrass and folk and modern and traditional and narrative and confessional. They just kind of walk this funny line.

 

MR : You're very demanding of your songs. (laughs)

 

GW : Yeah. One of the things I've realized is that we definitely are perfectionists, because we're never really...I don't know that we're aspiring to great heights. I feel like when we're working, it's a constant battle against just hating the stuff that we do. We're just trying to have it not suck.

 

MR : You and Dave have been together for so long and the partnership has produced such a unique sound and body of records that I couldn't picture things otherwise. Yet, you were advised to leave Dave at one point and go another direction, right?

 

GW : Yeah. Well, it was somewhat understandable, the advice to not do this. In the mid-'90s, when Dave and I were just getting started in Nashville, you couldn't look around and point your finger at another acoustic duet. This did not have the earmarks of a successful recipe, if you know what I mean. And so people wanted us to do what was working at the time, which was, you know, "country-folk singer fronts a folk-tinged country band." This is what was working at the time and we didn't want to do that. I've never really had any interest in that. So, yeah. I think I've said before that we basically spent three or four years just finding our way in Nashville, just basically saying "no" to everybody. People were offering us deals and stuff and we just said, "no, no, no, no." (laughs) But, you know, there's no logical reason for it. We just had this inexplicable commitment to this sound that we liked.

We had a tremendous interest in this duet base, this acoustic sound that has a deep history in this country with famous duet acts like The Monroe Brothers and The Stanley Brothers and The Delmore Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys on to a slightly more uptown sound with The Everly Brothers and The Louvin Brothers. This was a very popular and interesting and innovative form, and then it largely got abandoned to the point where in the '90s, Dave and I were looking around and couldn't really find an honest-to-goodness duet act. I guess there were some, it's true. Dave just corrected me...there was Norman and Nancy Blake, who we were huge fans of, and there were Tim and Molly O'Brien, who we love as well, although they didn't perform strictly as a duet. They had a larger bluegrass band with them.

But, you know, it was great. When we were starting out, I think we felt like if we kept on with just two guitars and the two of us singing, we felt that it hadn't really been played out, you know what I mean? I think we had an immediate sense that there was more to be done, that there was way more work in the modern world to be done with the acoustic duet. We were excited, we remain excited about it. I still feel like there's way, way further to go.

 

MR : You've also recorded duets with other artists, like "I'll Fly Away," which you did with Alison Krauss on O Brother Where Art Thou? That album was so huge, and I think it kind of brought you to the public's eye. That album brought such a rise in consciousness towards bluegrass and folk. With all the hoopla that surrounded that album, it must have been a great moment for you as well.

 

GW : Yeah, it was really funny because that record--the O Brother... record--is, in a way, a one-record encapsulation of my record collection. (laughs) You know what I mean? And necessarily so, that's just how it happened. T-Bone (Burnett) came to me to work with them as associate producer on it, and so, you know, it ended up with the artists that I knew and loved, and that he knew and loved. So, the strangest thing about it was that nothing, in a way, really changed for me. I always held Ralph Stanley and Norman Blake in the highest esteem and regard, and all that happened was that suddenly ten million other people did also. (laughs) People ask if it changed me, and I'm like, "No, I think O Brother... changed the world more than it changed me." But it was a great thing, because it was just...for years, Dave and I have included some Ralph Stanley and some Stanley Brothers songs in our live show. They were a huge influence on our duet singing. They were one of the acts that really influenced the way we figured out how to sing as a duet, and early on, we'd say "This is a song we learned from Ralph Stanley," and we'd hear a couple people clap if we were in, say, Detroit. And after O Brother... , we'd say, "This is a song we learned from Ralph Stanley," and the whole place just screams. So, that's kind of what O Brother did.

 

MR : T-Bone Burnett is especially entrenched in your early career, isn't he?

 

GW : Yeah, he produced our first two records, and then, we worked with him on O Brother... that's a pretty sizable collaboration with T-Bone. It's much more common for him to work with people for one record and then move on. He's such a passionate producer. When he's working with someone, he just puts everything into it, and then I think he necessarily has to move on. That's not really sustainable, it's unusual.

 

MR : You followed those works with Time (The Revelator) , which people refer to as one of the top classic folk albums of all time. How do you place that album in your body of work?

 

GW : Well, it's hugely important on quite a few levels. It was a big, big step for us as far as self-sufficiency goes. There's this crazy, staunch vein of self-sufficiency running through it, and it comes from a time when our record label got sold and so we kind of stepped away from the record business to a certain degree and started our own label. It's the first record that we self-produced in that Dave produced the record. We kind of went into RCA (Studio) B to make that record and built our own recording rig in there. We basically built our own studio to make that record. It goes on and on. It was like we were homesteading--we did everything. And it's interesting because over the years, I find that when we're put in that position where we are completely self-sufficient and feel like we're responsible for all of it, I feel like that kind of brings out the best in us. That was going on with this new record also, The Harrow And The Harvest . I felt like we'd been kind of out of it for long enough that once again, nobody was going to make us do it. Many people, in fact, had given up that we were ever going to make a record again. And so, here we were once again, adrift in the lifeboat, and if we were going to make it work, it was going to be us that were going to do it.

 

MR : And Time (The Revelator) was Grammy-nominated. It's so amazing, the territory it covers--it's like a course in American history. It's truly Americana.

 

GM : You know, it was a funny time for us. We were, of course, in Nashville, which is where we live and have been there for just about twenty years now, which is hard to believe. It's funny, because now I've had to be talking about this new record a decent amount, and be comparing and contrasting it with The Revelator record. I kind of think that Revelator is a headier record, like, if Revelator is a record of the head, I think this new record has sort of moved down a little bit and is a little more a record of the heart. I don't think it's quite as frenetically cerebral. With Revelator , I know all these crazy sort of collisions were happening at the time, and part of it was that we were living in Nashville and Dave and I are so nocturnal. Nashville is...in it's way, a pretty straight town, and it pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at about ten o'clock. We weren't really waking up until about four in the afternoon, so we felt like we were living in a ghost town. We never saw anybody. All I did was read and listen to music and sort of walk around the deserted streets of Nashville. And so I really thing that that definitely contributed to this kind of bizarre, outsider mood of Revelator .

 

MR : So, what advice might you have for new artists?

 

GW : You know, today I feel like whatever you're going to do, whatever your thing is, just do it to a crazy degree. Just do it more than anybody. I don't understand why people would accept any amount of compromise in their work. If you're going to be quiet and small and introspective folk, be the quietest, smallest, most introspective folk artist. Or if you're going to be confessional and completely excoriating emo-rock, then be the most. My feeling today is just, "Let your freak flag fly." There's no reason to play it safe. Ever. The greatest gains Dave and I have ever made were by complete and utter crazy gambles. And they pay off.

 

MR : Beautiful. What do you think is your major growth, creatively, since you were a woman taking a couple of songwriting classes at Berkeley?

 

GW : I just think--particularly with this record--I feel like there's a maturity in the work. You know, Dave and I have been doing this for about twenty years now and I just feel like we don't have to prove anything to anybody else. We're just trying to do good work. I'm just interested in doing better work. I just feel like we've dispensed with having to, you know, prove ourselves to any outside commentator.

 

MR : Nice. I really appreciate the time you've spent with me today, all the best to you, Gillian.

 

GW : Thanks. It's been nice talking to you.

 

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-ragogna/hymns-harrows-harvests-mo_b_916771.html

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