Interview: Gillian Welch
The singer-songwriter regains her love of the South.
Tue Aug 23 2011
Was there a feeling, a character or an event in particular that inspired your new record, The Harrow and the Harvest?
There definitely are some themes on it that deal with the passage of time, and reversals, and changes, and what happens to human relations and friendships. [There are] some pretty adult themes of dealing with how things don't go the way you thought they would, or the way you wanted them to. In the larger sense, dealing with regret and sadness and these sort of adult themes are riddled throughout the record.
The album also has a lot to do with loss and coming to terms with it. Are there any songs that are particularly difficult for you to play, or perhaps more cathartic, for that reason?
Yeah. A song like "Hard Times" is about a very particular type of loss, which is something my partner, Dave [Rawlings], said. It was the first song that got written after the "The Way It Will Be" that he thought was us actually writing this record. That was a bit of a turning point, and a really good signpost. When a song can be very particular, that's a good omen in our world. Human particularity is something we're interested in. I'm very interested in—not to use big-sounding words—but the universality of specificity. When the songs have enough truth about our lives in a very particular way, they seem to be true in other people's lives. This is related to the beauty of folk music. This is what folk music does also, in a very understated way, you know? In a completely unheavy-handed way.
You said "Hard Times" was a turning point. Was it a thematic marker for how you wanted the rest of the record to turn out, in a way?
In all ways. I think it was a bit of a creative statement for ourselves. For one thing, the song literally says, you know, "Don't stop singing the song." [Laughs] The oldest song on the record is "The Way It Will Be." That dates from around Soul Journey. We always thought that was for this record, but as it turns out, we just had to wait a very long time for the rest of the songs to accompany it. But "Hard Times" is the second-oldest song, the song that started us writing the rest of the record. This record got written largely in the fall of 2010. We finally got down to it.
Why did it take so long—eight years—for you to write a follow up to
Soul Journey? Were you working on the record the entire time, or did you start and stop?It's hard to say. We wrote a lot of songs. We started and stopped numerous times. But the totally crass way of putting it is, we just didn't like the songs we were writing. They have to seem true to us, we have to be interested in what they're saying. I like the songs to appear very simple and to flow by without any kind of hiccup, but there has to be this impression of other currents underneath. Like if the songs aren't, on some level, multidimensional, we lose interest in them. Does that make sense?
It does. You're making the songs, so it seems you would know best if they become uninteresting.
Sort of. I don't always think that I know best. This is just one of the great things about working as a team with David. It's not uncommon for me to just spit a little piece of poetry out without fully seeing how it even connects to my life. As an older example, when I wrote "Orphan Girl," I wasn't even really thinking that it related to my life. Silly, it seems. [Laughs] I was thinking about language that I liked, and trying to write a song that was sort of classic enough that Ralph Stanley would like it. That's a thing that I come back to quite often, thinking about artists that I really admire and how they motivate our work. "Barroom Girls" was written to try to write a song that Townes Van Zandt would like, because we were hanging out with Townes around that time—he was showing up at our gigs, we had the same booking agent, we'd see him at Christmas parties. So I thought, Man, the next time I see Townes, I want to have a new song that he likes. It's a very strong motivator. "Hard Times" was for Levon Helm.
What kind of narrators do you like? Can you describe some of the characters on this album?
I feel like they've been through some trials. They've been through some trouble. But one of the unifying things about the characters is I feel like they've come through the other side, though not really unscathed. But this record is largely written from the bright side of the tunnel. David said this record is ten different kinds of sad. It's kind of true. There's a lot of regret and loss, but there's usually a kind of optimistic stoicism in there too. And as I said, in this case there's sort of a wry knowingness that some of the characters have. The wheel goes around many times, and things change. I think this is something that most of the characters in the song seem to know. If you're up, it's going to change. If you're down, it's going to change.
The South is clearly a big part of your music, especially on this album, with "Tennessee" and "Down Along the Dixie Line," but the music is incredibly dark. Why do you think the South does that to people?
I love that there's this tradition of being able to discuss the heaviest topics and the gnarliest stuff that goes down in people's lives in traditional Southern American music. The folk tradition that has hung around in the Southeast is very well suited to dealing with murder, rape, self-destruction. And I think that's one of the reasons why it suits us so well. Of course, this is one of the things that drew me to bluegrass music in the first place. I just didn't feel like the subject matter was pulling any punches, as opposed to pop music.
What specific Southern experiences of your own did you invoke while writing The Harrow and the Harvest?
I was thinking a lot about when I moved to Nashville in trying to write this record. I moved there in 1992, and Dave and I have been there ever since. It really is the cradle of our work. But we were having enough trouble working that I felt to some degree like my romance with Nashville and the South had kind of worn off. I'd been there long enough that it was just where I lived, and all of the magic that was there when I moved there, all of my fascination with the records that had been made there, and the people who were alive and living there when we got there.... Anyhow, I think I had become slightly numb to it all, almost like with a long-term relationship. After 20 years, you might need to do something to shake the dust off. Part of how we figured it out was we got out of town for a little while, and did quite a bit of driving. I think we made eight or ten cross-country trips in the car during the course of working on this record. It helped, it had the advantage of being outside of it, to look back and to think about why that area works for us and why we live there, what drew us there in the first place.
Your voice in particular, and the music you make, sounds like it came from another time. In your everyday life, either generally or artistically, are you more drawn to the past?
No, because none of the stuff is happening in the past for me. This is the best and only way I can express myself. And I definitely see folk music as a living, breathing thing. I've said it before, but I don't really think that people change. I don't really think that humanity has really changed, and so of course the wonderful thing about folk music is that it's about pretty universal, fundamental human themes.
Because of how your and David's voices entwine, it always seems like you have a kind of mind meld going on. Do you feel that only becomes stronger as time passes?
I do think that we're even more of a cohesive team now than we've ever been, and hopefully it is seamless. I know that the writing on this record was more collaborative than ever before. I know my guitar playing has changed, though it's probably too subtle and microscopic a change for most people to care about. But I just feel like I'm more confident than ever. We're such a small band that I used to feel like I had to absolutely hold down everything, and then Dave would do all the improvisational melodic stuff on top of it. And while it's true that I still have to hold down the rhythmic stuff, I feel like I'm letting my guitar playing get even more open, and in a sense incomplete, with the confidence that what Dave is doing is going to complete it. There's an easiness on this record, and there's a way that this record kind of breathes with our four sounds: the two voices and the two instruments. As opposed to Revelator, which is beautiful and tight and sort of hard and almost icy, I feel like this record is warmer and earthier and more relaxed. In fact, I think it's our most wry record. I think it's our most humorous record.
I wonder what you think of the sort of modern bluegrass and alt-country resurgence, especially out of England with bands like Mumford & Sons and Matthew and the Atlas.
Yeah! It's a pretty interesting time. Way more social—we have many more comrades out here in the acoustic wilderness than we did when we started. It was lonesome when Dave and I started. Even folk musicians weren't really playing acoustic instruments. [Laughs] There is an acoustic revolution going on now, and I'm really happy. I feel like there's a lot more good music to be made.