Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings: Two Voices, 10 Kinds of Sad

BY Lauren Knapp  August 17, 2011 at 1:50 PM EDT

When the folk duet of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings went into the studio last fall to record their latest album, ‘The Harrow & The Harvest,’ it was the end of an eight-year hiatus from recording under Welch’s name. The pair had been touring, playing at shows at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and writing songs along the way, but nothing that was right to record.

“I don’t think we were wrong to wait,” Welch told Art Beat. “There wasn’t really a body of work that felt like a record.”

It wasn’t until 2010 when Rawlings and Welch toured as the Dave Rawlings Machine, with Rawlings in the lead and Welch in the supporting role, that the songs started to come together.

“I know for my part, our duet world is pretty constricted, it’s pretty focused,” Welch said. “And I don’t say that as a negative thing; it’s just very intense to play this duet music that we play. And so I kind of feel like for me, the [Dave Rawlings] Machine record and the Machine tour…was a little like getting my yaya’s out.”

“The Harrow & The Harvest” joins four LP’s as well as the soundtrack for the Cohen Brothers’ film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ in the Welch musical catalog. But this first duet recording in a decade from the pair stands out as some of the best of what Welch and Rawlings have to offer: tight harmonies, haunting lyrics and effortless melodies.

Video filmed by Lauren Knapp, Crispin Lopez and Saskia de Melker at the Strathmore Theater in North Bethesda, Md., earlier this summer. Read the full interview with Welch and Rawlings after the jump.

_Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings perform “Hard Times” off of The Harrow & The Harvest

ART BEAT: How’s the tour going so far?

GILLIAN WELCH: Three weeks in, just had a couple days off around the Newport Folk Festival, which was good timing, because road crispiness was just starting to set in. But the tour’s going really well. I’m very excited to be out here with all these new songs. It’s really changing the show a lot.

ART BEAT: Tell us about the new album.

GILLIAN WELCH: It’s called “The Harrow & the Harvest” with an ampersand for the and… I don’t know, do you want to say anything? Dave came up with the ampersand. (Laughs)

DAVE RAWLINGS: It’s a collection of 10 new songs, they were all written relatively recently, particularly when you look at the amount of time from our record previous to this which was about eight years ago. So the fact that most of the songs date from the past year, and in fact, quite a few are from the past three or four months — it’s cool as far as we’re concerned.

GILLIAN WELCH: Definitely they date from recent history which was one of my concerns with taking this long. with a big chunk of time between records. I really didn’t want the songs to be cherry picked from, you know, one song from 2004, one song from 2005. I don’t know how I would relate to that.

ART BEAT: It’s not that you haven’t been writing over the past several years, just that they weren’t up to your standard.

GILLIAN WELCH: They weren’t, they wouldn’t have been up to your standard either.

DAVE RAWLINGS: We know you’re very discerning.

GILLIAN WELCH: We know you’re very discerning, yeah. You know, I still trust if we don’t like them, other people won’t care for them much. I don’t think we were wrong to wait. There wasn’t really a body of work that felt like a record. We can usually tell when the songs start appearing that are the record. It’s a little hard to talk about but they do have a certain unifying feeling. They feel like a group of songs that should be on a record together. And some subject matter usually presents itself even though we don’t talk about what the record will be about or if there’s a theme or anything like that. Eventually a group of songs starts to coalesce. And that’s what happened in the fall and early winter of last year.

ART BEAT: And what’s the theme of this album?

GILLIAN WELCH: It’s pretty adult themed. It has to do with progress and loss and the passage of time and human relationships and all the knocks and bumps they take over the years. It has to do with reversals. Dave has said it’s ten different kinds of sad and that’s kind of true. It’s not as nocturnal of a record — I don’t think it’s as chilly a record as “Revelator”, it’s a little warmer. The trees are pretty bare in the “Revelator” landscape, it’s a pretty wintry landscape.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, they changed color on this album, but they haven’t fallen off yet.

GILLIAN WELCH: Yeah, it’s kind of going backwards, this is more autumnal.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, there’s a resilience to it and there’s a humor in it also. It depends on who the listener is and what they’re looking for from their music. I mean compared, to some things it is very sad, but maybe compared to our music or other folk music it’s right in the middle of the road.

GILLIAN WELCH: Middle sad.

ART BEAT: How did the Dave Rawlings Machine affect this new project?

GILLIAN WELCH: I know for my part our duet world is pretty constricted, it’s pretty focused. And I don’t say that as a negative thing, it’s just very intense to play this duet music that we play. And so I kind of feel like for me the [Dave Rawlings] Machine record and the Machine tour and getting to be out on the road with the guys from the [Old Crow Medicine Show] was a little like getting my yaya’s out. It was quite fun. I think everybody had a pretty good time and there was this great sense from everyone, from ourselves, and from the guys from The Crows, that it wasn’t quite their normal gig. It was a little bit of a party.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, it wasn’t that long of a tour and so it all felt pretty special. And we had, you know we needed a little more time to get the songs together. It felt like things were starting to move in the right direction but we weren’t quite there and I know from a production standpoint, we’d always wanted to be able to make a record and then make a record shortly thereafter. But as is the case with the record Gillian just made, we’re going to be touring for quite a while on this record, and it was never really feasible, but because the Machine was a bit more of a side project thing and we couldn’t use the Old Crow guys for that long, we did a concise tour and got right back into writing and were probably in the studio a year after. It still felt very fresh.

GILLIAN WELCH: And The Machine stuff was different enough, that I feel we both got to return to the duet with sort of, a little bit of pent up gusto, because it had been a long time. You know “Soul Journey” wasn’t a duet record, and the Machine record wasn’t a duet record, so it had been this huge amount of time that even though we’d been playing and gigging, the two of us in the duet format, we hadn’t put it on record in a decade. So that was the first thing — I was really excited to go into the studio and record duet music. It’s definitely a big chunk of what we love doing. I love playing two acoustic guitars and two voices.

ART BEAT: Is that what went into the decision to have a really low-key sound?

DAVE RAWLINGS: I think the songs have as much to do with that as anything. But, I know even from prior to Soul Journey we had known that, the arrangements on that record were driven by the songs. And we put on a few solo pieces of Gil’s and we put on some fuller band stuff, but it was supposed to be a catch all of this music that we liked but we didn’t necessarily think there was a full themed record in any of those things. So we put that together, but then knew that our next project would be returning to, you know, this acoustic stuff or this duet stuff. And so as we were writing we were aware of it, but also, you can’t exactly control what you write, but it just turned out this time.

GILLIAN WELCH: It’s funny too… it’s no surprise that this is a totally acoustic record, it’s just what we do. I don’t think we even talked about any other instrumentation. But it’s interesting that in the years that have passed since Soul Journey the record making process has moved even more digital than it was when we made Soul Journey. It started to happen with the Machine record — which is a completely analog record — because that’s how we record. It’s the best way to record acoustic instruments. And it started to happen — people would just comment on, “Wow, the sound of the record is just so different sounding.” And that’s been happening with this record too. And I think… It’s just interesting because we haven’t really changed what we’re doing, but the world has changed around us and apparently our process sticks out now as an oddity in the world.

DAVE RAWLINGS: When we record in the studio, we record together, and we record sitting as close as we can sit, honestly…

GILLIAN WELCH: Like just without our knees touching — we’re about thee feet apart…

DAVE RAWLINGS: And we have four microphones, but every microphone picks up any sound in its way. Obviously there’s a microphone I’m supposed to be singing in and a microphone Gil’s supposed to be singing in but they’re all making a picture together. So, we don’t do any overdubbing or any fixes, we couldn’t. If it isn’t the performance, we sort of have to play it again or cut it together.

GILLIAN WELCH: There is an atmospheric quality you get from that. You know, you can sort of hear the room breathe a little. You can hear the space that we’re in, not just the instruments, which is important to us. You know the space is part of the sound.

ART BEAT: How does the songwriting process work between the two of you? Do you go to each other for feedback?

GILLIAN WELCH: We’re definitely a songwriting team.

DAVE RAWLINGS: It’s not nearly so formal.

GILLIAN WELCH: No it isn’t, we don’t make appointments to get together and write.

DAVE RAWLINGS: And it also has a thing… you know Gillian might be playing a few things or I might be playing something and one of us might notice a particular, you know, piece or bit of an old chord progression that we’re interested in.

GILLIAN WELCH: And we seem to trust each other, like if I get interested in something I hear you playing, that’s a good sign. And if he’s interested in something I’ve started, that’s a good sign. You know, we trust those initial reactions.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, if something makes you want to move closer and listen to it, you’re on the right path.

GILLIAN WELCH: Like with “Miss Ohio”, for instance, I don’t think that would exist as a song — in fact I’m fairly certain it would never have entered the world — if Dave hadn’t overheard me playing this silly little nursery rhyme of a song I made up. I really didn’t take it very seriously, and he’s like, “You should finish that one.”

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, I just heard something going around in a circle, and I was like, “What was that catchy thing you were playing?”

GILLIAN WELCH: And I said, “What catchy thing?”

DAVE RAWLINGS: So that happens.

GILLIAN WELCH: But that’s not always the way it goes. “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” is a kind of rare example of, we actually made that up together. Normally, we have to go into separate rooms to work. It’s like my writer brain can’t relax without a locked door between me and the rest of the world. But “Ends” we composed together.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, I just started singing a melody — partially just to mock us. I though most of what we did was sort of slow and boring. I was like, we would write a song this boring, we would write a song with one note that went bah-ba-bah-ba-bah-ba-bah and I got like five notes in and I’m like, “Oh, I like this!” And then I just kept going until I got to the end and I said the little cornbread thing and that’s the way the whole thing ends…

GILLIAN WELCH: And I started spitting out nonsense words, kind of like Miss Ohio. Like just say words, see what comes out.

DAVE RAWLINGS: And then, there’s obviously a decent amount of work in finishing something like that.

GILLIAN WELCH: But that is how it started. So I think at this point we’ve written songs about every way two people can. I’ve started them, he’s started them. I’ve finished them, he’s finished them. I’ve written the music, he’s written the music. You know, pretty much every way.

ART BEAT: Gillian, I read that you were in a punk band in college. Do you ever feel like trying out a completely different genre — just for a couple weeks?

GILLIAN WELCH: I do like all kinds of music. Dave does too. But, in a way, I kind of work in subtleties, so in a way, that’s almost what Soul Journey was. That was me wilding out and using organ, electric guitar and drums. It seems unlikely that we would write a punk record at this point.

DAVE RAWLINGS: I just don’t know, everyone dabbles in different things and plays different kinds of music. You have to have thought about that music a lot or really have a deep understanding of it if you’re going to add to any genre or add worthwhile music to the world, and I guess I’ve never felt like…

GILLIAN WELCH: It’s pretty rare to be able to do that in two genres. Like, you’re lucky if you can do that in one.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, I have too much respect for punk music to try and write it.

GILLIAN WELCH: Yeah, I’m too much of a novice. I’d miss all the subtleties, of which there are subtleties in punk music, of course, and I’d just mess it all up.

ART BEAT: Were there any songs that surprised you?

GILLIAN WELCH: “Hard Times” and “Tennessee” are the two songs on the record that went through the most evolutions and revolutions. They really changed and came back around. “Tennessee”, at the last moment, we had recorded it two or three times, but weren’t really happy with it. And late, afternoon, in the studio, Dave pretty substantially rewrote the music to the chorus part.

DAVE RAWLINGS: To the verses too. I mean, a lot of times, as Gil doesn’t like to write with someone else around, I’m pretty likely to be thinking about how I’d like something to go and say, “Well how about this?” and sing it. And that’s how that music got written. I just started at the beginning and sang through a verse and a chorus with new music and we were both pretty excited and thought well, “I guess tomorrow we’ll try that.” And that’s how the song stayed.

GILLIAN WELCH: Yeah, that was the record. And “Hard Times”, similarly went through many changes. It started as almost, The Band inspired track. I started, when Dave was still making the Machine record, and I was thinking about Levon Helm who was going to come in and play drums on the Machine record. And I started thinking about Levon and the type of song he would like and Levon got laryngitis, he didn’t come in, the song sat around, I didn’t finish it, and Dave resurrected it on one of our cross-country driving trips, just in a hotel in Colorado somewhere. [He was] working on the banjo. And it turned into a banjo song, and he basically infused it with this whole second push of material — wrote the chorus, which he’s pretty good at. Dave’s our go-to chorus guy. I can’t remember how it got finished. Most of the songs got finished — like they were all sort of progressing and moving toward completion — and they all got finished in Nashville in the studio. They were all pretty fresh, it was a pretty spontaneous process. They’d get done, we’d cut them the next day. It’s kind of nice because I tend to settle in to how I sing the songs. The good part about that is that I’m pretty consistent. The bad part is that…

DAVE RAWLINGS: She’s pretty consistent.

GILLIAN WELCH: They’re not gonna change much. So we’ve kind of figured out it’s a good thing to catch me on a first or second take. You’ll get stuff that I’ll pretty quickly smooth out of the performance.

ART BEAT: What makes a good song?

DAVE RAWLINGS: What I’m looking for in a song as a listener is very different from what I’m looking for in a song when I’m working on it. When we’re working on a song, I generally just want it to make me nervous. If it makes me nervous in a particular way, I know it’s good. I need to feel it. It has to have it’s own identity, it has to be alive in some way. It has to connect to my life or Gillian’s life. And then if all those things are happening, I want to work on it and I want to get it finished and I think that’s why I’m nervous.

GILLIAN WELCH: Also, with songs of ours, I realize that with the good ones, it’s like when you hear about an actor who has created an entire backstory that informs the little snippet in the movie that you actually see. I feel like our good songs are like that. That I have this immediate sense of the entire world that that song comes out of, like there’s an unspoken novel back behind the song.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Yeah, and when they’re in that place, it’s often easy to take a very small thing that has crossed your mind that you’ve thought of, and incorporate it into the song. Like, once the song begins to be true in one way or two ways, it’s usually easy to spread it out, to give it a little more depth or to have a few layers by adding things that, in a way, are unrelated, but you know as a true observation or a feeling.

GILLIAN WELCH: Yeah, yeah it crops up. As Dave was saying, all kinds of feelings that you have can go into a song in a short phrase. Like in “Hard Times”, the beginning of the second verse when we say, “It’s a mean old world having a need and that big machine is just picking up speed.” Like there are so many times when how you would sum up a frustration or a trial as you were being squashed by a machine. You know? Like just today, I’m trying to refill some prescriptions out here while I’m on the road, and I can’t. Because I can’t get a person, because I’m calling on the phone and I can’t get anything done without the number on the bottle. But I can’t, because the number rubbed off, because it was printed by a crappy printer. And so I have this bottle with an illegible number and I call up and the first thing they say to me is, “Please say your number”. And I can’t because my number is worn off. So I get nowhere. I’m completely shutdown by the machine. Anyhow. Ta Da!

DAVE RAWLINGS: Just use that. I think that one question, one answer, and Ta Da! (Laughs)

ART BEAT: If you had a goal, what would the goal be for your songs? Are you trying to communicate something to the audience? Is it an act of catharsis?

GILLIAN WELCH: My heartfelt goal is that there isn’t another eight-year pause before the next record. You know, as well as I feel like this record’s emergence into the world has gone — people seem to like it, we’re having gun playing the shows — the real success is going to be the ability to make another record in a timely fashion. And I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it. We can’t really write on the road, and we’re going to be out on the road for the next six months. So we’ll see what happens. But that is the ultimate — that is the goal. All of the other stuff, we can’t help it. It’s not a question of self-expression. We only like the songs if we’re true to ourselves and if we feel like we’re expressing something. That’s part of what this 8 year gap has proven to us is that we just have the things that satisfy us and they’re constants.

DAVE RAWLINGS: Music was always more important than anything else. Even when I was young I got so much out of listening to music, it was one of my favorite things. And although I can’t enjoy my own music in that way — I don’t think Gillian can enjoy her music in that way — you have to assume that there may be some one out there who can enjoy your music the way you’ve enjoyed other music. I see it as more of a chain. And it’s certainly a rewarding thing to try to write songs and to try to entertain people, I’ve always loved it. And I just have to have faith that there’s people out there who are getting something out of it that I understand very well, but not with regard to the sounds that we make or the songs that we write. I’ve said before one of the nice things that can happen to you is if you happen to be somewhere and someone is playing your music, but they’re playing it a long way away, and you hear out of the corner of your ear, “What is that? That sounds good”. And you sort of go towards it to figure out what it is, and then you’ve been able to enjoy your music for a split second.

GILLIAN WELCH: For a split second, before you knew where it was.

DAVE RAWLINGS: But it’s rare.

GILLIAN WELCH: And it only lasts like a half a second, and then you realize it’s you.