AHEAD of her Glasgow gig, Gillian Welch tells Fiona Shepherd about the road trip that led to a plentiful harvest of new songs
It is 1am in Gillian Welch’s world when we speak – peak productivity time for whatever activity takes her fancy, be it writing, reading, cooking, sewing. “It’s when I seem to have the most direct connection to my thoughts,” she says.
It’s also when the world is at its most still, and Welch’s quiet, contemplative, mournful songs can come whispering out of the darkness. But for a long time – eight years in fact – things went very quiet in Welch’s world as she and her partner David Rawlings struggled to write their next album.
Since debuting in 1996 with Revival, an appropriately titled distillation of traditional Americana recorded simply and sparsely, Welch, the adopted daughter of light entertainers, had produced a steady stream of acclaimed work, carving out her place as a new vessel for the old folk sounds of the South, and gradually rising through the ranks to become one of the most respected contemporary folk artists.
But following the release of her 2003 album Soul Journey, Welch hit a wall with her writing. There was no great personal trauma, or none that Welch is giving away, just a cessation in the flow of songs she was prepared to put out into the world.
Welch and Rawlings are songwriters. That is what they do in life. Since meeting as students at Berklee College of Music, they have dedicated themselves wholly to writing, recording, producing and playing music, and could not contemplate doing anything else. So they persevered and wrote songs and scrapped songs and started over in an increasingly debilitating circle of disillusion that ultimately caused them to question whether they could continue doing the thing they loved, or would have to face the fearful prospect that the songwriting well had run dry.
“We did have questions: were we ever going to be able to write songs that we liked again?” admits Welch. “It was a rough time, it just about made us crazy.”
Mercifully, the drought ended earlier this year with the release of The Harrow & The Harvest, a beautiful, masterful album which moves serenely from the languorous, blissed-out acid folk of The Way It Will Be through the timeless blues of Dark Turn Of Mind to the back porch bluegrass lament of Six White Horses and homespun wisdom of The Way The Whole Thing Ends. Happily, it was worth the wait.
“The last thing I wanted to do was have the record take that long – that wasn’t the plan,” says Welch. “But some good definitely came of it. There are more miles that we’ve covered so I can’t really feel bad about it at this point. There’s no way this record would be as it is without all the years of playing and performing and the mental and creative frustration that we went through. I can hear a tone on the record, there is a somewhat mature or worldly colour to it that I think has come from struggling for a number of years with the writing.”
In the end, the crack that broke the dam came down to a simple shift of focus. Until recently, it was always Welch’s name on the album sleeves even though she and Rawlings come as a package, writing separately then serving their ideas back and forth like a ping-pong match until they are happy with the result. But over the years, Rawlings had been seeing other writers, penning rockier songs with Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and it became apparent that it was time for him to step into the spotlight and put his name to an album. The Dave Rawlings Machine was born.
“For one thing, Dave deserved to make a record,” says Welch. “He had put it off and put it off because he never could conscience taking the time away from my record-making, but it was absolutely the right thing to do because suddenly we stepped outside the pressure cooker. There were no real expectations because it was Dave’s first record and that’s when the writing started to come round.”
Following the release of A Friend Of A Friend in 2009, the couple toured with Old Crow Medicine Show. In fact, they had never stopped playing live all through the lean years. It has made them better players, Welch reckons, although life on the road did nothing for the songwriting stockpile. “Touring is not really a meditative activity, it’s a public activity,” she says. “And the writing for me is so private. As much as Dave and I are a writing team, I still mostly write with the door closed.”
As it turned out, much of The Harrow & The Harvest was written behind closed hotel room doors – not in the course of touring but during a series of inspiring road trips the couple made last year, when they took time out from their Nashville life to criss-cross the US with the sound of their favourites The Grateful Dead ringing in their ears.
“When you drive it’s not the least bit sterile,” says Welch, “not like going from city to city in an aeroplane. You’re actually confronted with the miles that you are moving and you see everything, the poetry on the road signs, the historical markers, all the place names that trigger so many thoughts and memories. The history is so apparent and alive and all you have to do is drive from Nashville to California and you’ll bump right into it, you’ll see it, it’s everywhere. And it’s good for us, the kind of writers that Dave and I are, we really draw from that.”
Welch’s music has always been peopled by drifters, down-and-outs and lost souls but new songs such as Hard Times are directly informed by what she witnessed on the road. “It’s really hard times in this country right now. You wouldn’t believe it driving around. I’m seeing stuff that looks like 1930s WPA [Works Progress Administration] photographs. Whole towns boarded up, people out of work, parking a car on the corner with a sign that says they’ll give you haircuts out of their car for $5. It’s so scrappy. People are trying to do anything to make some money.”
Scrappy, however, won’t do for Welch. She speaks with the contentment, relief and optimism of someone who has finally achieved her goal without having to scrabble about or cobble together.
“I’m so happy that the record doesn’t actually span the eight years,” she says. “Dave and I are interested in the album as a piece of art and I couldn’t imagine how that could make a cohesive record. I am so pleased that it’s just a record, the way records are. Despite the amount of time that went by, it’s just a snapshot of last winter.”
Kind of like the pain of childbirth, you forget it once it’s over and the baby has been delivered? “Yeah, and I think it’s a good thing because you don’t want to attach that kind of weight or dread or any of that to making a record. I can tell you, sitting here right now, that Dave and I are really excited to go back and write some more.”