Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: “Until a song is right, we basically exist in a state of misery”

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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