Like the music of his long-time songwriting partner Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings' debut solo album has a timeless quality, combining traditional folk styles with the contemporary tendency to bend genre conventions. With Welch co-writing five of the songs and singing backup throughout, and new versions of songs co-written with Ryan Adams and Old Crow Medicine Show, the album is the result of collaboration with some big names in Americana. But Rawlings more than holds his own with this cast of country/folk luminaries; his striking, flat-picked guitar style and the high, lonesome timbre of his voice mark him as an artist of exceptional talent. The original compositions are a delight without exception, from the bluegrass-y "Sweet Tooth" to the bouncy fiddles of "It's Too Easy" to the string arrangements of "Bells of Harlem." The jangling, Southern-fried version of Ryan Adams co-write "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)" stands out as a joyous knee-jiggler of a tune. And the expressive guitar solo Rawlings uses to meld Bright Eyes' "Method Acting" with Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" is one of those hair-raising musical moments that justify the existence of an entire album on its own merits.
This is the first time you've taken centre stage on an album. What challenges did that present?
That was never the role I was most comfortable in, so it wasn't something that I actively pursued. I think part of it was I always had an ability to play along with other people's music, and that's something that people always seemed to need, so I fell into that pretty quickly and I enjoyed it. When I first moved to Nashville, I worked with a lot of different singer-songwriters and musicians around town, and a lot of them were really talented. And then working with Gillian a ton, who's tremendously talented, and starting to write with her and produce records, I was very busy and very satisfied with what I was doing. The challenge was realizing there's an entirely different set of things on your mind when you're the person who's centre stage. It was one more role. When I produced records when I wasn't playing in the band, it was always so much easier than when, for instance, I was working on a Gillian record and I'm actually there playing and then I have to go in and listen to it and make judgments and produce things. And to have my lead vocals be the thing I'm listening back to is sort of a surreal experience. When you're self-producing a record, you're performing and then immediately judging yourself. Gillian and I have a certain method to making her records, and also with the Old Crow Medicine Show, I've figured out a way that works. And some of the stuff applied, but some of it just didn't. So it was sort of like working with a brand new artist; it just happened that the artist was me.
Why did you decide to cover "Cortez the Killer"? What does the song mean to you?
I specifically remember a few times at a particular friend's house in the winter, lying on the floor and listening to that record. It was the prettiest thing I'd ever heard ― just the sound of that track, the atmosphere on it and the space on it. It was long before I played guitar, so it was truly as a music fan that I discovered this beautiful atmosphere and texture. Later, it dawned on me that I think that track had a big influence on my guitar playing, even though I'd never figured out any of Neil's solos on it. I've never learned it, I just know it from it sinking into my head from when someone's older brother or parent had that record and we found it and listened to it; I just thought it was incredible. And I always loved the lyrics as well, but it was more the space of it and that there was this huge improvisation before the lyrics ever started that really effected me. When I was playing [Conor Oberst's] "Method Acting" live one time it suddenly occurred to me, "Oh, I could change the way I'm playing and the chords slightly here and we could drift into 'Cortez the Killer' and then I could sing that." So I had done it live a few times and really liked it and people seemed to feel that there was some relation between the songs. And strangely, there was something about the fact that we had done the Bridge School [Benefit] and met Neil and played with Neil and I knew that Conor had gone up and met Neil. There was something about the fact that all of these musicians are connected now that made it feel a little more valid to me: the fact that these are people who are kindred spirits who are a few generations apart and are all trying to express these feelings and these thoughts in music. Sometimes things that seem to have some distance ― well, in my mind those songs are related. In my mind, they both have a searching aspect to them and a real curiosity.
The string arrangements on "Ruby" and "Bells of Harlem" are a bit of a departure for you. Why strings?
If you asked me, "Have you always wanted to make a solo record?," my answer would be, "No, I didn't think about it that much." But if you asked me, "Have you always wanted to put strings on something you did?," that answer would have been an unequivocal "Yes." I've thought about that for years. I'd always thought about doing something with Gillian that was just basically our little two-guitar arrangements and then surrounding it with strings, because I thought it would be a nice marriage. I started working on "Bells of Harlem" the winter before the recording and all along I knew I wanted it to have a particular sort of walking feeling, the feeling that strings give. It seemed to be the perfect song to try it on. It seemed like that emotion was already there. The strings didn't really change the emotion of the song, but they did amplify it in a lovely way.
How did your band name come about?
The band name came a pretty long time ago when we booked our very first show, which was advertised under my name. We decided to book the Newport Folk Festival under my name and at some point right around then Gill was talking to Ryan Adams on the phone and said, "Oh, and we're doing a few shows under Dave's name" and Ryan said, "Whoa, Dave Rawlings Machine!" And that was that. It instantly took on its own little life.
And Conor Oberst came up with the album title, A Friend of a Friend?
Correct. It's funny, because part of the reason for using that album title is because I felt so fortunate to work with so many wonderful musicians and everybody was contributing to this first project of mine and I was eternally grateful for it. I thought the album title reflected that a little bit. So, I guess Ryan and Conor named my band and my album. I feel like a lucky guy. (Acony)