Published Jun 26, 2011It has been a long eight years between records for Americana queen Gillian Welch. Happily, The Harrow & the Harvest confirms that her songwriting skills remain as sharp as a lumberjack's axe. This is a true duo album, recorded live-off-the-floor with long-time creative partner and producer Dave Rawlings. Presenting her sparsely poetic country-folk narratives without polish proves the ideal treatment. The duo are models of restraint, and there's no lyric over-sung or note overplayed. Welch's voice is as pure and haunting as ever, and there's just enough instrumental variety to keep this from becoming mired in melancholy. Once again, the South is a constant and colourful character, with the record's epic highlight being the stunning, six-minute-long "Tennessee" ("it's beef steak when I'm working, whiskey when I'm dry, sweet heaven when I die"). The aptly entitled "Hard Times (Ain't Gonna Rule My Mind)" features a spirit of defiance. If we're about to enter a new Depression, Welch has provided the perfect soundtrack.
Was the long absence about recharging your creative batteries?
That's a good way to put it; it's not as though I stopped working. Dave and I were writing through all those years; it just wasn't material we really liked enough to put out. I can't think of how else to put it; it wasn't writer's block. There are songs and songs, probably three records worth of songs, but it wasn't what we wanted to be singing. We tried; we actually went into the studio a couple of times and tried to start recording them, then we'd invariably lose interest and lose heart in it and stop. Finally, there was this group of songs that really got written from October, 2010 to January, 2011, that's where 80-percent of these songs come from. And I' m really happy it worked out that way. I'm such a fan of an honest to God album, one that is cohesive and of a moment. I was actually worried that with the amount of time that has gone by, this record might span too large a chunk of time to really be a focused work. At the end, that is not what happened and I'm really happy about that.
You've inspired and influenced a younger generation of artists in this genre. You take pride in that?
That is nice to hear. I'm smiling as you say that. Truthfully, it is almost hard to remember, but when Dave and I were starting out and working on Revival, I really couldn't look around and see other people who were doing what I wanted to do. And the ones that were [doing it] were largely from another generation; it was more traditional folk people and not contemporary singer-songwriters working in the traditional roots world. I had such a strong sense while making that first record of being an outsider, of feeling really alienated from the music world. That's one of the reasons I smile when you say people cite me as an inspiration. I'm really happy to be able to stand up and say to younger acoustic artists and folk-based artists, "look, you really can do this." And, in fact, you can make a life of it.
How was it being part of a historic tour, recently opening for the reunited Buffalo Springfield?
It was really great. The truth is I watched every single one of their sets; it was quite profound, really. Great, great music. It was really so flattering and such an honour for us to be asked to be on that bill.
Happy with the initial reaction to the new album?
How could I not be [laughs]? There aren't many reviews out yet, but all the ones that are [out] are just fantastic.
Do you sense that your fans and supporters in the media are both loyal and patient, given the anticipation around the record?
It's funny. For some reason, we are lucky. It may be that we don't follow any particular scene or do anything for any particular stylistic reason.
Do you have a mandate for the sound of the record? Is it just David and you on all the instruments?
Yes it is. The record is David and myself playing live. There are no overdubs. That is something we were pretty committed to from the very beginning. It had been long enough since we'd made what I call a "duet record" with the two of us. Soul Journey wasn't even that.
There's a strong sense of place on the record. Ever contemplate how your songs would be if you lived in California or NYC?
[Laughs] I don't know. It's such a funny thing. I really found my creative voice, and David too, we found our whole sound when we moved to Tennessee. And, of course, it wasn't like we just moved there and found it; it was everything in us that was driving us there. You are driven to where it's best for you to be. That was really the case for us. It is really the cradle of our work, because of our entrenchment in American folk and roots ― that language, that music, those sounds. The first time I heard the Stanley Brothers I just knew what I wanted to do; it was that powerful. It is just kind of foolish for me to be anywhere else. Why would I be in NYC? It wouldn't make any sense. It makes perfect sense for someone who is interested in jazz to be in NYC 'cause everything moving around them would speak to that. When I'm in the American South, everything moving around me speaks to what I'm interested in. (Acony)