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How long has it been since Gillian Welch put out a new album? If you’ve stumbled across even a glancing reference to The Harrow & The Harvest, you know the album arrived eight years after its predecessor, 2003’s Soul Journey. To put things in perspective, that’s half of Welch and partner David Rawlings’ career, meaning it took as long to record album number five as it did the first four combined. Whatever the reason for the wait—and she discussed a few of them with The A.V. Club—the new material is deeply satisfying. As always, Welch and Rawlings draw on a folk tradition stretching back through the Appalachian hills to the mystery of the Old World. They’re traditionalist enough to appeal to the likes of Emmylou Harris, who recorded “Orphan Girl” before it appeared on Welch’s first album, and clever enough to make Radiohead’s “Black Star” sound like a turn-of-the-century dirge. During a tour stop in Vancouver, Welch spoke with The A.V. Club about writing sub-par songs, getting encouragement from Robert Plant, and how to stain the album’s letterpress cover for that perfect old-timey look.
The A.V. Club: It seems to be a rule that every interview for The Harrow & The Harvest starts by asking you why it took eight years to make another album. Let’s ask this instead: Did you ever confront the possibility that there might not be another album?
Gillian Welch: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely sometime around year five-and-a-half or six of the fallow years, we definitely had to, as you say, confront the possibility that maybe even unbeknownst to myself, I didn’t really want to do it anymore. Because if I wanted to do it so bad, why wasn’t I doing it? Happily, I proved to myself that I did want to do it. I had just been sadly off my game. I truly think many people would have given up. I don’t know that many people who could work on a project for six years in dissatisfaction and keep going. It wasn’t like I had writer’s block; I was writing the whole time. I just thought it was shit. That’s how it was. Luckily Dave felt the same way. [Laughs.] For better or worse, he agreed that the stuff was not up to par, and we just had to keep trying.
AVC: It takes a lot of confidence, even nerve, to keep at it without releasing anything, rather than saying, “I know this isn’t our best, but let’s put out a record anyway, just so we can keep going.”
GW: We tried. We had songs, so we went into the studio and we started to make a record with them, and then invariably we just hated it. We wouldn’t like them enough. I guess when you run your own record label, nobody can make you put out what you don’t want to put out. For whatever reason, Dave and I seem to do really well when the world gives up on us. When people kind of forget about us and stop thinking about us and stop looking at us or whatever, we tend to do decent work. That’s what was going on around the time that produced Time (The Revelator). That’s what was going around the time that produced our first record [Revival], when I was nobody so nobody was paying attention to me. With Revelator, my record label had been sold, and the industry was just starting to go digital and have all the repercussions of that or starting to see what was coming down the pike. So we started our own label, and that’s Revelator.
And now this one, where I think a lot of people assumed that we were done. Or maybe we’d make Dave Rawlings Machine records for a while, which I do think we’ll do. We kind of thrive on this fierce independence, and it’s no surprise to me that this record got written when Dave and I got in a car and started driving around the country by ourselves, where no one really knew where we were. We kind of disappeared from our business world and any and all entanglement and made about 10 cross-country trips over the course of writing this record. This record got written in the fall and winter of 2010, which I’m really happy about, because one of my biggest fears, just under never making another record, would be that this record would have been cherry-picked from songs that came from the last eight years. I didn’t even know what to think about that. I’m such a fan of the album as an art form, I don’t even know if I could even get my brain around an eight-year chunk of time. One of the things I’m so happy about with this record is that these songs come from a very consolidated moment, and they are in fact an album. There’s one outlier, and “That’s The Way It Will Be.”
AVC: You were playing that in 2004, right?
GW: Exactly. We knew when we wrote that that was the beginning of the next record, but we just had to wait a really long time to write the rest of the songs.
AVC: The reviews have been positive across the board. People seem to agree it was worth the wait.
GW: That is the most-used phrase, “Worth the wait.” [Laughs.]
AVC: In retrospect, do you see what you were trying to get to, and couldn’t get to?
GW: Yes. It’s funny though, because it’s this paradoxical little circle, like the snake that’s eating its own tail. What I was waiting for was for me to get through the freak-out of not having a record. I look at this record as looking backwards, looking at the trauma and the trials and having already gotten through them. I don’t know what that means, you know what I mean? It’s like it healed itself. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there a song that broke the dam?
GW: “Hard Times” was kind of a biggie, to get that one. That song, the beginnings of that narrative, they started at the end of making Dave’s record, so that’s the second-oldest song on the record as far as when it got started. But then it just sat there, and we couldn’t really finish it. I had this idea about the Camptown man and his mule, and this idea about loss and progress and whatnot. Dave cracked that one open in a hotel room in Colorado. He wrote the chorus for it and added to it some more, and then we knew the song was going to be a song. There is a tipping point when we know even if a song isn’t even finished that it will live. And we knew at that point that that was going to be a song. It kind of set the tone for the rest of the songs, and was a personal statement about working on the album. At that point, I think we felt like nothing was going to stop us. At that point it was like, “Okay. We’re going to make this record.”
AVC: There’s a free-associative, impressionistic vein in the lyrics to something like “The Way It Goes” that wasn’t present in your writing before. It’s a story, or at least fragments of one, but it’s not a tidy, self-contained narrative like “Caleb Meyer.”
GW: I think I know, I understand exactly what you’re talking about, and it’s a quality that I think is new for us in this record. We never really worked this way before, but for a bunch of songs on this record, like “[The Way It] Goes” and “[The Way The Whole Thing] Ends,” we overwrote like crazy. “Goes” had 12 or 18 verses. “Ends” had 30. Okay? Then we employed our own accelerated folk process, and I like that you used the word “impressionistic,” because it was a very impressionistic process. We kind of destroyed the linear narrative, like a folk song where you can only remember your favorite verses, and you sing them in the order you like best, maybe not the one that is correct. That’s how we worked, and we whittled down the song down to the verses we liked the best, even if they weren’t the most narrative. So it is kind of an impressionistic thing. I see it as having kinship with some of the stuff on The Basement Tapes.
AVC: When you mentioned 30 verses, the first thing that came to mind was “Desolation Row.”
GW: Yeah, and multiple characters. Maybe stuff going on that you really get the gist of, but you don’t quite know what happened.
AVC: Part of what makes “The Way It Goes” so engrossing is that it’s impossible to figure out.
GW: It’s definitely not, “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.” It doesn’t have a clear start or finish. I think this is our most adult record. I think the themes are fairly adult, rather major themes of regret and loss and dealing with substantial reversals, and dealing with life not dealing you the hand you were wishing for or expecting. I think in general, though, the narrator copes with it. No one on the record, no narrator on the record is overcome by these reversals. I mean, “Ends” is completely about the multiplicity of reversals and changes, mostly in relationships. That kind of runs through the whole record; it’s riddled with that stuff.
AVC: You posted a video showing how to use watered-down coffee to give the album’s letterpress cover a kind of old-timey sepia sheen.
GW: Because we couldn’t get the right color paper we wanted.
AVC: There’s a consistent aesthetic there, a link between making a cover using an outmoded process on an enormous, thick piece of paper that barely squeezes into a jewel box, and your stripped-down recording process. That handcrafted quality is important to you around the board.
GW: We were trying to make something that is substantial and satisfying, satisfying on an aesthetic level, on a deep level, on a tactile level. I don’t want a booklet with pages and pages of nothing. We’re giving you front and back. You’ve got one thing, but hopefully it’s a satisfying thing. We want something that will bear up under repeated handling. You want to pick it up. You want a closer look. All that stuff. John Baizley, the artist, did a beautiful job. I’m so proud to have his artwork be in conjunction with this record. There’s so many parallels between our work. He got immediately what we were doing. It’s funny, because he started working on it before the record was finished, so I couldn’t send him music, but I sent him lyric sheets. The first thing he did, he called me and was like, “Man, this is some dark shit.” He’s no stranger to that. This is the most pastoral, the most agrarian thing he’s ever done.
AVC: It’s got a kind of pagan quality to it.
GW: We wanted it to be tied to the natural world. Birds and flowers and weather always figure prominently in our songs. I can’t help it. But on Revelator, it was a pretty harsh scene. Revelator is pretty wintery. There’s no leaves on those branches, you know? That’s a pretty brittle record. I like that this is an earthier record, a warmer record, for all that it is still is somewhat nocturnal and dark. I also think it’s our funniest record. I guess our humor is a fairly wry humor. I like to think Woody Guthrie would have gotten most of our jokes. It’s kind of a gallows humor. There isn’t really a higher compliment than playing a show or playing the record for someone, and someone laughing, guffawing out loud. It happened the other day. We hit the line in “Ends,” “What’s a little baby doing dressing up in banker’s clothes?” and someone in the back just howled laughing. I love that, it warms my heart. Somebody thought I was funny. [Laughs.]
GW: I had some really important artistic cheerleaders heading up to this. Colin [Meloy] was one of them. It was really funny actually, because he had told me that the whole time that he was writing that record, he had me in his head, that I was the other voice—like there was no other way around it. He was singing, and I was singing tenor. And so he called me, early on, a year before they started. He asked me about it and said, “Look I’m writing this record, and they’re not quite duets, but they’re pretty damn close. It’s like there’s this other voice, and I think it’s you.” I was like, “Man, I’m so flattered, but I have to make a record.” He’s like, “I know. You have to make a record.” He was so sensitive to not slowing down or impeding our record-making process at all that we just waited, and he kept checking in like, “Can you do it?” and I was like, “I don’t know.” Finally, they were in their last week of working, and he called me. He was like, “Okay. I have to start mixing in a week,” and so it worked out. Dave and I were already headed west in the Cadillac, and we drove out West and we sang on the whole record. My whole part of the record, I did it in two days. So anyhow, I’m proud of my contribution to that, and it was fun. I love singing with Colin. I thought our voices had a unique blend. We had sung together very little prior to that, but it worked great, and he’s such a good songwriter that it was just easy.
So that was like the last, the final push over the top. Conor Oberst had largely done the same thing a year before. Conor had us play on some stuff, and Conor had taken me aside and he’s like, “Look. You have to make a record,” and basically just said, “The world is waiting. You have to make a record. I’m waiting,” he said. [Laughs.] And before that, it was Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn would call me every six months to say, “How’s the record coming?” He’s about the only person on the planet I would take that from, because at a certain point, you just can’t stand people asking how the record’s coming. Robert Plant was a good cheerleader, asking when the record was going to come out, letting us know in a friendly way that he, too, was waiting for the next record. That’s friendly encouragement—Robert Plant!
AVC: That’s quite a team.
GW: It’s a really good team! Our cheerleading squad, they’re not slouches! You know what the best thing is, all those people, we got to send the record off to them, and they like it. The cheerleaders are happy. And we’re happy because it’s the first time in 10 years we’ve got an inconceivable number of new songs to put in the set. We’re having so much fun playing on the road.