When you've got fans who pay really close attention to what you do musically, they're going to want to know certain things — like when you'll be coming out with new music, for instance. That's a question that Gillian Welch answered — happily, at long last — a month ago with the announcement that The Harrow & the Harvest was on its way.
Still, the announcement left a bigger question in its wake: Why did eight years go by without a new Gillian Welch album? There was no quarterly report-driven record label sitting on the masters and waiting for a hit single. Welch and her musical partner Dave Rawlings have their own Nashville-based indie imprint (Acony) via which they released 2001's Time (The Revelator), 2003's Soul Journey and 2009's role-swapping Dave Rawlings Machine album A Friend of a Friend.
The truth of the matter, Welch volunteers, is that the songs just weren't coming — at least not songs they were happy with. And that's a mighty disconcerting thing for a pair of world-class songwriters. "I feel fairly confident that both Dave and myself would've gone completely insane had we not been performing," says Welch. "Because it was enough of a burden to deal with the fact that we just simply weren't writing songs that we liked enough to record."
What Welch and Rawlings didn't do — make an album anyway, however uninspired it might have felt — says a lot about their priorities and standards. "I would have been really disappointed," she says, "if what this record was was a cherry-picking of one song from 2003, one song from 2004. ... I wouldn't know what to make of that, because I'm such a fan of the album. I'm such an album-oriented artist."
During the songwriting drought, Welch and Rawlings got plenty of encouragement from other album-oriented artists, like Robyn Hitchcock and Conor Oberst (Oberst even lent his "writer's shack in California"). During the past year or two, the duo started taking leisurely cross-country road trips — you know, the sort of thing in-demand artists don't usually take time to do. Then late last fall, they found their groove.
Says Welch, "We were so stressed out for so many years about, 'Oh, we've got to finish songs! We've got to put out a record!' Something funny happened when we finally just decided to slow down. ... It seems counterintuitive, but desperation is really not the friend of creativity. ... Then, strangely, the record itself went really fast. We made this thing in the month of February in Nashville [at Woodland Studios]."
People had been wondering what kind of an album Gillian Welch's fifth one would be. Plugged-in country-rock seemed as good a guess as any, considering Soul Journey's Neil Young-ish qualities — and the fact that Welch and Rawlings were tapped by Young and his once-again bandmates to open the Buffalo Springfield reunion tour. And that Welch sounded in her element harmonizing on full-band tracks by Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, and that A Friend of a Friend had its share of rollicking moments.
But The Harrow & the Harvest is entirely acoustic — voices, guitars, banjo, harmonica and hambone — entirely live and entirely them.
"I'm so proud to have contributed to those other projects," Welch says. "But we got to this point and realized both Dave and I were so excited to return to our duet. ... I mean, I don't think it would be too strong a word to say the last year-and-a-half we've become completely obsessed with our duet sound. ... And that was not the case. I feel like in a way after Revelator and after that tour we kind of burned out on it a little bit, just because it's such a focused — it's such a, in a way, constricted [approach]."
Welch and Rawlings managed to do quite a bit with their elemental tools on Revelator — an album that was, at the heart of it, as modern as it was old-timey — and their new one expands the template considerably. The Harrow & the Harvest may not be an electrified or up-tempo album, but it's a vital one, full of intricate narratives that revisit rural life with a magnetic mystique — not unlike that of Bobbie Gentry's best story songs — and a haunting, unhurried and highly developed melodicism.
Welch muses that a lot of their new songs — including the trio "The Way It Will Be," "The Way It Goes" and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends" — are "about dealing with when things don't go the way you want them to." But then, facing unpleasant realities has always had a place in Welch and Rawlings' songwriting. And influential as their writing has become, it's beginning to feel like they have always had a place in Nashville — and in the broader musical landscape. They moved here from Boston — where they studied at Berklee College of Music — 20 years ago come next July, and started playing writers' nights. It would be an understatement to say a lot's changed since then.
"I definitely have some clear memories of rounds at The Bluebird with people like Tony Arata and Bill Lloyd and Malcolm Holcombe," Welch says. "We ended up moving away from that world because we became so enamored with playing as a duet. That's really what caused us to drift out of the writers' world and just start to do our own shows. We wanted to solidify our sound and really wanted to take on the challenge of 'How do we have the two of us make this music complete?' ... We just wanted to really be self-sufficient."
At one of those shows — an opening slot at The Station Inn years before they were showcased on the millions-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack — they caught the ear of their first producer, T Bone Burnett.
Recalls Welch with a laugh, "When we were making Revival, I mean, in the studio next to us Celine Dion was literally recording the vocal for the Titanic song. That's what was happening next to us, playing our songs about sin and salvation. So we definitely felt like freaks. And I still feel like a freak, but I'm really comfortable with it at this point. And I've realized you can make a life out of being a freak."
And a life — and body of songs — that's taken quite seriously at that.
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