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The Best Of Fresh Air 2011

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings: The Fresh Air Interview

Originally published on Wed December 28, 2011 6:37 pm

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on July 18, 2011.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' long-awaited collaboration The Harrow and the Harvest came out in June, marking an almost eight-year wait for fans of their 2003 album Soul Journey.

The 10 songs that make up the new album deal with some heavy subjects: identity, loss, unfulfilled expectations, death and desperation.

"We've kind of half-jokingly said that this record is 10 different kinds of sad," Welch tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And there are 10 songs on it."

On today's Fresh Air, Welch and Rawlings perform an in-studio concert featuring several songs from The Harrow and the Harvest, and discuss many of the lyrics they've written over the years.

"There's a lot of stuff on this album dealing with unfulfilled expectations and when things don't exactly go as you had thought or wished they would — and the true adult nature of dealing with that," Welch says.

Welch and Rawlings met in their 20s at an audition for a country music group at Berklee College of Music. At the time, they had no plans to perform together.

"At some moment, we tried to work out a song — just the two of us — and we recognized that we liked that feeling of trying to create something that was a whole picture with just two instruments and two voices," Rawlings says. "And that came partially because of a love of a lot of duet music."

From the start, Welch and Rawlings were billed together as Gillian Welch. Their other albums include Hell Among the Yearlings and Revival. The two musicians also perform together in the band Dave Rawlings Machine, and have performed at the Newport Folk Festival, Coachella and MerleFest.


Interview Highlights

How David Rawlings Found Music

"I started playing guitar when I was about 16, but it probably wasn't until I was 17 or 18 that I had any idea that this could be my life. At first, it seemed like a distraction or a hobby that was going to be taking me away from the things that were presumably more important. And the thing that I find strange is, if you talk to Gillian's parents when she was very young, she certainly learned things with music in the house, but she was a private child who learned to play guitar in her room by herself. There was no thought from her family that she would be an entertainer."

Gillian Welch On Finding Her Voice

"The main thing was finding this ... voice that I had interest in, which I'll call the quiet-yet-stoic voice: the very quiet yet very strong voice that I developed, that people would want to hear and that was worth paying attention to. I've never been the kind of person who would get up and wave my arms and scream and shout and say, 'Hey, listen to this, listen to this.' "

Gillian Welch On Being Adopted

"I do think that the abiding mystery of my origins has definitely had a profound effect upon my writing. There is that thing in the back of my mind where I think I don't really know who I am. And it may make it a little easier to shift around in my narrative voice."

Gillian Welch On Their Writing Process

"At this point, I feel like we've written a song every way you can. I've started them, Dave has started them, I've started the music, he's started the music, he's come up with the title, I've come up with the title. It used to be that I generally started the words and music and then we worked on them together, and then Dave was more of the closer. Everyone should be so lucky to have an editor as good as Dave. He's just extraordinary. In the beginning, I chalked it up to his years and years playing in bar bands where, four hours a night, he was playing songs that people like. And you learn a lot about songs that way, so he had a great sense of what good songs did and what they didn't do. And it didn't come from school; it came from playing lots of great songs."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring a retrospective of some of our favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of the year.

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings performed a few songs for us in July after the release of their album "The Harrow and the Harvest." Welch and Rawlings are music partners and life partners.

They perform original songs inspired by bluegrass, folk, classic country and hymns. Although they work as a duo, they perform and record under the name Gillian Welch. Rawlings has one album under the name The Dave Rawlings Machine.

Many listeners were introduced to Welch by her performances on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack "O Brother Where Art Thou." Her music is steeped in Southern tradition, but she was born in New York. Her family moved to L.A. when she was three, when her parents got a job writing music for "The Carol Burnett Show."

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings now live in Nashville. She sings and plays guitar and banjo; he sings and plays lead guitar.

Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. I'd like you to start by playing the song "The Way it Goes" from your new album, "The Harrow and the Harvest." Gillian, would you introduce it for us?

GILLIAN WELCH: Yeah, this is - well, definitely the fastest song on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELCH: Perhaps the only song with real tempo, and it goes like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY IT GOES")

WELCH: (Singing) Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. And her brother laid her down in the cold Kentucky ground. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. That's the way that it goes. Everybody's buying little baby clothes. That's the way that it ends, though there was a time when she and I were friends.

(Singing) Well, Miranda ran away, took her cat and left L.A. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. She was busted, broke and flat, had to sell that pussy cat. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. That's the way that it goes. Everybody's buying little baby clothes. That's the way that it ends, though there was a time when he and I were friends.

(Singing) See the brightest ones of all, early in October fall. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. While the dark ones go to bed with good whiskey in their head, that's the way that it goes, that's the way.

(Singing) Now Billy Joe's back in the tank. You tell Russo, I'll tell Frank. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. Did he throw her down a well? Did she leave him for that swell? That's the way that it goes, that's the way. That's the way that it goes. Everybody's buying little baby clothes. That's the way that it ends, though there was a time when all of us were friends.

(Singing) And when you lay me down to rest, leave a pistol in my vest. That's the way that it goes, that's the way. Do you miss my gentle touch? Did I hurt you very much? That's the way that it goes, that's the way.

(Singing) That's the way that it goes. Everybody's buying little baby clothes. That's the way that it ends, though there was a time when you and I were friends.

GROSS: That's Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, performing at NPR West their song "The Way it Goes" from the new Gillian Welch album "The Harrow and the Harvest." That really sounded great.

You know, listening to that song, of course you have to think: Gee, do they know a lot of drug addicts?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, do you write songs that are biographical or songs that are just, like, based on characters or genres? Even a line like when they lay me down to rest, leave a pistol in my vest, now I know that you really aren't going to ask for a pistol when you die. But it strikes me as a real genre line.

WELCH: I feel like that line is kind of typical of when Dave and I will use cowboy language or folk language just to let people know - you know, there's an understood toughness in that line to me. You understand how this person went through life, you know.

DAVID RAWLINGS: You know, in my mind, that had to do with not knowing what's coming, and I thought that that was a - I thought that was sort of an elegant way to put you don't know what's coming after the grave, and you might want to be prepared in one way or another.

GROSS: Can I ask you to do a song from the new album? And this one is "Hard Times." Gillian, would you introduce it?

WELCH: Yeah. This is another - we've kind of half-jokingly said that this record is 10 different kinds of sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELCH: And there being 10 songs on it.

RAWLINGS: So this is sadness numbers six.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELCH: This is sadness number six, kind of dealing with loss, a particular kind of loss, when you lose something you didn't even realize you were losing and not realizing the value of it until it's gone. So here you go, "Hard Times Ain't Gonna Rule My Mind No More."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TIMES")

WELCH: (Singing) There was a Camptown man, used to plow and sing. And he loved that mule, and the mule loved him. When the day got long, as it does about now, I'd hear him singing to his mule cow, calling: Come on, my sweet old girl, and I'd bet the whole damn world that we're gonna make it yet to the end of the road.

(Singing) Singing hard times ain't gonna rule my mind. Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind, Bessie. Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more.

(Singing) Said it's a mean old world, heavy in need, that big machine is just a-picking up speed. They were supping on tears, they were supping on wine. We all get to heaven in our own sweet time.

(Singing) So come all you Asheville boys, and turn up your old-time noise, and kick till the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor. Singing hard times ain't gonna rule my mind, brother, hard times ain't gonna rule my mind. Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more.

GROSS: Nice. That's Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings doing "Hard Times" from the new Gillian Welch album, "The Harrow and the Harvest." Thanks so much for playing that for us. Is there a story behind the song, about like what inspired the images in it?

WELCH: I started writing that one at the end of working on Dave's record, the Dave Rawlings Machine "Friend of a Friend" record. And Levon Helm was going to be coming in to play some drums on the record.

So I was thinking about Levon, and it's always been very inspiring for me to think about other musicians and trying to write songs that they would like. And so I know that song got started me thinking, well, what kind of song would Levon like when he came in?

I mean, I've kind of done this before. That's - "Orphan Girl" got started with a very similar train of thought. I was driving, and I was thinking: What kind of song would Ralph Stanley like? Like, that was me trying to write a song with nothing in it that would be a deal-breaker for Ralph Stanley to like - you know what I mean? That it was that sort of legitimate.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up that song because I love that song. Would you mind if I asked you to do a chorus of that song?

WELCH: We can do a little bit of that, yeah.

RAWLINGS: Yeah.

WELCH: It's a very short system. Let's do just a little burst in the chorus.

RAWLINGS: Pick up on the verses or something? Yeah.

WELCH: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORPHAN GIRL")

WELCH: (Singing) I am an orphan on God's highway, but I'll share my troubles while you go my way. I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother. I am an orphan girl.

(Singing) I have had friendships pure and golden, but the ties of kinship I have not known them. I know no mother, no father, no sister no brother. I am an orphan girl. I am an orphan girl.

GROSS: My guests are Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. We'll hear them perform more songs after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are songwriters and musicians Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Their latest album is called "The Harrow and the Harvest." They're performing some songs for us.

Can I ask you to do an excerpt of your song "By the Mark," which is about, you know, the nails in the cross?

WELCH: Yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like it could be a very old song, but it's actually one of your originals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY THE MARK")

WELCH: (Singing) When I cross over, I will shout and sing. I will know my savior by the mark where the nails have been. By the mark, by the mark where the nails have been, by the sign upon his precious skin. I will know my savior when I come to him by the mark where the nails have been.

GROSS: So that's a great song written by my guest Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. And they are performing for us today, talking about their music. I know that you've been very inspired by the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers. And those are all like male harmony groups and you're, you know, a man and a woman singing harmony together. Can you talk about working out your harmonies for songs like the one we just heard?

WELCH: Yeah. Well, first of all, you've touched upon something. We are incredibly lucky that coming out of the kind of rural American duet tradition, which is mostly, you know, two men, we're so lucky...

RAWLINGS: Generally brothers.

WELCH: Generally brothers, yeah, we are necessarily different than that. You know, we're never going to sound - nothing we do is ever going to sound like the Stanley Brothers or the Blue Sky Boys. It's necessarily going to be different, because we've got a woman singing lead and then a man singing baritone.

RAWLINGS: Yeah, most of those groups all had the - the melody was on the bottom and the harmony was sung above. And so when we started emulating that music, we had to sort of figure out a slightly different way to do it. And, you know, to this day we'll sit down and try to sing through pretty much any note you can think of and look for things that I think are interesting or that, you know, that tickle my ear. And then once I found a little part that I'm committed to, sort of build on it on either side.

WELCH: Yeah. And Dave's ear and his mind is so facile that he will run through many, many note choices. And he'll hit one and it'll have that special kind of little wiggle and little buzz. And both of us will look up and say, okay, that one. There's one. You know, there is one keeper note. And then we'll just keep going and he'll construct the part. You know, I know a number of singers who call Dave their hands-down favorite harmony singer. And it's been...

RAWLINGS: I'm so red right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAWLINGS: I'm so glad this is radio.

WELCH: So embarrassed, yeah.

GROSS: Gillian, is there note that you can think of, like a passage or note in that song or another song that gives you one of those, like, that's-it kind of moments, in terms of his harmony?

WELCH: The entrance to the third verse.

RAWLINGS: Do you want an example?

GROSS: Yeah. Yes, I do.

WELCH: We don't need to get up. So do you want to show them what a normal person would do?

RAWLINGS: I don't know. It's all normal to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What note, what word are we listening for in the line?

RAWLINGS: It's the entrance. It's "On Calvary's Mountain."

WELCH: It's the first syllable.

RAWLINGS: (Singing) On - yeah. It's that thing.

WELCH: So over the chords, that's a bit odd. It's like a suspension. Not many people would open a verse that way.

GROSS: So we're listening to the entrance right now.

WELCH: Yes.

GROSS: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON CALVARY'S MOUNTAIN")

WELCH: (Singing) On Calvary's mountain, where they made him suffer so. All my sin was paid for a long, long, time ago.

So there you go.

GROSS: My guests are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They'll play two more songs after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, songwriters and musicians. They're going to perform another song that's featured on their latest album "The Harrow and the Harvest." The song is called "Dark Turn of Mind."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DARK TURN OF MIND")

WELCH: (Singing) Take me and love me if you want me. Don't ever treat me unkind, 'cause I had that trouble already. And it left me with a dark turn of mind. I see the bones in the river. And I feel the wind through the pine. And I hear the shadows a-calling to a girl with a dark turn of mind. But oh, ain't the nighttime so lovely to see? Don't all the night birds sing sweetly?

(Singing) You'll never know how happy I'll be when the sun's going down. And leave me if I'm feeling too lonely, full as the fruit on the vine. You know, some girls are bright as the morning, and some have a dark turn of mind. You know, some girls are bright as the morning, and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.

GROSS: That's Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings performing "Dark Turn of Mind," which is on their new album, "The Harrow and the Harvest." Before we end, you know, what I often do at the end of interviews with performers is ask them to surprise us with a song that we might not thing that they like or that isn't typical for them, and to perform it and tell us why they love it. Would you be up for doing that?

WELCH: Yeah, sure. You want us to just pick the song?

GROSS: Yeah.

WELCH: OK. We'll do "White Rabbit." How's that?

GROSS: That's surprising.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELCH: OK.

GROSS: Very surprising. And why are you doing this?

WELCH: We discovered one day, accidentally, in sound check, that we were doing our sound at this club, and the reverb was kind of broken, or the wrong setting was on, and I started singing. And I was just drenched in reverb. And it immediately put in me in mind of Grace Slick, and I started singing "White Rabbit."

And all the guys - Dave and our soundman, everyone - just died. So we've actually done it live a couple times. We did it on the - we just finished a tour with the Buffalo Springfield reunion tour, and we actually played it.

RAWLINGS: Yeah. We pulled it out a couple times.

WELCH: Yeah.

RAWLINGS: So we'll give you a little gem, little shot of that here.

GROSS: Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, it's been so much fun to have you in the studio. Thank you so much for performing for us and talking with us, and thanks to the engineers at NPR West, where you are right now. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you so very much.

WELCH: Thanks, Terry. We really - we had a good time, and thanks for having us on the show.

RAWLINGS: Yes. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RABBIT")

WELCH: (Singing) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she's 10 feet tall. And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall, tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Call Alice when she was just small.

GROSS: That's Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, recorded last July. Their FRESH AIR performance of "White Rabbit" is on iTunes. Their latest album is called "The Harrow and the Harvest." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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