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Catching Up With... David Rawlings

November 20, 2009  |  6:00am
Catching Up With... David Rawlings

Although the records are released under Gillian Welch’s name, she and David Rawlings are essentially a duo. They write together, record together and perform together, and his guitar parts and harmonies are essential to their songs. They’re still performing live but haven’t released a record since 2003’s Soul Journey. While anxious fans were awaiting a new Welch album, Dave Rawlings Machine’s A Friend Of a Friend, out this week, was announced. As expected, Rawlings sings lead, but Welch contributes to every song. I spoke to Rawlings about the new record and what they’ve been doing all this time.

Paste: We were all expecting a Gillian Welch record and then the Dave Rawlings Machine record was announced. What happened?
David Rawlings: I think we were all expecting a Gillian record, including us. But we got to a point—all of a sudden this record had just started to materialize. Some songs had gotten written that I was singing that we liked, and we were excited about this group of songs, and so we thought rather than put it off and try to come back to it and find that feeling again later, it would be a lot easier to do it now and get it taken care of.

Paste: How clear are the lines between what’s a Dave Rawlings Machine song and what’s a Gillian Welch song?
Rawlings: I couldn’t say that there were any lines. I would just say that if there is a song that we’ve written, in some cases if it’s a song that I’ve started but then we’ve worked on, there might be some inclination from the very beginning that it’s going to be a song that I sing.

There were a couple songs, and “Sweet Tooth” was an early one of these, it was a song that I had an idea to start, and we always supposed that it would be on Gillian’s record with me singing lead one it. But that seems like a horrible bait and switch to me, for someone to be surfing around on iTunes and see something that says Gillian Welch, and they click on it and my voice comes out of the speakers. It does not seem like truth in advertising. It seems like a terrible, terrible disappointment! At least in this case you sort of know what you’re getting.

Paste: So are there musical differences in your styles?
Rawlings: Because my voice is what it is, it did call for a whole different style of arrangement and style of songs. The songs are what dictated what happened. A song like “Ruby,” we just felt as though the way the melody worked and the way the harmonies worked, that it was right for me to be singing it.

Paste: In what way does your voice call for a different style of song?
Rawlings: I feel like Gillian has a voice that is this beautiful thing, it can sound very big coming out of speakers, and it’s very detailed and intimate at the same time, and when we’ve made Gillian records, I feel like you can surround it with virtually nothing and you still have a record, because her voice is so compelling in the center there. You can put things that are angular or things that are dissonant, and you could bang on trashcan lids and put her voice in the center, and you still have something that’s very attractive.

My voice is on the cragglier side of things, and it’s a small voice, so you have to surround it with stuff—hopefully things that sound good—and hope that that thing in the middle provides some soul or something. I’m trying to think of records I would compare it to… You know, Gram Parsons isn’t a perfect singer by any stretch, and some of those records are so beautifully produces where everything on them sounds like a professional, beautiful sounding country record, but people perceive them as gritty, soulful things, and it’s because there’s this odd voice plopped right there in the middle. I feel like maybe that’s a better template for what I’m doing. I was surprised when we started trying to record this thing, how few of the things that we learned from making Gillian’s records actually translated. It had to be a whole new bag of tricks.

Paste: What do you bring to the table that makes her music better, and vice versa?
Rawlings: If one of us starts a song, and that song has a core or an emotional center, I feel like either of us are good at completing that for the other person. For instance, writing lyrics or writing verses that fall into the song without ever showing that two people worked on it. I’ve never felt like you could see the seams as far as what verse I wrote or what verse Gillian wrote. I always felt like stuff integrated really well.

When we started doing these shows under my name, I’m sort of more of an explosive singer than Gillian is, so we had to learn to play a little harder and rock out a little more. When we’ve gone back and done Gillian’s shows, that has translated.

And it’s almost impossible for me to say what Gillian has brought to this project or my music. Most everything I’ve learned about performing or playing guitar or singing harmony, I learned working with her. I feel like it would trivialize it to say something less general than that.

Paste: You cover some songs on this record—including a medley of “Method Acting” by Bright Eyes and “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young. How did that come to be?
Rawlings: A couple years ago, at the end of ’07, Conor [Oberst] called me and asked me if I would come play guitar with Bright Eyes because Mike Mogis was producing a record and it was running on, and they had dates booked and Mike couldn’t do it. I was very excited to go play electric guitar for two or three weeks on his tour. He was playing stuff from all his records, and a couple things form Fevers and Mirrors, including “Method Acting.” I loved the song, and we played it every night. I guess it sunk in, because about six months after that tour. I was sitting playing guitar and I started singing that song. which I didn’t know I had learned. Then I thought about covering it, and I monkeyed with the lyrics a little because I felt like it was important that it stay as autobiographical and as personal seeming as it does when Conor does it—I love that there’s no skin between the singer and the audience.

As I started playing that live a few times, one night I just started playing “Cortez the Killer” in the middle of it. Before I played guitar when I was really young, one of my friends’ older brothers had a Neil Young record, and I have a vivid recollection of how that track made me feel. It was a really important song in my life in some way. I think it influenced the way I play guitar and the way I love music. So I was really happy to have an excuse to play it. And I don’t know, it all sort of tied together for me.

Paste: Can you tell me anything about an upcoming Gillian Welch record?
Rawlings: I can tell you that it is we’ve started recording some stuff, and that I’m excited about what we’ve recorded. Someone else just asked me when Gillian’s record will be released, and I think the answer is, on the happiest day of my life.

I feel like we’re still looking for a couple songs to sort of make it what it needs to be. There’s certainly been over the years stuff recorded and tons of stuff written, but thankfully when I’ve gone back and heard some stuff from even a few years ago that we had worked on, I know that when we get it finished, we’ll be happy with it.

It’s all very mysterious how songs get written and why they get written and when they get written, but I know we’re sort of coming to the end of it now, and it will be soon.

Paste: Meaning the next couple months, the next year?
Rawlings: I think I’ll know a lot more within the next couple months. I think we want to finish the recording on it this year, and then I don’t know how long it will take before it gets released. There’s stuff in the studio that needs to be finished up, and there’s also a few songs that need to be finished, but I think that’s all going to sort of happen at the same time.

Paste: So we can expect a record early next year?
Rawlings: I think that’s as good a guess as any, but I’ve thought such things before [laughs]. We’ll expect the new Gillian record at the moment we’re like, “Oh my God, we have 10 songs!”

Paste: What does it sound like? Will there be any surprises?
Rawlings: How do I explain it? Right now, I think it’s going to have a sort of close-in feeling to it. I think it’s going to feel like more like a close-up than a panorama.

Paste: Would you call your other records close-ups or panoramas?
Rawlings: I think Time (The Revelator) is like looking at a panorama through a microscope [laughs]. I think Time (The Revelator) is strange in that the closer you get to it, the larger it seems, and the further away you get, the smaller it seems. I felt like Soul Journey was definitely more of a—I wouldn’t call it a panorama or a closeup—but it had an easier, more story-like feel to it to me. It was a little more of a journey.

Paste: And this one will be less so?
Rawlings: Yes. That’s my guess.

Paste: Have you been playing any of the new songs live?
Rawlings: There’s a song on my record called “It’s Too Easy” that has fiddle and is done in an old-time style, and there is a version of that that’s more of a minor, moody style, that’s going to be on Gillian’s record. We’ve been playing that live, and then there’s an older song called—well, I don’t know what it’s going to be called, honestly—some people call it “Throw Me a Rope,” some people call it “The Way It Will Be,” that we’ve played live for a long time and will be on the record.

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