Catching Up With Gillian Welch

Music Features Gillian Welch
Catching Up With Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch’s friends thought she had become the victim of some kind of scam when she told them she was going to play a thousand-person audience festival at Cloverleaf Farm outside of Athens, Ga. They thought it was too good to be true. Wildwood Revival, taking place over Aug. 25-27, placed Welch and partner David Rawlings in an open-air barn, playing on Saturday night after a string of far lesser-known acts. That is, far lesser-known in comparison to Welch, who by the way, just landed two spots in our recent list of the 50 Best Alt-Country Albums of All Time, with her debut Revival in the number three spot. It was rare that a band or artist didn’t mention how grateful they were to be on a festival bill with Welch from the stage over the weekend.

Her set on Saturday night encompassed all the highlights of her 20-year career, and while I’ll never forget Welch leading the swollen, emotional, fervent crowd in “I’ll Fly Away” under the homey glow of twinkle lights and backed by the chirping sound of nature’s night life, she told me that her favorite moment was “Orphan Girl.” She couldn’t believe that so many people were singing along—that they truly knew the song, and when she looked over to see Wildwood Revival founder Libby Rose hugging and crying with her mom at the side of the stage, she knew she made the right choice in trekking so far out into the country. We talked with her the next morning in a second-story bedroom of the antebellum house on the farm, just a few hundred feet from the barn where all the action was. Raging Banjos and fiddles radiated through the house’s walls as Welch gave us her take on the evolution of folk music, the hypnotic peculiarity of Appalachia and treating fans the way Johnny Cash did.

Paste: It would be an understatement to say that you pioneered this [new Americana] movement. You’ve been making this music for 20 years and now… this is what’s popular. This isn’t weird.
Welch: I’m no longer a maritian. Now I’m part of a scene, which is a nice change.

Paste: So how have you witnessed the genre evolve over the years?
Welch: You know, the coolest thing… I feel like this scene has grown out of a lot of the best aspects of the old time music. And a lot of the stuff that drew my partner and I to it in the first place… there was something about a certain kind of folk music that was almost too soft for us. What I’ll call the “pretty folk.” And at the time when we started, that’s what folk meant. Not to put anybody down, but folk was in a very different place in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and I didn’t identify very much with folk. Because it was very pretty, very clean in its way. So I always gravitated toward… old time and bluegrass music, and mountain music because the first time I heard the Stanley Brothers, I immediately understood its relationship to the Velvet Underground, and all this other punk stuff that I was listening to. And I think that’s what this entire scene understands and loves, is there was nothing in its way “softer” about this music. It’s sometimes quieter, but it’s not softer. So all the [laughs] angst, and all of the frustration, and all of the strangeness and outsideness that I felt, and that any person growing up in this age might feel, I was able to connect with this music. Also, it’s worth saying… the darkness and the tragedy of the stories that are so commonplace in this type of music that Dave [Rawlings] and I’s music sprung from. I remember feeling really liberated early on, like, “oh there’s nothing I can’t talk about. I wanna talk about morphine addiction? Fine. I wanna talk about rape? Fine. I wanna talk about suicide? Fine. It all comes out of this tradition. I felt total permission to vent anything I wanted to through this tradition… I’m pretty much a shy girl, and didn’t want to talk about what was going on with me, ever, but through the music it was all okay. That’s like everybody. That’s like every artist. There’s a reason why you express yourself through art, because there’s some way which you can’t do it.

Paste: So, at that point, when you guys first started, do you think that folk music had kind of gotten away from where it started?
Welch: It had just gone to one side of the pendulum. I remember the first year we played Newport Folk Festival, which I think was ‘96… we played a set and we were also asked to sing with Joan Baez, and Mimi Fareña, her sister was still alive then. When Dave and I came off the stage after our set, there was this smiling, small woman with curly hair on the side of the stage and she was just beaming. I didn’t know who she was, and she kind of grabbed me in her arms and hugged me and I still had my guitar and she’s like “I knew it, I knew folk music was still alive.” And it was Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter. And she said, “do you guys realize you’re the only acoustic act?” So that year at the folk festival, Dave and I were the only acoustic act. We were the only people who walked out with acoustic guitars and didn’t plug them in. So, that’s how much stuff has changed. It was just the side of the pendulum swing. And honestly, let’s be fair, folk musicians in the ‘90s were fighting to be heard. They were fighting for space, fighting for attention. They were just doing what musicians always do, just trying to move in the direction of stuff that was getting heard more easily. And I’m not just talking about volume. I mean how you present yourself, what you surround yourself with. So they were getting full bands and doing the whole thing because otherwise…
Paste: That’s where the crowd was.
Welch: Yeah.

Paste: What do you think of where folk music is at now? Like right now, we hear drums and full bands coming from outside…
Welch: But there’s a different aesthetic now. It has kind of moved, it’s coming, it’s drawing more from the country side, the hillbilly side, the old time, I can tell in the way people are singing… There are more banjos. [laughs]

Paste: As someone who’s watched this happen over the last few years, this explosion of folk and Americana, I want to know what you think. Do you think authenticity is harder to find now that it’s gotten so much more popular? Or do you think there’s still authenticity everywhere in this music?
Welch: I think there’s authenticity everywhere because you have to look at who you’re talking to. I mean, I’ve been criticized as much as anybody for being inauthentic. But, only because of the city I was raised in. It goes way back before my time that people have been learning what they need to know about the music from records. So at this point, I would say anyone capable of an authentic response to the music is authentic. That argument never held water for me because that’s not how art works. If you’re just talking about folk music as an archeologist, that’s a different thing. Like as a musicologist, if you’re trying to trace the origins of a song, if you’re a historian, that’s a different thing. But if you’re talking about art, which that’s the thing— I’ve always treated folk music like art. But if you’re going to treat folk music like archeology, we can have a different discussion. But I just see people having the same deep, soulful response to the music like I did, which is “oh, this is the music that speaks to me.” There was no reason for it. Also there was no question about it, when Dave and I started, it was ridiculous that we would second guess ourselves, because who would care? It was ridiculous that we would make this record and anyone would say “wait, they’re not from Appalachia.” [laughs] Are you kidding me? But yeah, I think authenticity has gotten to a good place where I don’t hear people talking about it as much. I think it’s become part of the bloodstream of the music now. It’s understood.

Paste: You mentioned Appalachia, I’m curious about what has drawn you to that for 20 years? How do you keep pulling things from that to write about?
Welch: Oh there’s so much… There’s something peculiar about Appalachian folk music. There’s something peculiar about all folk music, but something happened to the music from Scotland and Ireland and England when it got into Appalachia and mixed with the black harmony and the rhythm. The American versions of these songs, the older folk songs, they have a particular twist, and a particular spookiness, more so than when they came across the Atlantic. It always spoke to me… Dave and I always talk about it. We end up using the word “peculiar” a lot. You know, any of the murder ballads, where Willie murders Holly, or any of these things, they never spell it out. What did she do? I love that type of storytelling, where they just leave out the entire “why.” All you get is, “come here, wham!” And I love that. I love what that does in the human brain, what it does in my brain to fill in the blanks. I feel so much room for me and my thoughts to move around in those songs, to ponder and to wonder, “what is this? What did she do? What happened? Was she a good person or not a good person?” There’s so little judgement in these songs. They just tell you what he did. He grabbed her by her hair, he drug her around, he threw her in the river. I always liked that. And the particular type of poetry in the song. I’m really a word person. I love words. And I love that weird poetry in those songs that everybody understands. It’s the poetry of how people talk. It’s common poetry. And then there’s the sound of the instruments. There’s so much. I don’t know, everything about it fit me like a perfect dress. The first time I ever heard the Stanley Brothers, I was dumbfounded. I literally stopped what I was doing and just walked in a trance over to the record. I just loved it. That was what set Dave and I on the path. We weren’t brothers, but as much as we could, we tried to emulate those brother teams. That was perfection for us. And as much as I like really hard, lowdown subject matter, I can’t stand loud noises. So as much as I liked rock and roll and the punk aesthetic, I love rock and roll, I love Jimi Hendrix, I could never be in a band like that. I think my ears are too sensitive. I can’t even stand hair dryers and vacuum cleaners. It was really important that I find this outlet with that type of intensity in a quiet way. That was the magic elixir, this stuff.

Paste: Last night during your set, you said something like your music has a timeless quality because it was written outside of a time where convention would say it belongs. When you write how do you place your modern experience in another time?
Welch: I don’t put in another time… I try to put it in universal human time. You know the folk songs, the really good ones, like “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” when is that? That’s every time. That’s always. That’s the great thing about this tradition of music. It’s my belief that it’ll last as long as there are people. Because it’s based on the most fundamental stuff that happens to people. You fall in love, you’re broke, you’re hungry, you’re heartbroken, the sun is shining, it’s raining, you’ve been working too hard, these things. That’s always what’s guided Dave and I in the storytelling. We tried, anyway. You’re shooting for that, you’re shooting for “I’ll Fly Away.” You never get there, but that’s what you shoot for… And then, hopefully, if you’re being truthful…that’s hard for me, being truthful. It’s hard to reveal stuff. But if you’re being truthful, then some particular facts just come out… I try to make it to where someone 20 years from now will understand. And this is kind of what I tried to say last night. This has been the great surprise and the great joy. Now looking back 20 years on the first songs, people still understand them. Like, check! That’s what we were shooting for. I want these songs to stick around. I want someone to like them 20 years from now.

Paste: Your songs are so intimate and personal, especially on The Harrow and The Harvest. Do you draw from personal experience, or would you say that you’re more of a fictional storyteller?
Welch: It’s all personal, but it’s incredibly filtered through volcanic rock. It gets highly filtered. [laughs] Also, I have this weird thing where I write from kind of an unself-conscious place where I don’t even know I’m writing something really, really personal when I’m writing it… When I wrote “Orphan Girl,” I didn’t realize that it was autobiographical. Because I’m not an orphan, I’m just adopted. But I didn’t realize when I started this song called “Orphan Girl”… It’s so easy to look at it and go, “oh that’s her story.” Well, it is, but I wasn’t setting out to do that. I don’t even know what I’m doing. It’s kind of like the song is a dream. You have the dream, and you don’t don’t realize that you know exactly what it’s about until you’re telling someone the next day. That’s what the songs are like. I don’t realize that I know exactly what it’s about until it’s done. Until I’m done writing it, or Dave is done writing it… A lot of these things, they start from a very unanalytical place. Let’s take “Miss Ohio,” as an example. “Miss Ohio” came out of my mouth, almost as a cracked nursery rhyme, and I didn’t think that much of it. And that song wouldn’t exist if Dave hadn’t heard me through the wall and said, “What was that one?” I was like, “What one?” He said, “the one, the nursery rhyme that just went around. That one, finish that one.” So that’s what’s great about a songwriting team.

Paste: Five years have gone by since The Harrow and The Harvest
Welch: Yes.
Paste: Before that, you talked about going through a prolonged season of writer’s block…
Welch: Actually it wasn’t. It was the strangest thing. I said what it wasn’t was writer’s block, and all that anyone heard was “writer’s block.” It wasn’t. I wrote a ton. I didn’t like them. So note to self, don’t ever say “it wasn’t food poisoning,” because all anyone will hear is “food poisoning.” So, what is your question? [laughs] How long will it be?
Paste: Well, yeah. [laughs]
Welch: Let’s talk for a second about what’s going on in the music world. You can’t make a living selling records anymore. This is a tragic fact, and it’s changing the face of music. It’s changing who’s pursuing it as a career. It’s discouraging a lot of young artists… anyone twenty-something and younger is seriously taking a hard look at it and going, “is this a viable profession? Maybe not.” And the people who are already committed to doing this for their livelihood are having to stay out on the road about four to five times as much as they used to have to. It used to always be that records and concert tickets cost the same. Half your money came from records, and half your money came from playing live shows. And now, basically none of your money comes from records [laughs] and all of your money comes from the road. It’s slowing down the creative process, because the road, while it’s lovely, and I love playing live, it slows down putting out records. However slow I was before, I’m going to be slower now. So, that’s going on now… but I’m actually writing faster now than I have in 20 years. We wrote Dave’s record, the Nashville Obsolete record that came out a year ago… I wrote [that] record two years ago, and we’re getting close to going in and recording. Let’s put it this way: I don’t feel far from the music.

Paste: With writing, is that something you try to do everyday?
Welch: Yeah, I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not like it’s exercise. It’s not like I say, “oh I should go write” every day. It’s really good when I can manage to wake up, and make some coffee, and write a little bit right then before I’m fully hooked up in normal brain space. And you can kind of jumpstart your creative brain, your writer brain, first thing in the morning. It sort of stays engaged the whole rest of the day and affects the way you see the world. I mostly write at home, and I’m going home today.
Paste: And that’s Nashville.
Welch: That’s Nashville. We’ve been there for 24 years now, so it’s definitely home.

Paste: Can you tell me a story about the process of writing one of your songs?
Welch: “The Way it Goes,” that one was one of the last songs written for The Harrow and The Harvest, and we were looking at our little song pile, Dave and I, and Dave said, “you know it’d be good if there was one that was a little faster.” [laughs] Because they were mostly songs on the slow side. So, sometimes you write just from that bare bones, like, “okay, I gotta try to have a fast idea”… I was looking through a book of old folk songs and bumped into “Old Joe Clark.” And so, “Old Joe Clark” was the springboard for “The Way It Goes.” That’s how that song started… I was thinking about “Old Joe Clark,” which is a song I’ve known since I was a kid, we used to sing that in school… I took that “Old Joe Clark,” and moved it from a major key to a minor key, which is a great trick for songwriters. If you’ve got a song you like, you can take it and flip it… I started that, and much like “Miss Ohio,” just started blabbing. I just started saying words. Whatever came out of my mouth… And out came, “Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm, that’s the way it goes, the way it goes.” And there’s a very funny dark humor in that type of song. Almost every verse is a play on words, or just a really dark joke… kind of curt and terse. There’s a terseness to it. Kind of rough.

Paste: But we’re all laughing.
Welch: Yeah, we all know it’s funny. And I love that that acknowledges that somebody falling down, smacking their face and bleeding, that’s too bad, but you also kind of laugh at the same time. Because it’s happened to you too. That’s how that song started… I started it, I wrote a bunch of it, I played it for Dave, he really liked it, and he came home really late one night, honestly kind of messed up, and he sat up and wrote a bunch more verses. We ended with maybe four times more verses than ended up in the song, and we put them all out, and we kind of did what we call our “folk process” with it. It used to be a linear story. It used to make more sense, and we kept singing it until we decided which verses we liked best, whether or not they told the story we had in mind, and we just kept the verses we liked, regardless of the narrative. Which is how I assume all of these folk songs happened. There were verses that explained more, but they weren’t as good… we did that to the whole album. The whole album we overwrote, and just kind of picked… And then the last thing that happened with that song was my guitar lick, the bass figure… it didn’t get written that way, but it turned into more that way when we were going in to record it. And then it was done.

Paste: You’ve collaborated with so many wonderful artists over the years. Is there anyone out there that you haven’t collaborated with that you would like to?
Welch: Oh, man. I don’t know. It’s funny, this isn’t exactly what you’re asking, but I feel this funny kinship with Shovels and Rope, because they’re a duo. And we’ve never even met them. We’re kind of star-crossed. It’s so weird. All of our friends know them, and all of their friends know us, and I’ve never met them. So, I guess I’m going to throw that into the world. I kind of would like to do something with them somehow. Or at least say hi… Not to sound dark, but there were some [more] people on my list, but they died.
Paste: If we were to say anyone, living or dead…
Welch: I almost wanted to do something with Allen Toussaint. And we were, in fact, asked to do a couple of things, and it never worked out. Also, even though Dave and I played with Levon Helm a number of times… every time we would play with him, we would have such a good time, that at the end of the night, he would grab us and say, “let’s form a band. You guys gotta move to Woodstock. Let’s form a band.” We never formed a band. So that’s sad, because literally every time we played with him [he would say], “let’s form a band.” How did I not do that? But you only have one life to live… I’ve been so lucky. Mostly, the people that I would really love to play with, I’ve gotten to play with. It’s crazy.

Paste: I’ve just got one more, and then I’ll leave you alone. You tend to stay out of the spotlight in your personal life. What is like for you to be somewhere like this, where if you walked outside, you would be mobbed?
Welch: It’s okay. I actually had a really good time Friday talking to a bunch of people, and I was surprised. There are people here who have been coming to see us for a while. There were some people who go way back with us, and then some people who had never seen us… but I really like meeting the people who haul their asses out to hear music. They’re good people. And I never want people to forget that we’re all here together today. We all came here, to this barn to play music and listen to music and that event has power in and of itself, and that’s a good thing, regardless of what I’m doing, who I am, anything. We all decided to come and stand in a barn and listen to music, and I always want to honor that…Dave and I got to open for Johnny Cash once, and we watched him shake every hand that was stuck through the fence. And he was about to go on. Even I get a little keyed up when we’re about to go on. I need to focus a little bit, because our shows are really exposed. I can’t just kick back and play along. So the one thing we have to do is get our heads straight before we go onstage. I watched Johnny Cash shake every hand, and talk to everybody, and really take the time to hear their story, and he was going onstage. And when they finally came and grabbed him, and said, “Johnny, [we] really have to walk you to the stage now,” the next hand that he was about to shake, he said, “you come back after the show.” So, he played the show, and he came back to the fence, and he shook every hand until everyone who wanted to say they had shaken Johnny Cash’s hand had gotten to do it. And so it was a lesson learned, that’s how you do it. And that’s all you have, seeing these other performers that you admire, and inspire you. So that’s what Dave and I strive to do. Always be gracious, always remember that this other person came out to hear you do this thing, this thing you would do anyway in your living room. I’d be sitting around singing anyway.

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