Over the Rhine: Karin and Linford

Music Features Over The Rhine

It’s safe to say that music brought Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist together. They were in a band before they were friends and friends before they became husband-and-wife. But from that first moment they performed together, there was a connection, one that’s grown stronger after two decades of touring and releasing albums through their band, Over the Rhine. The road hasn’t been without its challenges, but we can all be thankful for that recital when her voice and his piano first met. Detweiler answers our questions, conferring with Bergquist, who, he says, “is always willing to chime in over my shoulder.”

Paste: Tell us the story of how you met.
Detweiler: Although Karin and I never met as children, for several years we did live just 20 miles away from each other in little coal-mining towns in Southeast Ohio, near the West Virginia border. At that time, the world’s largest dragline earthmover was carving that area of Ohio apart for coal. This monstrous machine, called “Big Muskie” was 22-stories tall, longer than a football field and was actually plugged in to a giant electric cord. A single bite of its bucket could move 20 tons of earth. As children, both Karin and I could see the lights of Big Muskie up in the hills at night as it rearranged the terrain and revised our collective horizon.

Later, both Karin and I fumbled our way to a Quaker liberal arts college in Canton, Ohio. I remember seeing Karin sitting in our student center near the pool tables and thought to myself, “There’s a lovely face.” I went over and introduced myself, and Karin has no memory whatsoever of that first meeting. That’s the sort of impression I make on women.

But I love the idea of foreshadowing, and can get drunk on it as a writer. There I was introducing myself to a young girl, who I had no idea would one day become my wife and lifelong muse and writing partner.

Paste: Describe your first date.
Detweiler: Well it started with the music for us. We did a little performing together on campus—we were both studying music, unsure of where music would eventually woo us. At her junior recital Karin sang a few arias, and I accompanied her on piano, and a friend came up to me afterward and said, “Linford, What was that? Did you feel that? It was like the room changed.” And it was just a small room in Ohio, but I suppose something did happen that’s hard to quantify. When you put certain musicians together sometimes there is a chemistry that is felt on the skin. I think Karin and I felt a shift of some kind, but we didn’t know what to make of it, so we just set it aside for the time being and went our separate ways.

But when I decided a few years later that I was going to hang my hat on songwriting and needed a singer and a band to flesh out the songs I was writing, I remembered Karin and gave her a call. She dropped everything and moved to Cincinnati, and we began writing and recording together in the ragged, beautiful, dangerous, timeless part of the city called Over the Rhine. (Ragged, beautiful, dangerous, timeless: all states of being we hoped our songs might lean toward and maybe even inhabit.) Eventually we were caught up in the romance of our young bohemian lifestyle, and borrowed the name of the neighborhood as the working title for our labor of love.

And I suppose a year or two went by before we realized we were caught in each other’s undertow. I think our first official date found us trespassing after dark in Eden Park, which overlooks the Ohio River. Two writers sneaking around after midnight while the city slept, dreaming its invisible dreams.

The next morning I emptied whatever was in my bank account (certainly less than $100) to buy the most extravagant brunch we could find at The Omni Netherland Hotel in Cincinnati. We sat a little stunned in their over-the-top art deco restaurant, which looks more-or-less like an Egyptian palace (or brothel) from a time before Christ, and lifted a glass to whatever unnamable adventure was unfolding.

And then we wandered back to our separate apartments and tried to write the soundtrack.

Paste: Could you talk about a song that means something special to you as a couple?
Detweiler: When Karin and I were mixing Over the Rhine’s third record in New Orleans, we were sitting in a great little dive in the French Quarter called Port of Call drinking Bloody Marys with our engineer, Trina Shoemaker, and a song by Dorothy Moore came on the juke box called “Misty Blue.” It was such a DNA-altering moment, a moment so pregnant with all that this beautiful, heartbreaking, imperfect life has to offer, that we eventually wrote our own song about the experience, which is called “Jesus In New Orleans.”

And I suppose we could point to many songs that are inextricably connected to a particular moment in our story. Whenever you hear a song that has become intimately tangled up in your own plot, the inner floodgates open, and the movie starts rolling. And I suppose that’s one thing that keeps us interested in the craft of songwriting.

Paste: What is the biggest challenge of being married to a fellow artist?
Detweiller: Being together so much of the time. Knowing that you sink or swim together.

Paste: What’s the greatest thing about being married to an artist?
Detweiler: Being together so much of the time. Knowing that you sink or swim together.

Seriously, all the best stuff about being an entrepreneurial couple is also the most challenging stuff. It’s amazing that we get to travel and work together and share a labor of love. But sometimes our friends tell us, “If I was with my spouse as much as the two of you are together, we’d kill each other inside of a week.” It’s not for the faint of heart.

I remember reading “Two-Part Invention,” Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful memoir that she published not long after her husband Hugh passed away. Madeleine was a writer and Hugh was an actor, and toward the end of his life they combined their talents and got to do just a little traveling and performing together. She was reminiscing in the book about what a bountiful gift those few experiences were, how she would treasure those moments they shared on stage and the accompanying memories forever. And I was sitting there with the book in my hands staring off into the distance somewhat shocked and thinking, Karin and I have gotten to experience that kind of deep connection for years and years. We’ve braided our lives together based on a body of work that we’ve nurtured and sustained together. It is an incredibly rare gift to share meaningful work with your lover, and of course, I need to be reminded of that from time to time. I’m sure we both often take it for granted.

And we live life without a safety net. It’s exciting, but there is no backup plan. Everything we own we bought for a song.

Paste: Any advice you got from other couples who worked together in the same field?
Detweiler: You know, I discussed this question with Karin, and it was really hard to come up with anything. Karin points to a time when she asked my mother for cooking advice (it was only after we were married that Karin came into her own in the kitchen) and my mother said, “Whatever you make, just make it with love.” Karin never forgot that and maybe that advice seeped into some of her approach to writing as well.

And Karin remembers the parents of her best childhood friend, who started with nothing, worked extremely hard, conceived and eventually ran several businesses, and still managed to have a date every weekend even with five young children.

I realized that most of my extended family came from a background of running family farms, and any husband and wife who farm together certainly share a creative partnership.

But neither of us can point to a couple that worked together in the same field that mentored us. We had to create our own culture over time by trial and error.

Paste: What advice would you give to a couple working together or in the same field?
Detweiler: If they’re like us, there is the temptation during inevitable busy seasons to put the relationship on hold indefinitely. I always thought I could make up the deficit further down the road with a large deposit of some kind. But someone told us relationships are coin-operated. They are actually sustained by lots of little investments on an ongoing basis.

So Karin and I have tried to find ways to stay connected. One simple rule: When we tour, we eat one meal a day in a restaurant that serves good wine. That keeps things civilized.

We also had to learn that our career and relationship aren’t one and the same. There is overlap, but we try to think of them as two separate gardens. Both require ongoing care and creativity and cultivation.

Paste: How long have you been together?
Detweiler: We’ve been writing and recording and performing professionally for more than 20 years, and just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary last October. We were on the road and found a little French bistro in Boulder, Colorado. Lingered long over some good food and a bottle of French wine—and then took a long walk together. For some reason that number—15—kind of blew my mind a bit. Seemed like a small miracle of some kind. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.

Paste: Tell us about a project that you guys are working on right now?
Detweiler: Seven years ago, Karin and I both fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving outside of the city for a while. We bought a little fixer-upper farm on the fringe, about 45 miles east of Cincinnati. Ten acres with an old brick house built in the 1830s, some towering trees, wild edges, lots of birds and deer, and plenty of room for our three dogs to run. We can see the sky properly, watch the moon rise, take a deep breath when we come off the road. It’s been a good chapter all in all, not without its challenges, but very rewarding, and there is a song cycle taking shape around our time here on the farm. So we hope to record those songs this year and release the project in early 2013.

We’re also finishing up songs for our third Christmas release, called Blood Oranges in the Snow.

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