Originally published in The Irish Times, June 29th 2011
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, you could say that Gillian Welch has been away for eight years. But then again, she hasn’t really been away at all.It’s true that the singer-songwriter hasn’t released an album under her own name since 2003’s Soul Journey , the record that became her most commercially successful release to-date. Critical triumphs don’t enter the equation; New York-born Welch’s output has been acclaimed across the board since her 1996 debut Revival .
But that period of downtime doesn’t mean that she’s “been on vacation”, in her own words, either. Contributions to albums by The Decemberists, Robyn Hitchcock and Bright Eyes have kept her busy, while 2009’s A Friend Of A Friend album with Dave Rawlings Machine – Rawlings is her college sweetheart, co-songwriter, producer and seamless harmoniser – was well-received and required a decent amount of touring.
Still, there has been a real longing for a new Gillian Welch album since Soul Journey prised open the duo’s sound by blending their traditional roots method with electric instrumentation, although a frustrating case of writer’s block has scuppered creativity until now.
Perversely, The Harrow & The Harvest is a stripped-back affair that was recorded in the most simplistic manner imaginable; Welch and Rawlings simply sat opposite each other in the B-Room of Woodland Sound (the historic Nashville studio they saved from demolition, and where they recorded their last four albums), hit “record” and completed the album in just four weeks last autumn.
Writing songs for the Dave Rawlings Machine record was one of several factors that reignited their creative spark.
“Just writing the songs for Dave to sing instead of for me to sing somehow loosened us up and broke us out of our stalemate,” she says. “That was a very positive experience for us, and it really got us going again. We also had some really friendly prodding from some dear friends who are also artists. Conor Oberst, for one, took me aside and basically almost made me feel selfish that I hadn’t made a record – even though I’ve been trying as hard as I could for eight years.
“And then finally, we played a show that we play every year in Golden Gate Park [San Francisco] that’s one of our favourite shows to play, and I was so fed up that we didn’t have new songs. I was just sick about it. When we got home from that gig we literally bought a big calendar, and started writing deadlines on it with coloured pens. And we stuck by it.”
When the songs eventually came they came quickly, but the intervening period was a frustrating one, although it wasn’t the volume of voices joining the chorus of “when?” that had any effect.
“The truth is, I think I was kind of aware of that, but there’s no way that any outside pressure could have weighed any heavier upon me than my own mind,” Welch says. “Dave and I had to deal with our own frustrations, our own expectations. And that was the main hurdle. I don’t think we quite knew what we wanted to say next. And I also feel like, without even realising it, we needed to take a step away from our duets for a little while, which we did, ’cos Soul Journey wasn’t a duets album, and neither was the Dave Rawlings Machine one. I mean, I know what we do is not gonna be for everybody. It’s gonna be too quiet, and too small, and too subtle, and too sad for some people.
“But that’s okay, ’cos then there’s gonna be these other people who can do that funny little mind trick, like when you stare at something small for a long time, suddenly it becomes huge. Our records have that funny paradox, where they’re both miniature and panoramic at the same time. It’s a funny thing, and it’s an odd thing, but it’s also one of the reasons why I think it’s what knocks us out of being ‘traditionalists’. How big is our sound? Is it small, or is it huge? I don’t know. What happens when you take something quiet and turn it up really loud? Is it quiet or loud?”
The 10 songs on The Harrow The Harvest may never answer such deep philosophical questions, but it’s clear that this is a special album.
Having been a Nashville resident for the past 20 years, the weight of the city’s musical history was a constant spectre in the background.
Reconnecting with the magic of the south was a key element – as heard on the beautiful Tennessee – and the best way to do so was to strip everything back.
“It’s just Dave and myself, and that’s one of the first things we knew about it,” she explains. “I love that feeling of self-sufficiency and total independence. I remember feeling that way when we were making Revelator . We were starting our own label, and we just felt like true independents, y’know? Almost like outlaws. And I had that feeling again with this record – I felt like we were operating outside of the ‘normal’ sphere. I like feeling like an outsider. I’m very comfortable with that.”
There’s no doubt that The Harrow & The Harvest is treading Album of the Year territory, its brand of era-defining roots music embodying a kind of quiet, apocalyptic fury first witnessed on early songs like Caleb Meyer and continued here with tracks like The Way It Goes . Yet the inevitable critical acclaim really doesn’t seem to matter to a musical pairing who would probably busk the streets of Nashville if they couldn’t make records.
“Playing duets is pretty hard – it’s pretty all-consuming and kind of exhausting, in a way,” she says. “We love it to death . . . I mean, at this point, I feel like we’ve kind of devoted our lives to it. And I’m okay with that. I’m pleased that we’ve made these records that can really show what two acoustic guitars and two voices sound like. I love that sound, and I want to document it, and I want to share it with the world.”