Gillian Welch And David Rawlings Beat Back Writer's Block The folk singers discuss their complementary singing voices, and a brand-new album that took eight years to complete.
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Gillian Welch And David Rawlings Beat Back Writer's Block

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Gillian Welch And David Rawlings Beat Back Writer's Block

Gillian Welch And David Rawlings Beat Back Writer's Block

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It's been a long time coming - eight years, actually - but it's finally here: a new album from Gillian Welch, one of the country's leading roots music artists.


GILLIAN WELCH: (Singing) On the day I came to Scarlet Town, you promised I'd be your bride, but you left me here to rot away, like holly on a mountainside. Now look at that deep well. Look at that dark grave, ringing that iron bell in Scarlet Town today.

YDSTIE: That's "Scarlet Town," a track on "The Harrow and the Harvest," Gillian Welch's new album. It's another collaboration between Welch and her longtime partner, David Rawlings. They both join us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Welcome.

WELCH: Hi, there. Good to be here.

DAVID RAWLINGS: Great to talk to you.

YDSTIE: So, eight years. Were you worried it wasn't going to come?

WELCH: Yeah. There was a point where, you know, we had to think about the fact that there might be no more records. You know - because we were actually trying to work on the record the whole eight years. You know, yeah...

RAWLINGS: There were songs on and off during this time period that we wrote and finished and liked enough to, you know, put in shows or to try out here or there. And, you know, in some cases, they were sort of like only children or something. They didn't end up connecting to anything else. They didn't feel like part of a larger body of work, or something that would turn into an album.

YDSTIE: So Gillian, is there a song on this album that was the key that sort of opened the door for the rest of the album, and a song that you could build other songs around?

WELCH: That might be "Hard Times." That's the one that really starts the creative spurt that is the record.


WELCH: (Singing) So, come all you Ashville boys and turn up your old-time noise, and kick 'til 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.

YDSTIE: I'm speaking with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings about their new album, "The Harrow and the Harvest," and that's a tune called "Hard Times." You know, I was listening to you in concert the other night, and you were singing harmony. And there were times I just couldn't quite make out whose voice was where. I mean, you've managed to blend your voices so well that you just can't figure it out.

WELCH: I know what you're talking about, yeah. The first time Dave and I ever sang together, we both took notice of it. You know, we'd sung with a lot of people before that. But there was something - some particular way that our voices hooked up. I'd like to think we've cultivated it over the years. And it's gotten to the point where on this record, there is that one song that you may be talking about, where we sing in unison.

YDSTIE: "The Way It Will Be."

WELCH: "The Way It Will Be." And it's very difficult for us to even exactly hear whose voice is whose.


WELCH AND RAWLINGS: (Singing) I lost you a while ago, still I don't know why. I can't say your name without a crow flying by...

RAWLINGS: When it was written, I myself - I was singing it, but we were going to have Gillian sing it, and I was trying to sort of teach her the part. As she sang along with me to learn the part, you know, we heard our voices singing together. And we thought, well, that's a new sound for us. And we decided to, you know, work on it and perform it, and record it that way.


AND RAWLINGS: (Singing) The way you made it, that's the way it will be.

YDSTIE: You know, one of the other things about your music - I'm sure you've heard this before - it's mostly slow, I mean, really slow music. Why is it right for you? Why have you chosen that? And how do you have the courage to do it in a world where everyone plays fast and talks fast and wants to go fast?


WELCH: Well, that's funny. I am trying to speak more rapidly today on the radio with you. My natural inclination is even slower. Yeah, I don't know. It's just my natural pacing. I've got a friend, a writer - he thinks it's related to resting heartbeat.

YDSTIE: Oh, really?

WELCH: Yeah, he does. He called me one time and he said, what's your pulse right now? And it is true, I have a really slow resting heartbeat. I was a long-distance runner all through high school and college, and still. Anyhow, he may be right. I really don't know. But we also noticed there are very few singers that seem to be able to spit their words out as slowly as I do. Jimi Hendrix is kind of one.

RAWLINGS: Yeah, he's good at talking slow.

WELCH: It seems to take him a while to just get it out there.

YDSTIE: Well, I wanted to ask you a little bit about David's guitar playing - really terrific and has a great kind of clean, flat sound. When I saw you in concert the other night, I noticed that he was playing kind of an unusual instrument. It's a little arch top, right?

RAWLINGS: Yeah. Years ago, prior to making Gillian's first record, I happened to be in New England at a friend's house - or actually, his father's house, and we were painting a car, I think. And...

WELCH: You were spray-painting an old Delta 88.

RAWLINGS: That was a 1977 Delta 88...

WELCH: Metallic gold.

RAWLINGS: In the basement there, I saw a little instrument, and it was covered with sawdust. It had been near an old jigsaw or a band saw or something for years, and it had gotten two or three inches of sawdust on it. But it was an interesting body shape; it was really small. And I think Gillian rubbed her fingers on the headstock and cleaned it off, and saw that it said Epiphone on it. And we picked it up and took it out. And I said to my great friend Earl, who is a terrific musician, I said, Earl, what is this? I need this. To make a long story short, I eventually talked him out of it; I traded him out of it. And the first day I heard it on microphone, I sort of knew I'd found my voice. I thought it was an amazing-sounding instrument, and I've played it ever since.


WELCH: One of the amazing things about his playing is, so many guitar players sound like a guitar - like they seem somehow hemmed in by what the instrument naturally wants to do.

RAWLINGS: And I play what it doesn't want to do.

WELCH: And Dave plays what the instrument doesn't want to do. I mean, you know, he really wrestles with it in a beautiful way. And anyhow, no one asks me to talk about Dave's guitar playing enough.


YDSTIE: "The Way It Goes," from the new album from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "The Harrow and the Harvest." Thanks so much. This has been a great conversation.

WELCH: Well, good talking to you, too.

RAWLINGS: Yeah, thank you for having us.


AND RAWLINGS: (Singing) Did you throw it down, 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...

YDSTIE: I'm John Ydstie.

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