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Sunday 4 December 2016

Old gold: why Gillian's the pick of the crop

Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00

Decent folk:
Gillian Welch and
her musical and
life partner David
Rawlings
Decent folk: Gillian Welch and her musical and life partner David Rawlings

With first Fleet Foxes and then Bon Iver making the critics go weak at the knees with their sophomore albums this summer, it seems that a certain brand of introspective pastoral Americana is having a cultural moment.

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Even in the UK, the likes of Mumford & Sons, Noah & The Whale and Laura Marling are causing a new generation of teenagers to abandon the garish, self-obsessed R'n'B divas in favour of warmer nu-folk sounds.

One of the figureheads in the Stateside revival of roots music is Gillian Welch, whose debut 1996 album was called, appropriately, Revival. Close harmony duets with her musical and life partner David Rawlings, spartan banjo picking and flashes of harmonica were Welch's calling card -- you could call it The Shock of the Old.

"When me and Dave started and put out our first record, I remember feeling like a freak," she says. "I have such a clear memory of feeling like a Martian. I'm so happy now to look around and see so many comrades out here in this hinterland with us."

After the success of Revival and its acclaimed follow-up Hell Among The Yearlings, Gillian found herself sharing a microphone with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, and their contributions to the soundtrack to the Coen brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? (sales: seven million and counting) saw them steal the show at the Grammys.

Next came Time (The Revelator) in 2001 and then 2003's more musically expansive Soul Journey.

But then the trail went cold. A long hiatus was finally broken in 2009 when Welch sang on Rawlings's first solo album -- he called his band The Dave Rawlings Machine.

And now finally, after eight years, the Nashville-based singer is back with The Harrow And The Harvest, another masterful collection of new songs that feel straight out of the grand canon of folk music.

So what took so long?

"We were trying to write that whole time," says Gillian. "We did quite a bit of touring, mostly in the US. We played on quite a few friends' records -- The Decemberists, Bright Eyes. . .

"It's not as if I had writer's block. There are notebooks full of songs. But I think it was good that we waited. I'm not sure that we had anything to say before -- and I don't know why that was.

"I remember one night when Conor Oberst took me aside and said 'Look, you have to make another record. We're waiting for it. We really need another record from you.' Eventually it got through to us and we sort of snapped out of it."

Having grown up in southern California, Welch moved to Nashville soon after graduating from Boston's Berklee School of Music. If there's a thread running through The Harrow And The Harvest, it's in a palpable yearning for the American South -- there are references to Kentucky, Tennessee, Dixie. . .

"I almost felt as though I had fallen out of love with the south for a little while," says Gillian. "I was so romantically attached to Tennessee when I moved there 15 years ago; it was so rich to me. It was like a magical place. So many albums in my record collection that I love had been made in Tennessee: Blonde On Blonde, Neil Young records, Elvis records, Bill Monroe records, Townes Van Zandt records ...

"But then, after living there for so many years, I had somehow become immune to this great deep musical well. So part of what was going on with this record was that I rekindled my love affair with the American South. Just like with a person -- if you've been married a long time, I'm guessing, their charm would wear off and you'd have to work to rekindle this passion.

"This is what had to happen between me and Nashville -- and I'm happy to say that we patched things up!"

Gillian's love of Nashville is well documented -- she and Rawlings bought RCA's old recording studio there, thus saving it from the demolition wrecking ball. It all seems a long way from her childhood in southern California. Or does it?

"Southern California has a rich musical tradition, too," she says. "Let's not forget Bakersfield. But that's not what I was listening to. I started singing Woody Guthrie songs and Carter Family songs when I was about seven. I was taught them by a hippie music teacher at my grade school who thought we should be learning folk music. I loved it. I just never stopped.

Hence her liking for the banjo. . .

"I like the songs where I play banjo because you remember that the banjo is a drum -- they tend to be more rhythmic than the guitar-based ones. And more bluesy."

I mention that many of the songs on the new album sound like they could have been written at any time over past 150 years, such is their olde world feel.

"There's a certain folk classicism that I admire deeply," she says. "It's not just an intellectual admiration. It hits me so viscerally -- the poetry is so effortless, and yet so timeless. I find it all-consuming. I can't help it. I don't feel like it's something I chose to do. I feel like this is the way I have found to best express myself."

I wonder how difficult is it to be both romantically and professionally involved with the same person -- Gillian and David Rawlings write, record, tour and live together. . .

"I've never met anybody that I was so completely like-minded with. It's almost spooky. We certainly don't argue when we're in the studio. I dare say there's no one I can imagine actually writing songs with besides him. We write everything together. But can I imagine doing that with another person? No way. Because it's a completely unguarded, illogical process. It's completely impossible to explain what it's like."

Gillian is a big favourite with Irish audiences, from her first show in Dublin's now defunct Da Club to a brace of spellbinding gigs in Vicar St.

"I remember those Vicar St shows really well," she says. "There's always a really great crowd in Dublin. I always have this feeling when we play there that no one's missing anything -- not a word, not a note is getting by.

"You might think that's disconcerting but it's not -- that's a great feeling. You feel like people are really hearing what you're doing."

The Harrow And The Harvest is out now on Acony/Warners. Gillian Welch is rumoured to play Dublin in November.

nkelly@independent.ie

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