Friday 21 July 2017

Smalltown oregon blues

Trees company: Willy Vlautin
(second from left) has written
Richmond Fontaine's most
ambitious album yet
Trees company: Willy Vlautin (second from left) has written Richmond Fontaine's most ambitious album yet

Not since Twin Peaks has the dark underbelly of a small rural logging town in the US been as vividly rendered as it is in Richmond Fontaine's new album, The High Country. Okay, so there's no backwards-talking dwarves but otherwise the narrative builds to high drama in sleepyville.

Richmond Fontaine's 10th studio LP is also their most ambitious: you can call it a concept album or a song-novel or a country-rock opera, but whatever your definition, it's Willy Vlautin at the height of his storytelling powers.

A bizarre love triangle set among the tall pines of the Pacific northwest involving a shy, car mechanic's love for an unhappily married auto-parts counter girl, the record encompasses romantic ballads, zesty garage rock, highly cinematic instrumentals and dramatic spoken-word dialogue . . .

So where did Willy get the inspiration for the story?

"There's logging trucks that go by my house all day long -- even at 4.30 in the morning -- and they shake the whole house," says Willy over a coffee in his Dublin hotel during a recent visit.

"So I started taking pictures of them, just for fun. Where I live [outside Portland, Oregon] is very like Dublin: it's overcast and it rains a lot. So I wanted to write a song about it. If Bing Crosby was on speed and a maniac, he would write a song like 'The Meeting On The Logging Road', which is this little song I wrote, no more than two minutes long. It's kinda romantic.

"That started it off and then I began thinking about it in terms of light versus dark. It's very gothic. That's the way I think of the area -- it's very straight, very Christian but at the same time, it's very unhinged.

"There's an element of you not seeing your neighbours because there's so many trees, you don't know who you're living next to."

This isolated patch of rural Oregon is evoked so well on the album, it's very much a character in the story.

"I can't help but have the environment I'm living in seep in," says Willy. "The hippies who were in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco decided to start communes in the northwest in the 1960s because they could get cheap land.

"So where I live you could get a hippie in a burnt-out trailer and five acres away will be a guy in a McMansion with a hummer. And there's also the old-school who got the land from their great-grandfather who homesteaded it. So all these people are living next to each other, but they don't know that they are.

"I think there's an inherent eeriness in the rural northwest. I didn't feel that way growing up in Reno, Nevada, in the desert. There's an oddness to Reno but it's not Christian-based; it's more godless."

As the author of three hugely acclaimed novels (The Motel Life, Northline and Lean On Pete), it's tempting to see Willy's new album as a halfway-house between his fiction and his music. He tends to focus on those unfortunates stuck on the down elevator of society. In The High Country, we follow a fateful episode in the life of the car mechanic and the girl who works behind the till.

"Anytime you go to a small town in the US, there's an auto-parts store," says Willy. "There's always the girls who should be working there -- the bigger, tougher, funny girls -- and then there's the girls who think, 'Oh shit, what has happened to my life? I can't get out of my little town'.

"So in my story, she gets knocked up. And she's from a very God-fearing, Christian family, so she marries the guy but then she's stuck. Then when she has a miscarriage, her husband blames her as though it's her fault. And then with an economy where there's nowhere to go, she's stuck with a guy who doesn't like her."

From Jack Kerouac to the runaway couple in Springsteen's Born To Run, lovers fleeing a claustrophobic small town has been a recurring theme in American culture.

"The idea of escaping is always so romanticised and so beautiful but it's also very scary and obviously doesn't always end well," says Willy.

"I was always a sucker for that myself my whole life. I thought if I could just get a car, then I might find a place that just feels right. I travel quite a bit. America is such a huge place -- the majority of it I don't know. American movies in particular romanticise it because it's such an easy thing to disappear into.

"And I think for a couple of centuries it has been an amazing place for people to become who they want to be.

'I've always been interested in the idea of rootlessness. Everybody lives in different places. I lived in a different place to my dad; his parents lived in a different town; my mom's grandparents lived in a different town; my mom's sister lived in a different town . . . I guess that's why the writer Raymond Carver made a lot of sense to me because all his stories took place in America, but you didn't know where -- just some city. I gravitated to that. I thought, too: maybe there is a place where I won't be so f**ked-up."

The part of the female lead on The High Country is voiced by occasional Richmond Fontaine collaborator Deborah Kelly, who sings in the Austin, Texas-based band The Damnations with her sister Amy Boone.

"When she sang I always believed her. So when we toured together eight years ago, Deborah sang on a couple of songs on the album Post To Wire. When I started writing this new record, I thought of all the singers I could have -- and I always went back to her. She came up to Portland. She wasn't scared by how crazy the record is. She just dived right in. I felt really lucky. Her and Neko Case are my two favourite singers."

Having excelled at songwriting and novels, might Willy be tempted to try his hand at writing screenplays?

"My first love is the novel," says Willy. "I think the novel is the greatest art form. And I love movies. Unless I knock up a couples of girls and get a serious drug problem, I'm not gonna chase that money because I think it's deceptively hard money. I love Richmond Fontaine. And before I die, I'd really like to write a great novel."

That said, a film of Vlautin's debut novel, The Motel Life, is in post-production and Frozen River director Courtney Hunt is involved in a movie adaptation of Northline.

"These two brothers from Chicago [the Polskys] just made a film of The Motel Life. I gave them the rights to it. Then they rang up and said that Kris Kristofferson is gonna be in it.

"They invited me to watch them shoot his part in a bar/restaurant that I've been going to since I was a little kid. It was so exciting. Surreal."

The High Country is out on September 2. Richmond Fontaine play the Workman's Club, Dublin, November 4; Cyprus Ave, Cork, 5; Cleere's, Kilkenny, 6; Empire, Belfast, 7; and Roisin Dubh, Galway, 8. nkelly@independent.ie

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