David Rawlings: "If You Don't Need It, We've Got It"
Back in October, on the eve of the prestigious Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and ahead of an intensive run of touring to promote his brand new album Nashville Obsolete, Dave Rawlings took our call in the gregarious and generous manner he’s become known for. A passionate and generous interviewee, he talked enthusiastically about the genesis of the new record, its title, and receiving awards.
Coming six years after his debut A Friend Of A Friend, Nashville Obsolete finds Rawlings and longtime musical partner Gillian Welch sounding more cohesive and settled in the sound they want for his songs. The other good news is that patient Australian fans shouldn’t have to wait too much longer to see the pair in concert in this part of the world again.
Chris Familton: Congratulations on the wonderful new album. What sort of emotions do you have releasing a new collection of songs out into the world?
I’m always glad when things are out and people can hear them. I’m excited that the material is out when we take the songs out to play them. That always makes it a little more fun for the audience and the performer. They’re not old songs yet but they’re ones some people have heard now. The reaction has been all good in our world so far.
This album sounds and feels more cohesive and natural than your first record. How much of that comes from the songwriting versus the playing and production on the album?
Well, the first Machine record A Friend Of A Friend was – and I don’t mean this in a grandiose way – was in many ways a greatest hits record of records we never made. Those songs covered a large chunk of time and came from a few projects and then we wrote a few songs to turn it into a record but it was more of a collection than this record. Nashville Obsolete is much closer to an album that was written as such. There are themes in songs that return in other songs and it’s much closer to other records Gillian and I have made and it was treated the same as when we’ve made a Gillian record.
Why was the timing right to make a Dave Rawlings album now versus a new Gillian record to follow up The Harrow & The Harvest (2011)?
Well we’d done a little bit of touring on my first album but then in 2014 we went and played some more shows and realised the audience had grown for the Machine which we hadn’t anticipated. A lot of people came and enjoyed themselves and we just love playing that way sometimes. That coupled with some songs at the time that were kicking around and we were trying to get finished seemed to work well with me singing so we went with it and pushed on to get a whole record together. It really was just the combination of some live reinforcement and some artistic inspiration.
You have the song "Candy" on the new album and "Sweet Tooth" was on the last record? Is there a confectionary theme starting to emerge in your songwriting?
Ha, apparently! "Sweet Tooth" was a funny song when we wrote that. I had an idea that I wanted a free rhyme scheme and a simple folk form based on the traditional "Candyman" that Reverend Gary Davis popularised and I knew a scrap folk version that Dylan used to do so we put that together. "Candy" was a song that got written on the spot during soundcheck on the first or second Machine tour. Not all the words but the form of it and the first couple of verses I sang as Morgan, who used to play bass, was running down the aisle and I used to call him Candy so I used that. I liked that there was some continuity with ‘Sweet Tooth’ because of the imagery of candy and sweets and the double entendre in the folk world which is such a lovely tradition and which worked well. We were really happy to partake in that tradition as it also connected with our real lives now and then.
The album title Nashville Obsolete – I read that as an observation of the loss of musical tradition and history in the city’s music business and culture. Am I on the right track there, is there more to the title than that?
There’s quite a bit of that but the title speaks to quite a few things. My favourite thing about a title is when it connects with a piece of art and you can remember it right away. That phrase we had came out of our world because we were talking about having a store in the basement where we could sell all these obsolete things that we end up still needing. Typewriter ribbon, retaining springs from an EMT plate reverb from the ‘50s you know? We just wanted to make a store – mail-order and by appointment only, no online presence and people could come and buy Beta tapes or whatever they wanted. Even iPods at this point! Our slogan was going to be "If you don’t need it we’ve got it".
The phrase Nashville Obsolete has been around a while and we thought that Nashville has changed a lot over the last five years with the boom it’s experienced so it connects to that and also connects to the change in the way people sort of pay for music just by having an internet connection or a phone and getting the content for free. Being a musician at this point is sort of an obsolete profession in a certain way. You can go out and tour on the road but there isn’t much to be made in the way that people have spent their entire lives trying to fashion songs and record them so that people listen to them. That is now considered of less value than a glass of fresh pressed juice or something. I don’t know how the world is supposed to live with that but we do. One comparison I make is that I have no idea how the words Blonde on Blonde connect with Bob Dylan’s album but once you’ve heard the album it does and you’re fine with it and I think Nashville Obsolete might do that too. Oh also, I thought that the word ‘obsolete’ worked very well with the word ‘machine’.
The core of both your and Gillian’s music has been the pair of you working together. How do you make a distinction between the music that appears under each of your names? Is it in the songwriting origin, the lead vocal or something else?
In the most plain spoken way it just depends on who’s singing lead. I’ve never wanted to put it out under Gillian Welch and then have people have to listen to my voice. That’s the main thing but we also have different styles as singers so we’re both really happy to have two outlets because some of the Machine stuff is really near and dear to our hearts but we weren’t able to get close to it on Gillian’s records. It allows more arc and more expression and when we worked on songs we might have had some that I would start that would end up being Gillian songs but now it also occasionally goes the other way which is great.
How was the experience of being awarded a lifetime achievement award for songwriting at the Americana Awards?
It was a bit surreal and seemed a bit premature to us, getting a lifetime achievement award but we weren’t going to argue. We were really flattered to be included with the other people that it has been awarded to. It made me think a lot about the songs and also I guess when I accepted the award I was trying to think what I was going to say and what I was most interested in talking about was what the award meant to me and it went back to everybody who sang one of our songs in the shower or with friends around a campfire, in a picking circle, on a stage or recorded them. The award speaks more to the songs as they live outside of us. We go around the country and the world and play them ourselves but this award means they’ve had a larger impact than we could give them so I’m really grateful that people have found the songs useful to sing and enjoy which is the most important thing to me about it.
The last time you visited Australia was over a decade ago. Everyone in the local folk and alt-country community here desperately want to see you both play here again. Are there any touring plans in the works?
In your late Summer we’re trying to put something together to come down and do a big tour. It’s been a long time and we had a terrific time the first time we came so I know Gillian and I are really excited to get back there if we can make something work after the new year. Nothing has been announced but you can be on the front of the wave of knowing that something is coming.