Richmond Fontaine: The End of an Era and the Beginning of a New Delines
Just before Richmond Fontaine’s last ever gig at the Maze in Nottingham, and very close to the end of their last ever tour, I took the opportunity to chat to Portland based lead singer, songwriter and author Willy Vlautin, in the noisy back room of the Lincolnshire Poacher, one of the towns finest alehouses.
Alan J Taylor: This truly seems like the end of an era for Richmond Fontaine after 22 years and in the region of 14 albums. Do you think you will miss the characters, the places and the buildings that were such a part of the RF story over those years?
Willy Vlautin: Some of that, maybe I won’t go back to, but some of it is in my blood now and I guess I keep writing about that. My new novel feels a lot like our last record ‘You Cant Go Back If There Is Nothing To Go Back To’ … So yes, I miss it and lots of the places and characters feature in the new book which is due out in 2018.
Alan J Taylor: So what is the title of the new novel?
Willy Vlautin: (laughing) I can’t actually say, because we’ve not agreed on the title yet and no one likes my titles anyway.
Alan J Taylor: This brings me to the song ‘I Can’t Black It Out If I wake Up and Remember’ … because it sounds like a personal homage to all the places and people you sang about. Talk to us about that song.
Willy Vlautin: It is … It is. It’s a lot about Reno; I wanted the last record to end pretty much where it all began, for the imagery and the stories to take us all back. I’d moved up to Portland to get in a band and the city scared the shit out of me, so all I tended to write about was Reno and places like The Fitzgerald and all the amazing street characters … so the last CD covers lots of that stuff. The Fitz is closed now and that felt like a big thing, cos it’s the place where I wrote and recorded the album of the same name and it has some great memories for me.
Alan J Taylor: So when you moved from the desert songs of Reno to the logging songs of Portland … Tell us a little about that transition.
Willy Vlautin: My first couple of novels are set in Nevada I was just homesick. I didn’t really like the big city, but I was determined to stick it out. Nothing changed much apart from the water, I took my observations with me and the material followed a similar pattern until the ‘High Country’ … I’d moved outside of Portland up to the forest this time, with huge trees everywhere and real gothic and gloomy. You know, you can’t see everything, but you start to hear lots of stuff. You know gunshots, 4 Wheel Drives and chainsaws and once in a while shouting and screaming. My imagination was running riot and that is where the gothic tales for ‘High Country’ came from. The guys in the band thought I was nuts, it was a tough record to sell to the band (laughs). The small towns in the logging communities are all really depressed and the only place you might see a pretty girl is in the grocery store or maybe the auto-part store, and if you are really lonely that might be the only time you get to see a good looking girl EVER. It’s bleak man.
Alan J Taylor: What are your thoughts current World affairs, and the songwriters’ role in response to what you see?
Willy Vlautin: You have to go with what is in your heart. A songwriter that writes dance songs is just as important as your left wing socialist protest singer. The only real job of a songwriter is to be honest … and if you’re honest with yourself, then your soul comes out, your blood comes out … and that’s really all you have to offer. I think the World has been falling apart since the beginning, it’s always been messy. America has been in a low level fall for a while. Trump has been a long time coming, they have built it in, and whether it’s him or someone else like him, people are really disaffected and the people Trump will appeal to are the disaffected. Some people would rather vote for a guy who will blow apart the whole system and try to fix it … yeah it’s depressing. Maybe my way of dealing with this is to tell the story of the poor and the disillusioned from the inside. I’ve always thought that’s where my strength lies … you know sucking or drawing you into the World of those who are struggling or facing hard times. Real protest songs are hard to write and I take my hat off to the Drive by Truckers and Billy Braggs of this World. They’re cool ... its important.
Alan J Taylor: Tell us about Amy Boone and the new project ‘The Delines’.
Willy Vlautin: Well we did a record called Post To The Wire and Deborah Kelly who is Amy’s sister sang on that record and she was going to tour with us but she got pregnant, so Amy went in her place and I fell in love with her voice and I said to myself “I wanna be in a band where SHE sings” … so when I got home I wrote her about a years worth of songs, this thesis paper thing, telling her just why she should front this new band. So that is how the Delines started, she came up and rehearsed for a week and we cut the record and we became a band. She’s just a great gal, she’s got soul, its like she reminds me of Bobbie Gentry … I’m a huge Bobbie Gentry fan. When she sings, I believe. I always said that before I die, I wanna be in a band with a great woman singer.
Alan J Taylor: So is The Delines simply Richmond Fontaine with a female singer … or is this a distinctly different project?
Willy Vlautin: Well it is different in its framework, we are not a rock band, I don’t really have a big interest in having the Delines be a rock band. I really want the Delines to be a late night Country-soul band, and I’m hoping that all comes together. Amy got hit by a car in an accident in April and we are waiting for her to heal and recover before we can progress with the new album. She’s tough though … I love the new band and the sound we have created, and I think we are just starting to become a cool band … so I hope Amy gets well soon and we can get back on the road.
Alan J Taylor: So what about your own singing career? Do you think there will be any mourners for your inimitable gritty style?
WillyVlautin: Ha ha … I don’t think so! Maybe a few people will miss it, a little (laughs again). I’ve sung in bar bands for about 30 years, and I’m not that great a singer, I guess the style fits the songs. I don’t consider myself to be either a great front man or singer, and as I get older I think maybe there a handful of books I wanna write … and think it would be cool to be in a late night Country-soul band that does ballads … and I’m running outa time, so I figure I’d better get going on all of those things.
Alan J Taylor: So will you concentrate on the song writing?
Willy Vlautin: Well hopefully Amy will write some of her own, she’s a great songwriter, but yeah … it’s fun, it feels like taking the handcuffs off. I write songs that I would never write for me, but equally there’s songs that I write that Amy would never want to sing (laughs). I want to write her an “Ode to Billy Joe’, another ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ … whether I can or not is another matter. I need to write songs that she feels good about singing. A lot of the subject matter in my own songs revolves around things that haunt me, or trouble me, and some of those things are the same for her but some aren’t, so we are learning to compromise.
Alan J Taylor: So after thirty year in the music business, what would your tip for survival be to budding musicians?
Willy Vlautin: I’ve been a low level musician for many years … I guess there’s two things, first you can be really good, and practice I guess (laughs) but the best one, is to get yourself a trade … learn to be an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter or something that will earn you some good money, yet at the same time allow you the freedom to tour and the time to write and practice. I very seldom write songs that should make me money, I write a lot of songs that aren’t very accessible to ‘normal people’ but it is important to be true to yourself. Freedom is important and if you have a trade, you can drop in and out of it and you don’t have to quit jobs to go on tour. Early in my career I quit three or four jobs but when I hit 30 I became a house painter, and that gave me the freedom to do what I wanted.
Alan J Taylor: Do you see the Delines project changing things?
Willy Vlautin: Well it all really depends if people like the band. Its really fun when you stumble onto something and people like it. At the moment, things are looking favourable, and if more people like what we do we’ll keep touring and producing albums and singing to the folks cos we love what we do and its really fun, so I’m hoping things go we’ll. We always laugh that this is an old-mans band, and you don’t have to be good looking to be in this band … except Amy of course who is beautiful (laughs). Anytime you can play and people enjoy it we feel lucky … we’ll probably keep playing till no one shows up … (more laughter).
I have to say, being in Richmond Fontaine was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, and in a way that’s why we wanna stop, whilst we feel like we are on a high and we all still get on together. ‘You Cant Go Back’ is one of our all time favourite records and its not just cos it’s the new record, we all feel proud of what we did with RF and we are thankful for the journey. So little in life do you get the chance to leave the World in a better place than when you found it … we’ve just had that CD, we are all playing well together … Everybody has sacrificed a lot for the band so I wanted it to end on a good note. Right now it feels good, we all wanted to leave a tattoo of that for folks to remember, rather than driving the thing into the ground or simply fading away.
Richmond Fontaine played their last tour date at Dantes, Portland, Oregon on November 12th.