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Gillian Welch: the real retro artist

By Joel Bernstein, July 1998

There are many contemporary artists whose sound can be described as retro. But few are more retro than Gillian Welch, whose sound harkens back to the original Carter Family. More than just the Carters' sound, Welch completely captures the mood of their time and place. Those who loved her highly praised debut "Revival" will get more of the same when Welch finally releases her follow-up, "Hell Among The Yearlings," July 28.

"The title comes from an old fiddle tune. I bumped into the title looking through a book of fiddle music," Welch says. "I felt it was appropriate for the record we were making."

Welch, 30, grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents wrote musical segments for The Carol Burnett Show. Some people question how a well-off L.A. girl can adopt an Appalachia persona. But as Welch explains it, it all makes perfect sense.

"I went to a progressive, almost hippie grade school in Los Angeles. I had a forward-thinking, folk-oriented music teacher who taught us Woody Guthrie and Carter Family songs in second grade. Those were the first songs I learned to play on guitar. I started playing when I was eight."

"In the Seventies, it was hard to find records by The Carter Family and The Blue Sky Boys in a little town in Virginia. In Los Angeles, it was no problem at all. You get a lot of people out of the bigger cities playing the music. Folks in North Carolina grew up with access only to Top 40 music."

There is an obvious comparison here to blues, another musical form indigenous to the rural South now played primarily by and for urbanites.

"I didn't set out to recapture it. That's what I do. It's most natural to me. That's what my voice and writing are most suited for. We do a lot of touring through North Carolina, Virginia and East Tennessee. That was the first touring I was ever able to do before I had a record out. There's still a lot of appreciation for traditional American music there. I knew we were on the right track when people would come up and say they hadn't heard music like this since their parents died."

Another frequent comment about Welch's songs is that they are very dark. "Certainly there are darker elements in it. But most of the songs are not without some hopeful ray or some admirable stoicism. Usually, they're not just wallowing. They do deal with topics that tend to be rather dark - death, poverty, drug addiction."

The new album, like her first, was produced by T-Bone Burnett. "I didn't want to go through the process of finding another producer. We had a good time on the first one, so I just wanted to pick up where we left off. From the first time we met, I felt our tastes were very similar at least in regard to the kind of music I play. We did it half in Los Angeles and half in Nashville. It's more representative of our live performance. It's just the two of us (her performing and songwriting partner is David Rawlings), except T-Bone plays piano on "Whiskey Girl."

"Most of the songs were written in the last six months. We were on the road for over a year, and I discovered it's really difficult for me to write on the road. I like "My Morphine." I think that one came out rather well. I have no idea what made me put morphine and yodeling together. I like "Caleb Meyer." I think it's just a good story. I'm happy with the pacing of the narrative. I learned a lot about storytelling on this record. "Whiskey Girl" is one of the few rays of sunshine on the record."

The album was delayed when Welch decided at the last moment to change one song.

"I hadn't finished writing "Rock Of Ages." As the album got into the final stages, I felt more and more strongly that was the right song. I finished it, and substituted it for "Wichita." "Wichita" didn't seem to fit. It was too happy. With "Rock Of Ages," the whole thing came together."

Of her songwriting style, Welch says "It's not a throwback for me. It's not a mood thing. To me they're contemporary songs. It's how I'm feeling now. I just choose to write in a traditional vein."

"I usually get an idea or an opening line when I'm driving around. Then when I get home, I sit down and try to figure out what I've got. David usually gets involved once I've got it going and have a good outline. He's like a clean-up guy. He's really good at finishing things and has a large hand in arranging them. He's more of an idea guy. He'll brainstorm about plots. I'm more of the actual lyric writer. It works very well. There's no one else I co-write with."

"I don't ever write with an agenda. I don't say 'This is going to be about a strong woman avenging a rapist.' I usually don't know what the song will be about. I try to have characters with lives of their own. I like them. They're good people."

Much as she always loved music, Welch never expected a career in it. "I assumed I would be some kind of painter or sculptor or photographer. I was way too shy to perform in front of people. All the years I was learning these songs, I was doing it in my bedroom. It wasn't until I got to college that I started getting over my shyness and started performing."

"It never occurred to me I would do this for a living until about 1990. I had a job as a photographer and played music on the side. I started thinking about reversing my profession and my hobby. That's when I decided to attend Berklee (the Boston music school). I figured I should have some backup skills like arranging in case I couldn't make it as a performer."

At Berklee, she met Rawlings, and they moved to Nashville. "It seemed the obvious place considering the kind of music I played. I had already lived in L.A. and was overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a career there or New York."

In Nashville, everyone liked her songs but no one knew what to do with them. Almo Music liked them enough to sign her anyhow. A chance meeting with Tim O'Brien was a turning point. "We have the same booking agent. I went there, and Tim was just coming out. He invited me to bring a tape of my songs down to his show. I had just written "Wichita" and hadn't even demoed it yet. I spent the rest of the day working on that demo, and got there in time for his second show."

O'Brien and his sister Mollie cut "Wichita" and "Orphan Girl" (Emmylou Harris also recorded it on "Wrecking Ball") on their album "Away Out On The Mountain," giving Welch her first break. The liner notes boldly predicted "You'll probably hear more from her in years to come." How true those words turned out to be.