Interview: David Rawlings on ‘Nashville Obsolete’

David Rawlings’ work as an acoustic guitarist and harmony vocalist with Gillian Welch has been enthralling music lovers for close to 20 years now, but it wasn’t until 2009 that we got a glimpse of his extraordinary solo work on the A Friend of a Friend album. With his second brilliantly accomplished album Nashville Obsolete just released, Les Thomas spoke to him about his evolving musical craftsmanship, why records are still an essential part of music and his upcoming plans to tour Australia.

EDITED TRANSCRIPT
It’s a great pleasure to be able to have a chat with you. Can you tell us how you approached things differently this time around?

Sure. The first Machine record that we made was a little bit of a catch all. I mean, if I were to try to sound like it was a bigger deal than it actually was, I would say sort of like a greatest hits from a bunch of records I never made because there was some songs I’d written over years and some songs I’d written with Gillian that I hadn’t used and then there were some songs we wrote right at the time we were making it and we sort of combined it all with some covers, of course, to make that collection of songs. I like the record for that. It was a nice way to introduce what we now call the Machine to the world.

This next record, in a way was like our first record. We wrote the songs more like we would for a Gillian Welch record with the intention that they would live together as a body of work and they would deal with the same themes throughout the record to some degree and that there’d be a continuity to it and hopefully an emotional arch to it as a piece of work.

it sounds very cohesive to me and another thing that’s really noticeable to my ears is that your voice really seems to sound a lot more confident on this one. Can you talk about about the singing side of things?

The first Machine record, part of the reason that happened was because i thought my voice had mellowed enough that i could bear to listen to it back on tape. I always sang harmony, but I didn’t sing very much lead ever. Even after that, with touring, I was never exactly satisfied with the way my voice sounded. And I’m still not entirely satisfied, but over the interim I have done a lot more singing and worked on it quite a bit because I love to sing and it’s a great pleasure to be able to stand up and front the band. So we’ve done some more touring and put some miles on it. Hopefully a lot of that I can chalk up to deciding to treat it much like I treat my guitar at the beginning and realised it something you just have to work at: to sing a lot and think about what you’re doing that you don’t like and try to make it a little bit better. So I’m glad that you can hear a change because I tried. [Laughs]

It sounds absolutely brilliant. The things i appreciate about your approach to music, whether it’s with Gillian or solo, is that what you do between voice and guitar is very much a package. Certainly on this record I can hear more of your voice and your guitar comes through in a way that I’m not sure I’ve heard on any previous recordings.

Well thank you. Technically there were a few little changes in the way we recorded things. We had a few different pieces of gear that I got working nicely and, technically, there might be a few things bringing the voice forward a little more. With these songs, we thought that might be appropriate so the songs had a bit of a boldness to them. it was appropriate and it was accentuated by using that kind of technical approach with the vocals. And it did a nice thing also to let Gillian’s vocal colour things on this record; I think it’s different on other work of ours. There’s a very other-worldly quality to her harmonies on this record. When she comes in, it changes the mood quite a bit and I really love the way that worked.

As we’ve been singing over the years, sometimes she’ll hum along in the background — and you hear Emmylou [Harris] do that sometimes — and it’s a nice flavour. It gives it a sort of support that you’re not necessarily conscious of all the time, but it provides this kind of emotional backdrop that I think is wonderful. I think it’s a great thing that she’s doing.

Absolutely. I hear a fun side and also a bit of spookiness in there, an idiosyncratic but always tuneful approach, which is like a signature I guess for you guys isn’t it?

Thank you. The songs themselves sprawl a little bit because they all ended up as three section songs where there was a verse, an pre chorus part, choruses and in some cases also bridges, so we enjoyed writing songs that have more movements than we generally deal with. For arrangements, that was also fun because if you do have a shorter verse and then a pre chorus, you’re able to bring in a harmony or, in some cases, the strings, or bring in a second harmony on the chorus with Willy Watson. There were a few key differences to the other records we’ve made and I’m pleased with the way we dealt with that and I’m pleased they hit your ear good, you know?

Can you talk about expanding the range of musicians with strings and harmonies, because clearly you’ve had fun with that. How did all that take shape?

We intended on making this record as a trio, with Gillian and I and with Paul Kowert [Punch Brothers] playing bass. Gillian and I are very sensitive when we work. We will go the way the song leads us. And that was my initial idea and I thought on the first Machine record, I hadn’t really played all that much guitar. And I thought, if we strip it down to a trio, I’ll have to play quite a bit of lead guitar and it’ll be a bit more of a guitar-based record, which I thought people would like and I wanted that to be able to play a bit more guitar in the shows.

We started out that way and, as the recordings progressed, it was very natural on the first track ‘The Weekend” to bring in Willie Watson to sing the third part baritone harmony. Then listening to the track I thought, it would be really nice if there were some drums here. So we added some drums to it and I’ve always been very interested in trying to arrange strings and I’ve never done it. So with just a few days, we were running up against a deadline and with four or five days left I just dove in tried to learn how to do string arrangements. So I ended up staying awake for three or four days, [laughs] but, you know, got it done.

On a song like ‘The Trip’ we’d tried it as a trio a couple of times and didn’t really get the performances we thought we were satisfying. Then Brittany [Hass, fiddle player] and Jordan [Tice, mandolin player] who’s playing with Paul in a trio, they came over and cooked dinner. After dinner I said “Why don’t you guys grab your instruments and we’ll try to do this long song.” And we played it a couple of times and, just having that new energy on the room, and the beautiful lines that Brittany was playing on the fiddle and the sort of strength that Jordan gave it on the mandolin, all of a sudden we had a performance that I thought would stand the test of time. That is the great thrills of recording. You’re constantly just trying things and you fail far more often than you succeed, but it’s so satisfying when you hear something back and you say “Yeah, I’m proud of it” or “This is going to be something that people will be bale to listen to for a long period of time and still find something else hidden in there.” Nothing is dearer to my heart than records that you put on after 20 years and you’re still hearing things in them that make you happy and that you didn’t notice before.

An though you’ve dropped the word “Obsolete” into the title, I think this is a record that has a lot of references and touchstones to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and older traditional music that are like little rewards along the way, but you do keep this integrity to the whole sound and the level of polish is just gorgeous. On that whole obsolete idea, you guys obviously survive on a pretty full on touring schedule, so how do you see albums fitting into what you do?

People will tell you that people consume music differently, or they’ll tell you that people don’t want to pay for music anymore. None of that is true, because people are as excited about music as they ever were and, in fact, they’re paying more for music than they ever were. I mean, if you put together your phone bill and your internet and you look at what you’re paying per month, that’s a lot more than what people used to pay per month for music. But the problem is, the internet providers are keeping all the money and the people who make creative content, who make movies and TV and songs, don’t really get paid for the things internet providers are letting people have for virtually no money.

So, how does it fit in? It’s essential. People wouldn’t come out to see bands if they weren’t making new music that they love. And the fact is, if you spend a couple of years writing songs then spend thousands of thousands of dollars recording them and trying to make them beautiful, just the fact that the music economy has changed to where people don’t think that’s worth what a glass of fresh pressed juice is worth, they don’t actually believe that. They’re already paying for it. The problem is you can’t make people pay for something twice. You can’t say to someone “You’re paying $200 for your phone and your internet, but now spend another $40 for music every month.”

So until the internet providers are held accountable for basically ruining the music economy, we’ll be where we are. And people will still make a living from playing live. It’s not that big a deal in the global scheme of things, but it’s where we are at this moment. That’s the way I see things. Whether or not it’s true, I don’t know. It seems to hold water.

So there’s part of the world obsolete that I like. There’s a strength in things that are obsolete. You know, something’s that are obsolete can remain very beautiful or remain very important. Things might have just moved on. Or people decided to do something of a lower quality and that’s where things went. I dunno. [Laughs] I like the way the word obsolete goes with the word machine, also. [Laughs]

Yeah. I think there’s a certain defiance in what you’re saying. When so much of what’s currently produced is obsolete by design, I’d strongly argue that what your doing has a timeless value that belies that title. This is a solid, built-to-last work. I’d say the world is coming around to valuing those things that have that level of craft and love and care put into them.

We know impericaly that this is true. The amount of music that’s 20, 30, 40, 50 years old that people listen to on a regular basis is by orders of magnitude higher than the amount of music they listened to 30 years ago. People didn’t listen to old music because they were very satisfied by new music, so there was just a tiny percentage of people listening to older music.
If I meet a young person today they’re as likely to tell me they’re obsessed with Mississippi John Hurt as they are to tell me that they’re obsessed with a current pop band. And that’s cool.

I just want to create something that someone can listen to in the same way that I listened to when I was young it it sort of changed my view of the world. That was the most important thing in the world to me.

You’ve succeeded in spades as far as I’m concerned. I have to ask if we might expect to see your good self and Gillian in Australia any time soon.

We are planning on coming down in late summer, I think. It’s not all settled, so I’m not able to say it’s a 100 per cent thing, but we’ve been working on trying to put together a nice tour down there and I’m very excited about the potential to be able to come back down after a decade away. It’s a big jump for us and it’s not ready to be announced, but I think it looks promising. So I hope to see you at a show. We’ll probably do a good number of shows while we’re down there.

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Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor Follow @les_thomas on Twitter