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INTERVIEW: David Rawlings

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David Rawlings recently released his third solo LP, Poor David’s Almanack, and on the eve of it’s release he phoned in from a sunny summer’s day in Nashville to chat with Chris Familton about the creation of the new record, his name change and memories of his and Gillian Welch’s 2016 Australian tour.

How quickly does a new record come together for you? Was there much of a gap between finishing the album and releasing it? 

There was more of a gap than there used to be. I suppose the record was in the can in February. Nowadays with the vinyl LP release, there’s a backlog with getting the artwork together and you can’t even start getting the LPs pressed until the artwork is done so it can add a lot of time between when the album is done and when it is released. I remember when we could have an album done and released in four weeks, or something like that. Now it’s quite a bit longer. I don’t think it’s very good for music that things get delayed. I think we’d like our favourite artists to make more records as opposed to fewer records, but it’s how it is now.

it was also a fairly quick turnaround for you after Nashville Obselete. Was there talk of a new Gillian album or was there a sense of momentum that you wanted to capture with the songs that fitted under your name?

We played shows for the Nashville Obsolete tour and as we were toward the end of that touring we had a moment where we sat down in July of 2016 and that’s when the bulk of this record got started. I started working on six or seven songs and I guess most were finished enough to try them in front of audiences in the fall. We did our next batch of touring on the West Coast of the States, around the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and over the course of seven or eight shows we played the Nashville Obsolete songs and added these six or seven songs and they made the show better. People really enjoyed them.

When we got back to Nashville I was already in the middle of working on a new record for Willie Watson but I decided that once I got Willie’s record settled I’d do a week in the studio to try and strike while the iron was hot with this new material. At the same time Gillian and I worked on finishing the other new songs. When you look at it, to have all the songs done and recorded in four or five months, it was faster than we’ve done almost anything. When we recorded them we weren’t even sure we’d release them right away but we wanted to get it on tape, and once it was on tape we thought it was strong enough to release it and then here I am talking to you!

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 2.53.50 pmWas it a conscious decision to work on your songs after Nashville Obsolete, rather than a new album under Gillian’s name, or is it more an instinctive thing that comes from the songs?

I don’t know that there’s anyone in the world that would be happier than I would if we got a new Gillian Welch record together to be honest. That was a lot of why we hemmed and hawed about recording these songs. We didn’t want to do much that would delay other things. We were also working on compiling the Boots record that we put out so we’ve really been as busy in the last 12 months as we’ve been at any other time in our lives. Working on mastering the Gillian Welch catalogue to put them out on LP, that’s been happening concurrently too.

I did a string of four or five months where it was all 16 hours days from when I woke up to when I collapsed each day – recording Willie’s record, mastering the vinyl, putting together Boots, writing these songs, recording and mixing them, then mixing Willie’s record and then mastering it all. It’s been a whirlwind. The last couple of weeks is the first time it has eased off a bit but then out of that I’ve written some more songs.

The first thing people might notice is the change of your name on the album. What was the thinking behind dropping the Machine from this album?

This record felt a bit stronger to drop it now. I wasn’t necessarily that comfortable about being out front when I started releasing my own records, hence the Machine. Early on I noticed that people didn’t know what kind of show they’d be getting with Dave Rawlings Machine, it wasn’t as self-evident as we wanted and when we looked at the music that I’m influenced by – people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, there’s a tradition of performing under your own name that says folk music and songwriter music. I didn’t think about the change much at the time, partly because we liked the album title and the Machine part seemed like a bit of a mouthful with it. In retrospect I’ve had to think about it!

The album title is a take on Poor Richard’s Almanack, the magazine of sorts that was published by Benjamin Franklin. What’s your connection to that publication and how does it relate to this collection of songs?

When we were trying to title this collection of songs and music we had some tongue-in-cheek ideas like Money Is The Meat In The Coconut And Nine Other Popular Sayings. We were trying to find something that would tell people it was a sort of folk-song folio. We thought of Poor Richard’s Almanack and that it contained sayings and witticisms and stories along with your crop planting information, phases of the moon and other things. I though almanack was a good word too and then Gillian suggested Poor David’s Almanack and I liked that and it all sort of fell into place. I had a bit of a nod to the way Dylan referenced a Benjamin Franklin saying in a song called ‘Odds and Ends’ and it evoked the same sort of feeling and world that the music evokes for me.

Gillian was interested in painting a cover that looked like an old booklet with illustrations like what you would have found on the cover of Poor Richard’s Almanack and so we went right ahead with that and I like the way it came out.

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The song Cumberland Gap has a strong history in folk and country music, carried up through Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and on to Felice Brothers and Jason Isbell – what was it about its physical location and its history that inspired your song?

It was a gateway to the west with a pioneering and exploratory feel to it. I’d got those chords and melody together and didn’t have words and was singing the first part of the melody to see where I was going too and and I had that feeling of struggle in the music and that just popped out of my mouth at one point. I wasn’t sold on it at first. I sang, “the Cumberland Gap, that devil of a gap” and I wasn’t sure I knew what to do with it. As soon as Gillian heard it she immediately felt the narrative and story behind it and took off with that before we then finished working on the lyric and story together.

There’s obviously a romance in the westward push and the settlement of this country and that’s one of the things we always find a kinship with in Australia, that more recently settled frontier. The moving frontier spirit. There’s also a Grateful Dead song about the ‘Cumberland Blues’ and the Cumberland River runs through Nashville so I drive over the river to get to the studio in East Nashville twice a day. I didn’t know anything about Jason’s song until three or four days ago when I was listening to the radio and heard his ‘Cumberland Gap’. I thought, “oops!”, We must have been thinking about these things at the same time.

This is the first newly recorded album that you’ve pressed to vinyl which must be exciting. I’ve just been reading about how you purchased your own vinyl lathe. Was that a difficult process to get that up and running?  

The lathe is the machine with which you cut the lacquer which becomes the master that you press records with. It’s been going on for about five years, that ordeal. It’s something that was difficult to do even in its heyday when there was an infrastructure and technicians and scientists who would design these things. It’s not an uncomplicated device and anyone doing it nowadays is working with a hand tied behind their back. The companies that made the cutter heads don’t exist anymore. Imagine working on a incredibly finely made automobile or plane from the 1960s and if you were doing it now you might need to machine your own replacement parts. It is exciting, but also a bit sad because we’ve had a delay at the record press in Kansas due to a heatwave which shut down the factories, and so we won’t have the vinyl quite ready at the time of release.

How was it working with the legendary producer/engineer Ken Scott (The Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Duran Duran, Devo) on this album?

Well, technically it was a self-produced record. Ken worked as an engineer on it. It’s difficult to explain. When I talked to Ken about it we were just working on it. At the end of the day I end up holding the bag to some degree, I’m the last person left finishing up and that’s why I end up being producer. Certainly having him there, with the wealth of experience he has as a producer was great. Having him with his incredible wealth of sonic expertise and coming from a whole other school of recording and then Matt Andrews, who has worked on every album Gillian and I have done together, and how he knows how we like our acoustic guitars set up and  how we record – he knows when I’m about to dive into a another take and not stop the machine.

We all worked on analog tape which is the common language and it’s wonderful to work with someone who has worked on hundreds of songs. I could name songs to you and you could just picture that sound. It’s amazing and an honour that after all his years of music he still wants to get up in the morning and go to a studio, make a cup of tea and work until midnight depending on what’s going on. It was such a thrill and hopefully I‘ll be able to retain all that we learned. He’s back in England now so it’s a bit difficult to logistically get him over here but we’ll try to work with him again if we can. I think he enjoyed it and I know we did. We’re just one tiny footnote at the end of his amazing career.

Your last visit down to Australia is still regularly talked about and holds a special place in the hearts of music fans down here. Was it an equally rewarding experience for yourself and Gillian?

It was a big thing in our live to be able to come to Australia and spend that amount of time and play shows for people who are really knowledgable about the music and are big fans. Playing nice-sized rooms and have people come out and be as enthusiastic about being there as we were, it was a terrific thing. We’d talked for a long time about the idea of getting to Australia and doing the tour in one direction and then fly the band in and go back the other way. It’s always a dream to do something like that when you go somewhere where it is a long haul to get to. It normally finishes too quickly and you want to stay there a bit longer. Maybe we’ll get to do that again and it won’t be so many years next time because Australia has always been so good to us and we’ve enjoyed the experience. The travel is great, the countryside is beautiful and the food is great.

tie off

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