Gillian Welch’s bountiful ‘Harvest’
Folk singer/songwriter Gillian Welch’s new album, The Harrow & the Harvest, has been eight years in the making. In that time, she wrote hundreds of songs with partner Dave Rawlings, so imagine if you will, the tattered remnants of those discarded lyrics and tunes becoming fodder for 10 of the saddest, darkest, cut-your-soul-while-you-sleep numbers ever found on one record. A harrowing harvest indeed, yet one that’s starkly beautiful and, as it turns out, a love letter to a life less digital in every way.
But Welch admits that the harrow aspect isn’t simply a reference to writing the album. It alludes to the pair’s old-fashioned approach to recording: a process that toes the line between masochism and ballsyness, all in the pursuit of perfection.
“Sadly, I find that destruction and misery have their place in the creative process,” Welch says. “Dave and I work on analog tapes and we work on this two-inch tape. We don’t do any overdubs, we just record live, but the one thing we do have available to us is analog editing, which means you take a razor blade and you slice up your master and you put it back together with scotch tape, okay? And I honestly believe that, as opposed to working in pro tools where you have this digital safety net, you can hit the undo button a million times and go back, there is something in the bravery and the destruction of slicing up your master that leads to better art.”
Welch wishes more artists were willing to take risks in their recording process. “People give me their records all the time and I actually listen to ’em, and, well, I don’t want it to come out wrong, but I’m so shocked at how bland they are,” Welch says. “I don’t know who they think they’re doin’ a favour, know what I mean? The records that people live with and love, the records that survive decades, they’re not bland.”
Welch admits that people have been surprised by Harrow’s sonic achievements, and in this day of digitization, it’s sort of easy to understand why. The sounds are clear, the harmonies flawless, the guitars perfectly blended. And, then when you realize this has been achieved by two people recording live, it seems almost unfathomable.
“I didn’t realize until recently that the rest of the industry has drifted far enough in another direction that people have been shocked by the sound of this record,” Welch says. “We didn’t realize we were flying a freak flag so high, but then suddenly we looked up and there it was above our heads. We love it. There’s this funny thing that happens with sense of scale in our music and it’s kind of related to our sense of time and place. We seem to float between the here and now and other.”
The record’s influences are equally nebulous. Welch likens Harrow to a Rorschach test, admitting that people have heard everything from blues elements to English folk mixed in with her trademark Americana and bluegrass sounds. She says it’s part of the reason why her audience is so diverse, promising that shoulder-to-shoulder with hippies and country folks one can expect to also see hardcore rock and punk enthusiasts.
“[Those] guys say ours is the only folk music they can stand because they see the kind of gnarly, dark shit in there, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it,” Welch laughs. “We sent the lyrics for this record to the artist who did the cover — he’s a metal artist, quite well known, and his covers usually have decomposing skulls and stuff and he was like, ‘Man, this shit is dark!’”
Well, it was a long harvest.
Gillian Welch plays at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival July 15 on the Main Stage, 8:15pm. $40-$165 from TheFestival.bc.ca.