The full Dave Rawlings interview

Rawlings is best-known for his longtime collaboration, singing of harmony, guitar playing and producing with spartan folkstress Gillian Welch. He’s also the unofficial sixth member of Old Crow Medicine Show. With his new backing band, Dave Rawlings Machine, and a new album, A Friend of a Friend, he’ll hit the Orange Peel on Sunday, Nov. 29.

Describe the moment when you decided you were going to make this record. Was it a long time coming?

You know there were a few moments that contributed to this finally happening. The first one was probably a moment a few years ago when we decided to play a show at the Newport Folk Festival under my name, to try out a few new Gillian songs and not drop them into her whole show. And then while we were rehearsing for that and we played a few little warm up shows for that gig, I sort of noticed and Gillian and I both noticed that we thought my voice had mellowed out a little, and maybe got a little richer (sort of) over time, and that we didn’t mind that it seemed a little better than it used to be for singing lead.  You know, I always felt comfortable as a harmony singer, but in singing lead more for those shows, we thought, “Wow.” And then we played those shows and people didn’t stream for the exits, there weren’t that many walkouts. We figured, that you know, that was ok.

But then later on and I think the next thing that happened was, that I had written some other songs by myself, that didn’t end up on this record. But I played a brief tour with Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes when Mike Mogis, the producer and guitar player, had to cancel. He couldn’t do the tour, so Conor asked me to come play lead guitar. So I went up and did this maybe three week tour in the mid-west, in the upper mid-west and one night one of the opening bands didn’t show up and it happened to be a show that Gillian had come up just to watch.

And Conor said, “Well, do you want to open, do you want to do the show?” 

And I said, “Well, sure.” 

So I got up there and we rehearsed briefly at sound check with the other guys in his band, and we played a little rock band show, where I did a 40-minute set, or however long it was, with Nate Walcott playing organ and the rhythm section and Gillian and I. And I mean, that doesn’t survive anywhere as far as I know, on YouTube or anything. It went completely under the radar, which is nice.

But again it was weird because the audience didn’t seem to even know that I didn’t have a record or had never sung any of these songs before… (laughs). So it sort of seemed a little more feasible. Then when a few more songs got written, and I had some older songs and some covers, it seemed like maybe there was enough material for me to start making a record. We decided to try to start recording. But it was never a done deal until the moment that there were nine songs and 40 minutes, and we thought, “Well, I guess this is good enough to put out.”  (laughs)

Yeah, well you just hit on a couple other things I was going to ask you. One was, your voice, I was wondering, now that it’s on nine songs and 40 minutes on a record, and you’re doing shows where you’re totally out front, how do you feel about your voice being out there, where before it was more in a supportive roll?

You know, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the record, so I feel more comfortable than maybe I would normally. I still hear my voice as pretty reedy and sort of strange. But I think a lot of people have to deal with feeling a certain amount of insecurity, or not being able to hear themselves the way other people do.  So I just try to push though that and I know the way that I sing is differently than the way Gillian sings or the way the Crows sing. So it let us all play a slightly different style of music, and that’s a lot of fun. You can’t really describe how enjoyable it is. You know, when Gillian and I started doing these shows, we had a whole new batch of songs to play and different flavor of songs. Which also meant that when we went back and have done Gillian shows, which we’ve been doing here and there all along, we had to bring something special and new back to those shows—and also to the songs we’d been writing to finish up her new record. So overall, it’s been a pretty positive thing.

I had caught your show at the Grey Eagle when you guys came through a couple years ago, and I wasn’t sure…

That was a fun show, but that was like early days, and that was pretty much all covers, except for I was probably playing the song I had written with Ryan (Adams) and the song I had written with Ketch (Secor).

Right. So what has changed about the Dave Rawlings Machine from then until now? Is it a bunch of newly written songs?

Yeah, some of the songs are new and some of them are a couple covers. I guess if you count “Method Acting” and “Cortez” as two, then “Monkey and the Engineer” as the third. You know those were songs that I hope, in the case of the “Monkey and the Engineer,” I wasn’t exactly intending to record that for the record, but I tried to warm up with the Crows [Old Crow Medicine Show] one day with it and we just hit a particularly nice take. Seemed like we captured a little magic. So I decided to include it. And “Method Acting” and “Cortez”, I hoped that I brought a little something to those songs. So I felt like there was some validity in releasing them.

You know the other songs, were songs that Gillian and I had written, and some cases were some I had started, and in other cases ones that she started that we’d worked on together that we felt were suited pretty well to my voice.

I read in your press release that you had mentioned “Cortez” and “Method Acting,” and what you said about “Cortez,” was that it changed the way you heard music before you started playing. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, what was it about that song?

I remember lying on the floor of my friend’s house listening to that song, before I played guitar by a couple years, I would expect, or a year and a half or something. There’s just a spaciousness of that song. That song conjures up a huge amount of atmosphere in the very beginning, I mean, the first little hits of the ride cymbal and you’re in this whole world, and it goes on for so long before the vocal even comes in. There’s just a certain intensity to that track. The more I look back on the way that Gillian’s records evolved and on Time (The Revelator), the sense of space on that record, the more I think that “Cortez The Killer” was the first time I heard records that sounded like that. It might have been that track.

And also just the speed of the way that Neil’s thoughts move. The way he plays something on guitar and improvises, I think that has had a huge effect on the way I play. Though I wouldn’t have known it at the time, when I compare them now I think, “Wow.” I think that inched a lot of stuff in my mind, hearing that song.

It sounds like that spaciousness has come through on Gillian Welch records. And obviously there are sound differences and pace differences between your record now, and the records that you and Gillian Welch have made. Other than that, what was the approach to this record? And what were some of the major differences and hurdles?

I was unsure we were going to get anything that we thought was good. We tried everything. Most of the songs I tried duet versions with Gillian, and we might have sat in the studio and done that and listened back and immediately taped over most of them. And it seemed like I needed a slightly bigger sound, and one that suited more of a rock-and-roll singing style. For a stranger voice, I needed a bigger vocal section for the choruses, and maybe more energy. So the Crows were a natural choice.

I don’t know though, there were so many things. Even recording the way I recorded the Crows didn’t exactly work. We sort of had to find a new method where we all sort of stood around one mic and it was all very live recording. I tend to sing much better on very early takes, so we kind of had to get the stuff immediately. It was all pretty challenging. And again, something like “I Hear Them All” which ended up being a solo track, I didn’t know how I was going to get that song. Eventually I was talking to a friend, a guy Jay Bellows from Neva Dinova, said, “Well, when I get stuck on a record, I usually try and go in and just record a song just by myself.” And I thought, “I never even thought of doing that.” So I spent a few days sailing at that over and over and over, hour after hour and eventually hit up on something that I thought sounded halfway decent. It was a lot of strange work and soul searching.

When I listen to your version of “I Hear Them All,” a couple things come up for me: One is that it sounds like a ‘60s folk record and two, had I not heard the Crows version first, I would have thought they learned the song from your version, as if it was the original.

Oh that’s funny. It’s interesting, because when Ketch and I were writing it, I was singing it a lot, and I wasn’t finger picking it like that, but I was singing it gently. I love the version we cut with them, but I did want to take back closer, more intense, you know I wanted to make it sound like the first version. So I’m glad that it translated. That is the version you do before you arrange it. It was a strange thing, I had some vision when I thought about going into record it by myself, that I wanted the microphones to be sideways, as opposed to up and down. I’d seen old pictures and footage of people in the ‘60s with the mics going sideways with pantyhose around them for windscreens. And I thought, “I want to try and get that sound.”  So that’s what I did. I went to the 7-Eleven and got pantyhose. The guy looked at me really weird, like he thought I was going to rob a bank.

Were there any albums that inspired this record? Or any albums that you tried to copy sounds from for your record?

I steal from anything I can. But that’s not something that happens directly in my world. I know that there are a lot of people that take an old track and put it up and go, “Ok, this is how I want this to sound.”  And then go about doing it in their own way, but really using the template of “the bass is going to be over here, and it’s going to have a big puffy sound.” But I never really work that way. We just play live and hope that when we get into the room, you can find a way to mix it, so that it grabs you by the stomach and keeps you there. I know I listened to a boatload of live Grateful Dead while this record was being made. It’s what was on the XM radio on the way back and forth to the studio everyday. It was that 24-hour Grateful Dead station. And I don’t know why. And when I got tired of that I’d listen to Elvis. (laughs)
In a weird way, when I’m in the studio, it’s the time I listen to the least music. It’s pretty much back and forth to the studio and 14 to 18 hours of that, and then back to bed. So there isn’t much time.

There was one moment when I was having a hard time in the beginning of the recording process, when we couldn’t get anything that sounded good and we had gotten a few tracks for Gillian’s record and we were trying to decide if we were going to continue even doing this. I listened to an old Gram Parsons track and heard how everything was very pretty on the track, and very professional sounding, and it sounded like a completely, not an alternative-country record of any kind, just a pure, straight country record. Beautiful steel, beautiful piano and everything placed just so, and all the sounds are professional.  And then there’s this kind of weird guy in the middle singing, with a strange voice and I thought, “That’s kind of what I have to do for this record.” Because my voice isn’t a classically great voice, so I need to create a bed, where the voice in the middle sort of gives you some of the soul. Because that’s what I think happens on those Gram record, is that there’s this strange soul, coming from this voice plopped in the middle of all this stuff that is beautiful.

Is that where the idea for the string arrangements came from?

The string stuff came later. We had a very nice take of that “Bells Of Harlem” song, but I thought the emotion of the song could be amplified by strings. And yeah, that is part of the idea of how we made it prettier. Both that, and “Ruby,” I thought could be sweetened to provide a counterpoint to the sound of my voice. And we were fortunate enough to find Jimmie Haskell, the legendary ‘60s string arranger, who agreed to do a couple arrangements for us. We recorded them in Capitol in L.A., in one of the great old string rooms. And it was very easy because we had great players and the rooms were magical sounding rooms. So the sound was there and Jimmie had written nice charts. We did a lot of on-the-fly rearranging, during the session, which was hectic as can be. But that’s how string sessions are sortof supposed to go down.

You mentioned earlier that you had written a bunch of songs on your own. Will we ever hear any of those?

It could happen. I think it’s pretty unlikely. Because of the songs I’ve written by myself, which there aren’t a tremendous amount of, but I have written some, and that’s what started me towards this project.  The thought of me having a song that one of my friends doesn’t hear and make a little bit better, and have me put their name on it…? It could happen, but it doesn’t seem prudent or likely.

How do the co-written songs come about, outside of you and Gillian?

It depends. Ryan started singing “To Be Young” at a party that we were at in my house in Nashville, and we both worked on it right then and there. That was something that happened in the room at the moment, though he definitely sang the first part. “I Hear Them All” is a song that Ketch had started and then we worked on it together. And between Gillian and I, sometimes Gillian starts the song and sometime I do. On her records, a majority of the time she starts the songs. There are exceptions here and there.

How did hanging out with musicians in L.A. inform the album?

I think it had to do with getting together with a couple separate groups of musicians and sitting in circles and having everyone play their songs. I felt like I was doing an OK job singing more. It just happened to be the right people, in the right place, at the right time. It was a great little crew of people in Los Angeles then, and continues to be there at this moment, who are deeply interested in acoustic music and in songwriter music. You know, where everyone writes their own songs and does a great job. It’s inspiring when you are with a group of people like that. It definitely has an effect on your art. So that’s sort of what did it. And there was an unstable feeling for a lot of that time, because I was staying with friends and couch surfing, which is usually good for your creative head.

You’re pretty close with the OCMS on stage and in the studio. Are there other musicians that you share the same bond with that you might play with on future Dave Rawlings Machine albums?

Sure. There are an awful lot of people I could mention. Certainly some of the little shows were doing at this club called Largo, in L.A., brought some of those people out. Benmont (Tench) came from that crew, as did Nate Walcott … There are people who we worked with on Gillian’s record, like Jim Keltner or Greg Lease. There are so many musicians that we’d love to play with. On this record Levon (Helm) was gonna come and play, but ended up getting sick and had to go directly back to Woodstock.

So yeah, I’ve been very fortunate to play with a lot of musicians who I would be honored if they came and played on a record of mine. So for the future, I’ve probably got some tricks up my sleeve for the next release whenever I get around to it.

So what is next between you and Gillian Welch?

Her record is partially done, and we’re going to get that out in the New Year. And then I don’t know what we’ll do after that. I got a couple things in the can for a new Machine release, so we’ll start working on that. And try to hopefully increase the pace at which we’ve been putting out records quite a bit in the next couple years. 

How will this Dave Rawlings Machine album inform the next Gillian Welch album? Or will it at all?

I know Gillian has some interest in doing some stuff with duets, some stripped-down and intimate stuff for her next release. But all bets are always off. It always depends on what the songs are, and how we get them. We’re not that fussy in the studio. As soon as we hit something that we think holds up, which is sometimes a really challenging thing to do, that’s the way it is. There are very few occasions, if any, that I can think of where we got something that was great, and said, “Well let’s try it this way too.”  (laughs)  So if a song needs a mariachi band on the next Gillian Welch record, there will be one. We’ll just make it any way we can.

Will there ever be a crossover release where you two are splitting lead vocals equally, or will it always be one or the other?

Right now, I know we didn’t like the idea of putting out a record under Gillian’s name where I sang any vocals, you know, a terrible sort of bait-and-switch thing. I wouldn’t want you to be on iTunes and click on a Gillian Welch sample and my voice comes out. I could imagine doing a record, if all of a sudden the material was there and there was some reason for the both of us to be singing. Maybe if it were a live thing, or some sort of a record where it was natural that the vocals switched back and forth. If we both decided to make a record with this backing band, and we’re both gonna sing, then it would be its own project. It would have it’s own identity. I could imagine that happening. But there are no immediate plans.

Was it a conscience decision to pull back your lead guitar work/soloing on this record and focus more on song structures?

I think it had to do with singing and the songs themselves. It didn’t feel like many of them wanted a lot of soloing, honestly. I’m glad that “Method Acting/Cortez” provided a good dose of it, because I didn’t want it to be absent and it’s something that I’m happy with and I love doing. So I shouldn’t say it wasn’t conscious. Part of it is that it’s easier to get the guitar playing up and moving when you’re in the background roll. If Gillian is handling the lead vocals, I have a little more mental space to noodle. So yeah, it wasn’t conscious, but I was aware of it and I thought, “That’s OK, it’s my first effort and these are the songs I have and I don’t want to force anything.” And it gives me somewhere to go for the next record, too, and I would love to make a record that had a little more guitar playing on it. And I guess that might just mean writing songs towards that end. 

Are there any tracks in particular that stand out as your favorites? I know it’s tough to pick one, because you probably like them all.

I can pretty safely say that the track I was the happiest with, because I was the most surprised that it happened, was probably the solo track.  It’s either that, or it’s the fact that the strings, in my mind worked very well on “Bells Of Harlem”. I was also really happy about that. But in a way, I’d have to give the edge to “I Hear Them All,” because it would never even dawned on me that I could sing a song with an acoustic guitar and have it come out in a way that I liked. So I’ll just take that as a nice little thing to think about. It makes me go, “Oh, OK, I’m really glad that that track happened.”

Right, “I can do that now.”

Yeah. And it’s not like I think it’s the best track by any stretch. I’m just happy that it’s on there. (laughs)

Do you like the Bob Dylan Christmas album?

I love it! Some people hate it, but it’s f—king fantastic. It’s like Nat King Cole or something, it’s amazing!

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