Gillian Welch Returns With Long-Awaited New Album

As Gillian Welch has promoted her long-awaited new album, “The Harrow & The Harvest,” there comes a point early in each interview when a reporter asks her why it took her eight years to deliver it.

Every. Single. Time.

Photo: AP Photo
Newport Folk Festival, Newport, R.I.

There’s no good answer, of course. These things occasionally take a while. Welch knows this is not the satisfying, tabloid-flavored answer people are looking for – marriages, divorces, babies! – but it’s the truth.

“No one wanted this record out faster than we did,” Welch said with a small laugh. “That’s just a fact. There’s no way. I don’t actually believe that anyone was more miserable than myself about the eight-year wait because it isn’t like we took a vacation. We actually were working the entire time. But the creative breakthrough really came when we kind of somehow managed to step outside the stress and the panic about it, you know? That’s just no way to work.”

By “we,” she means her life (and music) partner, David Rawlings. They’ve been working as a duo under a soloist’s name for more than 15 years now. The pair wrote hundreds of songs for the new album, recorded them in rough form and eventually discarded them in “a song cemetery.” Some she even forgot about until Rawlings brought them to her attention again.

It wasn’t until he began working on his first solo album, A Friend of a Friend released in 2009, that Welch, 43, began making headway on The Harrow.

Welch’s last album was 2003’s Soul Journey. On that album, the two had gotten away from their usual harmony-based acoustic sound, cutting back on the duets and even employing drums for the first time.

In a sense, the 42-year-old Rawlings said, it jarred them out of their pattern of updating the music of the 1930s and ’40s by groups like The Stanley Brothers, The Monroe Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys. Many of the songs on Rawlings album employed close harmony and that seemed to reinvigorate Welch, who wrote or retooled most of the songs for the new album in the next year.

Welch also found the simple act of traveling helped as well. The couple makes a conscious effort to take things slow in life, skipping planes for four wheels on the open highway and remaining disconnected as much as possible from the hustle of modern life.

“It’s a very creative time for us in the car,” Welch said in a phone interview from Los Angeles last week, where she was preparing to start a tour. “In fact, we don’t even take the interstate much these days. We’ve been traveling more on older highways. It’s definitely part of this record, that we’ve dispensed with the fastest route.”

Scenes and emotions gathered on the road began to pop up in songs that would eventually go on The Harrow & The Harvest. Dark images emerged. On the leadoff track, “Scarlet Town,” Welch sings: “The things I saw in scarlet town did mortify my soul.” And in “Hard Times,” the world speeds up and the simple times are left behind.

It’s an album, Welch says, that’s concerned with what happens to places and friends and circumstances as time passes.

“I know Dave has said in its way, this record is almost like 10 different miniature portraits, 10 different kinds of sad,” Welch said. “It’s kind of true. Like ‘Hard Times,’ there’s a very particular kind of melancholy in that song. You realize things change and slip away, maybe things you didn’t even realize were important at the time.”

The album further erases the already blurry line between contributions from Welch and Rawlings. It’s difficult to separate their voices and guitar playing at times, and Rawlings says the couple has started to forget who wrote particular lyrics.

“If the stuff appears seamless, it just means we did our job,” Rawlings said. “When we were working on different songs through the years, I don’t think we’ve ever wanted there to be a seam in the writing. … People always wonder who wrote the music and who wrote the words, and it’s nothing like that. You’re just always trying to come up with something that has its own identity.”

That identity, forged through defining albums like “Hell Among the Yearlings” and “Time (the Revelator),” has inspired a generation of musicians who look to acoustic instruments with a kind of rock ‘n’ roll fervor that didn’t exist when Welch and Rawlings first met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston as students in the early ’90s.

The duo is part of the bedrock of the modern Americana music movement. They worked with T Bone Burnett years before “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” brought recognition to a largely forgotten form of music, forging an authentic bond with the past that also felt modern. Over the years of Welch’s fallow period, they remained prominent, working with young acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Ryan Adams and contributing to other artists’ music. Most recently Welch appeared on The Decemberists’ Down by the Water.

Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists, remembers being “totally smitten” the first time he heard Welch offering something completely new based in something so old.

“Even though I feel Gillian was sort of born out of that mid-’90s alt-country explosion, I feel like she’s always existed somewhere outside of it,” Meloy said. “Her voice, her writing, her playing, the way that she and Dave play together, it’s such its own thing, it feels so timeless, that it seems unaffected. They can take eight years off and I’m sure that everybody will be just, like, freaking out. And that’s fantastic because it’s a timeless voice and a timeless kind of writing.”

Photo: John Davisson
Bonnaroo Music Festival, Manchester, Tenn.

For his part, Rawlings doesn’t like to think about all those people – and fellow musicians – out there waiting on new music. It makes him uncomfortable.

“The thought that there are people who feel (deeply) about music that I’ve worked on or touched or that Gillian and I make is a deeply rewarding feeling,” Rawlings said. “But it’s such a ridiculous thing to think about. I want to feel part of the tradition and that we added to it in some way, and that in the future that what you’re doing is valid.”