HAR­VEST TIME

It has been a long, dry spell but Gil­lian Welch has emerged with an al­bum worth the wait, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

GIL­LIAN Welch is renowned for her dark turn of mind; not in per­son but be­cause of the char­ac­ters and en­vi­ron­ments she cre­ates within her songs of Amer­i­cana. Mur­der, rape, drug de­pen­dency, so­cial and cul­tural de­cay and things that go bump in the night are all grist to the writer’s cre­ative mill.

Once, when asked if she had any happy love songs in her trea­sure chest, she replied: ‘‘ As a mat­ter of fact I don’t. I’ve got songs about or­phans and mor­phine ad­dicts.’’

While be­ing ar­tis­ti­cally driven by these gloomy sce­nar­ios, never did Welch, 43, suspect mis­ery might one day set­tle in closer to home, es­pe­cially when she was rid­ing a wave of suc­cess that in­cluded a Grammy award and ac­claimed per­for­mances world­wide with her part­ner and mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Dave Rawl­ings.

It has been eight years since Welch re­leased her pre­vi­ous al­bum, Soul Jour­ney. That co­in­cided with her only visit to Aus­tralia. A year ear­lier her ca­reer (and roots mu­sic in gen­eral) had been given a huge fil­lip when the sound­track of the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, to which she con­trib­uted with other mem­bers of Amer­i­can coun­try mu­sic roy­alty such as Em­my­lou Har­ris and Ali­son Krauss, won the al­bum of the year Grammy.

Soul Jour­ney and its pre­de­ces­sor, 2001’s Grammy-nom­i­nated Time (The Reve­la­tor) had con­firmed Welch and Rawl­ings’s places as the king and queen of Nashville’s al­ter­na­tive coun­try com­mu­nity and as the in­sti­ga­tors of a sub­genre en­tirely their own. The cou­ple’s oeu­vre, which matches tales from the dark side to bare-bones acous­tic in­stru­men­ta­tion, draws on tra­di­tional Amer­i­can folk and blue­grass but is in­flu­enced also by punk mu­sic and 50s rock ’ n’ roll.

Fans have waited ea­gerly for the next batch of songs, but noth­ing has emerged — un­til now. Welch has resur­faced with a new al­bum, The Har­row and the Har­vest, a ti­tle that re­flects the cre­ative strug­gles she and her part­ner went through to make it. Some­where along the way, it turns out, Welch and Rawl­ings lost their mojo.

‘‘ The sad truth is we never liked any­thing enough to put it out, which is not a pleas­ant place to be,’’ Welch says with a buoy­ancy per­haps born of re­lief.

‘‘ Over the course of that time that we were quiet we prob­a­bly had enough songs to put out two or three records,’’ she says. ‘‘ Ac­tu­ally we made a few ten­ta­tive steps at try­ing to record, but in­evitably the heart would go out of it when we re­alised that we sim­ply didn’t like the ma­te­rial enough to go on with it.’’

They had one song,

The Way it Will Be,

a rem­nant of the Soul Jour­ney pe­riod that has fea­tured in their live per­for­mances since then. That wasn’t enough to open the flood­gates, how­ever. ‘‘ We knew when we wrote it that it was the start of the next record,’’ Welch says. ‘‘ We just didn’t know then how long it would take to write the oth­ers. Our songcraft slipped and I re­ally don’t know why. It’s not un­com­mon. It’s some­thing that hap­pens to writers. It’s the deep­est frus­tra­tion we have come through, hence the al­bum ti­tle.’’

Welch isn’t able to ex­plain fully how this in­abil­ity to cre­ate man­i­fested it­self but be­lieves one el­e­ment was the con­stant tour­ing, the most ex­ten­sive of her ca­reer, that came on the back of the Soul Jour­ney al­bum. Some writers are in­spired by the road, but clearly she isn’t one of them.

‘‘ It’s re­ally hard as a writer,’’ she says. ‘‘ I have a hard time rec­on­cil­ing how I need to live to be a pro­duc­tive writer with be­ing a tour­ing, per­form­ing mu­si­cian. Plainly put, I can’t write on the road, so it’s not re­ally sur­pris­ing to me in hind­sight that our most ex­ten­sive global tour put us at a greater dis­tance from our cre­ative process than we’d ever been be­fore. That’s al­ways hard for us, but this time it re­ally threw us.’’

If the al­bum ti­tle re­flects the tense at­mos­phere in which the mu­sic emerged, painfully, through a pe­riod of years, the

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