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