In saying so much with so little – typically just two voices and two instruments – Gillian Welch considers the most minute details in presenting her music and weights them with meaning.
Take the title of her new album: “The Harrow and the Harvest.” On the surface it represents a fairly basic sow/reap theme that can be applied to the album’s skeletal songs about determination and death. But “harrow” is also a tantalizing and haunting word for a menacing-looking implement that carries out a task both violent and soothing. It is an apt metaphor for an oft-labored creative process that spanned much of the eight years between “Harrow” and Welch’s previous album.
Welch and her partner, David Rawlings – the audacious and venturesome guitarist and singer who has collaborated with her on five of her albums and one of his – wrote and scrapped numerous songs that failed to meet their exacting standards. It was a trying process of build-and-destroy that took a long time, yet resulted in their best album to date.
“We’re kind of profound editors,” Welch says, laughing. She estimates that two “Harrow” songs – “The Way It Goes” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” – were four times longer as written than as recorded. “We like that almost nonlinear folk where you get the feeling there are other verses that explain things but they aren’t there. That’s one of the things we like about ‘The Basement Tapes,’ that old folk-song feeling where you don’t know all the facts. You know a girl gets killed in the first verse, but you don’t know why.”
Part of the challenge is the folk idiom Welch and Rawlings have chosen as their voice. Folk is a tradition that involves finding a way to move history forward, what Welch describes as “hoping to strike a balance between timeless and modern.”
The reference points in the songs are frequently antique, from old-fashioned names that are long out of circulation to Gatling guns. This writing device tended to trouble a folk oligarchy that found fault with mountain music made by a Berklee College of Music grad raised by two adoptive parents who were TV writers. “Some people still seem strangely confused by narrative,” Welch says. “That you have to live it to write it. No one said you have to live it in the flesh. My imagination is up to the task.”
Thus Welch’s songs are rich little mysteries like a painting or a novel. She reveals that “Look at Miss Ohio” from her previous album was “a weird impressionistic expression to the tenor of the times.” Instantly the song from 2003 takes on a different meaning.
Welch suggests critics hold her to a different standard than painters or novelists because she often presents her art in person. “Standing in front of people doing this, it’s so personal.”
She and Rawlings have, over the past 20 years, nearly perfected this process. Their reciprocity is a marvel to witness live: Welch’s sturdy acoustic-guitar strumming provides a pier to which Rawlings’ jazzy solos – with his unique unfettered tone – always return. His fills on guitar dance close to her lead vocals, colorful but not intrusive. Rawlings is also a peerless harmonizer, his ear sympathetic to where her voice will go, and his high tone folds perfectly into hers.
Welch is a physical singer, her gesticulations moving with the song almost suggesting a method actor at work. She admits to putting some screens between singer and listener. It’s another case of editing things and leaving some mystery between the lines.
“Folk is a beautiful form, but you want to save something,” she says. “And you want to make it your own, which I think we do with that balance between folk and rock, personal and allegorical. We like when the music walks that tightrope. It’s hard to know whether we’re talking about ourselves or not. Whether there’s a mystery or not. You’d be hard pressed to find a more private person than David Rawlings. And I like to hold something back, too. I think the labor is in this task of revealing or disguising yourself.”