It can be argued that Gillian Welch is simply one of the best singer/songwriters working today. Alongside her partner David Rawlings, the pair have meticulously crafted a catalog of Americana and roots-infused, Grammy-nominated albums - both under Welch’s own name and as the Dave Rawlings Machine. And since 2001, the releases have come from the pair’s own Acony Records.
Welch also contributed to the Coen Brothers-directed O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack, which took home Grammy’s Album of the Year honors in 2001. And the long-running duo received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the 2015 Americana Music Honors & Awards.
What they haven’t done however, at least until now, was release any of their albums on vinyl.
In July, Welch and Rawlings (finally!) released their 2011 album, The Harrow & The Harvest, as a 12-inch LP.
The long-awaited release has all of the details the pair agonized over while preparing for their wax debut - mastered from original tapes through Ortofon custom amplifiers to a Neumann VMS-80 cutting system, plated and pressed on audiophile-quality vinyl, and a deluxe package with full-color artwork by cover artist and Baroness frontman John Baizley.
And it’s just the beginning. Welch and Rawlings will now start the process of releasing all of their albums - old, new, and ones by other artists on their label, as vinyl LPs.
PACIFIC recently spoke with Welch about it all from her home in Nashville.
PACIFIC: San Diego is the first date of this new leg of your tour. How much prep goes into it before you hit the road?
GILLIAN WELCH: It’s interesting. We do change up set lists from night to night. But by the same token, there are songs that tend to end up in the same position because of what they do. Once you discover that a song works very well, say, to close the first set, it’s very hard to give that up.
So it’s been one of the very interesting things on this tour, where we’re performing the album and not just performing a set of music. We’ve kind of thrown our decades of set craft out the window. So, yes, before we started this tour, we had to sort of mentally prepare ourselves.
It would be very, very unusual for us to end a set with (Harrow & The Harvest closer) That’s the Way The Whole Thing Ends (laughs). It would be very, very unusual. And that’s what has been so interesting on this tour - the Harrow & The Harvest vinyl release concert tour - it’s making us do things differently. And that’s always interesting.
Giving up connecting songs has to be difficult as well.
And then front-loading all of Harrow & The Harvest’s songs into one set also changes the remainder. We play the album in the first set, take the intermission, and then we come back and play whatever else we think compliments the night. So it’s been very interesting.
The good news is, when we put out that record, we didn’t do all of the songs in the set. But we probably did eight of the 10. So it wasn’t like we had to go back and really, really learn them again. But we’ve never done this before. We’ve never played an album stem to stern.
Has that changed anything moving forward?
I think it’s proved to us that the show is more flexible than maybe we thought. I think you sometimes feel a little hemmed in by what you know works. And this has proven to us that there are many shows (laughs).
We often talk about how the duet format is one of the least flexible ways to perform. And when you consider the solo performer, I look at it as maximum flexibility. You can do whatever you want. You can depart. And as long as you know what you’re doing, everything is available.
Then again, if you have this great rhythm section, or a band like The Grateful Dead, once the thing gets going, it’s at such a great pace, the room for improvisation is much easier. In the duet, you have neither the flexibility of the solo performer, nor the support of the band. You always have to be in synch - always in step. And if you’re going to improvise, boy you really better have a simpatico situation.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 3
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown
Well, at least you guys have that.
And if you want to get wild, you can draw from the deep well of shared musical love that you both have.
We do want to get wild! And this is very true. It’s one of our great joys - music that happens in the moment.
It’s been a highly publicized long road to get this vinyl release out there. Ready to move on to the next one?
Oh, sure. I mean, we’d never, ever do this much work - and I mean years of work - just for one thing. The whole purpose was to put something in place that would both serve the entire back catalog and all releases moving forward.
Harrow & The Harvest is our first re-release. We put out Poor David’s Almanack - that was our first simultaneous new release. And we have another new release on our label - Willy Watson’s Folk Singer Vol. 2 - as a simultaneous new vinyl release and next we’ll do another re-issue. Technically, going backwards, that would be Nashville Obsolete. I can’t 100% say that’s what it’ll be. But it’ll be that or Soul Journey. I think we’re going to go straight backwards.
Interesting. And you have your bootleg series going the other way.
Exactly. That’s going the opposite direction. So there’s a lot going on in our little stable right now (laughs). And it feels very vibrant - which is exciting.
For a long time, the record industry felt sad (laughs). So it’s really nice to have the kind of excitement that the LPs have brought back. Even though the industry has gone through this shift and downturn, it’s great to have the ability to make a really high-quality product that can stand alongside the other music we love, in format, in album art, in fidelity. We feel like we’re finally real artists.
We didn’t realize how much we really felt like we were in limbo. We could never look at any of our records and would never bump into a record of our own. Now, finally, we’re in the pile.
So much of what you do is nuanced, and you guys draw from so many traditions that never reached the digital age.
I know. People were always so perplexed that we didn’t exist on vinyl. It took a tremendous amount of effort. But that doesn’t matter. All of the agony is already starting to fade for me (laughs). All that matters, in the end, is that you did it. But I wouldn’t suggest what we’ve done to anybody.
I actually think our work would be better if we could move faster. The creative wheels would just be more lubed. I think if we could get into a routine it’d be better. And that’s the great hope around here - getting faster. But we’ll see.
At least you get it right.
For better or worse, I am way, way, way over on the side of thinking that the art is what stands and time just, in the end, collapses. It doesn’t matter. In the end, when you go through your stack of records, there’s no real awareness of the time between the records. They all just sit against your wall, and you look and decide what music you want to listen to. It truly, truly just goes away.
Now my life is something different. You can only fit so much into a life. But in the end, the records will be what the records are going to be. Dave and I just can’t help it. We come down very, very strongly on the thought that all that matters in the end is the art.