‘Maybe there are heroics in surviving with dignity. With getting run over by life and then getting back up and continuing on‘ – Gary Meyler talks to Willy Vlautin of The Delines before their upcoming European tour
“Why don’t you write me a record?” Little did Damnations singer Amy Boone know when she cheekily posed such a question in a late night bar to Richmond Fontaine songwriter and novelist Willy Vlautin that he would be back to her with an answer – and an armful of songs that would become The Delines’ first record: Colfax. From Willy’s own weathered rasp to Amy’s smoother tones, it’s clear the shift in vocal dynamic has allowed the author of 2014’s The Free a chance to wander down unfamiliar avenues and side-streets.
“To have Amy sing the songs was so damn lucky for me on a lot of levels. As a songwriter, it was like taking the handcuffs off. I was able to write different sorts of songs for her, songs that I wouldn’t have the courage to sing myself. I never would have written The Oil Rigs At Night or I Got My Shadows or most of what’s on Colfax if I was singing. I just wouldn’t have the confidence to pull them off. I owe Amy a lot for taking a chance on the project and diving into the world of the songs. She makes them her own.”
Featuring members of Richmond Fontaine, The Damnations and The Decemberists, The Delines is seen as something of an alt.country supergroup. “It’s certainly a super group to me so thanks for saying that!”, beams Willy when outlining the details behind the band’s formation. “Once Amy said she’d give it a shot I went to Sean Oldham, the drummer from Richmond Fontaine, who is more or less the band leader. He and I then asked our favourite musicians where we live and hoped they would join up. We sure got lucky to have Jenny Conlee and Freddy Trujillo and Tucker Jackson give it a shot. They’re all ringers. Now that Jenny’s back touring with The Decemberists we have Cory Gray on keyboards. We call him ‘The Kid’ because he’s younger than us and just the coolest on keyboard and trumpet.”
An addition to the stellar line-up for the upcoming European tour will be Cork’s very own David Murphy. How did the John Blek & The Rats pedal-steel player get mixed up with a band from Portland? “We met David as we were doing gigs together in the U.K. and he’s just about as cool as a guy gets and he’s a great steel player. After a few dates together Amy whispered in my ear, ‘Hey Will, can we steal him?!’ So now when we can afford to we beg him to play with us.” And that’s not where the band’s love for Cork ends. A certain affordable stout flows warm in their hearts too. “I’ve played a lot of gigs in Cork and have always had the best time. Powered by Beamish! Richmond Fontaine have had some crazed all-night sessions in Cork that left us bed-ridden for days.”
Even though the official second Delines album is still a twinkling in Vlautin’s unerring eye, a new CD will be available on tour. Willy gives a little background on the happy little accident that is Scenic Sessions. “We went into the studio to do a single and we couldn’t stop. We just kept going! I’m working on the songs for the second Delines record but I had extra songs, Amy brought in a song, we did a Sparklehorse cover and Cory did some amazing mini-instrumentals. Sean calls it our ‘Summer Camp’ record. I guess in a lot of ways that’s what it is. It’s more dreamy and spacey and relaxed than Colfax, but that’s where we were during that session. We’ll eventually put it online but we wanted to give fans of the band who come see us live the first shot at hearing it. Right now I don’t think we’ll use any of those songs for the new record. But if we’re missing a piece maybe we’ll take a tune and re-record it if it helps the new record.”
In all his songs and writing, Willy’s ability is to be able to say so much with so few words. What advice would he give to writers trying to achieve the same? “There’s a writer I grew up reading named Raymond Carver. He’s a famous American short story writer, just amazing stories. I read somewhere that he said he could write a mediocre 40 page story but if he worked and worked on it he could turn it into a good 20 page story. That was his gift – editing. I’m the same way. I just tinker and tinker until I think I get it right. With tinkering you find what you’re really trying to say. You get under and over and in front and in back of the idea. You learn it inside out and I think that can help…or drive you nuts.”
In addition to his tinkering techniques, Willy also sees bravery in the beige of a life, such as hard-grafting nurse Pauline in The Free. Personally, born to an unschooled, unwed 16 year old mother in 80’s Catholic Ireland, it took until my mid-20s for me to fully see both my parents for the heroes they are providing me not only with food and education but love and warmth. In his eyes, what defines “heroic”?
“What you just said, that is about is heroic as it gets. More than jumping into a burning building maybe. It takes a lot of determination and sacrifice and pride to keep fighting year after year when you’ve got yourself in a hard spot. Maybe there are heroics in surviving with dignity. With getting run over by life and then getting back up and continuing on. My mom raised two kids by herself and muscled it out in a job for thirty years so we had a stable home. To me that’s heroic. Hard on her but then easier for us.”
And a short word on the new novel? “It’s about two modern day cowboys who become unemployed around the same time and end up drifting down to Arizona. The drifting is hard on both of them. I’m nearly done, just tinkering.”
The Delines September tour dates:
3rd – Coughlan’s Live, Cork 4th – Leap Castle, Roscrea 5th – Whelan’s, Dublin 6th – End of the Road Festival, Dorset (UK)