Willy Vlautin – Songs I Wouldn’t Have The Guts To Sing

Mark Carry spoke to ‘the Dylan of the dislocated‘, Willy Vlautin, who returns to Ireland this June with his new band The Delines

Last month marked the eagerly-waited release of the debut album from The Delines, a country-soul group featuring stalwarts of the Portland, Oregon music scene, featuring novelist and Richmond Fontaine frontman, Willy Vlautin. The Delines are led by vocalist Amy Boone (The Damnations), alongside the keyboard work of The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee, fellow Portlanders Sean Oldham and Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine) and pedal steel player Tucker Jackson (Minus 5).

Named after Colfax Avenue — a street romanticized by Jack Kerouac in ‘On The Road’ — ‘Colfax’ is a stunning collection of deeply affecting and heart-breaking songs. The gorgeous blend of soul and country conjures up the timeless sounds of Stax Memphis soul and the heart of vintage Nashville country music, as well as the songbook of Tom Waits, Randy Newman, and early Rickie Lee Jones.

Back in 2012, Amy Boone joined Vlautin on the road with Alt Country outfit Richmond Fontaine (Vlautin’s primary band founded in 1994 which includes such timeless Americana classics as 2003’s ‘Post To Wire’ and 2007’s ‘Thirteen Cities’) while promoting the band’s tenth studio album, ‘The High Country’. Vlautin became so enthralled by Boone’s immense vocal range (she would sing soul and opera while warming up her voice each night), he decided to write a set of songs for Boone to sing. The resulting songs find their way onto ‘Colfax’, eleven moving songs of longing and heartbreak by The Delines.

2014 has been a busy year for the ever-prolific Vlautin who published his fourth novel ‘The Free’ to universal acclaim.

Congratulations Willy with The Delines and the amazing new record.
Thanks man, I’m really glad you like it and thanks for listening to it.

When I heard you were releasing the new album, obviously away from Richmond Fontaine, was it a case of ‘The High Country’ with the added vocals of Amy Boone, did it span from that tour?
Yeah, I’ve always been a fan of the sisters and their band The Damnations and when we did the tour with Amy, you know I just got to watch her warm up every night and play tunes — she’s a great piano player as well. When I got to see her messing around, warming up, you know, I fell in love with her voice. Even more so, the way she was singing the old country soul thing. It was an idea I approached her with, and we remained together and she was a singer, and it was more bass, and more old-school kinda laid back country soul, sort of thing. So I fell off the road and started to write songs for her.

It must have been lovely to be writing songs for someone else, you know. It must have been liberating in one sense, as you could envision it was for someone like a friend of yours as opposed to writing songs for you to be singing yourself?
Yeah, it is. It was liberating in the fact that I could write songs I wouldn’t have the guts to sing or wouldn’t be able to sing. You know I’m kind of limited by my voice, in what my voice has to offer and doesn’t have to offer, so I write around in what I have the confidence to sing. And with her, I like her voice so much, I thought of her in terms of the great late 60’s country singers like Sandi Smith and so I was writing bigger songs, leaning more towards the classics like that laid back country soul stuff which I’ve never had the confidence of doing myself. So in that way, it was really fun. But then also it makes you really nervous because she’s a friend of mine and I didn’t want to let her down and not put my best foot forward and all that. So it was fun because I had a mission and it made me nervous but also it was really fun.

I love too how you can hear certain albums of Richmond Fontaine in the songs too. At the moment, my favourite is ‘The Oil Rigs At Night’ and it has the sound of ‘We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River’ album, it has that wonderful feel to it.
‘The Oil Rigs’ has always been one of my favourite songs on the record. There’s a kind of desperation and a sadness to it. I was down in the rigs, I was messing around down in that area and hung out with some guys that worked on the oil rigs. So that song came out of that.

I love the inclusion of the cover song, ‘Sandman’s Coming’, the Randy Newman song. I love how it’s positioned halfway through in the album, it has that feel of those Tom Waits records like ‘Swordfish Trombones’ or ‘Rain Dogs’, it’s just got voice and piano and like you said before, it’s got that late night feel.
Yeah, I wanted the record to be — you know after you come home late at night and you want to have one more drink or you want to stay up with one record, and that would be the record — not to put you to sleep but to keep the party going into the night in a different way. But the Randy Newman song I thought was such a heartbreaking lullaby but kind of in a way, a mature lullaby, an honest one. And I thought if there was a lullaby for The Delines and for ‘Colfax’ it would be that Randy Newman song, I thought that fit the heart of all the songs that I had written for the record.

The Delines is a really wonderful ensemble, with you and Sean Oldham from Richmond Fontaine and that mood or vibe created by the various musicians. It must have been special doing those sessions for the album?
I mean I always wanted to be in a band that had mixed a rhodes piano and pedal steel, it’s a sound that I’ve always really loved. I’ve messed around on that sound a little bit in Fontaine, and the soundtrack I did for ‘Northline’ I messed around with that sound but I really wanted a band that was kinda steeped in that sound. I really got lucky ‘cause a good friend of mine Jenny Conlee — she’s in The Decemberists and Black Prairie, like a world-class piano lady from Portland and a really cool person — she played on the record and that was a great gift. And then there is a cool pedal steel player from Portland named Tucker Jackson and then we got the Ringer bass player from Portland who is a good friend of mine, Freddie Trujillo — he’s such a great bass player. So I did get a band of local Portland hot shots really, and having Sean play drums made the whole sessions really fun and surprisingly really easy.

You must be very excited having the tour coming up Willy, to play with The Delines.
Yeah sure, it’s always fun to get to play shows and get the band out on the road, it’ll be really fun and interesting. I haven’t toured with a new project ever, I think I’ve been with Richmond Fontaine almost half my life so it’ll be really fun that way as well.

I must ask about Richmond Fontaine. I read recently that there were rehearsals started this year, I’d love to hear if you have any ideas or thoughts for the new direction? The last album ‘The High Country’ was such an amazing album and a bit of a departure too, how it was based on a song-novel I guess.
Yeah I mean I look at ‘The High Country’ almost like an art project, you know it’s a crazy art record really. It’s a gothic madness record and I think the new Fontaine record, I think it’s going to shape up to be like a desert record. I think it’s kind of going to be more pedal steel-based desert record. So you know I think ‘The High Country’ was as far as I wanted to go in that north west garage rock gothic feel that I’ve been kinda edging towards. But I think this new Fontaine record is going to be more laid-back and more desert sounding I guess, and leaning a little bit more towards pedal steel than on the last couple of records.

That sounds great. Well any Richmond Fontaine album is great anyway.
Thanks for saying. I think it’s going to be a good one, you know we’re working on it right now and we’re hoping to, after The Delines tour and work that record, we’ll probably take a little break and then start up Richmond Fontaine.

I must congratulate you on ‘The Free’ as well. Again, it’s another amazing novel.
Oh man you’re nice, thank you for saying that. I’m really relieved that people seem to like it and you know, it was such a difficult book to write. I think it’s a book I worked harder on than any of the other ones and it nearly drove me mad. So I’m glad that it’s done and people seem to like it.

I can imagine the difficulty how you wrote it so quickly but then the whole editing and re-writing, it must have been difficult to ensure you have the right words on the page for the different stories?
Yeah, I mean that’s the great thing about writing is that it’s all about editing, it’s not a performance so you just keep tinkering on it like a car and you keep messing around with it, hoping that you’re going to get it to run, you know. ‘The Free’ just took a long time. I think I worked on it like for three and a half years and at least two and a half years of that I was off the road. So, a lot of hard work went into that one that’s for sure.

Like in your other novels and indeed your songs too, I love how there are so many characters and how they all intersect. I love the dream sequence and that kind of escapism.
Yeah, you know, with the dream sequence I was just trying to say: look, here is this poor guy who has a brain injury and all he really wants to do is to disappear from his life and he wants to disappear in what he hopes is going to be a romantic getaway with his girlfriend and it becomes horrific because people with brain injuries, their mood swings can be vicious and the dark side can be vicious. So the treatment sequence and a couple of things make you kind of get a history of his life. It also shows what was going on in his mind mood-wise and it also gave me a chance to talk more about American politics and the more hawkish side of American politics through a kind of a Sci-Fi way. It was really fun and probably the most rewarding to write and easiest to write in ‘The Free’. The Pauline and Freddie characters were the roughest because they’re in the grind of their day-to-day life and in the grind of taking care of loved ones. I think they had a bigger burden in a way. So they were harder to write.

I can imagine you must have done quite a lot of research into the whole nursing and healthcare side. As you say the Pauline character, I loved that whole relationship between her and her father but then also later on, the relationship that develops between her and the sick girl that comes into the hospital — she’s a really loving person.
I’m good friends with a nurse and she helped me with all the nurse stuff and those issues, but I’ve known her for years so I kind of knew a little bit about nursing because of her. As far as Pauline, I always wanted to write one nursing story, like one story about a nurse in my group of stories and so I worked really hard to get Pauline’s character right plus the last thing you want to do is piss off any nurses, you know. I tried to get my nurse stuff right.

As you were saying there — The Delines, Richmond Fontaine, your novel, your touring — you’re a busy guy.
Yeah, I mean everyone’s got to work. Yeah I mean I do a lot of projects but you know, I don’t tour that often. I’m touring a lot right now but in general, Richmond Fontaine has never toured that much nor have anything I’ve done. So it is a lot of projects together right now but it’s not so bad and it’s really fun to be able to travel and have a new band and I love writing stories more than anything so it’s all stuff that I like to do. It’s pretty fun that way.

I was just wondering do you have any ideas for your next novel or is it a bit early to say?
Well, yeah you know I’ve been working on a novel about two kind of drifter cowboys in the state that I grew up in, Nevada, two guys that lose their jobs and it’s kind of a book that I’ve been writing as a gift to myself for finishing ‘The Free’. So, it’s really fun and it’s subjects that I really enjoy writing about so we’ll see how it goes. I’m almost done the first draft but it’ll be a couple of years before I show it to anyone.

It must have been cool to hear how a new Drive-By Truckers song was inspired by ‘The Free’?
Yeah, I mean that song ‘Pauline Hawkins’, man, that is one of the luckier things that has ever happened to me and it really made me feel good. I’m a really big Drive-By Truckers fan and you know it’s just luck. It makes me feel good that no matter what happens, at least I helped inspire one Drive-By Truckers song and that’s good enough for me.

Oh of course, it’s a testament to your writing more than anything. The film as well, ‘The Motel Life’, I can’t wait to finally see it.
Yeah, I mean see what you think, I think parts of it are really cool. Some people really like it, some don’t. You know, I thought those guys tried really hard, I thought they did the best they could and I don’t think it’s getting much of a release in Ireland but if you do get a chance to see it, I hope you really like it.

Are you listening to any albums lately?
I’ve been listening a lot to Bobbie Gentry. Her most famous song is ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, you know, like Billie Joe McAllister who fell off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I’ve been listening to Webb Pierce, this old country guy a lot. The Sadies — yeah, I love The Sadies and I’ve been on kind of a Springsteen kick, I’ve been reading a lot about him. I’ve been listening to a lot of flamenco guitar stuff and I’ve been back into Willie Nelson. So, I’m in a country mode, I guess, right now. But the only new person I’ve listened to is Jessica Lea Mayfield.

The Delines tour Ireland during the first week of June:

June 2, Cyprus Ave, Cork
June 3, Errigle Inn, Belfast
June 4, Whelans, Dublin
June 5, Cleeres, Kilkenny
June 6, Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick
June 7, Róisín Dubh, Galway

Willy Vlautin’s fourth novel ‘The Free’, published by Faber & Faber, is available now.


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