Poor David’s Almanack is one of those wonderful albums that you can leave on repeat (read the review here). Fittingly then, David Rawlings took time to talk to us about the cyclical nature the tunes adopted, along with entwined fiddles, prisms and the longevity of a good song.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are a notoriously leisurely pair when it comes to album releases, so it feels like a pretty quick turnaround for the band to release Nashville Obsolete in late 2015 and Poor David’s Almanack, which has just now dropped, but guitar whizz David tells us that the shift was almost overnight. “It was towards the end of the first Nashville Obsolete tour that I started inadvertently working on a batch of new songs, which Gillian and I then finished enough to perform them during the fall tour last year,” he explains. “It’s no small feat that we were playing six of the seven, maybe even all seven songs of Nashville Obsolete to an audience and then we played six or seven brand new songs, but the fact that the shows came off and people enjoyed them made us think that we had something that we had better get into the studio. So after the tour we set to recording the songs, while I was also doing Willie Watson’s new record. We were not sure whether we would release what we got done right away, or if we would get another Gillian Welch album done first, but we were pleased with it and decided to put it out in the world and let people enjoy it, so that’s kind of how it came together.”
Almanack works very well with Obsolete in that it is a very different recording and it showcases the band’s talents in very different ways. Where the songs on Obsolete are quite dense and long pieces, Almanack has a lighter touch and a more traditional air; it’s a more accesible recording, in many ways. “I felt that too,” nods David, thoughtfully. “I think also that it was part of the artistic reflex action, if you like. We were out on the road playing the bulk of Nashville Obsolete, which are more complex forms, so it was enjoyable, but I found myself reaching back to traditional songs that we knew or simple songs that other people had written and putting them in the shows also, because I felt like it. So when we got home and I started a bunch of these, I realised that I was hankering for that kind of music as well, and began thinking of Nashville Obsolete and this album as if they were a double record, in a way.”
This brings to mind Bob Dylan and 1964, the year of two classics, The Times They are A Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan, which felt, similarly to Almanack, like an escape album of sorts, or a less pressured undertaking. “Right, right” he agrees. “I’ve never thought of those two records in tandem, but Dylan recorded Another Side in just one night, which makes a lot of sense to me, because he probably had a similar artistic moment, where you realise you have other kinds of songs you want to sing. I think that Nashville is the sort of record where you will sit and listen to it with a particular kind of attention, but with this new one I kept thinking of music that you’d put on around the house and hum along with, you know? It kind of has more to do with the music and the lyrics just seep in in a different way. Because there’s more repeated material, you don’t have to hang onto every line. It really dawned on Gillian and me that this was a kind of music that we’ve always played and always loved, this folk music with its structures and melodies, but not one we’ve tried to write in any focused way.”
The repetition David mentions is the key part to Almanack and it feels like that pattern, along with the wonderful fiddle playing throughout, sets it apart from the pair’s previous efforts. “Ah yes,” David smiles, “Brittany Haas is a beautiful fiddle player and did a great job. Actually, what I really liked was on ‘Come on Over My House’, having Ketch Secor in the room, so there was double fiddle. Those guys had never played together on that song before then and maybe never played together as fiddlers before. There’s that beautiful tradition in fiddle music where you kick off a song that has that good time feeling that ‘Come on Over My House’ has, and then it’s off to the races! That intertwining solo without a word to each other was great.
“But,” he continues, with barely a pause, “the thing Gillian and I have always been interested in is obviously the lyrical side of music and the stories they tell, and on this record we were exploring a style that in some cases you could call almost a blues form. Lines are repeated a few times with a slightly different melody or with different chords, which got us thinking that each line is therefore kind of viewed through a prism, with the light coming from several different directions… None of this is really conscious, you understand” he laughs. “But you’re forced to look back with your analytical hat on and see the art you’ve made and wonder what it is and why you’ve made it, and I started to realise that this was something I was deeply interested in. When you listen to a song like that and hear a line spoken one time with one emotion because of the melody it has, a few seconds later it can mean something different entirely because of the different melody. There’s something very deep about that that is very much like the way things change as you move through life and see the same thing differently. When I listen to a song like ‘Lindsey Button’ and hear the words ‘a long time ago’ repeated, I can’t help but ruminate on the nature of time itself, life and mortality and art and all of these things! But, [the cyclical form] has survived for centuries and centuries and will carry on surviving, one hopes…” A slight pause and smile. “When we make a record like this, there’s a hope that we add a tiny link to that chain or inject just a little of ourselves into that cultural DNA.”
Poor David’s Almanack is out now on Acony Records
Photo Credit: Henry Diltz