By Philip Runco.
Gillian Welch isn’t a metalhead but she plays one on thick, spongy paper.
Or at least she did in 2011, when her last studio record, The Harrow & The Harvest, saw release. There, across its letter-pressed cover, the venerated singer-songwriter was portrayed wide-eyed and possessed, perched in a field of wheat, her right hand raised and aflame while two birds congregate above her. Whispering something in her ear is longtime collaborator David Rawlings, accompanied by an avian friend of his own – a rather large and disinterested owl. Dying fall leaves flank one side of the cover, blooming flowers the other. It’s quite a sight.
Followers of heavy metal would immediately recognize such surreal, striking imagery as the work of John Dyer Baizley, the Baroness singer-guitarist whose art typically adorns record covers from acts with names like Pig Destroyer, Kvelertak, and Darkest Hour. Fans of Welch’s hauntingly beautiful American roots music may have been less familiar, of course, though perhaps they are now.
Today, Welch reintroduces this image in a revised, polychromatic form with the vinyl release of The Harrow & The Harvest. Somehow, this marks the first time that Welch and Rawlings have ever pressed their music to the format. As Welch recently discussed with Stereogum, it’s the result of a painstaking, decade-long effort to do so in a way that was faithful to their analog recording methods. (To wit: the duo spent a whopping $100,000 to buy their own record lathe, and five years to get it up and running.)
When I connect with Welch in mid-July, she’s preparing to embark on a brief U.S. tour with Rawlings in support of this reissue. Backed by a full band, the duo will perform the record in its entirety, front-to-back, then hang around for a second career-spanning set.
“It’s going to be a little intense,” she predicts in a warm, light drawl. “We’ve just never done anything like this. We’ve never performed an album live in its sequence. I just told Dave last night, ‘I can’t tell how I’m going to feel about even interrupting the set to talk.’ It’s going to feel like a performance.”
For a folk music icon who has performed music for 25 years, Welch sounds surprisingly anxious.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” she continues. “I guess people don’t really know what’s going to happen, either. But we’re going to play this record, and we’ll all find out.”
The artwork for the vinyl release of The Harrow & The Harvest got a little Technicolor touch-up.
It did! You know, the original idea when we started working with John Baizley on this album was to color it in. If you’re familiar with John’s work, it’s pretty vividly polychromed. But what happened was that when he got done with [the line drawing], all three of us – John and David Rawlings and myself, the brain trust on designing this album cover – saw it and said, “You’re done.”
And so that’s what happened for the CD when the album was originally released. That’s why we did the letter pressing. We just decided it was about the line drawing, so we thought, “What is the nicest way to present this? How can we elevate this or get this across?” That’s how we ended up with letter pressing.
But it was always supposed to be colored in, so that was the natural thing to do for the vinyl artwork. We all again kind of got there simultaneously. I think Dave called John and said, “Hey, man, would you do the vinyl package?” And I think John was like, “Yeah, let’s color it in. Let’s finish it. Let’s do the color.” So, that’s what we did. I think it really came out great.
What attracted you to his art in the first place?
It was a really simple thing. We had said something about possibly not wanting to do a photograph and thinking about illustration instead [for the album artwork]. And our band shares the same manager with John’s band, Baroness. So, that manager, Cliff Vernstein, said, “In addition to being a musician, John is a really fine artist. Have you seen his work?” I didn’t really know his work, but as soon as we saw it, it just seemed like a really great match. That’s how it happened. It happened in a “small world” kind of way.
I really responded to how John treats the natural world. All the iconography and the whole way that the natural world is present in this record and in most of our records – I found that it was present in John’s artwork in a very similar way.
Also, sometimes I think one of the greatest commonalities between artists, the most unifying thing, is how you deal with darkness – like, how much darkness you’re willing to accept or you’re comfortable working with. And I feel like we had a very similar comfort level with how dark things could be, which in my case is pretty dark. [Laughs] I’m comfortable with things being pretty dark. I’ll never mean that as a negative. I just really subscribe to school of “without no shadow, there is no light.” I think it’s completely appropriate and necessary to discuss the shadows.
In the end, I don’t feel like you really get to choose your voice. Your voice is your voice. It just so happens that my voice is better suited for some of these themes – and I mean “voice” in the all-encompassing way, not just in the way my singing voice sounds. That’s my belief. I don’t think you get to control it very much. People see what they see, and I sometimes see peculiar dark circumstances, but I tend to see a way through them. It’s not a downtrodden vision.
Your most recent “new” material was last year’s inaugural Boots archival release, which was wonderful. Is there a similar treasure trove for the Time (The Revelator) sessions?
There is. We haven’t really started looking into it, but yes: There are outtakes for every record. We didn’t even know how much material there was for Revival until we turned our attention to it, so I fully expect that once we actually turn our attention to the time that became Time (The Revelator) we will unearth forgotten stuff.
I know there were some home recordings. We had the ability to record in our home at that point. I know there was some goofing around, trying to find our way to what became Revelator. And there were some very strange days out in Los Angeles because we were out there for a while. We were, like, squatting and crashing almost half-illicitly in a friend’s studio. There was some strange stuff that I’ll professionally call “pre-production,” but it really was just… [Laughs] I know that there’s stuff I think once we dive in.
That will not be the next one, though. I think the next one is going to be this time period of stuff that led up to Soul Journey. It’ll be interesting. I learned a lot doing that Boots thing. It’s really interesting to look at where we were at and what we were doing. Hopefully, the subsequent official bootlegs will be as educational. We’ll see.
I’m glad you liked the first one. I don’t think everyone knows about it. There wasn’t a big push behind the release because we’d never done anything archival. We were like, “How much are we going to promote this? What do we do?” We didn’t tour with it. It’s funny – you hit pockets of people who have discovered it and really dig it, and then other people just had no idea that we released it. [Laughs] Which is fine, because it’s out there in the world now, and it will stay out there in the world, and it will find its way.
I’ll always link the sound and feel of Time (The Revelator) with Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker, which you and Dave recorded around the same time. What are your memories of working on that LP?
Honestly, I think Revelator – if I’m not going to stretch too much – had an impact on Ryan. In fact, he had learned the song “Revelator” and demoed it after hearing us play it, like, once. We hadn’t even put the record out yet, so we had to say to him, “Dude, you can’t let this out. Like, I’m glad you want to sing our song, but you better just sit on this tape or I’m gonna come after you with a knife.”
I think this was why he moved to Nashville for a while. He wanted to see what was going on here, and what was going on with us. It’s all funny because we made our first record – the end of it – at Woodland [Studios], and then Woodland was hit by the tornado. And then Heartbreaker was the last record made in Woodland before it shut down and we bought it. It was this funny time where our worlds were kind of sync.
As far as the sessions, I remember all the light bulbs were burned out in the room. All the bright ones had burned out and all that was left was the blue and green ones. I remember it almost felt like you were underwater in that big A room. One of the first things we did when we bought it was change all the light bulbs. [Laughs] It was really like being in a cave.
That record felt like jamming at the end of a party. It happened pretty fast. It was made in a pretty short amount of time.
The only other funny is that when Ryan went to do album packaging, he wanted us to be in the pictures, but those were his clothes that we were wearing. He made Dave put on that funny ugly jacket that made him look like Richard Manuel. I’m wearing a pink floral cowboy shirt – again, of Ryan’s. Those are all Ryan’s clothes. [Laughs] That’s funny.
That’s what I remember about it.