Gillian Welch’s album, eight years in the making
Musician rewards patient fans with intimate collection of dark-edged folk tunes.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch play Toronto’s Phoenix on Monday.
The drought is over.
The prayers of Gillian Welch disciples who have been pining for a new album since 2003’s Soul Journey were answered a few weeks back with the release of the New York City native’s excellent — and long overdue — fifth album, The Harrow & the Harvest.
The album, which will be performed in its entirety on Monday night at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre, is an acoustic, intimate, analog collection of dark-edged folk tunes scented by traces of Appalachian, bluegrass and old-timey influence, lovingly strummed, picked and plucked on guitar and banjo. It was created in partnership with Welch’s collaborator and paramour David Rawlings.
Perfectionists to the core, Welch and Rawlings don’t rely on outside help for their music, preferring to be self-sufficient.
“Self-sufficient is a good word,” Welch, 43, agrees from somewhere in Portland, Ore., where she’s strolling the streets while conducting phone interviews.
“I think there’s a strain of self-sufficiency and fierce independence that runs through most of our work. It’s really present on (2001’s) Time (The Revelator) and it’s really present on this one as well. It really drives us.
“I don’t know if we have some of the pioneering or frontier spirit, but we really thrive on independence and self-sufficiency. When we tour, we drive ourselves in our own car. We don’t like feeling like we’re being carted around the country in a bus or anything. And it’s definitely there in the music as well.
“One of the first things we knew about this record is that we wanted it to be just the two of us and it was truly dictated by the kinds of songs we were writing. It didn’t seem like they needed more ornamentation. It didn’t feel like they needed more people around. It’s a very intimate record.
“Plus Dave and I are so fond of kind of a spacious panorama, which is kind of funny to say. There’s one way to look at our music as being very small with just the two of us, but sometimes if you let yourself sink into the world, it kind of expands, and it really fills the whole horizon and can be very cinematic.”
Welch is the first to admit that the 10 songs that comprise The Harrow & the Harvest didn’t come easily. The duo’s high personal standard is what led to the gap between albums.
“We didn’t write enough songs that we liked,” the Nashville-based musician admits. “We kept writing songs; we just didn’t like them. Really. That’s the short, non-melodramatic version.
“It was very frustrating, very painful, very disappointing. Neither Dave nor myself wanted to take an eight-year break, but we also weren’t willing to put out something that we didn’t like.”
The project started out promisingly enough: Welch says the oldest song on the record, the heartbreaking ballad “The Way It Will Be,” was written around the time of 2003’s Soul Journey.
“When we wrote it, we both got really excited and felt that that was the sound of our next record,” Welch explains. “And then we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited for these songs to appear that were going to go with it and be that same narrator.”
In the interim, under the moniker David Rawlings Machine, the duo recorded and toured 2009’s A Friend of a Friend, with help from members of Old Crow Medicine Show.
The busman’s holiday was just what the doctor ordered: in October 2010, they experienced a breakthrough.
“We thematically hit our subject matter, this idea that riddles this whole record, about time passing, how it erodes things around you and how it erodes relationships: adult themes of loss and disappointment, when things don’t go the way you thought they would.
“That excited us. We’re really album-oriented artists.”
Welch says the duo can’t wait to play Toronto.
“You’re getting us at our most excited,” she enthuses. “If people come ready to hear a bunch of new songs, they’re going to have a great night.
“They’re going to get an earful of this one.”