Gillian Welch Reflects on Turbulent But Triumphant 2020

For many artists, releasing a studio album during this turbulent year is no easy task. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have not only accomplished that (they released All the Good Times Are Past & Gone in July), they’ve also earned a Grammy award nomination for it in the “Best Folk Album” category.

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The Grammy news is “Crazy, crazy surprising,” says Welch, calling from her Nashville home. “I don’t even think Dave and I had realized that we had anything eligible. I was like, ‘Why was this so completely surprising?’ And I think in some regards we didn’t even think of that album as a record. It was something else: it was a lifeline, it was a reaction, it was this thing we were doing, but I didn’t think of it as a record.”

Exciting as the Grammy news is, Welch is currently focusing on her other big news: she has completed releasing Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, a box set that she (again with Rawlings’ help) put out in three phases, with the final volume just out in November on their own label, Acony Records. This box set comprises 48 previously unreleased tracks, all recorded in December 2002.

“They were all recorded over maybe two or three days,” Welch says about these songs. “They were all recorded exactly the same way, which was, I finished [writing] the song, we had an SM57 [microphone] duct-taped to a guitar stand, and Dave would turn the reel to reel on and I would sing it once, sitting on the couch in the exact same place. I only did one take because they were just demos.”

While the tracks were recorded quickly, they were drawn from years of Welch’s writings. “We pulled out all of my old writing notebooks. Any song in the notebook that I had never just finished, we polished up, finished, sang, and turned in [to the publisher],” she says.

That publisher provided the impetus for doing all this work in the first place. “I had to turn in 48 songs by January 1st to get out of my publishing deal, or it was going to automatically renew,” Welch says. “It was mid-December, so we had under two weeks, and we ended up basically doing it in a long weekend.”

Welch is quick to add that she wasn’t doing this because of any ill will. “I don’t have bad feelings about my publishing deal,” she says. “It was the first time anyone ever paid me for being a songwriter. And none of these songs would have existed if it wasn’t time for that deal to be done.”

Although she turned in those songs to the publisher almost two decades ago, Welch explains why the time finally seemed right to actually let fans finally hear them now. She recalls, after writing them, “Then they sit in a shoebox for eighteen years, and then our studio gets struck by a tornado and we save them. Then when you’re sitting there holding the shoebox, you think, ‘Why did I save these? What was I going to do with these?’ Then you share them with the world in a moment when everyone is trapped at home and needing a little diversion. So that’s what happened.”

With so many tracks to explore, this box set should keep Welch’s fans happy for quite a while, though she admits that, in the end, she makes her music to satisfy herself first. “I’m trying to make stuff that I like,” she says. “That’s what you have to do. You can’t be devoting your life to what somebody else likes. I find that I respond to stuff that functions on multiple levels. I like for it to be accessible enough that the first time you hear it, you can understand it – and yet maybe the hundredth time it, triggers this much deeper reaction.”

Since her debut album, Revival, in 1996, Welch has been celebrated for her distinctive take on folk music, paying tribute to the norms of that genre while simultaneously updating it in unmistakably modern ways. That album (which also was nominated for a Grammy, for “Best Contemporary Folk Album”) revealed Welch’s unusual penchant for writing about the darker side of life. She makes no apologies for this.

“That’s just how I’m wired,” Welch says of her lyrical style. “That’s what my brain thinks about when I let it drift. That’s just who I am as an artist. That’s what my voice is. I’m not going to write a dance tune. I don’t write that many love songs. I just don’t think I bring any kind of insight or subtlety to those type of songs. But somehow, just because of who I am, I think I am able to actually shine a light on the more challenging and tragic aspects [of life]. I don’t see them as bad. I’m able to see them in their entirety, for their beauty, for their necessity, for their inherent part of life.”

Welch’s approach often seemed to baffle people when she first moved to Nashville in 1992. “Nashville didn’t really want the kind of songs I wrote. I talked to twenty publishers before I got my publishing deal,” she says. She pressed on, though – partly because she essentially had no choice. “I didn’t really have any other easily employable skills – I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I had no Plan B. I was a housekeeper and a maid – that was one of my last day jobs before I got my writing deal and finally was making money as a songwriter.”

There was never really any question that Welch would be anything but a musician, though. She recalls being drawn to music from a very early age, first playing the piano and the drum kit that were in her family’s home in Los Angeles – though those instruments weren’t quite right for her. “I didn’t really take to them,” she says.

A turning point came when Welch was eight years old:  “I had a camp counselor who had an acoustic guitar. I thought it was really cool.” She went home and asked her parents for a guitar. “They said, ‘Your sister already has one; it’s just always in the closet.’ And so my sister’s guitar became my guitar, and that was that.”

The guitar, Welch recalls, clearly suited her. “I liked it because it was quiet. I could sing and play in my room, but [my family] couldn’t tell what I was doing,” she says. “I was a very private kid, almost secretive. And so I would just play through all these song books. I didn’t play in front of anybody. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a performer. I just wanted to play and sing. That was what I thought was fun. Then I started keeping a songwriting notebook when I was about ten [years old].”

For years, Welch continued to play and write music purely for her own enjoyment. When she was in college at the University of California-Santa Cruz, she began playing for her friends, leading sing-alongs of cover songs at parties. “People called me the human jukebox!” she says with a laugh. With this first step into playing for others, she says, “I started to realize that I felt in myself the first desire to flip my hobby and my serious pursuit. That meant getting over my shyness and fear of performing. I started to do that by playing in wild rock and roll bands – under an alter ego, so it was almost like it wasn’t me.”

By the time she graduated from college, Welch was certain that she wanted to become a professional musician, so she continued her education at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. “That’s where you basically have to perform in every class – you’re constantly put on the spot and you have to sing, and there’s no artifice,” she says, adding that she also played a few shows at Boston coffee houses.

While Welch was in Boston, she met Rawlings at a band audition, and they have continued their musical partnership ever since. When they moved to Nashville, “That’s when it really cracked open,” Welch says of her performance career. “Dave was like, ‘We just need to play all the time.’

“So we would go out to these pretty abysmal open mic nights where you sit and wait for two or three hours to play your one or two songs, and you hear everybody else’s one or two songs,” Welch continues. “I think doing those things, you’re so angry and frustrated and fed up and bored by the time it’s your turn that you just can’t even be nervous.” Despite the unpleasantness, Welch also says those open mic nights were valuable: “I met people, and it was a really important beginning.”

Welch went on to conquer Nashville (and beyond), releasing six critically acclaimed studio albums. She has won, and been nominated for, several prestigious awards, including the Grammys, Academy of Country Music Awards, Americana Music Honors & Awards, and International Bluegrass Music Awards. She contributed to the O Brother, Where Art Thou film soundtrack, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. She’s also performed on albums by a wide range of other artists, including Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones, Bright Eyes, Guy Clark, The Decemberists, Ryan Adams, and many more.

Even with so many acclaimed releases under her belt – and with the Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs box set clearing out “a big, big chunk” of her stored-up writing, Welch promises that she still has much more music left to share. “There’s still more stuff in archives,” she says. “There’s more tidying and closet cleaning to be done.”

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