Acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch describes the test that convinced her that she should become a professional musician: “At the end of your day when you finally have time to yourself, look at what you want to do,” she says, calling from her Nashville home. “With me, I would always pick up my guitar and I would sing my favorite songs by other people. Then, when I had done that for a while, I would make up my own songs. That’s how it started.”
Welch has gone on to have an enormously successful career, earning critical praise and prestigious awards recognition. Her most recent studio album, All the Good Times Are Past & Gone, was just nominated for a Grammy award in the “Best Folk Album category.” It was released in July on Acony Records, Welch’s label with her longtime musical partner, Dave Rawlings. The duo also worked on another recent release, the last volume in a box set, Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, which compiles 48 previously unreleased tracks.
While many songwriters rely on modern technology, Welch says that she actually has quite an old school way of working: When she gets an idea, she says, she’ll “jot it down in pencil in a college-ruled spiral bound notebook. This is what I’ve always done. I tried to write on a computer once, and it was a resounding failure. I just hated it. I find that trying to work on a computer is way too regimented.”
In contrast, Welch says, writing on paper allows for certain subtleties. “How bold I write the word sometimes conveys how certain I am that that’s the right word,” she says. “If there’s a word I’m not sure about, it’s often written kind of lightly. And also, I write three or four or five alternate words above and below that word if I’m still batting stuff around. I have no idea how you’d do that on a computer.”
Welch’s method apparently works quite well, judging by the praise she consistently receives for her insightful lyrics, which often examine darker topics that other writers seem to shy away from tackling. She says it’s important to embrace such distinctive qualities. “As a writer, you’re lucky if you have one keyhole into which you can see where others can’t see,” she says. “That’s enough to be an artist.”