I recorded an interview Rachel Harrington just after her show with Rod Clements at The Studio, Hartlepool last month. We only intended a quick five minute chat, but before we knew it almost half an hour had gone by...
I thought we'd start by chatting about your new CD, Celilo Falls. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your new songs?
Sure. Let's see...the first track is 'House of Cards', which you heard tonight. That was a co-write between me and Evan Brubaker, who is the CD's producer. That song really just happened by accident. It was the last day of recording, we were all done with everything and he said, 'What else have you got?' And I said, 'Well, I've got a few parts but I don't know how it's going to come together'. So he said, 'Oh, let's work on it!' So in four hours we had it written and recorded.
The next track is 'Here in my Bed', which I played tonight as well. I guess I'll say that most of the songs on this CD were born - in, fact they all were just born - in just the last six months. I toured earlier this years with a song writer from California called Rita Hosking and she and I had a lot of time in the car - a lot of driving. We were talking about our similarities and our music and the similar trajectories in terms of our musical careers.
I told her back in 2003 I had an email exchange with a female songwriter who at that point had just been signed to Signature Sounds - one of my favourite labels - and I instantly became a big fan of hers. I felt some affinity for her because well, I'm not a girl, I'm not a Spring chicken anymore, you know? I just thought gosh, I'm married and I have a family and I really had this urge to write and play and start performing. I thought is this really stupid? Is this a pipe dream or what...? So when I found Lori McKenna signed with Signature I thought I had a connection with her because she was in a similar position; although she had five children and I had one.
So we had some email correspondence back then and she was really supportive and encouraging. One of the pieces of advice that she gave me was from her experience; that what people really want to hear are the songs drawn from your own personal experience and to really mine that. Most of my songs - up until now - have been largely historical and character driven. So I was recounting this story recently to Rita and it occurred to me that I never did take Lori's advice, and she has gone on to become a very successful songwriter. And I thought, oh gosh, I wonder what would happen if I really risked that, and tried to write from a personal perspective...? It's very hard to do. It feels like ripping a page out of your diary. It feels distasteful to feel sort of exposed about your personal business. But I tried it and this record is largely the result of that. There are a few songs on there that aren't personal in nature but most of them are.
Do you find it painful singing songs like that? Does it bring back bad memories if they are based on bad events?
You know what? It does when you're doing the writing of the song. I cried and cried and cried when I wrote the Gospel song, 'He Started Building My Mansion In Heaven Today' - cried and cried. I couldn't get through it for the longest time as I was writing it. And then I would laugh and say, 'Oh gosh! I'd better get a cup of coffee!' You kind of sober out if it. Not that I'd been drinking when I wrote that! But you kind of need to get clear headed and put some distance on it before coming back.
Perhaps it's all part of the healing process.
Yes, maybe it is.
Did you ever start any songs which were so personal you just couldn't finish them?
Oh, absolutely - yes! I have songs that I haven't done. It's hard to write about personal things in a way that has some poetry about it also...otherwise it sounds like, you know, 'I'm so sad, why did you do this to me, you're horrible, I feel this way, I'm blah blah...' you know? There's no poetry in that, so how do you basically take a feeling like that and say in a way that has some resonance. It's showing and not telling. It's very hard to do that.
It's easier for me when it's a subject I'm not so close to; a character or an historical event or a place or something. It's easier to have some imagination and creativity around that. It's a little bit harder if it's something that you're really, really close to. So there's a whole lot more about me and my experiences than on past CDs - for sure.
Are you ever worried that the people involved in the songs - the people the songs are actually about - would get back to you and ask, 'Why are you writing a song about me!?'
Well actually I got clearance from both of those particular ex's! But both of them are songwriters, so it was nice! You know, it makes it easier to go, 'By the way, I've finished this one song...about you!' And actually I got two thumbs up from both parties...!
Who else are you major influences?
Growing up with basically just Gospel and soul music...and then I started riding horses when I was 12 or 13, so I got exposed to the early country music: Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn...Everybody, my friends and my family, all teased me for loving that music and listening to it, but I loved it; I instantly loved it. And I instantly heard a connection. I'd grown up on Ray Charles and when I heard Hank Williams...there was an instant connection there; I think they're on the same plane. It's essentially soul music.
Then as I've gotten older I've discovered that there's a kind of folk music out there I actually liked, you know...I always thought of folk music as the music your parents listened to that you didn't like and you're always trying to get away from. There's a whole ocean of songwriters out there that I've discovered in the last 10 years or something. Guy Clarke, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt...
It gets increasingly more difficult to pigeon hole music. Thinking of 'folk' can give the wrong impression, as does the word 'country', which is a terrifying word to a lot of people.
How would you describe your own music?
Well I have to say that this linguistic debate has gone on in the States for quite some time. It was called alt-country for a while and then they decided to shake that off altogether. Now we call it Americana, but I'm not sure that's all that accurate either. I think of it as somewhere in between country and soul, but when I say country music I think of basically old time country music, that's related to Delta blues, that's related to the old time, Appalachian music. Even in the States, to use the word 'folk' in general, it's mainly referring to contemporary folk music, like Anita Franko and that sort of thing, which is not at all...we don't come from the same place musically, you know?
Are you following a particular game plan with your music? How ambitious are you?
Well, let's see...I don't know what ambitions a musician can have. Rod and I have been joking about it.
He's been a professional musician for far longer than I have and I've been tugging his ear for advice over the last several weeks - but I don't know if we've made any progress on that, for either of us! I quit my full-time day job two and a half years ago now and despite the downside in the economy I've managed to continue putting out my own CDs on my own label.
What was your day job?
I mainly worked for schools. My last job was working for a non-profit university, advising and recruiting students from around the world. I loved it.
Do you miss it?
I do! I miss the structure. I love non-profit work and I really enjoyed the people that I worked with and the students that I worked with. I was advising and consulting people and feeling that I was helpful in a concrete way - every day. And I think - this is not restricted to music - I think anyone doing any art form for a living, it's a little bit ambiguous in terms of, 'what good does this really do in the world?'. I still wrestle with that; with whatever the inherent value of art is when there's so much more that needs to be done in the world.
You make a lot of people happy though - that's the thing.
Well, yeah...when I say that, people say gosh, you don't know how much you put a salve on my heart today.
Especially with the very personal songs you have on the new CD; they will strike a chord with most listeners. It makes a big difference to people.
I know that when I listen to music, I listen to it with those ears and that's why I'll go back to a particular song and every time I go back to that particular song I cry and cry and cry, and I love it; then I'll listen again and make myself cry again. Why do we do that...? I don't know...I mean, it's wonderful to think that my music might have that effect on somebody, I guess. Maybe I'm still in a little bit of denial about that. I don't know if it can really do that yet, but I'm trying.
During the show, you made a number of joking references to the amount of miles you have to travel when you tour. But do you really enjoy the touring?
Oh, absolutely! I come over here and tour all these months and get really spoiled. Then I do a tour back at home and...I mean, there's gigs in Seattle, and then you've got to drive three and a half hours to get to Portland, another two hours to get to Eugene, then the next city of any size is San Francisco, which is 13 hours South from there. And then you've just crossed one State border at that point. That's not even talking about the tremendous trek heading from Washington and Oregon and Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas...it's a whole lot of nothing.
It must be tiring, being on the road for such long periods of time.
It is; it takes two or three weeks to get used to it. I always think of it as 'building up your calluses'. You have to build up the callouses on your hands but you also have to stop caring about when you sleep, what you eat, how comfortable you're going to be...it's actually pretty Zen in a way, because it makes you just be very present, right here, right now and I can be bossy or cranky because I had a bad breakfast or...you know, you miss the things...I think, oh, I've got to eat potatoes again? Urgh! Or you get to your lodging for the night and it's a total hole and you think, 'Oh God, what am I going to do?' Then you get to the gig and everything's good, but the sound is horrible...there's so much that you have to just let go. Then after the first two or three weeks you kind of totally settle into it.
Which have the most enjoyable dates for you on this tour so far?
Hmmm...gigs are sort of like children; you love them all but for different reasons. The Old Ship Inn (Lowdham)! That was a teeny little place and we totally sold the place out. The audience was just wonderful. I think those are my favourite shows. Otterton Mill is always one of my favourites because you get such a wonderful meal there! It's beautiful and if you have time, the coastal path is very nearby so you can go hiking along that; yeah, I love that. The Bell Inn (Bath)...we did this funny afternoon show...
Yes, Sunday afternoon, two or three o'clock. The place was completely wall to wall with people and we thought it would be a quiet little afternoon gig, but that was totally wonderful. St. Andrew's in the Square...I played that last year and played it again this year. That's a beautiful, beautiful church in Glasgow. Oh and we got to go to Islay; I'd never been there. So those are some of my favorite shows, when I get to see some of the places I've never seen before. Absolutely beautiful. I especially like Scotland because things are a little bit more remote; you to have drive a bit futher...
Just like in America, 13 hours on the road! It's interesting that Gospel songs feature on your CDs.
You know, I have a very strange relationship with the church in general and I don't have any particular affiliation at all. I love the music - I love Gospel music. This record is the first one that I actually wrote the Gospel song myself and I really enjoyed that. It took me a while to figure out how to write that song, and once I did...my Grandfather's words were, 'They Started Building My Mansion In Heaven Today', son that's what I wrote down. And I was working on that song, and it's hard to find language that fits into a Gospel song - I'd never tried to write one before - it's got to be kind of archaic, universal, from a different time, in order to resonate, for the words to sound real. So I was just brainstorming one night, purely from desperation. I'd been working on the song for months. I was just kind of free writing and I wrote, 'Jesus was a carpenter', and then I thought, Oh! It's not they started, it's He started building my mansion...oh, ok!
Are you coming back to Britain next year?
I'm sure that I will. I don't have plans right now; the record was delayed a little bit. I was hoping that it was going to be all finished by May and we could get the word out about the record and the tour at the same time and that didn't really happen. So I finished off the recording, came out in tour and I don't have that far a lens on yet to see what's in the pipeline, but for sure we'll be back.
Rachel Harrington, thank you very much!
For my review of Celilo Falls, please click here.