Dave Rawlings is out on the road with his Machine (a collective of friends including Old Crow Medicine Show members Ketch Secor, Morgan Jahnig and Willie Watson and Gillian Welch) promoting his new record, A Friend of A Friend.
From his hometown of Nashville, he kindly took some time (on his day off) to answer a few of our questions about recording the new record, inspirations from Gram Parsons and that Leica camera.
Q: How did you decide to take the Machine from a live show into a record?
A: When we started to make the recording, when I realized that I wanted to at least try to get some recordings done under my name I wasn’t sure how we were going to record them – if it was going to be Gillian and I or if I was going to bring in other people. And I tried a few different ways, the first was was in the more traditional way – how I would make records with Gil and with just the two of us playing but that didn’t seem to work very well.
I was trying to find a way that I could frame my voice and make it seem like a nice sounding record to me and having worked with the Old Crows before and I’d done maybe a Machine show with Ketch and maybe one with Willie out in California but I hadn’t ever done a show with them together.
So it was precipitated by the fact that when we did the first day like that we got some really great stuff and then having recorded with them when we wanted to bring the live show out I was lucky enough that they said they would come out and play. I’ve been really exciting to have everyone out for these shows, it’s been great to sort of duplicate the four-part vocals and to have it sound pretty close to the record.
Q: How was the approach different in making a “Dave Rawlings Machine” record versus a “Gillian Welch” record?
A: I really had to discover how my voice worked coming back out of speakers. I had to listen to the track. Over the years, working with Gillian, her voice takes up a lot of space in a track and it’s very attractive sounding. It sort of lends itself to a certain atmospheric feeling and my vocal was a lot less like that.
I tried to look for inspiration in other music that i like and really experimented until we found things that we thought sounded good.
Q: What sort of albums did you turn to for inspiration?
A: Obviously there’s a lot of ’60s and ’70s folk rock records that I love, some Bob Dylan records and things like that.
But one of the records that I specifically heard during when I was trying to crack this nut and figure out how to record myself was a Gram Parsons record, it was very attractively recorded and it sounded just like a country record from that time period, very professional players – I think a lot of the players were from Elvis’ band.
Everything sounds like what you would expect on a top shelf country record from that time period, except for Gram’s voice which is a strange, reedy, soulful male voice. And I thought how nice his voice was set off by everything else being really pretty.
So I tried to make the background and the texture of things warm and inviting and hoped that the personality was added by the vocal.
Q: How do you mentally separate what you’ve been inspired by from your own material when you go to record?
A: I don’t know, I think so much of making music in my mind is about striving for something and failing in an attractive way. its so hard to actually hit any mark that you aim at so i think a lot of times it’s best just to go for it full bore and know that because you’ve had different experiences or you’re working with different musicians or it’s a different time that you’re going to miss the mark and not be too close and develop your own thing.
Usually there’s one simple change, like when Gillian and I were first singing together we were trying to emulate the Stanley Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys and these early brother teams but in the way that we were singing, Gillian was singing the lead and I would sing the harmony below and all the stuff we were trying to copy was the lead voice at the bottom with the harmonies above and just that one change was enough to make it different enough in our minds.
I think you look for one or two things like that that keep it different.
Q: How has the Machine evolved since the early tours?
A: When we were first touring under my name, most of what we were playing were like cover songs and things. A lot of the stuff that we recorded for this album of the original songs had not been road tested. So I don’t know that there was a change in that way but there was defiantly a change in how I was perceiving it.
Initially we had done those shows so we could sneak in a few Gillian songs and not put them in her whole show.
Q: What are a few of the tracks that stand out to you?
A: I was most surprised to be able to record “I Hear Them All,” we tried it a couple different ways but I was most surprised that I was able to play that little solo number and that it came off okay. But I also really liked working with the strings on “Bells of Harlem.” Those are two that stood out. Favorites of mine are stuff that i was happiest with to have been able to pull it off. I have never really conceived of playing something on a guitar, by myself and singing it and putting it on a record. It may seem strange but it was true.
I was actually talking to a guy named Jake Bellows, he’s in Nina Denova, and he was the one who said, “Sometimes when I get stuck I play something solo, sometimes that really helps the record.” So I thought, “Well, I’ve never tried that, I’ll give it a shot.”
And I remember seeing these old ’70s California pictures of singer-songwriters sitting with microphones going sideways and the way they used to set up the mics and I thought I’d try setting them up like that to see if I could get that sound.
Q: I’ve noticed you taking photos backstage and from the stage with a Leica camera, where do those pictures end up?
A: They end up on blurry contact sheets. I like to take pictures and I end up getting a few good ones every couple rolls. I’m very analog in my pictures and the recording world, I never really wanted to be staring at my computer screen all the time so I’ve been kicking it old school. I have a lab that does nice work for me and once in awhile I’ll print a few things out, I’ve probably got a dozen 8x10s I’ve made over the years.
And another question about the stage, what’s in the little black box?
It’s made for stereo slides for this old camera Kodak used to make that took two pictures at once and there’s little drawers in there and it’s got all our capos and picks and odd little things in there. There’s probably a compass and all kinds of weird little stuff we’ve accumulated over the years.
But it’s not as interesting as before the airlines got really fussy. The box got lost for awhile, the box got lost in Minneapolis, security took it but we finally got it back – the box rescue.
Q: Besides your instruments, what are the top 5 things that you must have while on the road?
Music to listen to, and you’ve already mentioned the camera to take pictures. That gets packed up, I travel pretty light and lean. We drive ourselves a lot of the time, nothing more than a book or two and songwriting notebooks and the instruments and the camera, that’s pretty much it.
Q: What’s on your mix tape?
A: I feel like when you’re making a mix tape you need to know who you’re making it for.
Alright, for driving across the country.
From a driving standpoint, I feel like all of my mix tapes take days and days to put together, but I’ll read you some mix tapes, these are mix tapes that have been made in the past. “Motion Pictures” by Neil Young, Joe Tex song called “The Love You Save May Be Your Own,” “Who’s Been Talking” by Howlin’ Wolf, “Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen, “Sunday Morning Song for Sara” by Simon Joyner, this is just random. “Sweetheart like You” by Bob Dylan, “Honey in the Rock” by Blind Mamie Forehand, a live version of “Who Do You Love” by Townes Van Zant, “Love in Vain” by The Rolling Stones. This is like a mix CD to listen to a road.
Q: You’re very analog in your own music and with the photos, do you listen to a lot of vinyl?
A: I listen to a decent amount of vinyl when I can, when I’m in a space that has a turntable, but the SUV that we tour in, I made sure it still had cassettes in it because I actually like the sound of cassettes, they’re really dark and squishy so they don’t wear your ears out and you can listen to them for a really long time.
I listen to a lot of actual tapes and I like XM because I like their programing I like the fact that if you feel like listening to a Grateful Dead show there’s usually one playing and there’s other stations that have cool things. I listen to a decent amount of music, when we’re touring there’s music going all the time.
There’s usually a stack of CDs and mix CDs and cassettes and XM and everything else. If you could have a turntable going in a car there’d be one of those too. They made a car back in in ’58 or ’59 there was a Chrysler that had a flip-down turntable but I don’t think it ever really worked.
Photo: Mark Seliger