10 Questions: Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine

Singer-songwriters Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine have been busy working on their latest record and are preparing for a fall tour beginning in November at Denver’s Soiled Dove.

Between recordings, Linford took some time to talk with us about writing, music and which team he’s rooting for in the World Series.

Q: At the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in Lyons you mentioned you were working on a new record, what can you share with us about it?

A: We’re just starting to go through the new songs, little-by-little and see what’s there and figure out what kind of a record the songs want us to make.

We’re just getting started, we have a bunch of songs written in various states of disrepair.

So, we’re trying to finish the songs, work out the ideas and just record them little-by-little. We’re hoping to get a record out, at least one record out next year.

Q: When you’re not on tour, what is your day-to-day life like?

A: Well, we live on a little farm in southern Ohio and we’ve got three big dogs and a garden and some acreages that we take care of. That keeps us pretty busy. We have an old pre-Civil War house that always needs attention.

I don’t know, the first 20 years of my songwriting career, I was very hit and miss with my writing. I would write… like there would be seasons that were very productive and then I’d put it away for awhile and I suppose there will always be an element of that but as I think about the next 20 years of my songwriting career, if I have 20 left in me, I’d really like to build more of a rhythm in my writing life where I am writing more consistently every day.

I think our rhythm that we’re trying to establish does make room for that to happen now. Usually I get up and I take the dogs outside and get them feeling good. I throw a frisbee for the weimaraner and take the great dane on a nice walk through the woods and take the cattle dog on a little jaunt somewhere. Then I get my coffee and my breakfast and I go to our little studio here that has the piano in it and I sit down and I get to work. So that’s kind of a new thing for me, working every day, believe it or not.

Q: What kinds of music do you listen to?

A: Pretty all over the map, the funny thing is that when we’re making records I notice that I don’t listen to as much music as I would when I’m just being a human being.

But when we’re working on an Over the Rhine record, I want my palate to be empty so I can be free to mess around without too many influences too close by.

That being said, I’m drawn to some of the classic songwriters, the heavy-hitters like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, the people that really have elevated songwriting.

Q: Besides your instruments, what things do you pack in your suitcase to go out on the road?

A: Well, we bring our Over the Rhine blend coffee with us. A friend of ours here is a roaster and he’s been doing a lot of coffee roasting for coffee houses in this region and he has a mail-order system. It’s all fresh roasted. He’s working on a new 20th anniversary blend for Over the Rhine so we’ll be bringing that with us.

Sometimes we’ll bring the baseball glove with us to play a little catch here and there when we hop off the bus or out of the van, throw a ball around for awhile while, that feels kind of good. Since it’s World Series season, maybe we’ll do that. At least a few books, definitely earplugs for when we spend the night in a hotel, I guess we have to bring a variety of clothing because we’re starting in Denver and working our way to San Diego and LA and ending up in Seattle. I imagine we could see quite a variety of weather along the way, so we’ll pack accordingly. Just really exciting things like that.

Which team are you rooting for?

This year, I’m surprised, I really, really am surprised but I’d be okay if the Yankees won this year. They’ve got a good team, it’s been about 10 years for them, their first year at their new ballpark. That’s really surprising, usually I will cheer for whoever is playing against the Yankees. I’ve had a change of heart.

We’re pretty big Reds fans, I guess. Karin also likes the Pittsburgh team because she grew up near Pittsburgh.

Q: What does your creative process look like, how do you come up with songs?

A: I usually keep a little back-pocket notebook with me pretty much all the time and I’m a fairly committed eavesdropper. I like to hear what people are talking about and if I hear a good line or something captures my attention or resonates with me I’ll take a minute and scribble it down so later I can let it kind of simmer.

I’m kind of a butterfly catcher and I’m constantly catching little things and trying to put them in my back pocket. And when I get home and get some time I’ll start developing ideas.

A lot of times musical ideas can happen spontaneously so both Karin and I try to keep a little portable tape recorder around where we can snag some of the ideas. I don’t know, it takes time, you have to sit with it and see where it wants to go.

We want to be pretty connected to the songs that we’re writing, we want them to reflect where we are in our lives so I feel like you have to get quiet and think about what’s been happening and since we’re in a different place in life with each record, hopefully each record feels a little different and that takes awhile.

What’s the best conversation you’ve overheard recently?

Let me consult my little notebook… here’s a couple of things that I read in a short story recently, that I thought were interesting and I wanted to think about. One line was, “the habit of living is the hardest to break’ and another line was “he’s like unclaimed baggage revolving endlessly around a conveyor.”

I read the Buckminster Fuller quote recently that said, “Fire is the sun unwinding itself from the wood.” I like to build fires outside, here on the farm, so I thought that was interesting.

Ahh, somebody said recently, “What’s the definition of a gentleman?” And that is “a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t.”

Q: When you teach at workshops, how do you go about teaching songwriting to others?

A: I just really try to tell them everything that I can possibly think of that I might have learned about being a songwriter and I feel like whatever I know I just put it all out on the table and hope that it’s useful.

We had a chance to do some workshops at the song school there in Lyons, part of the Folks Fest. That was a great experience, there were a lot of talented young songwriters there and everybody was working hard and I think we got a lot out of it, that’s the great thing about teaching, I think the teachers learn as much as anybody.

We do a workshop every year in Santa Fe, this will be our fifth year in a row leading a week long songwriting workshop out there, it’s been something that we really look forward to, trying to articulate what it is we care about as songwriters and hearing the songs people are working on, talking about them and trying to make them better, it’s a lot of fun.

Q: How does teaching workshops affect your style or played a part in the way your music evolves?

A: I think it raises the bar for us, because when you walk into a songwriting workshop and you talk about what you care about, like a song having fresh language, that you don’t feel like you’ve heard it a hundred times before, finding that new way of saying something… a song having a strong focal point where everything sort of comes into focus at some point in the song, talking about a song having emotional impact, wanting to feel something on your skin having a physical impact to our body.

Then you get back to your own writing and then it’s like, “Wow! I better step up! This better be good.”

It keeps us honest and we really never want to put out an record just so that we can make a living or get the next record out, do the next tour, we really want to believe that something a little bit bigger than us hopefully happens. And we want to put out work that we believe in, it takes a little while sometimes.

Q: How does being married change the dynamics of working with someone every day?

A: I think what Karin and I had to learn was that we started out as musical partners so we always felt good about the chemistry there and felt like we worked really well together and when we started becoming romantically interested in each other, I guess one of the things we were concerned about was that we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose our perspective or lose our objectivity.

I guess we’ve had to kind of experiment with how to keep our working life separate from our marriage and how much overlap there should be and all that. It’s something we continue to experiment with.

Our friends joke, “If I were together with my spouse as much as you guys are together we would kill each other.” So it’s not for everybody, it’s not for the faint of heart but we feel good about our working relationship at this point and it’s nice to have your partner with you when you tour. Leaving family behind is tough for people when they go out on the road.

Q: I’ve heard that at one point you had planned on becoming a missionary… do you feel that in some ways your music has the same end effect in being a positive force in the world?

A: I think that was sort of my parents would have been really really happy if we would have gone on to the mission field somewhere, all six of us kids, that was their dream for all of us.

In some ways I’d like to think that I sort of have been, as a songwriter that travels around and meets all kinds of different people and tries to encourage real conversation and I think music is a way to sort of engage people on the big questions.

There’s a great G. K. Chesterton quote, “We need priests and pastors to remind us that someday we’re going to die and we need musicians and poets to remind us that we’re not dead yet.” So I think both are important.

Q: Do you get a lot of feedback from your fans about the music, about how the songs or records have made a difference in their lives?

A: We’re blessed with amazing listeners who really spend real time with the record and the songs and seem to make them part of significant moments of their lives. I remember one time we lined up some of the letters, probably pre-email, we’ve been doing this for awhile, you can imagine having a band before there was email.

People used to write us a lot of letters, we had boxes full of handwritten letters and one time we lined different ones up and started usually with someone writing about how they fell in love with someone at college and a certain Over the Rhine record was their sound track or whatever and then it was “We walked down the aisle, got married and we used one of your songs,” and then next letter was “We just wanted you to know that we danced our first dance at our wedding to one of your songs.”

And then there was the letter, “This is kind of a little bit embarrassing and vulnerable but we wanted you to know that we conceived our first child to such-and-such record.” You know, these are different people sharing different things and then it was “we took the record to the hospital when we gave birth to our daughter and they said we could bring music and we played your record over and over” and then there were people writing, “I had to undergo an operation for cancer and they said I could listen to music and this was the song I listened to,” and then it was letters about burring loved ones.

We were thinking, “Wow, this is like everything that sort of probably at the end of the day matters and somehow our music is getting connected to it.” For us it was a reality check that maybe it’s not about top 40 radio in terms of having a songwriting career that endures, maybe it’s about writing these songs that people can connect with on a deep level, maybe that’s where our focus should be.

We’ve always appreciated the community aspect of the people that find the music and it’s been fun to sort of take this ride together with our fans and most of us are a little older now though we’re still blessed with younger fans as well, which is great.

Does it get emotionally heavy to hear about your music being integrated into some of these very emotional events?

To me, I know I can’t be there in the room physically with somebody but knowing that there’s a part of me that’s useful to somebody during a difficult time is a real honor and it’s something that makes me feel like all the craziness of being a touring musician, the craziness of the music industry, there’s something deeper that’s actually life giving about the right song at the right time and I love to be able to be part of that.

Over the Rhine will be at the Soiled Dove on Nov. 2 with Katie Herzig.

Check OverTheRhine.com for more dates and info.

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