10 Questions: Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine

With a brand new album on store shelves and radio stations across the country and a tour in the works, Over the Rhine‘s Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler are incredibly busy. Luckily, Karin was able to take some time out of preparing for the road to answer some of our questions.

Q: There’s a new record out, The Long Surrender, what can you tell us about it?

A: Well, in May we stepped into the recording studio with Joe Henry, who is an incredible song writer in his own right and a great producer, and worked with a lot of people that we admire. And we really wanted to do a record with Joe. And when that became a reality, needless to say, we were pretty excited about it.

For Over the Rhine, my partner and I are the main songwriters — my partner being Linford Detweiler. He’s also my husband.

Well, we had been co-writing for about 20 years and on this project, we started a correspondence with Joe Henry via e-mail. And we instantly clicked. We had really good chemistry and it sort of became evident that there was some real potential for co-writing with Joe. So, we ended up writing a couple of songs together for the project and the first of which was a song called “Sharpest Blade.” Joe sent us the lyrics and asked us if we wanted to write the music.

Linford and I have a fairly healthy competitive relationship as well and so we each wrote our own melody for the song and we didn’t tell Joe who wrote what. We just sent them both off to him and let him decide. And I was pretty happy when he picked mine. The beautiful melody that Linford had written, we plan to use for something else at a later date because I really liked it. But that’s how “Sharpest Blade” was written. We also ended up making a few tweaks as we collaborated with Joe on the lyrics. So as it happens, it ended up being three of us writing together for that song.

The other co-write with Joe on the record was a song called “Soon”, and I had written the music for and I had a few lines for it and the title and the word “Soon.” That’s pretty much as far as I’d gotten with it. I just couldn’t satisfy myself with any lyrics that I came up with. So, we were probably in our third or fourth day of recording (we did the whole record in five days) but the song “Soon” wasn’t finished. I really felt strongly that it belonged on this record and so did Joe. So I asked Joe, Do you want to try to write the lyric? Sure enough by the next morning this amazing lyric was in my e-mail inbox at the hotel and I went in that day and sang it for the first time and that’s the one you hear on the record. So, that was a lot of fun.

Q: And Lucinda Williams is on “Undamned,” how did that come about?

A: “Undamned” was a song that Linford wrote. He actually wrote it after a writer’s retreat when we were down in Texas. He’d seen a poem hanging in a gallery with the title of Undamned; he liked the title and so wrote the word down. And he walked away and wrote this song. We downloaded it and sent it off to Joe. We sent Joe a lot of songs because we were trying to figure out what this record was gonna look like, and “Undamned” was one of the demos.

We really didn’t think it was gonna make the record. We didn’t really know how it would fit. But Joe had a real vision for the song when he heard it and he came to us and he said, “How do you guys feel about Lucinda Williams?” And I laughed because I have probably all of her records and she’s been a huge influence on me and on my writing and her songs have walked me through many chapters in my life. So I laughed when Joe brought up Lucinda Williams. He said, “Would you mind if I send her this track?” And I said, “No.” And he sent her the demo “Undamned” He also sent her another song that we’d written a few years back for a record called “Ohio” – it was called “Jesus in New Orleans.”

So that was sort of her introduction to us because she hadn’t until then heard of us. And she liked those songs. Joe asked Lucinda if she wanted to sing on “Undamned” with me and she said yes. So I was pretty over the moon about that. But I’ve been in this business for a long time and I tend to be a little bit skeptical about things happening.

And I thought, well that’s just fantastic but I’m not gonna get my hopes up and I’ll just kind of believe it when I see it. Sure enough, you know, Thursday night, we’d gone ahead and cut the track because we just wanted to have the bulk of it down so that when she came in, she could just – she could do her thing.

She walked into the studio on Thursday night and sang into the microphone and it was a pretty – pretty intense moment for us. We were pretty excited and there was the bonus of being able to get to know Lucinda a little bit and have an excuse to hang out with her and just drink it all in. Besides loving her work and what she did for that song, I really love her as a person. So that’s been a big bonus for me.

Q: What does your creative process look like when you’re writing songs?

A: Well, it depends, you know. We write. Linford and I in all different ways, we write songs individually. We write them together. Sometimes a song just finishes itself with just one of us and sometimes a little editing happens between the two of us and sometimes it’s a total collaborative effort. And I think we’ve kind of figured it happens in thirds, you know. A third of the songs are written by Linford and Linford alone and a third of them are written by me alone and the remaining third is the two of us together.

But I tend to carry some form of handheld recorder with me at all times and I started doing that a few years ago. I have quite a few of them piled up around the house with song ideas on them. And typically a line will come to me like the first line of a song or just one good line and I’ll know that I need to write that down. Or a melody will come to me and I’ll have to catch it or I believe it goes to somebody else and they make more money with it (!) so I try to get it recorded myself.

I have various methods of capturing those ideas and then I sort of let them stew. But the important thing is to show up and work on them. If I don’t show up, they don’t blossom into something – into something that anybody else would want to hear.

Q: Over the Rhine doesn’t do that many covers, but is there anything that you’ve always kind of wanted to try your hand at maybe live and haven’t had a chance?

A: That’s really funny because we throw in a couple of covers a year, maybe four or five a year and we just usually do them live. It depends on the song and actually a couple of years ago I did a cover of “Lonely Girls” with a friend – a girlfriend of mine named Kim Taylor who is a really amazing songwriter herself and happens to be one of my best friends. And one of her songs called “Days Like This” is on the record. That’s a cover.
I thought it would be fun to try it with Joe Henry and his incredible musicians that he brought to the project. I wanted to see what their feel would be like on it and of course they did some beautiful stuff. I mean, we got to play with Jay Bellerose, Patrick Warren, Keefus Ciancia, Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Levon Henry. . I mean, these players are just incredible. So it was fun to do our own songs and then also bring her song to the table to see what would happen.

Any you haven’t done that you’d like to try?

I guess – well, last night – actually last night before I went to bed, I was playing through The Way Young Lovers Do by Van Morrison off of Astral Weeks. My iPod sort of dictates to me what I should be listening to. If I’m driving somewhere I just put it on shuffle and I have the best iPod in the world.

So yesterday, Astral Weeks kept popping up and “The Way Young Lovers Do” just kind of hit me in a new way. So I thought I’d work up an arrangement of it.

What else pops up on your iPod?

What else pops up on my iPod. Yesterday as I was driving it was Aretha Franklin and her version of “Mockingbird” which is incredible. And I mentioned Van Morrison. A lot of Townes Van Zandt. Let’s see, what else popped up on my iPod yesterday. Tori Amos popped on my iPod. Fleetwood Mac pops up a lot. Rumours is one of my favorite records so it knows I like that one a lot.

Q: How did you decide to be a musician?

A: It was never a question for me. I never wanted to do anything else, ever. I just knew this was what I was gonna do. I didn’t know, you know, what it would look like. I didn’t know what kind of a living I would make at it. But I knew I didn’t have any doubt that was what I was born to do and so from a very early age, I loved the way singing felt in my body and I loved the way that it was sort of an exorcism of pain for me when I was young. So I knew it was gonna be something with me at all times. And I figured it would just be my purpose in life.

Q: When was the first time that you heard yourself on the radio?

A: I don’t know. You know, it was probably – it would have been one of the radio stations here in the city of Cincinnati. We have two public radio stations that are really, really incredible and generous. And one of them is WVXU which is now mostly NPR and talk radio. They’ll occasionally have features on cool musicians and fun stuff like that. The local music public radio station is WNKU and that’s based out of Northern Kentucky University and it so happens that as of this week they are expanding after 25 years of being in music.

It is incredible that they are able to grow in spite of the current economy and they are very, very supportive of budding artists. So it was probably one of those two stations,WVXU or WNKU. So we’ve been – we’ve been steady supporters of both and we do concerts with them and for them and try to donate our goods to them when they have a fund drive. Linford and I are big supporters of public radio.

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 definitely don’t take that for granted. We said for years that without our audience, we’d be homeless. And that’s true. So we know – we’re not very good – we’re not very good at being cool and aloof like some musicians are. That’s just not our thing. We’re very aware of how much our audience means to us and we’re very aware of how much our music means to them.

And we get letters and e-mail all the time about people’s intimate connection with our music and it’ll be somebody telling me – well, just the other day, somebody said they had one of our records playing when they were giving birth. And we hear people take our music into the operating room with them if they’re being put under for surgery. I know one fellow had cancer surgery and that was the music he wanted to have with him. And another woman that slipped behind the veil, so to speak, recently wanted to hear our music on the day that she actually passed from this world.

So, I think that’s something we’ll never take for granted, at least I hope not, and it means a lot to connect with people in that way. There isn’t a greater reward than somebody telling you they get it or that your song means something to them that you could have never imagined. So, we’re eternally grateful for that and for people taking the time to tell us that, it means a lot.

Q: Besides the instruments and things that you have to have to play a show, what are five things that you take with you just because you can when you go out on the road?

A: What’s my Mojo? Things I take with me? I have – let’s see, what do I take with me? I usually have a book with me that I’m reading. Typically a book of fiction and one of poetry. It might be a memoir – one book of memoir and one book of poetry. I will take with me my laptop, of course because I have to stay connected. And what do I like with me in the room. I take my pillow with me. It’s kind of significant. I guess you could call that my “wooby.”

I don’t travel light really, although that is one of my New Year’s resolutions, to travel just a little bit lighter this year. But I do like my creature comforts. I’m on the road so often I don’t really unpack ever. I always have a suitcase laying open in the bedroom in flux and the only time it gets emptied out is to do the laundry.

Q: Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to learn how to do but haven’t found the time because you’re so busy on the road and with music?

A: That’s a good question. What have I always wanted to – well, the one thing I would like to do maybe when I retire is to run some kind of a shelter or a rescue for dogs. I love dogs and Great Danes especially. We always manage to have two or three dogs at any given time and we adopt and rescue and are sort of big believers in that and try to support no-kill shelters as well.

So, I’d like to think that when the time comes to settle down – I don’t even know what that would look like but I’ll have to have something fairly significant to fill my days if I’m not touring and I think about the only thing I can imagine filling that with would be a couple dozen rescued Great Danes. I’ll have to have massive amounts of funding for that. I mean speaking of a fan-funded record, I think I’ll be having a fan-funded dog shelter because it’s not cheap to take care of those big dogs.

Q: Is there anything else that people need to know about the music or about you and Linford and the band?

A: I should have mentioned that when we were talking about the support of our fans, The Long Surrender was completely paid for by our fans. It was a totally fan-funded record. We launched a campaign and within a very short period of time, the recording was paid for and also the manufacturing and everything that comes with it because we’re an independent label. So that, I think, speaks volumes to how incredibly well connected we are with our fans and speaks to the give and take that happens on a regular basis there.

And I think it’s encouraging to think that I’m having more fun at what I’m doing than I ever have. As for touring and supporting a band and crew on the road, I figured I’d give it a decade or so. I’d give it a run and probably pack it in cause it’s really an odd way to live and it’s not easy. It has a lot of challenges physically and emotionally and it’s tough on relationships and it’s this whole sort of big, living organism on the road, you know, having all these people out there. But somehow I really found a good rhythm with it and I really enjoy it and I feel like I finally understand how to do it. And it took twice as long as I thought it would.

I believe there’s really something to be said for late bloomers. I think we have a mindset in our culture that says if you don’t figure out what you’re doing by the time you’re 30, you’re screwed. And that’s so not true. I mean, significant parts of your being develop over the decades that are ahead of you and it’s important to look forward to that and to be open to that and to let yourself sort of blossom.

The time will come to push yourself but it’s also nice to be gentle and patient with your own skills and your style of learning. I think we tend to be short-sighted a little bit in our culture. And I know a lot of my heroes – painters, writers, songwriters, didn’t create their best work until they were in their fifties.

So, that’s really something to aspire to and life is so rich. The more you live it, the more you embrace it, the more you have to draw from and the deeper your well. So, I think it’s important to encourage each other and to let ourselves be encouraged.

Photo: Over the Rhine

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