It’s got to be a little intimidating to be Dave Rawlings and find yourself stepping up to a microphone to sing lead on a song.
Rawlings is one of the most respected guitar players alive. But he’s best known as the musical partner of Gillian Welch, who has a voice of incomparable hypnotic beauty. But with his latest project, Dave Rawlings Machine, Rawlings sings lead on all the tracks while Welch sings back-up and harmony.
“I tend to sing with quite a bit less control,” Rawlings says. “There are some things that are fun to do this way. I think everyone has things they think their voice is best at.”
Rawlings’ voice is closer to a traditional bluegrass falsetto and pretty in its own right. While Welch’s albums have a modernist flair to them, some of the tunes on A Friend of a Friend, the debut album by Dave Rawlings Machine, sound more like traditional back-porch jams. “Sweet Tooth” has a particularly Appalachian breeziness. On other tracks, such as “I Hear Them All,” Rawlings’ voice takes on a mournfulness similar to Welch’s.
“I must have learned something singing harmony with her for so long,” he says. “There’s no way that it wouldn’t have affected my phrasing and storytelling technique. But it’s hard to put my finger exactly on what it is.”
But, overall, Rawlings’ voice gives the album a vastly different feel. “It was fun playing a batch of songs we didn’t normally play,” he says. “We got a few songs and enjoyed playing them with me singing them. Once that pile was big enough it seemed like we’d be foolish to not at least try to make a record.”
Rawlings wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on the album, including “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” a song made famous by its other co-writer, Ryan Adams. Rawlings played guitar on Adams’ version.
“I wanted to give it a little bit of a different flavor, especially having played on the original record,” Rawlings says. “But I knew it wasn’t going to fall that far from the tree. I just felt like giving it a touch of the country-honk Stones flavor. It’s a strong tune in my mind and I think it bears reinterpretation. I haven’t listened to them back-to-back to know how successful it was.”
Rawlings also covers two songs in a medley: Connor Oberst’s “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” The pairing makes sense—Oberst’s song is about people making music in seemingly bleak times because it’s all they can do to make sense of their lives; “Cortez” acknowledges the beauty of a destroyed civilization. The medley happened almost by accident. Rawlings had played Oberst’s song live when it occurred he could shift from it into the guitar lines of “Cortez.” He tried it again in the studio.
“It was probably, if anything else, to amuse the engineer we were working with,” he says. “But that ended up being the best take.... There’s a beautiful sense of atmosphere and space on Neil’s record. I have a vivid recollection of listening to that when I was young. I just know that it was something I thought was beautiful. When Gillian and I started playing together, we moved closer and closer to that sound. The space we try to create on the Revelator record bears some resemblance to the space on ‘Cortez’ and also the pacing and how long the song goes on without any vocals.”
Singing lead presented some problems for Rawlings in the studio. He’d gotten so accustomed to building records around Welch’s voice that he had to rethink the process.
“We have a particular way we work. We had to stretch a little bit from that,” he says. “Everything else needed a slightly different treatment or sound. But in the end it was rewarding to do something different. You don’t get to those places unless you try and fail first.”
Rawlings says the project was one that broadened Welch and Rawlings’ musical palette. “I feel like we made part of Gillian’s record while making this record,” he says. “The next thing on the docket is to get her record finished up.”
He won’t give an expected release date for that album, joking only it’ll be out “on the happiest day of my life.” After which, he’ll work on another Rawlings Machine record. What does he think of the first one?
“It’s really difficult to know exactly what you’ve made until a long time later,” he says. “You need some distance. There are things I am proud of. There are always things you want to change. I don’t know if I’d want to be completely happy with it.”