Interview: The Delines’ Willy Vlautin on their 2022 Americana UK poll success

The Delines, a ballad band with a jazz keyboardist, a jazz drummer, and an R&B bassist.

The Delines won the Americana UK Album Of The Year 2022 and were runners-up in our readers’ Album Of The Year and International Band 2022 categories, so it seemed a good idea for Americana UK’s Martin Johnson to catch up with guitarist-songwriter Willy Vlautin in Portland, Oregon, over Zoom to see what these endorsements mean to the band.  While Vlautin may be the primary songwriter of the Delines he is at pains to explain that they are a true band with every member adding a unique ingredient to the overall sound. He shares how Amy Boone’s vocal ability has allowed him to explore his ballad side, and that she also encourages him to bring a touch more romance to his lyrics and turn down his dark side a bit. As an author, Vlautin explains that nearly all his creative ideas start out as potential songs and that some songs may then morph into novels. The Delines’ success in 2022 is clear evidence of their UK fan base, and Willy Vlautin admits to his deep appreciation of The Sadies and how, despite his better judgement, he couldn’t stop being a super fan whenever he saw them play live, much to his repeated subsequent embarrassment. Finally, he lets slip that The Delines are working on a new album.

American UK Album Of The Year 2022 for ‘The Sea Drift’, and runner-up Readers Album and International Band 2022, is pretty impressive. What do polls mean for the band?

We are really happy and honoured, and we’re lucky when anybody likes what we are doing, and there is never a day that goes by when I’m not grateful because it means my band can remain a band. So we are very excited about Americana UK, so thank you, everybody.

How has 2022 been for the band?

2022 was pretty good, the band toured three times and I did one on my own, so we got back to normal. Obviously, it was weird playing gigs at first, and we were all scared about getting stuck because when we were in Europe you had to pass a COVID test to get home. We finally got back to being a band, so it has been really exciting for us, and we are now prepping to cut another record.

Is ‘The Sea Drift’ the best album of Willy Vlautin’s career to date?

They are all different, you know, and you fall in love with each one and you worry over each one. We got lucky on ‘The Sea Drift’ because the guy who does our records, producer John Askew, and we’ve always just hoped studios to wherever he can get into, he’s bought his own studio and it is a really cool studio that did a lot of country records in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s in the Northwest. I think Merle Haggard recorded there, it was a small studio but it has a real good lucky feel to it and we recorded the record there. I think that had something to do with it. I think it is a lucky place, it is called Bocce Recording Studios, and it was also the first time Cory, our keyboardist and trumpet player, had the time and the luxury of COVID, to arrange the strings and horns, and that helped too. But yeah, I feel really lucky about that record, it came out really good.

The Delines show a development and a continuation with Richmond Fontaine, how much of the development is down to your own development,  Amy Boone’s vocal ability and Cory Gray’s keyboards?

There was a big shift in writing for Amy, for me, it really was like taking the handcuffs off my songwriting. She is not as dark-minded as me, she likes a little bit more romance in her songs. Writing for her, because I like her so much, and I felt I owed it to her to write the best songs for her that she could get behind. With Richmond Fontaine, I could go down these dark veins that are not necessarily healthy for me, but something I was used to, I quit doing that with the Delines so much. It was a lucky break for me to get to do the Delines because I get to do my songs in a  different way. So in that aspect, it really changed things for me. Then being involved with Sean Oldham, who was the drummer in Richmond Fontaine, he was the band leader in Richmond Fontaine and he is the band leader in the Delines, and he was excited to do more jazz because he is a jazz drummer, so he was excited to get away from what we were doing in Fontaine. We then just got lucky with Cory, I didn’t know he was such a great trumpet player but I always knew he was a great keyboard player but I didn’t know how gifted an arranger he was, we got lucky. Before I always wrote melody ideas for guitar and pedal steel, but I began writing melody ideas for trumpet. I’ll give him crude ideas for melody, and then he just builds it out and makes it beautiful.

Do you feel this change has allowed you to develop as a songwriter, or have you just simply adapted to the new dynamics?

I have a bad tendency to be too dark, and with Amy, I really tried to not be that way, and I wanted to write her as classic songs as I could.  I love her voice so much, I wanted to write her classic songs, like classic ballads, and I’d always wanted to write those kinds of songs but I didn’t have the courage to sing them myself. I’ve always been a ballad writer stuck in a rock band, and I think at a certain age with the Delines I’ve just accepted what I am, and I like writing ballads. So, the Delines were a really lucky break for me as a songwriter, so yeah, the Delines were good for me as a songwriter because I got to grow and the Delines are a band I can write any kind of song I want and Amy will sing them even though I don’t have the guts to myself. So I wouldn’t have written them in the first place if it wasn’t for the Delines.

Where did you get the inspiration for these new songs, what previous music influenced you?

Musically I was always in love with Bobbie Gentry. I get these huge crushes so I’ve always loved Bobbie Gentry, Sammi Smith, and Candi Staton, and I love ballads like Randy Newman’s ballads in particular, Tom Waits’ ballads. I’ve always been more attracted to those more classic type songwriters, those big old school songwriters, ‘Dusty In Memphis’ is littered with brilliant songwriters. Part of me has always loved that stuff, even when I was a punk rock kind of kid I was secretly listening to ballads, and that really was where my heart was. It was the inspiration of that, and when I heard Amy sing, she was on the road with us in Richmond Fontaine playing keyboards, and we were doing this radio show and she was on this hot mic in a little studio just playing by herself but the mic was on so we could all hear. She was playing some ballad, and I can’t remember what song but I remember turning to Richmond Fontaine’s guitar player Dan Eccles, a great buddy of mine, and I said, “Man, I wish I was in a band with her where she sings all the songs.”, and he laughed and said, “Me too, man, I’d love to be in a band with a good singer”. But that is how it started, I went home after that tour and basically secretly wrote her the songs that were on ‘Colfax’ the first Delines record, and wrote her a little essay on why she should join up with me. It was an experiment, she came up for a week and we cut the record after like three practises, and people seemed to like it so we got to keep doing it. Like I said, it is a lucky break for me.

You are very prolific with your output, how do you differentiate whether an idea becomes a song or a literary creation?

They are all kind of interconnected, and they kind of feed off each other. Usually, everything starts as a song, they start small and then if the idea becomes bigger than what I start thinking about it as a novel, in that kind of frame. When I’m working on a novel, ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ for instance, that novel wrecked me so much and it took me years to write, I’d get stuck writing and I’d end up just playing guitar and I’d end up writing a lot of songs in the world of ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’. Richmond Fontaine wrote an instrumental record inspired by ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’, and I wrote a lot of songs on our last record inspired by that book. They are kind of married that way, but that being said, most of my ideas start as songs.

What do you get from the Delines and your literary activities?

It is tough, they are both really hard to do, but writing a novel is easier to do badly and songs have melody, and I don’t understand where melody comes from, I don’t know why certain melodies make you cry, and others don’t, I don’t know why I will write a certain melody I like and others don’t, or I’ll write a melody that I don’t think much of but everyone says that’s the one, it just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know why you can sit down some days and write a very good song in two hours, and then you can stew over a handful of songs for years to find out they weren’t any good anyway. So, there is a lot more mystery to songs, a lot more uncertainty, whereas a novel is like I’ve got to get the guy to the grocery store, and when he gets to the grocery store he has to meet the other guy. Writing a novel is a lot more like digging a ditch, and writing songs is like looking for money lying on the sidewalk, you’ve just got to look a lot and hope you find it.

Your lyrics are very evocative of place, how do you get the detail to create a sense of place for locations you may not know as well as some others?

I wrote a lot in the beginning out of homesickness and escapism. For me, I just have to be in love with a place, if I am in love with something it is easy to chase. So for me, I’ve always kind of loved where I’ve lived, so it is easy to write about. In the early days, I wrote about, and I still do sometimes, the state I grew up in, Nevada, and the state of Oregon particularly, because I’m simply homesick for them and I want to be there and I can’t be there. So for me, chasing things you love is the easiest way to write about a place.

Your home town Reno, Nevada, seems important to you.

I really loved it there but I wasn’t doing much there, I was in my late twenties working at a trucking company, I spent all my time in bars and I was in a bad band. So, I decided to move to a bigger city to try and make it as a musician, so I left but I was kind of kicking and screaming as well.

Do you agree with the Delines’ music being described as country soul?

It’s a hard one because we are not really a soul band, I think we are a ballad band. I don’t know what kind of band we are, to be honest, I love soul ballads, and I always have, and I love those big songwriter ballads, and I love that era of country music with Sammi Smith and Bobbie Gentry, where there was big kind of cinematic songs. I guess ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ is the most famous Bobbie Gentry song, but that ability to be so cinematic, you can call it country or you can call it what you want, I guess we are really a cinematic ballad band, but I love pedal steel and I love horns too. It is hard for a band to describe itself, I think every kind of band struggles under that, but I love country, I love soul ballads, I love folk music, and I love those classic songwriters and I think we just throw all that into a blender and it becomes its own thing. It is a really cool band, Freddie Trujillo has always been my favourite bass player and he is amazing, and he brings a blues soul sound, he is a really good R&B bass player, and then you’ve got Cory who is a straight-up jazz guy, and you’ve got Shaun who is a brilliant drummer and arranger as well, and then you’ve got me and Amy with her beautiful voice, and I’m this little man who writes some tunes and every now and then, she will lean over and say please write me a tune where the guy doesn’t die, just write me a romantic song.

You are on record as being a fan of the Sadies, what did you think of ‘Colder Streams’ particularly given the circumstances?

Dallas Good was a huge influence on me, and a good friend. I was not up to being in The Sadies but they were the only band I wanted to follow. I used to tell my wife I hated touring so much because I wanted to follow The Sadies on like a two-week tour before I died just as a fan so I could watch them every night. I just travel so much that my wife would leave me if I went on the road chasing The Sadies for two weeks. I was, and still am, a huge fan, Dallas was always a really big hero of mine, and I always wished I was the sort of guitar player and songwriter he was. He was really inspiring and I always admired him and I always wished I was him as a musician. While we weren’t in touch all the time we were pals and I didn’t see him very much, but when he died I was about the saddest I’ve ever been, it was pure sadness. When I heard the news for the first time in my life I went straight back to bed, and it hurt me in a way I don’t understand, but I was knocked out for a few days after hearing that.  The new record’s great, I can’t say enough great things about The Sadies.

The only other story I’ve got about The Sadies is that every time they came through Portland I didn’t want to go because I’d tell my wife I’d embarrassed myself so much last time by being the superfan. I just can’t help it, I just get super excited and tell each guy how great they are, and how intimidated I am by them. So every night they came through I’d go I can’t go see them tonight because I will just make a fool out of myself, and my wife would say are you waiting around and then I was like, I’ve got to go because it’s The Sadies, and I’d try and be cool and not say a bunch of stupid stuff. By the end of the night, I would have spent a couple of hundred bucks on their merch, and I was telling all the guys they were geniuses, and I’d wake up hungover in the morning and say, “I’ll never do that again, I will never make a fool out of myself like that again”. The next time comes, and there I am again, so they are a great band and one of my favourites.

You mentioned you will be working on a new album, are there more firm plans for 2023?

We’re kind of working the songs out now and will be going into the studio in March, and I think we are going to do three different sessions for this record, and now that Amy lives in Portland, it is a lot easier for us to record and so we are kind of taking our time. So yeah, I don’t think it will be out this year because everything takes so long, but it will hopefully be out in 2024. We are working hard on it and I think it’s going to be cool, and I’ve got a lot of songs for it so we just have to pick the right ones to make the record.

Is it going to be radically different or don’t you know yet?

We don’t know yet, I’m not sure right now. It will be different from ‘The Sea Drift’, that’s for sure, but it will still be in the Delines world.

Will it be different because of your songs or because of what happens in the studio?

It is hard, it has been tough with the Delines because I am always hesitant about them becoming a rock band, I don’t want to lean on it and speed it up. Amy and I both grew up playing cowpunk in bands since we were kids and we don’t want to lean on that, we are trying to do different stuff within the world we’ve created, and all of that is because the Delines are a band, I may bring in the songs, but then the band takes over and each guy will do what they do on them. Amy brings a whole other world to the song with her phrasing, and we spend a lot of time on each line to make sure she is cool, I’ll make sure she likes each line in a song or I will change it. Hopefully, it will be a cool record.

Do you want to mention Cory Gray’s studio issues?

That was heartbreaking, you know. He was down visiting his family and there were some serious aeroplane issues, I think Southwest Airlines had a computer meltdown, so Cory was stuck in California, and then he hears part of the roof has caved in on his studio, and it broke one of the water mains for the sprinkler system and it just soaked everything, which is the last thing you want in a studio. He lost everything and he had some buddies, I was out of town as were all of the Delines I think, and they took the stuff out and put it around dryers hoping the electronics would dry out. I remember going over with my pickup truck, and we were loading stuff, and it was just awful, it is kind of a derelict building now. In the Northwest, like in England, if a room is not heated it turns to mould. So yeah, he lost a lot of stuff and I know he has a GoFundMe page, and he is looking for another studio but he makes his living as a studio musician so it was a major setback for him.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Charlie Crockett, I know he is really popular right now, but I really like him and he does a great job of mixing country and soul. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams, and I’ve always been a big fan. One of the luckier breaks I got was that my dad picked up her first record back in the 80s, so I’ve been a fan off and on for something like forty years. I’ve been listening to Françoise Hardy, the French singer, a lot. I’ve also been trying to learn my Isaac Hayes. I really like Jessica Lea Mayfield’s ‘Tell Me’, she is a cool singer, it is a country record and it is pretty cool. I’ve got a hell of a list going now, I’ve always loved Brenda Lee as well. So that is some of what I’ve been listening to on the americana side, and we can’t forget the new Sadies record, ‘Colder Streams’.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK readers?

I just want to thank them for giving ‘The Sea Drift’ a chance and being so nice to us, it is a really lucky break for a band to get to tour and make records it just makes us so relieved, and happy, and grateful because it means we can keep being a band still.

The Delines ‘The Sea Drift’ is out now on Decor records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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I was fortunate to see them in Nottingham last May, it was a fantastic concert. I’m looking forward to the next tour. Great interview Martin.