Interview: Willy Vlautin

The long-awaited follow up to ‘Colfax’ the sublime debut from The Delines, essentially a side project at the time for Richmond Fontaine’s head-honcho Willy Vlautin and The Damnations’ Amy Boone, finally sees the light of day after three years of delay due to a serious accident that rendered Boone suffering life changing injury. ‘The Imperial’ released in the UK in January on Decor Records, is not only testament to her powers of recovery but underlines Vlautin as one of America’s finest songwriters and observers of life’s downtrodden and emotionally wrought underbelly.   Americana-UK catches up with Vlautin to discuss further. 

I guess the first, and most important question, how is Amy?
She’s doing great but it’s been a long hard road for her. She was really beat up. Both legs broken, nine surgeries. But she’s tough. As soon as she could walk a little she was on a plane to Portland. She couldn’t even walk up stairs but came and finished the record.

Given most of this album was written and ready to go before her accident, how much changed in those final few months of completing the record once she was back and firing on all cylinders again?
I feel really lucky that we had a lot of it recorded. I’m not sure the band would have kept going if we didn’t. It gave us something to hope on. We had what we thought was three quarters of a record. So we did a lot of tinkering while she healed up. Our keyboardist, Cory Gray, is also an amazing trumpet player and horn arranger and he added the horn sections. We remixed a lot. I wrote more songs and we just waited. We weren’t sure she would want to be in a band after what had happened to her, but when she came up for the first session it was great. She was in. Even shaky and barely able to get by she was funny and cool and still wanted to sing with us.

It must be a little strange having so much done and then have to apply the handbrake for three years and just let it sit there?As if creatively time stood still, perhaps?
It was, I wrote a lot of songs in that time, we recorded some instrumentals, I worked on a novel, and all the other guys went their own way. We all had to, but the producer, John Askew never forgot about the record. He remixed it and rethought about the record so much and helped it so much that it never really left our minds. I can’t say enough great things about Askew. He’s helped the band from the beginning, from song selection, instrumentation, to artwork. He’s a great pal of mine.

So, to the album. Did you see this as a follow-on record to Colfax in terms of themes and ideas or was this started from a fresh, clean palette?
I wrote Colfax as an experiment. I’ve always loved country soul ballads and I’ve always wanted to be in a band with a great singer, a singer I believed in. Amy did a tour with RF and when I heard her warm up singing these old country and soul tunes I knew I wanted to be in a band with her. So after the tour I went home and wrote her tunes. She didn’t know any of that. I didn’t tell her ‘cause I was too embarrassed and insecure but I just wrote her tune after tune.

The Delines for me was like taking handcuffs off my songwriting. I’ve always written for my voice, for the stories I could sing or felt comfortable singing. When we started The Delines all that went away ‘cause Amy can sing anything. She can sing big romantic tunes and pull them off. I would have never written any of the Delines stuff if it wasn’t for her. ‘The Imperial’ though, was different because we were a real band by then. We recorded ‘Colfax’ after a week of rehearsals. We had never played a live gig. By the time we did the Imperial we had toured and got lucky having Cory join up. He’s really influenced the band’s sound and feel. He’s just so damn good.

Once again all these characters reside on the margins, fighting for their own small place in a world that seems to just revolve around them. It’s where you seem to draw your inspiration, Willy?
I just don’t know any other world. I’ve always struggled to stay afloat in life so it’s hard for me to write outside that. Maybe some day I will, I hope so, but…. Plus I’ve always admired working class songs and stories. It’s what I like to read, what I like to listen to, and since I was a kid it’s what I’ve wanted to write. Also, over the years my life hasn’t changed all that much. I live around the same sorts of people I always have.

What I love both about The Delines and Fontaine, for that matter, is your interpretation of love, hope, despair, sadness even, is always so crushingly real. At times you just want to reach out and hug the characters in the songs and tell them everything is going to be fine. Do you feel that when you are writing these songs?
Thanks for saying that. Sure, they’re all real to me, and in some cases they actually are. I guess I’ve always tried to write that way. As a fan, songs have saved my life. They’ve kept me going, been friends, companions, advisors. So I’ve always tried to be honest. A lot of the time I hide my story within a story, so it’s not autobiographical, but it’s written with blood or at least I try to write that way. When you’re low sometimes a song can be like a guardian angel. It can protect you a little bit. I have no idea if my songs work like that but I sure hope that at least one or two does. I sure write them that way.

Tell me a little more about the actual recording process for The Imperial?
We started the session at Flora Recording and Playback in Portland. It’s a studio run by Tucker Martine and once in a while when he’s on break we’ll go in there with John Askew. As I said earlier John’s been such a great friend to The Delines. Working with him on the record really saved us. I think it’s the best sounding record I’ve been a part of. We’d just been on the road so we were pretty tight coming into the session and we cut the songs with certain ideas in mind, especially with the drums. We wanted that mic’d close tight and warm sounding kit. And then we just started cutting songs. A lot of them were first or second takes and Amy was spot on. She did songs like ‘He Don’t Burn For Me’ the and ‘Roll Back My Life’ on the first take. It was a great session, we were all really pleased, and then we took a break. Fontaine had a tour and while we were gone Amy got hit.

The sound, like ‘Colfax,’ is just so beautifully warm and inviting. ‘Let’s Be Us Again’ is such a wonderful song. Tell me a little more about it?
It’s one of those songs I’d never have written if it wasn’t for Amy. I hang out in a part of Portland called St. Johns. I wrote it near Christmas. It’s one of the last really old school working class parts of town. There’s 4 bars on two blocks, good old man bars, and there are still a handful of mom and pop stores that haven’t been pushed out. It’s my favourite place. The idea of the song is a woman is reunited with her boyfriend. We don’t know where he’s been or why he’s been gone, but he’s back and she’s so excited ‘cause she wants to be like they were. In love and together. In the song she wants to buy him a new coat to go around St. Johns and show him off. But there’s an underlying fear in the song. Who is this guy? Why does she have to buy him a new coat? Where has he been? Amy adds this uncertainty to it. Is the woman going to get her heart broken, is she gonna get played? Musically it really came to life when Cory came up with the horn arrangement.

For me the song became what it was supposed to be then. Romantic, hopefully, but a little uneasy and melancholy as well. That’s what I like about The Delines. It does have a sound that invites you in. It’s easy, her voice naturally brings you in, but then once you’re in and comfortable the words start you start getting wrecked.

You are clearly a ‘people’ person, Willy. You have a wonderful ability to paint portraits without ever any sense of judgment, sympathy or condemnation leaving all the weight of opinion on us the listeners. Is that the intent here or just the way it comes out of that creative well?
When you look at a person’s life it’s easy to pass judgement if you don’t know them. The more you know the more you understand. Sometimes you find out what a person has gone through and you’re surprised they are even upright. Other times it’s the opposite, some people just seem to invite or continuously stumble into hard times. I always try to show both sides in my songs and novels. I’ve always been interested in how people can get beat up day after day and still get by, often times with great dignity. The struggle to overcome one’s own ditches has always interested me. And you’re right: I often leave it up to the listener to pass judgement on the scene or character. A lot of the time I’ll set it up where you’re just there for a moment; you’re just there when Sonny throws a pint of whiskey at his car windshield, or when the woman buys the man the coat, or when Holly begs her dad to take her back to their ranch.

As a novelist, is there a different approach to writing songs than to writing stories? Or is it just one and the same process?
Novels just take so much time. Years of work. Maybe writing a full record and a novel have things in common, but in general so much of writing novels, at least for me, is editing. I’ll edit and tinker for years on a book. Songs are a bit different. A lot of the time I feel like, and I forget who said this, but it was something to the effect that it’s like walking down a street and you run into a song and when you do you grab it and try to hold on to it. Why was it even walking down the street in the first place? Why did you grab it or why did it escape? Songs have so much mystery in them. I have no idea where they come from. With the Delines I tend to tinker more with songs than I even did in Fontaine and in Fontaine I tinkered a ton. I’d write a lot of versions of each song, but with Delines it seems I’m even worse. I think that’s maybe just because I’m writing for Amy. A lot of the time she and I just sit around and talk and out of that I see where her head’s at, she’ll tell me what she’s interested in, and I write thinking of that, influenced by that. So I always tinker and fine tune, ‘cause I want the song to be good enough for her.

The title track, in a way, could be a Delines signature tune. There is such an overbearing sadness to it – a love affair stopped in its tracks, reunited but just unable to succeed – yet by the end there is a sense that it’s the only way these things work out. The ‘holding hands under the table before you leave’ just kills me.. Tell me more about that song.
Sometimes I’ll walk through Portland and I’ll pass all these old beautiful apartment buildings. They have great names like ‘The Ambassador’ or ‘The Tudor Arms.’ That’s what gave me The Imperial. It’s that idea of passing a place where you once had a good time, a good life. I used to live in a house next to a Section 8 apartment building. It was rough. One time my TV caught fire; I have no idea why but it did, so I set it outside on my porch. When I came out an hour later it was gone. Someone thought it was a good idea to steal a half-melted TV. It was that sorta place, a place I could have shot guns off inside on a regular basis and no one would have said anything. But even now when I pass it, it becomes a beautiful place. A grand sorta place ‘cause I had so many great times there. The Imperial is like that. A memory of a good stretch in a couple’s life but then due to greed or addiction or both, the man in the couple ruins it. He tries to do something illegal and he gets caught and the woman’s saying, “but what we had was imperial, it was ours and honest. We were so lucky. Why did you have to want more? Why did you have to destroy it?” It’s a big beast of a song. We worked a long time on getting the drama of it right. The up and down. I wrote it thinking of Amy’s voice and thinking of Candi Staton and of passing that house I lived in, that wasn’t much more than a shack, but a castle.

Amy is such an incredible singer. What qualities do you think she brings to these songs, Willy?
Hell, Amy’s just got soul. She’s been through it and you can hear it, the rough edges, the understanding, the empathy, heartbreak, and beauty. There are certain people you meet and you know they know the hard life. They understand and can articulate the pain that a person goes through just by living their life. She has that but she’s also funny and wild and tough. All that comes across in her voice. I just remember hearing her sing for the first time and believing her. She’s not a vocal gymnast. She just tells the tale, she just invites you into the world and then breaks your heart.

Tell me a little more about the band.
The band is Sean Oldham on drums, Freddy Trujillo on bass, and Cory Gray on trumpet and keyboards. Sean is from RF, he’s the bandleader. Freddy is the coolest bass player around. We’ve all been fans of his for years. He’s the real glue of the band, and Cory, man we got lucky with him. So much of The Imperial’s sound is because of his playing and his ideas. He’s the closest thing we have to a genius. We sure are lucky to all play together.

Given a lot of the same themes permeate a lot of Richmond Fontaine’s output, what defines a Delines songs as opposed to a RF one?
I never really mixed the two. The songs don’t feel interchangeable to me. Granted the worlds are similar. Different perspectives, different characters, but maybe the same street. Like I said earlier, I write that world because it’s the only world I really know. But the point of view with the Delines is different. I wouldn’t be able to sing half the songs I write for Amy. She can pull them off and man oh man I can’t.

How much does Portland play a part in your songs, Willy?
It varies. A lot of the Imperial is based in Portland. Like I said earlier I rent a room in St. Johns to write in. I spend a lot of time there and write a lot of songs there. It overlooks a bar called Slims that opens in the morning. I can’t help it; watching early morning drinkers always inspires me so that area ends up in a lot of my songs. In general, Portland is changing so rapidly it’s hard to know what to think. It used to be a haven for artists. When I moved here it was cheap and people would come out to see original music. It was lucky. It’s still great, it’s a great city, but its too expensive. I don’t know where all the money’s coming from, but it’s coming and it’s hard on the working class and the artists. The working class people get pushed out to the suburbs and the artists just move to different cheaper cities.

What’s the plan for 2019?
Touring the Delines as much as we can. Hopefully recording too.

I’ll ask for a friend – any chance of a Richmond Fontaine reformation? Or has that been well and truly put to bed now?
I always feel lucky about RF’s run as a band. We were a duct tape mom and pop outfit for over twenty-years. A lot of the early years no one cared about the band at all. We really struggled, but we never quit and we always had a good time. We took only two things seriously, making records and having parties. A lot of the best things in my life came from RF so I was so happy that we ended with two of my favourite records, ‘You Can’t Go Back’ and ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’. We wanted to end the band on a high note and we did. We got out of the van still being friends, having tried our best and getting to see a lot of cool things. We got lucky so I feel good about leaving it there.

‘The Imperial’ is out on January the 11th on Decor Records

UK Dates:

Jan 23 Ballincollig Winter Music Festival, CORK
Jan 24 Roisin Dubh, GALWAY
Jan 25 Liberty Theatre, DUBLIN
Jan 26 Open House Festival, BELFAST
Jan 27 Celtic Connections Festival, GLASGOW
Jan 28 Gosforth Civic, NEWCASTLE
Jan 29 The Greystones, SHEFFIELD
Jan 30 Howard Assembly Room, LEEDS
Jan 31 Unitarian Church, LIVERPOOL
Feb 1 The Met, BURY
Feb 2 Portland Arms, CAMBRIDGE
Feb 3 The Railway, WINCHESTER (2 Shows)
Feb 4 Hen & Chicken, BRISTOL
Feb 5 The Jazz Cafe, LONDON
Feb 6 The Haunt, BRIGHTON

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[…] Speaking recently to Americana-UK’s Del Day, Willy Vlautin said that what sustained the band’s spirit in the interim was knowing they had most of their sophomore album already in the can. He also explained what he’d been up to for the last few years, as well as the debt ‘The Imperial’ owed to producer, John Askew. […]