Willy Vlautin has a whole quiver full of arrows, which is lucky as he has many strings to his bow. We talked with The Delines songwriter in a wide-ranging chat.
As songwriter for Richmond Fontaine and The Delines, and frontman of the former band Willy Vlautin has made no small contribution to this thing we call Americana. He also has a flourishing career as a novelist, with books populated by characters who could have walked right out of a Richmond Fontaine song, some of which have gone on to have full movie adaptations vindicating the author’s cinematographic worldview. Americana UK’s Jonathan Aird caught up with Willy Vlautin to discuss all this – and more – as well as the recent Delines release ‘The Sea Drift‘ and the upcoming tour.
How have the last two years been – it’s all been a bit strange for everyone?
Yeah I mean personally it’s been alright because it’s the longest I’ve been home in 20 years so I got to see a full Fall and a full Spring and in that regards it’s been pretty cool and I was allowed to just work writing novels without stopping. Usually, I would write for a month then take a break to go on tour or do some band thing then I have to figure out what I was working on and that sort of back and forth, and this time I didn’t so it wasn’t so bad if you can keep your head wrapped around that the end of the world might be coming, then it wasn’t so bad.
That’s probably where you’ve had the advantage over a lot of people that we’ve been talking to recently where there’s been a desperate need to get back on the road and to see the audience whilst you have this other career.
And you’re right it’s been a horrific time for musicians a really hard time. A lot of my friends who are road musicians – it’s not only hurt them financially, but it put them out of work and mentally it made them really worry because they were never really sure if they’re going to get back on the road or not. So that’s been tough it’s been really tough for a lot of musicians
We’ve seen a huge number of albums of home recordings, quick takes that might almost be demos and albums of cover versions – but you didn’t feel the need to do anything like that?
With the Delines we sort of take our time and I think we are best when we take our time with this band. With Richmond Fontaine I think it would have been more conducive to more home recording but with the Delines it’s more studio-based with horns and strings, it’s kind of mining a bigger territory now. But it will probably eventually get to that more stripped-down feel with the Delines we’re just mining that other vein for a while
How do you compare and contrast Richmond Fontaine and Delines?
Well for me obviously The Delines are more of a ballad band it’s a smoother kind of velvetier band. In some regards there’s a similarity ‘cos I’ve used pedal steel a lot through Fontaine records to evoke a cinematic feel through a lot of records and The Delines started that way and we were lucky enough to get Cory Gray to play with us, the keyboardist and trumpeter and string arranger so now we use horns and strings to create a more cinematic world I guess. And of course the Delines has a better singer in Amy Boone than me that’s for sure. And now the songs are geared towards her, in Fontaine it was more of a guys band and a lot of the subjects were geared towards men I guess more than women and that’s obviously changed with The Delines
Yes I was thinking about it today and quite obviously it’s a band where the songs are much more from a female perspective which makes sense considering you have a female lead singer. How do you find writing from that perspective, do you get a lot of input from Amy to put you right on things or do you feel that you’ve already got that capability to see the female point of view much more clearly?
Well Amy’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met and she’s a lot of fun to talk to and we spend a lot of time together and I just listen to her a lot and I try to think about the conversations we have and the thing she talks about in general. She’s not as dark-minded as me so I have to be careful not to be too dark so I stay away from real dark things – I hit some dark things but I kind of temper it a little bit. I try and write more romantic tunes, once in a while she’ll say “write me a romantic one” which is fun for me when I wouldn’t have had the confidence to publicly do that before. I get nervous writing romantic tunes, I just, with Fontaine, never thought I had a good enough voice to pull those kind of tunes off. But in general, I just think I write all The Delines songs for her so I’m really geared to thinking about her singing them and then if she has any problems with lines or songs we just can them and I write another one.
In Richmond Fontaine the characters often seem rootless and drifting and in The Delines they often seem tied down and desperate.
If you’re speaking about ‘Drowning in Plain Sight‘ for instance on the new record I think some of that is age, you start writing differently as you get older and most people find some kind of roots in middle age so maybe some of it’s that. And in general I think that Fontaine was more lonely and kind of like it was driftery and rootless and pretty beat up and I think The Delines has a little bit more romance to it and a little bit of normal desperation, meaning you don’t quit your job and go off the rails completely like you would in a Fontaines song, but you want to.
I was thinking of a song like ‘Cheer up Charley’. In Richmond Fontaine I imagine the character would have broken and run by now.
Yeah, yeah you’re right. ‘Cheer up Charley’ is seen from Amy’s point of view which is that she’s an old friend of Charley and she sees that he’s going to ruin his life and she’s seeing it from afar and she’s hoping that he doesn’t and that he gets it together but she’s not sure that he will and in Fontaine your right we’d have seen him two months later living in his car 500 miles away.
And with the same problems.
Yeah with the same problems, I’ve got the same edges on me but I try and temper them and think more about Amy and write more about Amy’s ideas when I write it as a Delines song but I can’t help but put my own blood in them.
You’ve got music, you’ve got the novels, and the classic line for someone starting out writing is “write about what you know”. You cover things like boxing, horses, the track, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction petty and major criminality – hopefully this isn’t all reality and some of this is generated from your imagination?
Yeah, I did I grew up loving boxing, as a kid I was around a lot of people who like boxing. I like the tragedy of it I go in and out of love with the sport it’s a brutal sport and sometimes I can’t take it but I’ve always loved the stories around boxing. Most boxers have really tragic stories and I’ve always been interested even as a kid in those kind of tragic beat-up stories maybe that’s just because of the way I felt. With horses I grew up in a casino town in Reno NV a lot of my friends were addicted even in high school 16,17 18-year-olds were addicted to betting on sports and I ended up spending a lot of time in casinos. I had a couple of friends who were gambleaholics and so to stay away from losing, you know a handful of times I lost pay checks and that really hurts when you lose a whole pay check a whole weeks’ work getting drunk and gambling, so I started betting horses strictly it takes longer to lose your money and then I got addicted to that. I loved it and I loved horses but then I started getting disgusted with myself for betting on horses because, at least in the United States, horse racing is really rough on the horse so I wrote a novel called ‘Lean on Pete’ to try to quit horse racing it was like it was my breaking up with horse racing book. So they kind of link. Alcoholism, though, it’s just something I’ve been battling with my whole life – booze is a great girlfriend and a nasty ex-wife all wrapped into one. But drugs I always kind of stayed away, I grew up with some low level hardcore coke dealers, one of my good friends growing up had lived in a motel and he was a low-level coke dealer for a decade maybe, it almost killed him so hanging around them and a good buddy of mine is a lifelong junkie and I saw those guys falling apart around me and when I was at all susceptible to drugs I saw those guys already falling apart and I just stayed away. But yeah some of it’s obviously polarised or more dramatic, sometimes I link a story to an emotion so if you’re going to do some art and you feel really dramatic in your heart I’ll write a story of that which might be very dramatic so a lot of times I write a story based on emotion. So if I’m feeling real dark the story might come out ten times darker than that. Or maybe it comes out as dark as I feel but I’m not the guy I’m more like ‘Cheer up Charley’, I’m more the guy trying to hang on more than say a guy like in ‘Wake up Ray’ a Fontaine’s songs where he’s a lifelong drifter because he can’t take normal society. I’m kind of in the middle of that, I’m always trying not to abandon life, but it’s tough.
Not to imply that everything is completely depressing but probably the most uplifting song I can think of from Richmond Fontaine was ‘Western Skyline’ but that’s actually a pretty beautiful lie, so?
Yeah, so I wrote that song when I’d been thinking a lot about my uncle who I’m named after. He died in a hunting accident where I used to go fishing a lot as a kid by a river in Reno where I used to go swimming and fishing and then I found out that he died right where I used to hang out and I didn’t know that. I wrote that thinking about my uncle. In Fontaine I wrote a lot of joke songs but they never made it to the records. And I tended not to write romance songs and love songs much in Richmond Fontaine and I think I just had a big edge on me. In The Delines I get to write for Amy so I get to think about things differently and I don’t want her to have to sing such melancholy lyrics all the time.
But still quite melancholy.
Yeah yeah you’re right, maybe with a bit more velvet in them.
They sound like they have a cinemagraphic, almost noire, quality to them not the classic black and white films but more colour films with a strong female character who is more important. I suppose in Britain we might call them kitchen sink dramas. They have a feel of being very personal.
I think both Richmond Fontaine and The Delines what they have in common besides, you know, they are melancholy and pretty intense rides sometimes, both of them I wanted to be real cinemagraphic kind of bands – you can be in a song and hopefully if it works you are in a different world a different part of the country. That’s always been why I loved music even as a kid the thing that attracted me to music more than anything was the idea of escape – you can put on a record and just start the song and all of the sudden you’re in some other world and that saved my life I think. And so with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines I’ve tried to do that as well. So with The Delines it’s different, it’s from Amy’s world so you want her voice to be the world and the stories to fit her voice so the music has to fit her voice and we decided early on we wanted to be a ballad band, and if we were going to edge towards anything then it would be more soul and jazz rather than towards rock and roll. For me personally, in the band it’s always been about creating a cinematic world and that’s what we tried to do with ‘The Sea Drift.’
Yes, it’s great album I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and on the site we’ve just had a very good review – I hope you’ve seen that.
I don’t really look at reviews – I try not to look at that stuff it just messes with my head but thank you I really appreciate it.
So, music and the novels and you sort of mentioned ‘Lean on Pete’ and there was a film adaptation of that as well. How involved do you get in the adaptations to cinema?
I didn’t have a ton of involvement at all, I got lucky with ‘Lean on Pete’, Andrew Haigh the director is a really cool guy a really smart guy he came out and stayed with me right after he got the rights and he hit all the spots with ‘Lean on Pete’. He wrote the script and I just kind of back up, he’s like an auteur and he takes it and does what he wants with it. I’m OK with that because number one I really liked him and he’s a really smart guy and number two I could spend three years of my life messing with that project when I wanted to do other things so I’ve stayed away from movies just because they’re such a time sucker. I’m not tough enough I don’t think, nor smart enough, to navigate that world very well and I know that – and I don’t want to spend a couple of years rehashing a story and arguing about a story with guys who have money or probably they are way smarter than me so I just back up and sell it to the guys who are the smartest, and are interested of course, and hope to god they’ll do a good job with it.
Even a film with such a relatively small budget takes three years to get through development?
Yeah man, it takes a long time you get a bunch of different scripts together – you write a script to get the money, you write different scripts depending on what you want, you write different versions of it. So it takes a while to get the actors together, the money together, and it’s all kind of a House of Cards in that regard like juggling a bunch of chainsaws – you’re hoping you can keep them all in the air. I always think that movies are like a pyramid scheme where you need everyone to believe in it, it’s a tough job, it takes a long time and you can get sucked into it, into the minutiae of it and I didn’t want to get sucked in. Plus by the time I sold it to him I was already done with a novel or two other novels so I was already in a completely different mindset so it would be difficult I could have lost a novel or two or a record or two messing with those projects even if they had wanted me there, which they didn’t really
I hate to sound like the super fan that I am – I love the music I really enjoy the films and I think the novels are great but do you have any attraction to other genres: is there a big western or a whale hunting tale in Willy Vlautin?
Westerns are tough you know I feel like ‘The Motel Life’ is a western ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ is a western. I don’t see myself going back in time, I don’t know what I would offer. The transcontinental railroad is the only one that ever got my imagination – the Chinese experience in building the transcontinental railroad where they got off the boats and were kind of forced into the Sierra Nevada mountains with no idea of what they were doing and they were hundreds of miles from anything and they were stuck out there basically as indentured servants. I don’t think I really have anything to offer. I hope I hit it big one day and I can write a novel where I’m staying in fancy hotels and living the high life but as of now I don’t see that happening so I’ll probably just write the same stories I always write. I always wanted to write working-class stories because I could never understand why normal people can’t be heroes and why normal people can’t be the subject of a novel or a movie so that’s always been in my blood. But that being said man buy me a yacht and I’ll write you a novel about a yacht and if you want a whale in it I’ll put a whale in it and if you want a gunfight on the boat I can do that too
Hunting a whale but from the crew’s point of view?
Well I’ve never got that far I’ve never done acid maybe when I get a little older I’ll start doing acid so I can write some freakier stuff. When I was 17 I used to play with a hippie, he was a cool songwriter but he was a full-on acid casualty. He would come with these songs about watching his fish swimming in a fishbowl then he was swimming with the fish in the fishbowl. It was really weird and really bad and that, besides watching your buddy blow off his nose from doing too much cocaine, I think that’s what kept me off psychedelics was playing guitar with that guy so I don’t see myself writing a psychedelic novel either.
It’s a warning.
I’m not the smartest guy but you watch your buddy getting arrested and you realise man that’s not that much fun. You visit him at his court hearings and it’s not that much fun. I was always at least mildly smart enough to stay away from that stuff so far, hopefully I’ll continue
A few years ago you were getting a lot of critical acclaim and it always seemed like Richmond Fontaine were on the verge of breaking through to being a bigger band – I wonder how that felt?
Oh man I think you’d have to be crazy to think we would have been a big band.
Not Stones big, but you know
I never thought of us, and the guys in the band didn’t either – my voice wasn’t good enough and my lyrics were too dark. We just thought we were a weird little band and we were happy just to get to play gigs. The thing you have to remember with Fontaine was we were kind of a failed band for six or seven years before we started coming to Europe. I was 35 before I even had a passport We were all 35 and only one guy had a passport and was married and had a house. We were just grateful to get included in anything, the idea of Fontaine was they let us in the door and we’re going to try really hard to not let them kick us out of this party so that’s the way we looked at it and so everything we did was a success for us. The whole ride of Fontaine was really really fun we never thought of that, you always hope you would do better to make more money, and stay in little nicer places that sort of thing, but in general it is all just a really fun ride and those guys were all on the same page with it. I don’t think anyone had serious ambitions to rock stardom, we were older by the time we started doing OK so we were just happy that we were playing our little corner and put out our little records and hopefully continue and luckily we did, we got to be together for over 20 years
I was lucky enough to see you live a couple of times, it was always a hell of a gig.
Yeah, I love those guys – the only reason I’d ever get that band back together would be just to hang out with those guys especially Dan Eccles and I’m in a band with Sean, and The Delines has Sean Oldham the Richmond Fontaine drummer and he’s kind of the bandleader he was the bandleader of Fontaine and he’s the bandleader of The Delines. I love those guys, it was a really lucky break for me getting to play with those guys.
I guess you’re known for both bands for being pretty serious, as are the books. Is there a lighter side of Willy Vlautin?
Well I have written some comedic novels but they are too weird and I write joke songs all the time but they don’t fly I never really play them – my wife gets to hear them all the time. So I’m not Mr Doom and Gloom but I think I write better that way. I’ve written with that edge on me since I was a little kid. My comedies I’ve written three comedic novels but none of them really really work that well. I’ve never been a fan of comedic song, except The Delines ‘Friday Night’, it’s on ‘Scenic Sessions’, I think that’s a pretty funny tune. We’re coming out with – Amy and I are doing a single of duets that I think are pretty funny. But you don’t listen to The Delines for easy comedy relief.
Is the European Tour back on now?
Yes supposedly – it seems like things are opening up. We’re supposed to leave late April, start in Norway and then head South and we play gigs through May. If they don’t find another variant of covid or World War Three breaks out.
We’re hopeful that the situation doesn’t get any worse
Oh it’s heart breaking man I’ve been reading about the boxers, all the famous Ukrainian boxers are going back and joining militias and fighting. It’s a real tough thing to stay positive about I think maybe we’re just a fatally flawed species. As I get older, I’ve met a lot of cynical old men and I guess I can see why they are.
Since we’re a music site we always ask for recommendations for two or three bands we should be listening for.
The only band I can think about right now are the Sadies, because the death of Dallas Good. I love that guy it really hurt hearing that guy’s dying. It really hit me hard, for a week I had a hard time getting out of bed. They are my favourite band and he’s my favourite guitar player and a really cool guy. I really admire him a lot and he was a pal of mine. I always tell people if I could be in one band, if I could be in The Beatles if I wanted it or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or I could be the guitar player for Bobbie Gentry and see her every night the only band I ever wanted to be in was The Sadies, that’s always been my dream band so I was just heartbroken to hear. Just such a good guy and I’m just so devastated so that’s the only band I think people should be listening to, just an amazing band
Yeah, I love The Sadies – I saw them just once and I always say it was the loudest gig I’ve ever been to.
Yeah, I’ve heard that, I’ve never seen them when they were that loud. They were just really great – people should check out ‘Darker Circles’ that’s always meant a lot to me.
Well I should let you go before I start asking about Ursula LeGuinn.
Oh, you like her? Well I don’t know where she was born, I can’t remember right now, but she was a Portland resident as long as I’ve been up here. She was one of the coolest toughest smartest women I’ve ever met. I did a few library events with her to get funding for the library and when you’d be in a room with her everyone would kind of straighten up, she was really friendly and really down to earth but you knew she was smarter than you. She’s just the smartest person in the room and you’d be really nervous you’d say something that will embarrass you. She wasn’t intimidating that way, it was just you wanted to impress her, you wanted to be as cool as she was. She was that kind of person. Force of nature, I think we were really lucky to have her in Oregon and I was really lucky to have met her. She’s one of those people that they make you want to be a better person and she definitely was, I sucked in my gut and tried to act as smart as I could when I was around her
Her books have just such an incredible perspective and the way she had of taking an idea and then just following through on it all the way to develop it.
Yeah she was an intellectual force of nature and also really strong in her opinions and she helped the libraries of Portland OR, she’s helped get consistent funding for them and we have one of the best library systems in the States and that’s partly down to her. She helped people on a bunch of different levels and she was a whiskey drinking real cool woman. She was tough and cool, I just can’t say enough nice things about her
One last thought – I caught The Delines a couple times, a stand-up gig in Cambridge and at The Stables in Milton Keynes, memorable to me but probably just another gig for you
No, no I’m with you
They were only a few months apart and you’d gone from Cambridge where it was a really packed stand up sweaty room to The Stables which is a really beautiful venue, plush seating and ice cream at the interval. It seemed like a real contrast, I wonder how it feels to play each one and which do you prefer?
Well for The Delines it’s all about the sound so if you can get in a room that sounds really good so Amy’s voice is really at the forefront I like those gigs for that band the best. For Fontaine I liked the more punk rock kind of clubs where people are right in front of you and it’s more like a party, I like that better. For The Delines I think it’s better when her voice is really big and lush and you can kind of disappear into it but the thing with me man is anytime people show up to a gig it’s a great gig. It’s a good gig if you don’t get electrocuted by the mic’ or some faulty thing – in that regard I like ‘em all. Amy was in a cowpunk band for over 10 years with her sister called The Damnations and they were road dogs, they spent a lot of years on the road so she can handle anything and everyone in the band has toured most of their adult lives so it doesn’t really matter but it does help when people show up that definitely matters.