Q&A: Gillian Welch On The Arcane Process Of Pressing Vinyl & Why She Didn’t Feel Like A Proper Artist Until Now

The music of Gillian Welch exists outside of time. When she first started performing under her own name in the ’90s, she was singing dirges and ballads and rambling cautionary tales in a voice that harkens back to folk songs you’d be more likely to hear in the Library Of Congress’ archive than anywhere else. Accompanied by her partner David Rawlings, the Gillian Welch band carved out a space for themselves amongst their bluegrass contemporaries. Welch’s first album, Revival, was produced by T Bone Burnett, who later tapped her to sing on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. “Americana” is the word most often attached to each Gillian Welch project; folk-indebted, country-ish, a sound that couldn’t belong anywhere but here.

Gillian Welch’s most recent album, The Harrow & The Harvest, was released in 2011. It came eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, and in past interviews Welch and Rawlings denied that they’d wandered into a creative dry spell. The title of the album references the abundance of material they stared down while carefully choosing 10 cohesive songs with which to tell a story; to reap the harvest and leave all of those other ideas behind. The cover of the album features an illustration of Welch and Rawlings by Baroness’ John Dyer Baizley. It shows the two of them sitting in front a full harvest moon, Welch with an austere look on her face, conjuring flame from her fingertips.

It’s been six years since The Harrow & The Harvest was first released, but Welch didn’t feel like the album was really, truly done until now. Tomorrow, the album will be available on vinyl for the first time ever, which may come as a surprise to those who’ve been fans of Welch’s music since she started releasing it 20 years ago. Hers are songs that would sound most at home emanating from a turntable, the kind of music readily described as “old timey.” But Welch and Rawlings were not interested in simply sending their masters off to another state or country in order to get their records made. Instead, they investigated numerous plants and cut lacquers for The Harrow & The Harvest themselves. There’s an exactitude to this process that’s tedious and difficult to explain, but Welch describes it as the kind of tedium that eventually led to revelation.

All five Gillian Welch albums will ultimately be available on vinyl, and she and Rawlings just cut the lacquer for Soul Journey and are already in the process of cutting lacquer for Time (The Revelator). The duo will embark on a tour this weekend in support of The Harrow & The Harvest reissue, and after that they’ll take Rawlings’ new album, Poor David’s Almanack, which is due 8/11, out on the road. Welch spoke to me over the phone last week from her home in Nashville, and we talked at length about rediscovering The Harrow & The Harvest six years after its release and when we can expect a new Gillian Welch album.

STEREOGUM: You and Dave are about to put out his new record, Poor David’s Almanack. Are you working on any new Gillian Welch music right now?

WELCH: We never really step away from the writing. I mean, it’s true that there has been a lot going on and I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of quiet time lately. I’m sitting here at my writing table and I look over and have three spiral notebooks full of ideas. There’s stuff but it’s not in any way collated into a record yet. I’m hoping that these little windows of time in August and September will be a good time to get stuff together.

STEREOGUM: Do you ever give yourself a timeframe or is just, once the inspiration strikes it’s happening?

WELCH: Eventually there is some switch that gets flipped where I just can’t stand it anymore or wait anymore. I tend to work without a deadline. Then eventually, [I start to feel] some form of frustration. [Laughs] It’s been a very interesting time because so much has been going on in our world. The vinyl has been such a peculiar mad laboratory. It makes you keep strange hours, too. Once you cut a lacquer part, you basically have to cut it early in the day because as soon as that lacquer is done, the clock is ticking and it has to be plated within 24 hours or else it relaxes and the fidelity sort of becomes less distinct. I’ll just say I’m not really a morning person but when we’re cutting I find myself getting up at 6 or 7AM to do this, so I’m really making sacrifices for the art.

STEREOGUM: When I first heard about the the vinyl releases, I was kind of surprised that your music hasn’t been available on LP until now.

WELCH: Yeah, well, we work analog. We’ve always worked analog. It’s been a great pain to us that, you know, as the LP revival has just strengthened and strengthened people would come up to us at shows and say, “Why don’t you have your records on vinyl?” And every time it was just like an arrow to the chest because nobody wants it more than we did. But we just had to do it the way we had to do it. You know, we tried to take our tapes to a couple other mastering engineers who still had a lathe. Our beloved mastering engineer, Stephen Marcussen, got rid of his lathe decades ago. He used to cut lacquers back in the day; he’s been at this long enough that the last lacquer he cut was back in the late ’80s. So we tried [working with] different mastering engineers, different lathes and stuff, and I won’t bore you with the many-year process. We starting getting serious about putting stuff out on LP about 10 years ago and this is how long it’s taken us, if you can believe it.

STEREOGUM: The new vinyl LP features the original Harrow cover art in color — I read that Baroness’ John Baizley created the original illustration, which I never knew.

WELCH: When we were working with him — when he did that drawing for the original release — we had all, the three of us, planned that it would be in color. But when [we saw] that line drawing, we were all so taken with it that we were like, “Oh man, this is done.” And it’s a fairly austere record, so it didn’t feel like it wanted to be fully colored-in, so we just left it because we had all had that reaction. But I was really happy when it came around to do the LP that there was this elegant way to do a new iteration of it — to have it be really special but not different. I just thought John Baizley knocked it out of the park. The day he sent us the painting with all the color we were speechless.

STEREOGUM: He’s such a wonderful artist.

WELCH: He really is! And when the CD came out, it wasn’t as obvious [that Baizley designed the artwork]. I remember a few people seeing the cover of the CD and being like, “That dude is totally ripping off John Baizley!”

STEREOGUM: This reissue has been such thought-out process. Many artists don’t even know what plant presses their records and there aren’t any that many left in the US anymore.

WELCH: They don’t, and basically we sought out every plant that anyone thought anything about — anything with a decent reputation, we sent test pressings there. And we sent them out of the country, too; we tried plants in Germany and Japan and at least half a dozen plants in the United States.

STEREOGUM: I’ve seen a lathe but I’ve never witnessed the process of cutting a lacquer.

WELCH: It’s a very mysterious process to most people, myself included. When we made our first record, T Bone [Burnett] said, “You know, Stephen Marcussen is going to master it and he’s gonna call you,” and that was that. Then T Bone was gone and I was supposed to be talking to this guy to master my record. I didn’t even know what mastering was. I’m like, “What are we doing? What is this?” People really don’t know. Vinyl mastering is even more arcane. It’s just nuts. But I am really happy that we’ve gotten into this world. It’s like a piece of the puzzle of understanding other aspects of mastering that have affected the sound of music, the records I love. Because as you know: medium affects message. [Making LPs has] actually enriched my whole understanding of these records, this music I love.

STEREOGUM: It’s funny that you say that, because I wanted to ask whether or not going through the process of reissuing this album that came out six years ago is giving you a newfound appreciation for the music or does it make you want to take more space from it?

WELCH: A little bit of both. When we were actually cutting the lacquer for Harrow, since it was our first time cutting an album for an LP, it was really stressful and really difficult. Dave and [a few] of the guys doing the cutting with myself and Stephen Marcussen, they were reading this old mastering manual. Dave started laughing. I said, “Why are you laughing?” Dave said, “I just read a sentence that [claimed] what we’re doing is impossible.” [Laughs] “You might think that this would be more high fidelity but it’s impossible.”

We’re just trying to give people the best experience that we can. You really only do this once. It’s funny because after all these years — you made mention to this record being five or six years old — it finally feels like it’s done. Even the day when we cut the groove for Soul Journey, that record is like 14 years old. I feel like all the stuff in this weird way has been hanging in limbo and now finally it’s getting the sort of predestined ending that it has always wanted. These are analog records. They were never going to be really, really done and exist in a finished way until they existed as LPs. I think Dave and I were unprepared for this profound feeling of “Oh my God it’s finally done.” Also, in this weird way, we didn’t feel like proper artists until now. Beause the music that changed my life was played off a turntable — the records that are really, really in my DNA. I’m looking around and my records are all stacked around the baseboard of my living room. I just have stacks of records leaning up against the wall. We were never part of those stacks. It was like this hole — I didn’t really feel part of the pantheon. I’ve got my stack of folk records and next to it I’ve got my stack of bluegrass records and next to it I’ve got my stack of early rock ‘n’ roll records. And where were we? We were nowhere. Now I finally feel like we might be in some people’s stack. I hope. I hope that now we’ll be stacked on the floor in some people’s living rooms. It will make me feel really good.

The Harrow & The Harvest reissue is out 7/28 via Acony.