Friday, August 16, 2013
Interview with Over the Rhine
Leave the edges wild.
While this fatherly piece of advice was given to Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler regarding their spacious Nowhere Farm in rural Ohio, it has certainly taken on a larger significance in their lives and in their music - as evidenced by its multiple inclusions on their newest release, Meet Me at the Edge of the World.
This sprawling 19-track, double album paints a beautiful sonic landscape that somehow refuses to stay put or stray too far, creating just the right amount of musical depth and breadth to get sufficiently and satisfyingly lost in. Over the Rhine’s music has always managed to convey humanity and spirituality from both individual and intertwined viewpoints and their new record certainly continues the tradition of blurring the dividing lines between the sacred and the secular with a deceptively deft hand. In their lyrics and in their music, Over the Rhine has managed to carve their own trail of jazzy, bluesy, folk songs, while simultaneously celebrating the untamed fringes.
If the thought of a double album feels like a bit of a daunting introduction, Karin and Linford have compiled a free 5-song sampler entitled Five Good Reasons to Meet Me, featuring songs from the new album. It can serve as both a wonderful stepping-stone to purchasing their new album and a fantastic backdrop while checking out their eloquent and insightful interview below.
NoiseTrade: If I remember correctly, your new album was initially going to be called The Farm, based on your experiences of living on the breathtaking Nowhere Farm. How has your farm informed the songwriting on this album and what spurred the title change to Meet Me at the Edge of the World?
Karin Bergquist: It’s kind of funny, but we found out The Farm wasn’t the name of the record when we started working on the art for the front cover. When we saw it in print, we realized it was the wrong title! But we had already been haunted by the alternate title Meet Me At The Edge Of The World. All of the songs on the project revolve loosely around this place, and are connected to this piece of unpaved earth in some way.
Linford Detweiler: Yeah, Karin and I have lived out here at Nowhere Farm now for over eight years. Sometimes when the fog rolls in real close and hushes everything, we would whisper that it felt like we were living on a little farm at the edge of the world.
We also realized when we moved out here that we didn’t know the names of much of anything – the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, the weeds. My father loved this place and was always a bit of a birdwatcher. And he knew his trees too, and helped us find names for some of what was surrounding us. When my father passed away, and was no longer around to do the naming for us, we began the work of learning for ourselves. Once we started calling things by name, they began appearing in our songs.
We realized that we had one lone tupelo tree growing on the edge of our woods. When Karin walked the dogs past that spot, she often felt like she received something: some words, some tears, something like a prayer perhaps. One day the words that became this song sort of poured out of the tree and Karin wrote them down on her walk (thankfully). The music arrived later, and this tune became the title track of the project.
NT: There’s a phrase that has recently shown up in your songwriting and in band newsletters that has really intrigued me - “leave the edges wild.” Where did that phrase come from and what does it specifically mean to you?
Karin: Linford’s father gave us the gift of that bit of advice when he first visited Nowhere Farm. And you’re right, it shows up in at least three different songs that I can think of: “Called Home,” “All Of It Was Music,” and “Against The Grain”…
Linford: But yeah, when Dad Detweiler saw Nowhere Farm, I think he really fell in love with the place. He said he heard birds singing that he hadn’t heard since he was a boy on the family farm in Delaware. There were bobwhite quail here and indigo buntings and song sparrows and gold finches and house finches and meadowlarks and the occasional owl holding forth at night (to name a few). He encouraged us to leave the edges of our fixer-upper-farm wild so that the birds could have hidden places for their untamed music. The phrase “leave the edges wild” immediately became an important metaphor for Karin and I – for our songwriting, for how we wanted to live our lives.
NT: Sometimes when a band releases a double album, they get the pessimistic “would’ve-been-a-stronger-single-album” criticism. Even The Beatles had to deal with it. For you guys, what was the point at which you felt that Meet Me at the Edge of the World was going to be more than just one record?
Karin: Again, we were haunted by the idea that Meet Me… might be a double album, but we weren’t married to the idea. It had to be revealed in the studio. Same with the double album we put out a decade ago, OHIO. We didn’t know that we had made a double album until it was revealed in real time.
We began recording Meet Me At The Edge Of The World on the Thursday before Easter and by Saturday evening we had recorded 10 songs and it felt like a record. Linford said, “Let’s come back Monday and see if we can make a better record than the one we just made.” We took Easter Sunday off, and by Tuesday evening, we had 19 tracks. We spent Wednesday listening back to what we had recorded. Jay Bellerose added a little percussion here and there and we had a double album.
Linford: We knew we had approximately two dozen songs that were connected to our hideaway farm, and I for one, was happy for the extra musical real estate, so that we could get a lot of these songs into one place. And I love the idea of two short records as opposed to one long one. Makes it more palatable. And that way our listeners can argue about which one is better!
NT: Your last record, The Long Surrender, was your first foray into fan-funding waters and you swam out even farther with Meet Me at the Edge of the World. As independent artists, what have you learned through both of those experiences and what does it mean to have such an engaged, appreciative fan base?
Karin: It means the world to have an audience that, in the words of Joe Henry, our producer, “Listens with a capital ‘L’…” And the key to fan-funding, assuming one has an audience that wants more music, is to try to have fun and give people more than their money’s worth. We never ask for something for nothing. If people are willing to give us $15, we’ll send them a beautifully packaged CD at least a month before the official release date, plus three bonus tracks, plus list their name on the band website, plus send regular updates from Linford or I about the project, and include a small treat when the CD ships (in this case, Linford took the time to include for the donors a song-by-song commentary). So that’s worth $15 to a fan of our music, hopefully more, right? And we take the same approach with people who are able to give more.
Linford: The other thing we did with this fundraiser for the first time was to host two concerts here on the farm. We had about 500 folks on a Saturday evening, and another 500 on Sunday. It was magical to have the people that helped make the record come to the farm and take a look around at the sky and the trees and the dogs and the old pre-Civil War brick farmhouse that helped inspire these songs.
NT: Linford, I read where you said that, specifically in regards to your own singing, that this new record “felt a little bit like starting a new band.” Since you’ve actually been in the same band for over 20 years, what does that newness actually feel like for you?
Linford: Yeah, part of the story of Meet Me… is that Karin and I are singing together much more on this record. I married a small town girl with a big voice, and for years I was happy to let Karin do her thing – it’s great, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have spent the last two decades in a band with her. But I would usually chime in on one or maybe two songs on any given project. But my voice felt a bit unwieldy. I could sing low and I could sing high, but the middle part seemed to be missing. And I had some physical (and emotional?) pain when I sang. But Karin kept encouraging me, and I think I had a bit of a breakthrough a few years ago. And yes, now that we’re singing together more on these new songs, it definitely feels like we’ve started a new band. It’s so fun to put the two voices together.
NT: I love the way Aimee Mann’s background harmonies compliment Karin's vocals so gorgeously on the song “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.” How did that pairing come about?
Karin: I met Aimee last summer on an independent film shoot. A number of songwriters were involved in the project: myself, Aimee, Louden Wainwright III, John Doe, Joe Henry… We’ve been fans of her records for a long time so it was a real treat to sing with her.
NT: Finally, you guys crafted a wonderfully touching cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” for the new album. What drove the decision for its creation and its inclusion on the album?
Linford: We did the Cayamo songwriters’ cruise this past January with some great songwriters we look up to including Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller etc, and someone on the boat came up with the impromptu idea that we should all offer an evening of music in memory of Levon Helm. We performed a very quiet simple duet version of this tune, and we kind of felt like we were hearing the song again for the first time. We don’t do many covers, but it felt right to include it on a double album.