GILLIAN Welch and Dave Rawlings sang almost exclusively of sorrow, pain and loss at this year's Vancouver Folk Music Festival, all in front of a sea of smiling fans. Some actually danced.
But even for those sitting still it's hard not to be moved by Welch's lyrics, and Welch also wears a big smile across her face as she talks about her latest album, The Harrow and the Harvest, backstage.
"It's funny, even though some of the subject matters and the circumstance in the songs are kind of dark, usually the narrator in our songs is singing from a place of perseverance, or having gotten through the trouble," she says. "It's a pretty stoic, realistic and occasionally verging on optimistic outlook."
Take the song "Hard Times," where the chorus repeats "hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more." The rest of the lyrics are full of just those hard times.
So why does singing the blues lift the soul?
"That's probably more than a 30-second answer," threw in Rawlings, her duet partner since Welch launched her career. The two would go onto finishing each other's sentences more time than you can count, melding into one voice in the same strange way they do when they sing together.
It's been nearly two decades since in 1992 the two of them rode into Nashville with the stubbornness to sing just the songs they wanted, no matter Garth Brooks and the New Country hysteria. They wanted to play old-fashioned duets reminiscent of Stanley Brothers, Blue Sky Bros and Monroe Brothers era, and that's just what they did.
"People wanted to put us with a band, and they wanted to make us sound more Nashville, and I feel like for a good solid two years Dave and I just went around saying no," says Welch.
The Harrow and the Harvest is in many ways a return to their roots following an eight-year gap between records. And as Welch notes, their last album, 2003's Soul Journey was an "aberration" of sorts in their musical career, laying drums over the usual melodic guitar.
"I feel like we had a lot of pent-up passion to return to the duet. When we went into this record, I felt the first thing I knew about this record was, 'OK, this is a duet record. Nobody else is playing on this. This is the two of us,'" says Welch.
The songs are steeped in a deep south roots tradition, and many represent Welch's home of Nashville, having moved to the city after growing up in L.A., in particular "Tennessee" and "Down Along The Dixie Line." The whole album melds together extremely well, except for maybe "The Way It Will Be," which Welch says was one of only a handful of songs written before last fall.
There's an attention to detail that's also impressive. As Welch sings in "Scarlet Town," the opening song, "the man who knows what time it is is knocking at the door," there's light rapping of her hand on the wood of the guitar.
Throughout the record, Rawlings' guitar weaves an intricate tapestry around the lyrics, and all the songs have a surprisingly soft feel.
"For all that it's kind of dark, it might actually be our warmest record," says Welch, describing the overall tone.
Adding to the warmth of the album was the way they went about recording it, eschewing digital recordings for analog machines and choosing to use the first or second take in most cases. They would write and write and make alterations, and then just jump into the recordings, so in a way the two of them were still feeling their way around the songs and the emotions were much more raw.
"Sometimes the immediacy of the story goes away," says Welch. "Sometimes in the first couple takes like I'm truly living the thing, and then once you've done it a couple times, part of your brain is trying to remember what you did that you liked . . . I feel like as a person my first take of a vocal is pretty honest and actually emotionally how I'm reacting to the song."
While there were eight years between Harvest and Welch's last album, Welch and Rawlings have been busy. She wrote the whole time, but felt much of the work just didn't feel right, in a way she couldn't fully explain. Nor could either of the two explain why it took that long.
"If you want to talk to the people who write the songs, you're not talking to them. It's a different headspace," says Rawlings, when pressed. "Gillian can write 'Orphan Girl' and not be aware that it's touching on her birth history of being adopted."
In the meantime, Welch lent a hand on Rawlings' debut album as the Dave Rawlings Machine, and they make sure to include a song of his in each set. His work is much more social, much less introverted than Welch's writings, but you can hear the same traditions in the songs.
Most of the songs that did make it onto Harvest represent a very short period of writing, from fall of 2010 to last winter. As Welch describes it, she lives her folk music - it's not, as some reviewers have suggested, an academic recreation of '30s country, but an honest telling of her life.
"It's not a time capsule for me, it was last year. That was my year," she says.
A tough year maybe, but warm and persevering. Much like the traditions her music is helping to keep alive.