How do you and Gillian determine which of you will cut the songs you write together?
We don’t have to think about it all that much. When we were first working on songs, we’d both be singing them as we wrote, but in the end Gillian took all of them because she’s just such a great singer. We’re more concerned about the songs moving us than who’s going to sing them. Even in our earliest days, when people like Emmylou Harris and the Nashville Bluegrass Band were cutting our songs rather than us, we considered a song to be its own creature. We thought about it more like songwriters than performers. You’re trying to create this thing that, if it’s worth its salt, is not going to need you anyway. You do want to be the best vehicle for the song. That’s the dream as a performer. But I think it’s good for the song that you don’t make that the most important thing.
You play Hammond B3. What other instruments do you play?
I play drums, although not very well. I have a couple fills I do okay. My greatest honor as a drummer is that John Paul Jones had me play on a track he was producing for [songwriter] Sara Watkins. I played bass on Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker a little bit. I’m not a great bass player, but there are certain feels I can get away with. I play a little lap steel, and a tiny bit of fiddle. I played saxophone when I was a kid and can still play a bit of that. I can play a little piano, relying on musicality rather than technique. It’s the same with the B3.
Most guitarists think of vocals as their weak card, but you and Gillian seem to harmonize effortlessly while doing some complex, intertwined picking. How did you arrive at that place?
“Practice” is the easy answer. The earliest part of learning to sing harmony is singing along with records. When I was a kid in the car listening to music, I would always add a tenor or baritone part.
There was a time when, if a song was complicated vocally, like “Long Black Veil,” one of the first songs we sang together, I didn’t play guitar. Gill played guitar and sang lead and I concentrated on a good harmony part. The key is to not do more than you can until you can. The fact that we think of the notes we’re both playing on guitar and the notes she’s singing and I’m singing as one thing has really helped us find the harmony that sounds natural. But after all these years of performing with Gillian, I can tell you I’m a way worse tenor singer than I was when I was 20 years old, and a way better baritone singer. My ear naturally pulls me underneath now, because that’s where I’ve been living.
In this recent clip, performed immediately after accepting a Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting from the Americana Music Association, David Rawlings displays his penchant for picking and strumming the middle strings on his 1935 Epiphone Olympic. Skip to 5:15 for an expressive solo into an outro that’ll knock your socks off.
How different is your approach to electric versus acoustic guitar?
Overdrive and sustain change my playing more than anything else. I usually play flatwound strings on an electric. An old ’50s Esquire is my main electric guitar. I haven’t developed my style on that instrument as much as I’d like to. I do hear myself sounding more like Neil Young when I play electric. I considered playing electric guitar on this album, but I’ve already come far enough on the acoustic that I’m afraid I wouldn’t do as good a job without paying some dues.