Q ’n’ A: Emmylou Harris
This Friday (Feb 22), legendary country singer Emmylou Harris is releasing Old Yellow Moon: a 12-track duets album with Rodney Crowell, who has been touring with Harris’ band since the mid ’70s. We called Harris in Nashville (that’s right) to chat about the new record, and her amazing legacy.
Why did you decide to do a duets album with Rodney Crowell now, considering he has been a fixture in your live band since the mid-‘70s?
It just seemed like it was time. I had finished working on Hard Bargain, and had toured it and I didn’t have anything really pulling at me that I was excited about apart from maybe doing this record that we’d talked about for a long time, so I just called Rodney up to see what he was up to, and he had some time, and it was meant to be.
And has the way you use the studio to record changed a lot since you started in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s?
It’s funny. The first record was done in a house that we rented in California, then you end up in studio, and then over the years I’ve gone back into people’s houses. But for me, because I don’t really pay attention to the technical part of it, as long as I feel comfortable singing and playing guitar, I have every confidence that the people who know what they are doing will capture what I’m going for.
A lot of people cite Wrecking Ball as the artistic watermark of your career. When you were recording that, did you know you were onto something?
I knew there was something happening. It was sonically different and there was just something going on. I think for a long time I was trying to do the best job I could and I had great people, but I suppose until I was in the middle of Wrecking Ball, I hadn’t realised that maybe something had been drifting. The excitement and the turbulent rhythms of the sound, of Dan’s guitar. There was something going on that, combined with the power of those songs, was really thrilling. I had no idea how other people were going to respond to it, though. You can never know that. You can only go on what’s going on within yourself.
And your fanbase started to shift as you released and toured that record.
Yes, I think what happened was there was a lot of curiousity about the record, and obviously a lot of that was about Daniel [Lanois, longtime U2 producer]. I mean Daniel is a star in his own right as a producer and an artist – he had certain fans. So I think perhaps there were people coming to see me tour that record that had no idea who I was before that, and they stayed because they liked what they heard.
And from that a younger generation of more indie-leaning artists started to become fans of your work, many of whom you have worked with since. For example you recorded with Conor Oberst...
That was my record company, NoneSuch. I was aware of him because I was, at that point, working with my producer Malcolm Burns, and he’d listen to everybody. He turned me onto all kinds of people. His car was filled with plastic bags of CDs, so Malcolm turned me onto an awful amount of music that I may not have otherwise heard. But it was NoneSuch that put me together with Conor.
And do you listen to many modern artists these days?
I wish I could say I did. I kinda count on people like Malcolm to turn me onto things. I mean obviously I’m delighted to work with Mumford and Sons, ‘cos we did a TV show back in October and I got to know those boys.
You also worked with Ryan Adams, over a decade ago.
With Ryan I knew Ethan Johns, I know Glyn Johns his father. I worked with Ethan with the Gram Parsons tribute record. I got to know Ethan quite well, and he was producing Ryan’s record.
Do you still enjoy the touring side of releasing new records?
I do actually. I really, really enjoy it. There must be something wrong with me. I really like going out with a bunch of musicians, making music together, it something that I think I’m really good at: I’m good at the travelling, I know how to do it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t really look forward to getting home at the end of a tour. I like to know that there’s another one coming up in the future.
In terms of your own recorded work, you suddenly started writing songs around the mid-‘80s. What was the impetus?
I did one album that I wrote: The Ballad Of Sally Rose, and I had been working on that for a few years before I actually did the album. I had an idea for a song cycle and I would work on it here and there and not get anything finished. Actually, when Bruce Springsteen’s albumNebraska came out, that album inspired me so much; I thought it was a brilliant, brave record. And I thought, ‘You know what? If you’re really serious about being an artist, you need to take the time and finished this project.’ And so I did.
Does songwriting come naturally to you?
I do have to work hard at it. I think for anyone that writes songs, it’s hard work. But there are a lot of other things that I am doing and I’m not much of a multi-tasker, so I have to clear out some space, and a bit of time and make sure that’s the only thing I’m doing – that’s the only way I can write. I can’t be touring or working on a record.
And Sally Rose was inspired by your relationship with Gram Parsons, whose legacy keeps growing and growing. Was there any sense at the time he would become one of those keys figures in music?
I mean, I thought he was great, because he turned me onto this music and taught me how to sing, so I didn’t think about what other people would think about him. He was sort of my mentor and I only worked with Gram for a short year, and not even that entire year. We made one record and toured and made another record, and then he died. So it was only a short period of time, but he had an enormous influence on me.
With the benefit of time, can you view your discography objectively, or are you still too close to the records?
You have a certain affection for every one of them, because you put everything you had at the time into them, but I think [1977 album]Luxury Liner is a really important record. I mean obviously the first one was, but I think we really became a band, a unit on that record. And some of the songs: Pancho and Lefty is one of those soul songs that grounds you to everything you do. So, there are certain albums that are important. I think [1980’s] Roses in the Snow is important because I pulled back into my acoustic roots, and shone a light on bluegrass, which everyone at the record company told me would be the end of my career, and ended up being, at that time, my most successful record. So, you really can’t say ‘this is going to do this’, and ‘this is going to do that’ – you’re in the moment, you’re doing what you are passionate about at the time, and hopefully it will allow you to carry on to the next project, and keep going on the road and making a living and I think I’ve been so lucky to be able to do that. I mean, believe me, there’s been no calculation at all.
And how early do you start planning the next record? For example is that something you are thinking about now?
There are no plans at the moment, because I believe the record company is going to re-release Wrecking Ball, and that will entail at least a short tour. I think there’s going to be some extra tracks, and it will also include the long form video that we did at the time of the record; most of it was just filmed by Daniel’s brother. So it’s actually a really unusual chronicle of the making of the record.
How much extra material do you tend to have at the end of a session? Like, do you record twenty songs and pick the best 12?
For Wrecking Ball, there’s different versions [of songs], they’re kinda interesting. There’s not going to be a whole lot, because everything we did, we ended up putting on the record. There might be maybe half a dozen things. The last few records I haven’t had anything extra, but boy, in the early days we had so much extra stuff. In fact Brian Eno wanted to re-release those early records, so I went into the studio with him to listen to some of that stuff.
What was that like?
It’s enjoyable. A few years ago, I was asked to put out a compilation called Songbird which was four CDs and included a lot of things that weren’t hits, and a lot of things that I had recorded not for my own records, but for special projects like The Legend of Jesse James: I wrote a couple of things for that, there was a song I recorded with Mary Black and Dolores Keane that was actually a hit record in Ireland, and no-one in the States had heard it, and it was very enjoyable because I felt like I was collecting my orphans, things that I was very proud of. There was something I did with Kate McGarrigle, early live things I’d done with Gram, then certain tracks from records that I never performed live, but which felt really good. I really enjoyed it. I mean, I don’t sit around listening to myself, but for that particular project I had to.