To those I’ve wronged, Please forgive me / I hope this song, helps you believe me / The holding on the letting go / It all gets buried soft and low / But even then a song might grow / All of it was music
As they so eloquently articulate in “All Of It Was Music” from their most recent studio album Meet Me At The Edge Of The World (2013), Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have been conjuring inspired reveries of heartache and hope together for nearly 30 years. Doggedly devoted to continually refining their unique and powerful brand of songcraft through their shared penchant for experimentation and creative renewal, the dynamic Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo have cultivated one of the finest recorded repertoires you’ll ever hear.
Currently wrapping up the East Coast leg of their spring tour and looking forward to the 2nd annual Nowhere Else Festival on Memorial Day weekend, Linford graciously took time out of his busy schedule to indulge us with his memories and perspectives about Over the Rhine’s past, present and future.
Justin Chadwick: Karin and you have been making music together for nearly 30 years now, and you seem more active, passionate and devoted to your craft—whether in the studio or on stage—than ever, which is pretty remarkable. What’s your secret? How do you keep the magic going, three decades on?
Linford Detweiler: Well, first of all thanks for the affirmation. It’s surprising in some ways after all the years and miles, but we need music now more than we ever have. People have been telling us for years that they find something healing in the songs. I get it now. I can actually feel my body change when the music starts. I breathe differently. I find my balance. I feel my fears fade and my soul is reoriented to a deeper place that can’t be touched, a place where a calm conviction whispers, “Fear not. All will be well.”
Sometimes in lieu of an angel, a song will have to do.
And there’s a great poem by Charles Bukowski called Betting On The Muse. He reflects on how baseball players peak at a certain age and their careers are over. But writers have the opportunity to get better over the course of an entire lifetime.
In light of this, there are different questions a young artist can ask. One is, “What must I do to be famous?” This question opens up the self to all manner of destructive forces both within and without.
Another question is, “What must I do to make this sustainable?” This second question has always been the most interesting to us.
JC: Talk about the three new album projects you’re working on now. What can we expect to hear?
LD: It’s time. We have a new group of songs in various states of undress that are revealing themselves as the next Over the Rhine album. It feels urgent, like the songs will stand as a witness during these disorienting times. We need songs that won’t bow down to a golden statue.
And then I have a lot of songs without words that will become an instrumental record. I’ve done a few understated solo projects, and we laugh because the core of the demographic for these seems to be nursing mothers [Laughs]. “Nursing mothers, loosen your blouses… Linford’s solo album is about to drop.”
And finally, we are going to do a collection of hymns and gospel tunes that have continued to haunt us over the years. This wellspring of American music is a deep one, hard to quantify. It’s the music Karin and I mostly grew up with. My mother used to let me get out of washing dishes if I would open the hymnal, sit at the piano and play hymns for her. I always tried to find one that she didn’t know. I never did. There could have been no Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley without the music in their mothers’ hymnals.
JC: Your career has been the embodiment of independence, making your music the way you want to make it for many years now. In retrospect, are there things that you would have done differently along the way or has your career evolved as you imagined or hoped it would?
LD: We missed a lot of career opportunities by not relocating to Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, undoubtedly. Whenever we stepped foot in those towns little opportunities would immediately present themselves. I remember we were just finishing recording in Pasadena, and Patrick Warren, the great keyboard player, was double-booked. Joe Henry asked if I would step into the session with Louden Wainwright that was taking place the day after we finished. I changed my flight and had the dream opportunity to sit at an upright piano and lean into a new song by one of the great songwriters of our generation. You miss out on these sorts of things living on a small farm in Ohio.
But we took the road less traveled and somehow it gave us space to find our own way forward, somewhat off the beaten path. We were always taken with writers or painters who were immediately associated with a particular piece of earth: Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Frost etc. Our piece of unpaved earth is here in Ohio.
A friend once said that so many of our songs reference Ohio, we should get to live here tax-free. We’ve already been inducted into the Cincinnati Music Hall of Fame and named musical ambassadors of the city a few times. We’ve got roots here.
JC: What advice would you give to other artists who haven’t yet cracked the code on how to sustain a fruitful career with the DIY approach?
LD: Make your life’s work a labor of love. Make it about the work. Ask, “What must I do to make my life a work of art?”
JC: What does it mean to you to have your extended family of fans contribute to the making of your more recent records, by way of your crowdfunding efforts?
LD: It means the world. The Long Surrender, Meet Me At The Edge Of The World and Blood Oranges In The Snow were all funded by people who found our music over the years and gave it a life. All of those projects stretched us as writers and recording artists, and the songs opened doors for us that hadn’t previously been opened. We’re incredibly grateful.
JC: When you set out to write and record a new album, how does the songwriting process usually unfold for both of you? Do you write together, separately, or some combination thereof? How does being married impact the songwriting process for you?
LD: We start out writing separately and then we combine our mythologies [laughs]. We never plan it, but quite often Karin ends up writing about a third of the songs on any given album, I write a third, and then we collaborate closely on the final third. I don’t necessarily recommend starting a business with your spouse. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it works for us, and music has been our great shared adventure. It’s huge to have a trusted editor nearby. I think there are formidable musical couples who do exceptional work. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Birds of Chicago. It’s a fascinating construct.
JC: My ears were first blessed by your songs back in the summer of 1998, when you opened for Cowboy Junkies at UCLA’s Royce Hall. I recall being instantly spellbound by your music, by Karin’s voice. Since then, I’ve shared your music with many friends and family, and their reactions are always the same as mine. What do you think it is about your songs that resonates so powerfully with people?
LD: Wow that’s great. We worked with Cowboy Junkies pretty closely for about three years and even contributed to a few of their recordings. I remember that concert, maybe that one was for you. I suppose a lot of credit for the music resonating so deeply with listeners goes to Karin for her singing voice and the way she uses it. When I first heard Karin sing I felt like she was singing from the place where her pain lived. That gave me permission to acknowledge my own pain. Ultimately I think of Karin as a soul singer.
JC: You recently performed in a few European countries and are currently on the road back here in the states, with your tour concluding with the 2nd annual Nowhere Else Music & Arts Festival at the end of May. It’s quite an ambitious undertaking to curate and host such an event, but I suspect it’s a labor of love for both of you. Can you talk more about what inspired you to create the festival in the first place?
LD: Again it comes back to sustainability. When Karin and I hit the 25th anniversary of Over the Rhine, it became very apparent to us that we couldn’t just repeat the last 25 years. Our big idea was to try to figure out how to work at home more, play a concert and then sleep in our own beds. We are restoring a barn that was built in the 1870s into a small performing arts center. And we’ve started this festival as a way of letting people come to us every Memorial Day Weekend if they’re in need of a little restoration and inspiration.
But yes, the heart and soul of the matter: it’s a labor of love. When we encounter someone whose art or music or writing has an impact on us, our first impulse is, “We have to share this person.”
JC: At Albumism, we’re dedicated to celebrating the album format, as the name obviously suggests. And I can think of few artists that have as rich of an album discography as you do over the past few decades. I’d love to know what your most vivid memories are or what you most closely associate with a handful of your albums, so I’ll throw out a few titles.
Let’s begin, well, at the beginning, with Till We Have Faces (1991).
LD: Wow, a different world. Recording on a Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel recorder, the feeling of setting out on a journey. The first two lines I wrote for Over the Rhine, in our very first song were: “Eyes wide open / To the great train robbery of my soul.”
I just had the feeling that I was going to lose everything on this path I was choosing.
I’m actually working on a song now called “Betting On The Muse,” my response to the Bukowski poem. The bridge lyric is: “You gotta die inside so many times / While you’re trying to learn to live / You gotta get taken for everything / To have anything to give.”
But yes, I remember that feeling that for the first time in my life, I was going to have to really try my hardest, that being a recording artist, a songwriter, a touring musician was going to cost me no less than everything.
JC: Patience (1992)
LD: Somehow we talked our publisher at the time into letting us use the MCA Studio in Nashville after dark. We would get started at around 10pm, and work till 6am, watch the sun come up over Nashville. Nothing was automated, so every mix was a performance, we moved all the faders on the console by hand. These recordings got us signed to IRS Records by Jay Boberg, who signed R.E.M.
JC: Good Dog Bad Dog: The Home Recordings (1996)
LD: IRS Records had been bought by Universal and essentially shut down. We were back out on the street starting over. We had this collection of recordings that we had made at home. They were just “demos” but for the first time we had the conviction that we had turned a corner. I think Karin and I finally hit our stride as songwriters. We decided just to release the project independently. It became the little record that could, constantly surprising us with how much life force the songs seemed to have, and their ability to make a life for themselves.
JC: Ohio (2003)
LD: Our first double album, recorded with Paul Mahern in Bloomington, Indiana. He gave us the greatest gift that a producer can give to a musician, he made us believe we could do anything. Keep the lie alive until it’s true.
JC: Drunkard’s Prayer (2005)
LD: A collection of songs recorded mostly at home again. Karin and I had hit a rough patch in our marriage. We were trying to figure out how to be both an entrepreneurial couple, and a married couple. With lots of help from our friends and a good counselor, we eventually came up with the metaphor of tending two gardens: each garden needed its own care, creativity, attention. Drunkard’s Prayer became our let’s-stay-together album.
JC: The Long Surrender (2011)
LD: Our first recording project with fearless captain, Joe Henry. Our first fan-funded project. Joe and the Band of Sweethearts he assembled altered our DNA that week, rewrote the entire helix.
JC: Meet Me At The Edge Of The World (2013)
LD: A double album of songs that grew out of the piece of unpaved earth we call home, our little hideaway farm, our refuge from the road.
JC: You’ve always had such an unabashed affection for your home state of Ohio, and Cincinnati in particular, which was gloriously reflected in your recent single “Welcome Home.” How has your connection to your home base impacted your music over the years? And since you spend quite a bit of time on the road touring, is homesickness a chronic condition for you?
LD: I think every touring musician is secretly cursed with a little bit of a tendency to long for home when on the road, and to miss the road when home. So it was a real gift to truly have a sense of home place, and to feel rooted. But wow, being a touring musician, there’s a lot of coming and going. When we pack our suitcases and guitars, and pull away from the farm, I’ve begun to see it as a tiny rehearsal for dying. I know we’ll leave it all behind someday, and we’ve gotten a lot of practice over the years.
JC: And finally, a standard question we ask during all Albumism interviews. What, if push comes to shove, are your five favorite albums of all time?
LD: Today, it would be Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones’ Steal Away, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Wow, but that doesn’t include Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Frederick Chopin.
Over the Rhine play Philadelphia’s World Café Live this evening, Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café tomorrow, and New York City’s City Winery this Saturday, May 6th | Tickets