Now that 2011's The Harrow & the Harvest has been out for close to a year, questions about a new Gillian Welch album abound. But one also must consider that she and her musical mate David Rawlings placed an eight-year gap between that album and 2003's Soul Journey. Welch is happy to explain what compels her to release an album instead of dodging bullets regarding when the next one will hit shelves.
"I think people expect us to have something to say when we put out a new record," she says. "I'm of the belief that you should only speak when you do have something to say. In the end — 10, 20, 40 years down the line — no one will care when an album came out. People will only care if it's still worth listening to and if it's truly saying something to them."
Welch and Rawlings worked on numerous projects between Journey and Harrow, including a solo album for Rawlings and a collaboration with the Decemberists, but the pair's musical mission is simple: To remain true to their vision of musical tradition in the purest way they can.
"I've come to realize over the years that whatever it's worth, however eclectic the music Dave and I make might be, we're the only place you're going to get what we provide. So, if you want somewhat subtle, intricate musical soundscapes in the American tradition, you might just have to wait for our next record, whenever that is."
Aside from the pride Welch feels for her unique expression, she's also proud when discussing the technical aspects of creating the "soundscapes." In fact, it's a combination of not-so-up-to-date technology and an extremely keen ear that lends her albums a timeless feel.
"We're trying to record instruments in the absolute best way you can record them," Welch says. "There's nothing old-timey about how we were recording; the gear we used existed by the late 1970s, when analog equipment for acoustic instruments was at its peak, in my opinion. We're not recording the way they did in the 1930s, except we are performance-based. We don't do any overdubs. All of our records are live."
Sonic purity is also key to a song's enduring strength. The duo's audio chemistry is the modern musical definition of organic.
"My favorite sound on earth is the sound of voices and instruments combining in the air," she adds. "We let it all combine naturally in the air, and I believe it does have an impact on the human ear and the human soul."
Of course, roots music carries an abiding significance that transcends marketplace analytics. According to Welch, the reason for such continued thirst for American folk music isn't due to any changes in the cultural tide.
"The stuff we're singing about is very rooted in the American folk tradition, in the sense that we're storytellers. We're modern folk artists that deal with the human condition. That part of humanity is timeless and doesn't change. Why does folk music endure? It's because people endure. People really don't change, in my opinion, and that's why folk music from even a hundred years ago is still relevant today."