(Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone of The Declines)
HE WAS THIS CLOSE to Bobbie Gentry, yes he was. And the excitement is palpable more than three decades later. As it should be.
Before we move too far into talking with Willy Vlautin, novelist, songwriter and hub of several bands (most notably Richmond Fontaine for 11 albums between 1994 and 2016; and The Delines, four albums since 2014, including last year’s The Sea Drift) this little bit of information is useful to know, and may come in handy as The Delines tour Australia from Thursday.
When Vlautin was growing up in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 80s, the great soul/country/pop singer Bobbie Gentry, retired from her performing career and never again to release a record, was married to a casino mogul and living in town.
He never met her, but Vlautin already knew her work, was probably half in love with her via her voice, and celebrated this proximity with the same excitement he would have if Raymond Carver or Sam Shepherd, whose stamp would be felt on his sombre, emotionally devastating literary work 20 years on, had set up shop in downtown Reno.
Already he was developing a taste for a certain type of singer and song, somewhat at odds with the music he was playing in public as a precocious teenager. Which brings us naturally to Amy Boone, the voice of his songs in The Delines, and a singer of both grace and subtlety who can engender excitement in Vlautin without any prompting.
As he recalls, in a story he has told before but which never loses its almost filmic romance, she had joined Richmond Fontaine as a touring keyboard player and occasional duet partner and …
“We were doing a radio show and she was in the studio playing piano, but there was a hot mic on and I heard her singing these kinda ballads,” he says. “You know, I’ve been fronting bands for 30-odd years by then, since I was 13 or something, and I was never that good at it, or comfortable with it. I heard her voice and I was like, man, I want to be in a band where I just listen to her single day’.
“That’s how The Delines started: I went home and for the next year, without her even knowing, or us even talking about it, I wrote her songs. It was really fun for me and she was brave enough or crazy enough or foolish enough to give it a shot. It was really a lucky break for me.”
Having Willy Vlautin to sit down and write a batch of songs for you, is some lucky break of its own. The most perfect gift to give to any singer.
“There was a gift for me because I got out of the handcuffs I was in with my own songwriting, writing for my voice. She’s not dark-minded like me. She is as much as anybody else is, but not like me,” Vlautin says, whose joviality is at odds with his output, though his soft sad eyes feel well in place there. “So she was like, ‘write me a love song where no one gets beat up at the end, can’t they just be happy for once?’ That sort of thing.
“And it really was like getting out of jail for me because I always wanted to write those kind of songs that [soul supreme vocalist] Candi Staton would sing, or Bobbie Gentry or Sammi Smith [the first person to cover, and have a hit with, Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through The Night], those kind of gals, but I never could sing that stuff: my voice just doesn’t work.”
But Boone’s most certainly does, almost as if designed for the job.
“And she was game for it. She puts up with the crazy songs, the darker songs: she gets it. And if she doesn’t like, we don’t do it. She’ll punch me if I bring too many in. But you know I’ve been working really hard to bring more light, personally, as well as the songs.”
The evidence of some light in the usual Vlautin darkness might be evidenced in one song from the most recent Delines album. A slow turning, late late night soul track whose roots are in lonely country bars, Drowning In Plain Sight sounds like a classic Vlautin scenario from the start: a car that only starts on the third try, the same old store, same old things bought, same old empty-of-love house she drives by rather than stopping.
And it gets darker from there: “I see cargo ships passing, the gas gauge is on empty but I don’t stop driving/‘Cause the second I do I swear I’ll lose my mind.”
But maybe it finds a skerrick of light in the remnant thought that the right kind of love isn’t wholly out of the question. That “I’d be okay if just for a minute/I felt love like fireworks inside me and kindness engulfing me”. And we want to believe it as much as she does.
“That song, a woman gets off work, she has a husband and a couple of kids probably, financially she’s not doing very well, and she realises that it’s all a grind, that she hasn’t been loved for a long time in the way she needs it. She drives by her house and she can’t do it that day, and starts driving away. She will probably run out of gas and have to call her husband and then he’ll pick her up and hopefully he will be cool with it, or maybe not,” explains Vlautin. “She just wants to be loved and she is not getting it. And that woman hasn’t given up. She believes in love, but she’s having a really bad day.”
For all the cold and hurt, the absence of “Love that’s never cruel, belittling or criticizing/Or makes you feel so small you might as well not be there at all”, there is nothing cynical about this woman, nor the singer or writer. There’s a lot more going on than that simple response: there’s what you might also describe as hope. Vlautin recalls that someone once told him that his problem was he always thinks that there must be an answer. If so, his characters have the same characteristic, and we may judge whether that is a flaw or a virtue.
“This woman drives away and she thinks that maybe somehow ‘I’ll get the kind of love I need to get by’ and I’ve been like that that my whole life for such a dark-minded guy,” he says. “Like with Richmond Fontaine in the early days, every night we’d pull into some town and I would be a firm believer that it would be sold out. Then we’d go in and there would be 40 people, and I go, ‘well tomorrow I know tomorrow is going to be really full.
“And maybe that kind of stupidity is the only thing that’s kept me doing this, and that translates to my books and to my songs, to some degree. Obviously I go off the deep end mentally on some of the stuff, but I think it’s that belief that maybe you will get the answer, the map to be happy.”
There’s another element at play in the newest Delines material, something which, as it does with Cousteau, the Irish/Australian band who work in similar territory (albeit with a deep male voice) reminds us that the trumpet or flugelhorn, done right, can be the perfect night-time lonely time instrument, but also the voice of warm, tempered hope. Having keyboardist and trumpeter Cory Gray in the band turned out to be genius move.
“It was really lucky you know. We did a tour with him and we realised, my God, this guy’s a kind of a genius [as a keyboard player and arranger], and we still didn’t know he was a trumpet player. Then I started writing thinking of him and it seems every song I write has trumpet melodies whereas in the past I was thinking of pedal steel melodies.”
The addition of trumpet provides the perfect accompaniment to Boone’s voice, each of them with the ability to balance between hurt and joy, between comfort and darkness. Together they pitch these tracks right into the classic torch song territory, the kind of place Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler set their stories and Julie London had everyone crying into their glass of rye.
“With her voice in particular, and I think for me too, I was really interested in not ever relying on rock to get us out of the hard spot,” says Vlautin. “Amy and I grew up with cowpunk bands, boom chicka boom chicka boom, and one of our deals when we started this band was let’s not ever rely on that. Especially with a Wurli[tzer organ] or Rhodes [piano] we wanted everything to be like her voice: real smooth and kind of sad. She’s got such a smooth voice, and then you can see wear and tear, and the cracks in it, which I love. With Corey kind of mimicking that on trumpet in some ways it’s really created a kind of cool sound.”
Boone is a great example of the value of having a beautiful but not a perfect voice, a real human voice not a tooled weapon.
“With her it’s really fun for me because I’m a big fan, and live I just have it blaring in my monitor. She always laughs at me but I know when we are working on a record and she sings a certain line in a certain way, all of a sudden I am in the story. In All Along The Ride, when she would sing it a certain way, all of a sudden I’m in this car with a busted up couple.”
He nods, momentarily lost in thought.
“You’re right, she’s got a human voice, and I do love that it can be really sultry and kinda sweet, and then melancholy in a way that runs through the whole blood of her voice.”
There’s something in that description which comes back to that lifelong love of his (and, to be fair, mine) singers like Bobbie Gentry and Dusty Springfield, who might not have the technical perfection and vaulting range of others, but could tell you everything you needed to know about the character without words.
“When I listened to Dusty In Memphis for the first time, I knew where I was because she does have a sadness. There’s something in her voice that stops you in your tracks, that gets me through the night,” Vlautin says. “Now that’s just me. That’s my problem: I need a singer that will get me through the night. But you know, Bjork does that to me. Bjork to me has one of the most amazing voices of all time: I always feel the pain when she sings, whatever she is trying to get at emotionally, lyrically.”
Which maybe leaves us with an existential issue for this band. The Delines don’t make country really, though you can feel the connections; they don’t make soul really, though they crisscross the same path. It feels classic but also earthy. Can we really get away calling what they do by Vlautin’s preferred name, ballad music? Or maybe, to borrow a song title from their recent album, Hold Me Slow music?
“It is a ballad band, in the best sense of that,” he insists. I think with this band I just wanted to plant my flag in ballads. As a kid, when I was 14 or so, I was obsessed with cowpunk, because I grew up in country but I didn’t, even at that age, really like rednecks and really conservative ways of thinking. So when punk rock guys started getting a little bit older and started doing country-influenced stuff, still with the weirdos and the misfits and outcasts, but they were taking back roots music for the weirdos, I loved that stuff.
“But especially in America, if you were being a punk band you had to be fast. We played a lot of awful bars in the US and the best way to get through it is to play as fast as possible – especially if you don’t have a lot of talent, which I didn’t. But at home, I was secretly writing ballads from 12 or 13. With Fontaine if I’d written any more ballads, I swear those guys would have killed me.
They put up with them to a degree, but it was always a struggle for me to write faster tunes. I’ve always liked the slow, melancholic ballads that make you sad enough so that you had to pull over on the side of the road.”
That said, a ballad doesn’t have to be sad, and not all the Delines’ ballads are sad. An emotional, tender song of even muted pleasure can work just as well.
“No, no, no. It can be beautiful and romantic. That’s the thing that I love about The Delines. A couple of months ago Amy grabbed me by the arm at practice and she goes, ‘can’t they just get out of the situation and stay in love? Write me one of those.’ So she says stuff like that and I go home and it’s really fun for me and I wrote her three where everybody gets out okay.”
If somebody ever writes the biography of The Delines, we’ve got the title, with apologies to The Doors biographer Jerry Hopkins: Someone Here Gets Out Alive.
“That’s the thing. I’ve always wanted to write those classic kind of tunes. Not that I can but I always wanted to.”
Oh he is wrong. So wrong. Vlautin can and has written those kind of tunes. Pull up any Delines album for proof. Or sing with Boone “Open up a bottle and I’ll close the shades/Put on something that sways and kiss my neck that way/But go slow, I’ve been so tired and alone/I want you here but you gotta know/Hold me slow.”
TOMORROW: Willy Valutin shucks the songwriter’s coat to discuss his novels, his darkness and how the cure for loneliness is not getting a thicker skin but may come instead with words, on pages, between covers. CLICK HERE TO READ
The Delines, with Jimbo Mathus, play:
Brunswick Ballroom, June 8
Memo Music Hall, St Kilda, June 9
The Great Club, Marrickville, June 10
The Eltham Hotel, June 13
Merri Creek Tavern, Northcote - one-off album show playing The Imperial in full, June 15
Meeniyan Town Hall, June 16
Odessa At Leaver’s Hotel, Creswick, June 17.
The Sea Drift is out now.