Q+A: Emmylou Harris

In the brand new issue of The FADER, our Reheaters columns features a story on Songbird, the upcoming four-CD retrospective of country icon Emmylou Harris. After the jump check out writer Charles Homans' interview with Harris. It may not be as magical as her voice, but it's still pretty magical.

Is there a particular story you’re trying to tell about your career on Songbird versus previous collections of your work?

[Songbird] wasn’t like the previous collection that Rhino put out [The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways], where they did want some greatest hits. This was a chance to gather things I’ve been doing over the years with other people. As far as the other songs, I got to pick things that have never been on another collection. A lot of those were album tracks that maybe didn’t lend themselves to live performance, but were special moments in the studio. So I was able to gather together things that I felt maybe hadn’t had enough attention. It was a long process, and I had a lot of help from [Songbird co-producer] James Austin. We were keeping FedEx in business for a while—he kept sending me everything he could find back in the bowels of wherever they keep that stuff.

Were there songs you rediscovered in the process, that you’d forgotten about?

I don’t know if I’d forgotten them… but he would send me things like “The Old Country Baptizing” [a 1971 live recording with Gram Parsons that appears on Songbird] that I hadn’t heard in years. Or the outtakes from the Spring Training record I did with John Starling and Carl Jackson.

A lot of the covers you’ve collected here, from tribute albums and elsewhere, would sound at home on one of your own records.

I’ve always thought of myself first and foremost as an interpreter. That’s been the lion’s share of what I’ve done over the years. I don’t want to say it’s easier than writing, although the hard work is done in writing the song—that’s where you really sweat. But when you’ve got a song that’s pre-existing, like [Buck Owens’s] “Together Again,” it’s almost like it’s the jewel in the crown, and you’re coming up with another setting for it. It’s the people you gather around you, the musicians and what they’re going to come up with—how they’re going to polish that stone, so to speak. And I’ve always had incredible polishers around me. So I’m fascinated with the myriad ways in which a song can be done—and the message will be there in the interpretation.

It seems like something clicked when you and Daniel Lanois [who produced 1995’s Wrecking Ball] started working together. What was different about him versus previous producers?

He put together a group of musicians I had never worked with at all. In addition to that, the musicians themselves had never worked with each other before. So it was a completely virginal situation; we had these different musical worlds, and I think that both of us were sort of fearless, as far as saying, “Let’s see what we come up with.” I’ve always trusted my producers, I’ve always felt like I’m working with them because they know what they’re doing. So we really just put this group together and started rolling tape. We were recording live in a big room—there was no separation, we were all in there together. It was very minimalistic—there’s very little instrumentation on that album, but it takes up a lot of emotional space.

Do you consider that and the albums you’ve done since then to be country music? Do you still consider yourself a country singer?

Even though I had folk roots, I started as a country artist. I had that very, very pivotal experience of working with Gram [Parsons, previously of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds, who was Harris’s mentor and collaborator prior to his death in 1971]. He set me on that path, of finding my voice, and giving me a sense of structure. And that was the path that I followed—we could zig and zag, but we always had a center, and that center was coming from country. And I got success on country charts, and when they put my albums in the music store, I would be put in that category. But I think more and more, the categories are bleeding together, and people are just listening to music.

On Wrecking Ball, you do very adventurous interpretations of those songs that are maybe farther afield than where other people would’ve gone with them.

Well, something like “Orphan Girl” is probably the most traditional song there. And the rhythm section on that has a lot of turbulence to it. But it doesn’t override the majesty of the lyrics, which are very simple but very powerful.

I was just listening to the outtake of [Wrecking Ball’s] “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” which is a recent song but is structurally a traditional country song.

It was written as a very traditional waltz. And I think it was [U2 drummer and Wrecking Ball session musician] Larry Mullen, he said, “Listen, we need to put one of her own songs on here.” We had actually tried recording “Waltz Across Texas” for Trio [Harris’s 1987 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton], which had been put on hold. And I had done it also working with [producers] Richard Bennett and Allen Reynolds [on 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer]. And I don’t know why we didn’t put it on the record, because when I went back and heard the outtake that’s now on the box set, I thought, “This is really good!” But who knows where your head is at a certain point. I like that [the outtake version] is straight-ahead—in order to do “Waltz Across Texas” for Wrecking Ball, it had to be atmosphered up a bit. And it works only because it’s part of the whole sonic landscape, if that’s the word for it. I don’t think I’ve heard anything that Daniel has done that isn’t just dripping in atmosphere. I think he described it as, “A sound has an emotional impact, even without a lyric.” And he’s amazing with that—at being able to just make a note on a guitar have a certain sound that makes you sit up and pay attention. I think that’s what was going on with the musicians when we were recording that album. Perhaps because it wasn’t overwhelmed with a lot of different instruments—every note that was played, every bit of rhythm, could resonate.

When I spoke with Rodney Crowell [Harris’ longtime bandmate and songwriter], he said that [songwriter] Guy Clark put you up to writing a whole album of your own songs, which became [Harris’ 2000 album] Red Dirt Girl.

It was a couple of people. Daniel Lanois, after we finished Wrecking Ball, said, “You need to write the next one.” He sort of gave me a homework assignment. And that was reinforced when Rodney and I went over to Guy and Suzanne’s house, I think it was Christmas—after a while Guy just sort of looked at me and said, “You need to write your next record. I don’t care if it takes you five years.” And it did take me five years. So, you know, when Guy gives you an assignment, you take it seriously. And it’s nice to have the confidence of people who encourage you, people you admire. I’ve got a lot of friends who are songwriters, who are very encouraging to me, and who I can co-write with. I’ve co-written with Rodney and Daniel, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle are people I really enjoy writing with. But for the most part I’m a loner, at least to get started. I like to come up with the kernel of the song, the idea. You don’t know where you’re going to take it, but I like to have that under your belt.

Most musicians, especially country musicians, have gone through low periods where they fell under the sway of a production fad, maybe, or made records almost automatically for a while. But I don’t get the sense, listening to your records, that that happened to you—why is that?

I figure it’s just that, pretty much for the whole of my career, I had just enough success where I didn’t have to make any compromises. I sold just enough records. I had a loyal fan base. I’ve actually, for the most part, had record companies that kind of understood that I was on a different track, and that that should be respected. So whether I should compromise or not was never really a question. Maybe a little bit here and there, but nothing you would notice [laughs]. It wasn’t like I had sold millions and millions of records and there was that pressure—because I can imagine it would be an enormous pressure. And even though my first record took off faster than I ever thought it would, it was never to the degree of young artists now, where they’re forced to question themselves, you know, “Why was I successful?” I’ve been very, very lucky.

Q+A: Emmylou Harris