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Interview

Linford Detweiler is one half of the band Over the Rhine, which he formed with Karin Bergquist. Since 1989, Over the Rhine (named for a working-class German immigrant neighborhood in Cincinnati) has released over a dozen albums, including Good Dog Bad Dog, Ohio, Drunkard’s Prayer, The Trumpet Child, The Long Surrender, and Meet Me at the Edge of the World, and developed a passionately loyal international following. Hard to categorize, their music blends folk, rock, and Americana with a literary and emotionally revealing style of songwriting that explores both the body and soul’s hungers. Touring regularly, they have shared the stage with Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, and many others. Bergquist and Detweiler married in 1996 and, when not on the road, have lived in a nineteenth-century farmhouse outside Cincinnati since 2005. Each summer for the past fifteen years, they have taught songwriting at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, and they will return in 2019. Their newest album, Love & Revelation, will be released in March. Singer, songwriter, and producer Joe Henry, who produced two of Over the Rhine’s recent albums, was interviewed by Linford Detweiler about his own music in Image issue 71. This time, Henry is asking the questions. An interview with Karin Bergquist is planned.


Joe Henry: At what point in your young life did you realize that a song is something someone creates, as opposed to a naturally occurring phenomenon like salt, dirt, onions, or thunder?

Linford Detweiler: Maybe I should start by saying that as a child, much as I received my mother’s milk, I also took in the story that salt, dirt, onions, and thunder were all lovingly created. And although I am one hundred percent open to and interested in the curious discoveries of science, I never intellectually dispelled once and for all the idea of a creator—some sort of mysterious creative entity or force—behind the universe. There are days, to be sure, when I doubt it. But in truth, there are also nights when I can’t help but believe that there remain mysteries infinitely bigger than the laboratory, bigger than carefully collected data. So I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that songs were any different. Of course there was someone behind the song.

This congenital instinct may be connected to my mother’s hymnal. I could often get out of washing dishes after supper—a sort of barter occurred—if I would sit at the upright piano and play hymns while my mother did the washing up. I would try to find an old hymn that she didn’t know, and I don’t think I ever did. She would sing along in her high clear soprano, her hands in soapy water, washing silverware.

And my mother was interested in who had written what. She would sometimes go through the hymnal and list all the hymns by a certain writer. She was also fond of discovering the stories behind the songs, which were often tragic. For instance, the old hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” was written after a shipwreck in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a foggy night, and the man working at the harbor had been drinking and forgot to turn on the harbor lights.

I think an argument could be made that we’d have no Johnny Cash or Elvis without their mothers’ hymnals. And I’m not putting myself in their company. As Leonard Cohen would say, when it comes to the tower of song, I hear them laughing a hundred floors above me. But what I am saying is that you really can’t separate gospel music from the fabric of American songwriting.

I hope I didn’t wander too far from the question. But yes, songs have writers, and I knew it from the start.

 

JH: Can you recall the moment—if indeed it happened in a flash—when you under-stood that the form and function of songs pertained to your own process and delivery system of thought, and would be your personal and primary mode of expression?

LD: I had been dabbling in songwriting as a teenager. I was always curious whether I could offer to another human being a song as powerful or evocative as some I had discovered on various records.

After I graduated from college, I got hired to play bass in a band that had some festivals booked in Australia and New Zealand. We were scheduled to play a tiny festival near Wellington. It was impossibly beautiful, a little mountain valley, with about four hundred people in attendance. When it was our turn to play, a steady after-dark rain began falling, and we thought, okay, they’re going to have to cancel. But no one in the audience was leaving. Whatever we had to give, they were more than willing to receive.

It occurred to me then that there aren’t too many things that people will stand in the rain for. But people will stand in the rain for a song. It was an epiphany. If someone could come to care that much about something I had written, a song that was intimately connected to my own yet-to-be-discovered journey, maybe songwriting was worth hanging my hat on.

After the tour, I got back to my little third-story apartment in the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, and we started the band. I sat down at a piano in a Presbyterian church basement and wrote the first line of our music on a McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper: “Eyes wide open to the great train robbery of my soul.”

It was clear to me at the outset that I was about to get taken for everything. Being a writer, a songwriter, was going to require me to surrender all.

 

JH: I recall many years ago someone—quite possibly T Bone Burnett—saying that so-called Christian writers have two choices: they can write about the light, or they can write about what they see by way of that light. The former seems quite limiting; the latter suggests infinite possibility. Do you see that as a conscious decision? Has it changed for you over time?

LD: We have arrived at the point of the interview that has always made us uncomfortable. Do we belong to a subset of songwriters, or does our work belong in the general marketplace without a footnote attached?

We would always squirm a bit when this idea of the Christian writer emerged in reference to our work, until I heard our friend David Dark explain it this way: When he begins discussing his life’s work and what he cares deeply about with anyone, a question that often arises is, “What are you, a Christian or something?” David responds, “Why don’t you describe what you mean by Christian, and then I’ll tell you if you’re describing me?”

What freedom, to admit that what most people think of as Christian doesn’t describe us. And yet we did grow up with the Bible, and the Psalms, and the stories that Jesus told. And let’s be honest. If Jesus showed up in America today and told those same stories in the halls of congress, or at an NRA convention, or in most megachurches, he would be run out of town, gunned down, or both.

And the King James Bible: what a rich, violent, beautiful, dismaying poem for a child to hear growing up. How can you hear the King James Bible read aloud as a six-year-old and not become a writer?

But back to the light: I liked that idea when I first heard it years ago, but I’m not sure it was something we thought a lot about. I remember someone trying to divide Johnny Cash’s songs up into three categories: God, love, and death (or murder). I thought to myself, yeah, we try to write about all three at once.

 

JH: You and Karin have both written, directly and indirectly, about being in a relationship with God. I wonder, how do you differentiate in a song between your own beliefs and a created character’s beliefs? Do you feel a responsibility to always represent both, even when they might not be in agreement? (I am aware in my own work that sometimes a character might believe something very deeply that I do not, and more often than not I default to representing the song’s truth over my own.)

LD: We were having breakfast with Jane Siberry in Toronto years ago, when she calmly pronounced to us, “All songs are prayers.” We had never heard this before. Then not long ago we heard that the Cree, a native tribe in Canada, have a saying they have passed down through the generations: “A song is worth a thousand prayers.” I hope that’s true, and if it is, Joe, we songwriters are in the business of talking to God. It reminds me in a roundabout way of something my wife says: “Cursing is the lowest form of prayer, and I pray a lot.”

So it’s interesting that you see our songs as speaking to a relationship with God. That’s not something I’ve articulated in as long as I can remember, and yet on the other hand, how could they not?

When a character arrives in one of our songs, we give them full sway to say what they need to say. Fifteen years ago, Karin wrote a song called “She” about a woman experiencing abuse, and the narrator says, “What she ought to do is put a gun to your head, for all the things you said and did.” It’s a line that makes us feel uncomfortable, but it’s authentic to the moment in the song.

Another song of ours, “Changes Come,” has a verse:

I want to have your baby
Some days I think that maybe
This old world’s too fucked up
For any firstborn son

We tried and tried to find a different word, and there was only the one word that was authentic to the moment.

And maybe it’s both. Even if we are speaking in the first person in a song, we always want to maintain a posture of empathy, which allows the listener to step in and assume the weight of the main character. If you go for authenticity, you will at times make yourself, the writer, uncomfortable. I love that dilemma.

A song we are currently performing, “All Over Ohio,” has the line, “If you preach a subtle hatred, the Bible as your alibi, God damn you right here in Ohio.”

That line always makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, including being taught as a child that cursing any fellow human being, regardless of circumstances, is a grave sin, a first cousin to murder. And yet the character in the song (is it me?) had to go there. It’s required in that instance for that treasure of treasures to occur: a real conversation.

 

JH: As for poets like Mary Oliver and James Wright, for you, the natural world seems to be a catalyst for your writing, as well as a constant metaphoric authority. How do you characterize that engagement?

LD: Almost fifteen years ago we left the city and found a hidden-away piece of unpaved earth, and that has made all the difference. We began calling things by name—the weeds, the wildflowers, the songbirds, the trees, the stars—and calling anything by name will change your relationship with that thing. They began appearing in our songs. Karin had the first indication when she wrote: “One lone tupelo stood against the ironweed, the goldenrod that tamed our need…”

This chapter of our lives was captured most fully on a record, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, that we were fortunate to record at your old residence, the Garfield House in Pasadena—a house with some strong Ohio roots, I might add.

But no, Karin and I never eloped to Nashville or LA as young songwriters. Some part of us wanted to be from a place. So many artists and writers we’ve looked up to have a place that’s inseparable from them and their work: Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost, Wendell Berry, Georgia O’Keeffe.

This part of Ohio is our place. Our somewhere. Our nowhere else.

 

JH: As friends and collaborators, we have often talked about the power of mystery within and upon the process of writing and recording. How do you stay aware of that mystery—invite and abide it—without dispelling it?

LD: I don’t have a choice, because I still don’t know what exactly it is that I’m doing. I remember hearing John Hiatt say that he makes a record and goes on the road and at some point the touring season ends. After some recovery time, he sits back down at a table with the dilemma of the blank page and looks at the tip of his pen as if he’s never seen it before. At this point of the process, John Hiatt has no idea how he ever wrote a song or where to begin. He has to learn all over again.

Years ago over late-night drinks with Gregory Wolfe, the question emerged as to whether Karin and I might lead a weeklong songwriting workshop at the Glen—the annual gathering of artists and writers hosted by Image in Santa Fe. We tried it, and it seemed we did have an affinity for spending a week with aspiring songwriters. Next summer will be our sixteenth consecutive year at the Glen.

The workshop forced Karin and me to try to articulate what we care about as songwriters—fresh language, emotional impact, an element of risk or danger—but more and more I think of myself as some sort of addict: I’ll take a song any way I can get it.

Do we get a line of a lyric first? Do we get a little musical idea on the guitar or the piano that becomes the gateway? Do we start humming a melody while driving? Do we read something that sparks? The answer is always, all of the above.

Rosanne Cash writes in her memoir, Composed, about the flush of inspiration she experienced as a young songwriter, the rhapsody of getting swept away in something and writing a couple of songs in an evening. She describes writing later in life as detail work, more akin to the work of a watchmaker, less emotional, a quiet craft finely honed over many years.

I still experience both. A song like “All My Favorite People” is very simple, if you analyze it, and yet it took me many years to finish. On the other hand, I read the Allen Ginsberg line “Holy the bop apocalypse,” in his footnote to his poem “Howl,” and my head exploded. I ran to the porch swing and scribbled down eight stanzas as quickly as I could move my pen, and there was “Infamous Love Song.”

I don’t know how to teach that. It always feels like a gift when it happens.

JH: I know that, beyond songs, you also write poetry and essays. How do you distinguish (if you do) one from the other at first inspiration? Do you begin assuming a particular format, or do subject and discovery tell you what mode to observe?

LD: If I set out to write an essay, that always feels like flexing a slightly different set of writing muscles. Poems are trickier. I don’t know that I make a strong distinction, and I’m more than willing to bastardize one of my poems and steal lines for a song.

And yet I know on some intuitive level that writing song lyrics is different from writing a poem. The poet B.H. Fairchild explained it to me as well as anyone: In a poem, the words themselves have to provide the music. If you set a poem to music, oftentimes the music in the poem will begin to cancel out the music in a song. There will be static, like a station not quite tuned in on an old radio, in a remote part of Alaska perhaps.

I know as a songwriter, and as a lyric writer, I am always trying to simplify the language. What is the clearest, simplest way I can break a heart wide open in this moment of the song?

JH: You and Karin write together and independently. Is there a marked difference in the outcome depending on which? Do you find you use different methods and tools for collaborative writing?

LD: Karin writes about a third of our songs, I write about a third, and we collaborate on the remaining third. We didn’t plan it that way, but it seems pretty consistent. We always help edit each other. What a gift to have a trusted editor, with whom you’ve built a relationship over decades, close by.

Sometimes Karin doesn’t get the acknowledgment she deserves as a songwriter. Because she’s such a damn fine singer, people assume somebody else must be doing the writing. But many of the enduring Over the Rhine songs that our listeners care about are Karin’s songs.

I have noticed that she is more of a researcher than I am. Again, this might be more of the watchmaker approach that comes with time. Karin often used to write her songs quite quickly and naturally. But in recent years, if something or someone arrives in a song, a coalminer, for instance, Karin will read about coalmining as part of her process. It’s fascinating to me.

JH: How does writing on one instrument versus another change the tonality and cadence of a song? Is a different kind of thought available through the portal of one instrument’s voice over another?

LD: I’m a piano player first, so I have more facility on the piano, and songs I write there can be a bit more complex harmonically. Guitar is my second instrument, and I have to simplify my approach accordingly. I can feel and hear an immediate difference.

I think one of the best things a songwriter can do is to pick up a new instrument and try to write something. It’s a great way to activate what Zen teachers call beginner’s mind, which is often fertile.

JH: The two of you have been the constants holding up and working under the banner of a band name. Over the Rhine made its first recordings in 1989, and since then you have brought together many ensemble variations, record to record, tour to tour. Do you imagine a sound that will serve you at any given time and then go about building it—or does the assembly of personalities dictate the sound?

LD: One of the highlights of our career was trusting you with selecting a group of sympathetic musicians who you knew would serve the group of songs we were getting ready to record. You gave us the gift of arriving on the scene and making a record that required us to check our expectations at the door. We could have had no way of knowing what The Long Surrender was going to sound like until we made it. People don’t realize it, but the act of generosity on your part, in trusting us with your dearest musical friends, was immense. We remain grateful to this day.

I never wanted to make the same record over and over again, so I do like to mix things up and try new ensembles. I still love to be surprised. Every musician I work with has something to teach me.

JH: As our relationship has evolved, I’ve recognized that you and Karin have each been influential on the other’s writing. I wonder how you perceive that, if you do.

LD: What Karin and I care most deeply about in our shared vocation is doing the best work we know we are capable of, both individually and collectively. Or even discovering that somehow the work is better than what we think we are capable of. Eventually this becomes the larger question: Are we trying to write a good song, or are we trying to write a good life?

Joe, I think it was you who I first heard say, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” It was so evident to Karin and me when we met you and your wife Melanie that everything you both touched was part of a larger, all-encompassing work of art—the rooms of the house, the food, the espresso machine at the top of the stairs like an altar, a quilt being pieced together, the sorrow shared over a loved one lost: All of it was music.

JH: How much do you know before you begin writing about what you mean to say? Do you feel that expression or discovery is leading the way?

LD: I think discovery is leading the way. Anne Lamott compares writing to driving a car at night. The headlights don’t illuminate the destination at the outset. We have to begin driving, and then we see a little further, and eventually we get there.

It’s important to Karin and me that the song reveals something to the writer too. We want to be part of that process of discovery. Very seldom do I consider a song complete if it didn’t surprise me in some way.

JH: Are you conscious of how much of your personal narrative enters into your songwriting? Is there such a thing as something simply being too personal, or is it all fair game?

LD: What did Rodney Crowell say regarding something being too personal for a song? “Not if it rhymes.” We probably subscribe to that school.

JH: Is music sacred by its very nature, or is it made sacred or profane through application?

LD: This reminds me of something Wendell Berry wrote: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” At its core, songwriting is a sacred act. Music has huge potential to heal and soothe. No human community can be healthy without culture, without a means to tell our stories together, to make pictures and hear each other’s music. During a particularly difficult, dark time in my own life, I asked my mother what she did when the valley of the shadow grew too deep, when she felt like throwing in the towel, falling down, giving up. She didn’t hesitate one second. Her answer was simple: I sing.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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