A big thanks to one-half of Over the Rhine, the pianist, bassist, and songwriter Linford Detweiler, for participating in our reader interview–and to our Imagereaders for their thoughtful, funny, and off-the-wall questions. You can read the jumping-off point for this interview, Linford’s reflection on the word human from issue 75, here.
What was your first thought when you sat down to play with Karin for the first time?
I’m not sure I remember our first rehearsal, but I certainly remember our first performance. We were students at a small Quaker liberal arts college in Northeast Ohio. The college had an old restored barn on campus, and they had a recital hall upstairs under the hand-hewn beams. The lights were dim and it was just a room in a barn in Ohio with a Baldwin grand piano and fifty to sixty people in attendance. But when we got to make music together in front of that first audience, we realized something was happening that we didn’t have words for. There was a kind of hush or stillness that entered the room. It was like the night was holding its breath. And people commented that they felt something on their skin. Or a sting in their eyes…. Something changed. I think afterwards, we were a little embarrassed because we knew something had happened. But we didn’t know what to do with it.
Karin had known a Weimaraner as a child who used to sit on the La-Z-Boy in its family’s living room, larger than life. When Karin got serious about needing a dog, she decided that a Weimaraner was where she wanted to begin. Through a number of coincidences, she rescued a female that had been found running on the interstate highway. She named her Willow, and I’m not being dramatic when I say that dog changed her life. Are we rescuing the dog, or is it the other way around? Weimaraners are very intense dogs, that need a lot of exercise, but will reward your full attention with intelligence, humor and a very deep bond. Our current Weimaraner is a dog we rescued named Shakey. He’s the athlete of the family and has taught himself to be a Frisbee dog. It’s like playing catch with Derek Jeter–except Shakey can run faster and jump higher.
I saw three of your performances on Cayamo and they were really great. How do you get the tone from your piano? Is it part of the audio system? You played an acoustic piano in the spinnaker lounge and it still had that distinct sound. (I ask because I am a piano student even though I am in my sixties.)
Well, good for you for pursuing the piano. It’s a rewarding instrument. Since we can’t typically drag pianos around on tour, I tried to identify a keyboard that had a sound that let me make music. My favorite is the Yamaha P-200, which they no longer make. The P-250 is the newer version and it’s not bad. But I’ll use an old spinet, or console, or upright, or grand–I’d rather use anything real if I can. I’m always looking for pianos with broken hearts. I like a warmer, darker sound. My first serious piano teacher was obsessed with how the weight of the arm influenced the tone, so I’m very aware of how my body is interacting with my hands as I’m playing. I have to relax and feel that weight in the keys before I can get emotionally involved. It can’t happen with just the fingers alone.
And are you going to be producing any sheet music from The Long Surrender?
We did a songbook for The Trumpet Child and I was a little taken aback by how much work it was. I haven’t found someone who can transcribe and summarize what’s happening with a full band and then simplify it for the piano in a satisfying way. So I end up doing a lot of it myself – with mixed results. We’d like to do an Over the Rhine songbook at some point that represents our entire career. But it probably won’t happen anytime soon. I guess I’d rather focus on my writing and performing. The present. But we’ll get there.
What was the name of the poet that Karin mentioned on Cayamo?
B.H. Fairchild, I believe. He’s well worth a look. You’ll feel the dust in your teeth, and the whiskey in your throat.
You wrote of the influence of the city on your music. How has living in the country influenced your music differently?
Karin used to joke that when we lived in the city our music was pretty earthy, and she thought maybe when we moved to the country (to Nowhere Farm, pictured at left) we’d go in more of a techno direction. The influence of place on a writer is a bit of a mystery, I think–something that’s hard to quantify. But I know that since we moved to this old 1830s farmhouse surrounded by old trees and fields and weeds and birds, we have felt the desire to call things by name. Once we know the name of a tree, or bird, a relationship develops, and I think those familiar things find their way into songs.
Your essay (at least mildly) suggests that “urban landscape” may be oxymoronic in that it is less “human” or “natural” even though more humans inhabit it than in the glorious space surrounding your farmhouse. Do cities ultimately dehumanize civilization by virtually eliminating the natural and, perhaps, suffocating the spiritual?
Well, I’m not sure. Cities can be incredibly nurturing and exciting and liberating for an artist or anyone setting out on a creative journey. I think Karin and I need both: we love the energy of arriving in Seattle, or Chicago, or Ann Arbor for an evening of music shared with an audience. And we love disappearing into the quiet of home–our ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. It’s interesting that in terms of scripture, the story of God begins in a garden and ends in a city. But as for now, we’ve gone the other way. We started Over the Rhine in the city, and then went looking for a garden.
What is your method for creating time for thought and writing? Is it a discipline–two hours a day at the piano, for instance–or something more organic, spurting up when it will?
It’s hard to have just one routine with all the coming and going that makes up the life of the touring musician. The road sort of has its own rhythm. And then life at home is much different. Also, I would describe our writing as somewhat seasonal. There are seasons when we set it aside, and let the ground lie fallow and rest. Karin calls these “intake periods”…. But yes, when I am at home for an extended period and trying to write, I usually write first. Get up, make coffee, sit at my desk and put in at least a few hours. Sometimes I’ll grab a little time here and there on the road too. And occasionally, there will still be a flash of inspiration and an idea will arrive unannounced. When that happens we try to drop everything and be present. Receive.
Do you ever tour solo? Has Karin? Do you ever play your solo songs you have put out live and if so when and where?
It’s rare, but both Karin and I have done a little solo performing from time to time. Karin used to like to air out her new songs alone in front of a small audience. And I have offered here and there a few evenings of instrumental music and spoken word, etc. It’s incredibly all-encompassing to make a full-time living as a singer-songwriter, so typically, keeping Over the Rhine up and running doesn’t leave much room for extracurricular activities.
What music do you like to listen to when no one’s around (a guilty pleasure)?
Karin loves to blast classic rock when she’s alone in the car and sing along. I love to listen to Bob Marley when I’m washing up the dishes. But our record collection is a bit all over the map.
Do you have a favorite composer?
When I was studying piano I got pretty into some of the stuff that Maurice Ravel had composed, and I think some of his voicings (influenced by jazz musicians he was discovering) probably influenced some of my own choices. Using lots of fifths and fourths…. As far as songwriters, we look up to anyone who swings a big bat and has a distinctive voice: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Joe Henry, Ron Sexsmith, etc., etc.
Do you think humanity is a reflection of the spiritual-mind we all share, or is the spiritual-mind a creation of human energy?
Probably both. I’ve tried to make peace with holding the tension of different ideas together in pursuit of truth. I was raised in a household where scripture was revered if not worshiped. But I see human fingerprints all over scripture. And yet there is something there that is vital and enduring and eternal. I’ve made peace with my need to leave a lot of room for mystery.
Among the cornucopia of little surprises you and Karin have included with your albums over the years, one of my favorites is your poem “Praise:”
I cannot say it with
I sing it with
the life I live
I don’t know if it was the jaunty cadence, the inspiring use of adverbs or the pluck of this mission statement, but I felt compelled to tuck this little ditty away between the pages of a worn book, like a bear hug. Your recent essay echoes this affirmation as you reflect on being a human “largely surrounded by a world not made by human hands” and your need–rather, your duty–to praise this world and the One who forged it with your songs and with your life. Which got me wondering…. have you considered recording an album of hymns? Seems to me you and Karin could give those old, familiar chords a new home.
Thanks for the affirmation. Yes, we have thought of recording a collection of old hymns. Many of us American songwriters owe our mothers’ hymnals a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. I know those songs are in my DNA, and are among my very earliest musical experiences.
If you could be a song—any song—living or dead, real or imaginary, which would you be? Thanks for the gift of your unflinching songbook.
If I could be any song, living or dead…? Interesting. (I’m trying to figure out which songs end up in the song cemetery.) I’m not sure, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of trying to treat my life as a work of art. If our job as artists is to create and offer a well-made thing, why not try to create and offer a well-made life?
What are your top five favorite songs to play live?
Anything that still moves me.
Do you have any “rituals” before getting out on stage?
Absolutely. If I can be alone for a bit, and just be quiet, that’s always a great place to start. And right before we walk on stage, we usually gather the band together and get each other laughing.
What band or musician are you and Karin currently listening to?
I’ve been playing a lot of Bob Marley recently. Especially in the kitchen…
Do you ever worry that the band’s name has limited its appeal?
Yes, indeed I have. There are days when I think it’s just a terrible choice for a band name. We’ve had managers that have expressed concern. Just a few years ago, Lucinda Williams was asking us if there was any way we could change the name. But then there are other people we look up to who like it a lot. I remember Karen Peris telling us once that she pretty much hated the name the Innocence Mission, and regretted choosing it. I thought that was hilarious and kind of freeing. So I guess at this point I don’t worry about it too much. Probably too late now.
Teachers say that if you have a question you should go ahead and ask it, because others in the class will be wondering the same thing. You have many more fans than just a classroom full. Do you think it’s possible to think of a question to ask you that no other fan has (excluding questions that don’t make sense)? Would being so unique and different be desirable?
Haha. When Karin met one of her all-time heroes, Emmylou Harris, all she could think to say in the moment was, “You’re hot!”
Who is your favorite American poet? What is your favorite poem by them, and what are three reasons why?
I love Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry, Robert Frost…. One of my favorite poems is “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski. No reason other than all the above make me want to write, be a better person, pay attention.
As someone who makes a living writing, do you recommend keeping a sort of journal? If so, how has this practice affected your writing and spirit?
I still journal occasionally, and scribbled quite a bit in various notebooks when I was younger. But then one night I burned many of my early journals–a sort of burnt offering to the darkness. It was in the backyard of our first house, The Grey Ghost, in Norwood, Ohio. The fire department came to make sure everything was okay. It was a pretty big fire. I think I mostly felt free, but I’ve had a few moments of regret too. If you’re interested in writing, anything that makes you sit at the keyboard and think out loud, or move a pen across a piece of paper to form words, is probably a good thing. But I grew weary of the cartography of confusion I had documented.
Visit Over the Rhine’s website for more good words (and good songs).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.