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City Girl, Country Heart

Gillian Welch was raised in hip L.A. So how did she wind up with the hills of Kentucky inside her soul?

June 02, 1996|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Gillian Welch is clearly a young woman who adapts easily to strange, unfamiliar surroundings. Having been stuck in traffic all day en route to a gig at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, the singer is more than happy to plunk herself down on an old sofa in the club's ladies' lounge--the only room in the venue that's relatively free of noise and chaos--and chat for a few minutes.

Wearing a loose T-shirt, granny specs and what she calls "my old man's hat"--a quaint little boater she picked up on the road--Welch does look a bit out of place among the chic downtown types who shuffle by to wash their hands or fix their makeup. But this fledgling artist is probably used to being regarded as something of an anomaly.

Welch's widely praised debut album, "Revival," isn't likely to remind pop music fans of anything they've heard on commercial radio lately. Delivering bare-bones accounts of deprivation and loss and spiritual longing in a pure, aching voice, Welch draws on traditional country and bluegrass influences with such wistful nostalgia that some have had trouble believing she's a 28-year-old child of Los Angeles.

Even the album's producer, T-Bone Burnett, recalls being a little taken aback when he first saw Welch perform at the Station Inn in Nashville, the city Welch has called home for the last four years.

"I felt as if this person had gone into her great-uncle's attic and found a box of songs, beautiful songs, that were written in the '30s," says Burnett in a separate interview.

Says a grinning Welch: "It's because I'm not from the hills of Kentucky that I love to listen to Appalachian music. If I was from the hills of Kentucky, I'd probably be listening to AC/DC. But as it is, I'm from L.A., and so I listen to the Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson and all that stuff."

As her choice of fashion accessories this evening would suggest, Welch's love of old-fashioned Americana extends to more than just her music. She and her boyfriend, Dave Rawlings, who's also her frequent songwriting partner and who sings harmony and doubles on acoustic guitar with her on "Revival," infuse their modern lifestyle with little anachronistic touches.

"We drive an old car on tour--a '65 Chevy Impala," says Welch, who returns to her hometown for shows at LunaPark on June 25 and McCabe's on June 29. "We don't have a TV. And we have a rotary phone, which is really cool, because every time one of those messages comes up--'If you have a touch-tone phone, press 1'--I have to stay on the line, and so I actually get to talk to people. In a world of automation, I'm unautomated.

"The way I write, and the way I live, are by choice. That's the difference between me and someone like Doc Watson. Doc and all those first-generation guys just kinda grew up that way. For Dave and myself, it's a personal preference."

In some ways, though, Welch's approach to making music could be seen as reflective of her upbringing. Her parents, Ken and Mitzie Welch, were a songwriting team, collaborating in much the same manner as she and Rawlings do. It was a gig crafting music for "The Carol Burnett Show," in fact, that brought the family to Los Angeles from New York in the early '70s. In addition to attending tapings of the show every week, where Gillian and her older sister, Julie, socialized with Burnett's three daughters, Welch developed a love of singing and pop standards from simply being with her folks.

"We were always singing around the house," she remembers fondly. "And my mom used to embarrass me terribly by singing in department stores. We'd be shopping, and all of a sudden I'd hear, 'Stormy wea-ther. . . .' "

The young Welch was more reserved about her interest in music, writing songs in the privacy of her room as an adolescent and then deciding to pursue a career in photography while attending UC Santa Cruz. But after graduating, Welch wound up at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she began playing in a country band with Rawlings. The two then became a duo, arranging Welch's songs for two guitars.

"I generally start songs off, come up with the words, and then Dave is kinda the finish-up guy," Welch says. "I think he's got this template in his head for what a good song is, so he can look at whatever we're working on and say, 'Well, if the song did this, that'd be cool.' He's very good at the overall picture."

Eventually, Welch and Rawlings decided to take their act to Nashville, where they built a following at open-mike writers' nights in local clubs. Welch's songs were also picked up by artists ranging from the Nashville Bluegrass Band to Emmylou Harris, who recorded "Orphan Girl," the plaintive first track on "Revival," on her 1995 album, "Wrecking Ball."

Last year, Welch was signed to Almo Sounds, the new, Geffen-distributed label founded by former A&M owners Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and she took T-Bone Burnett up on his offer to produce her first album.

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