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Where the soul leads

THE ARTS | POP MUSIC

Gillian Welch holds to her course, despite the proddings of the mainstream.

September 30, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Gillian Welch didn't set out to establish herself as a music-industry maverick. The Manhattan-born, Los Angeles-reared singer-songwriter simply wanted to find a way to make music the way she wanted people to hear it.

But ever since she and longtime musical partner David Rawlings set up their own record label for their 2001 album "Time (The Revelator)," they've become quasi-heroes in the world of independently produced pop music.

While home in Nashville recently on a brief break from performing -- a break that ends Friday, when a new tour leg starts with a show at Avalon Hollywood -- Welch, 36, ran into Jake Riviera, the founder of Stiff Records, a key label during the British punk explosion of the late 1970s.

"He's sort of the godfather of punk," she says. "I had spoken to him before on the phone, but I didn't know if he really knew who I was. But as he was leaving, he grabbed me by my shoulders and gave me the greatest pep talk. He said things like 'Don't give in to the bastards! ... Keep doing what you're doing!'

"I feel like all along I've run into people who wanted me to stop doing this, so this was really great. I had no idea that he knew our records and owned them and loved them."

Riviera's not alone in his admiration for Welch. She and Rawlings have sold a combined total of nearly 300,000 copies of "Time (The Revelator)" and their most recent work, last year's "Soul Journey." Both came out on their tiny Acony Records label, named after the acony bell flower, which characteristically is the first to bloom in spring even with snow still on the ground, representing to them the triumph of persistence through hostile conditions.

Those sales are about 50% more than the total for their first two records, "Revival" (1996) and "Hell Among the Yearlings" (1998), for the major label-distributed, now-defunct Almo Sounds.

It certainly didn't hurt that Welch was introduced to a much wider audience in 2000 and 2001 because of her presence on the Grammy-winning soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

"We've outsold the larger machine, so I guess in a way, it's working. I wouldn't recommend it to other people, though," she says. "I think you've got to come to it on your own."

The business aspect is just one facet of a career that she still views as "a great big experiment." That also applies to her songs, which often sound as if they were born of the Appalachian folk tradition and handed down through generations.

Her debut eight years ago with "Revival" set the tone with sparsely adorned songs sung and played with minimal ornamentation, matching the outward plainness of characters who struggle to find solace in the face of life's harshness.

As for her reputation as a defender of folk and country music tradition, she looks at it two ways.

"I'm not really a flag waver; it just has to do with what I love," says Welch, who was exposed early on to the songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and others while attending the progressive Westland elementary school in West Los Angeles. "It has to do with the part I love about that older recorded music and not obscuring the details that I'm really getting off on.

"That's what happens in my world with larger, slicker production and bigger bands," she says. "I haven't yet figured out how to do that and not obscure what I'm most interested in. That's one of the reasons Dave and I play two guitars and [use] two voices, because it exposes most the part we're actually working on."

Her other view is that in many respects, she and Rawlings are the nontraditionalists at a time when most country and even many folk and bluegrass bands incorporate electric guitars and drums.

"I wouldn't begin to know what to do if we were a four-piece rock band," Welch says. "That road has been paved and repaved, and paved again and paved again. At least I feel what Dave and I are doing is this weird unknown detour. Granted, it may be the limb on the tree that goes nowhere."

Actually, that detour led to "Soul Journey," perhaps the most stripped-down, acoustically and emotionally intimate of their four albums. It also delves more deeply into autobiographical subject matter, from the minimalist folk blues of "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" to "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father" and "No One Knows My Name," songs that seem to reflect her awareness that she was adopted at birth.

Both her adoptive mother and father had musical training, and Welch was immersed in a variety of sounds as she grew up, but she was especially drawn to the old-time country and bluegrass recordings she heard.

While attending UC Santa Cruz in the '80s, she joined her first band, a Goth group called Penny Dreadful. She and Rawlings met at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston after her parents arranged through a friend for her to be accepted. They started playing together, always with other musicians, but after moving to Nashville, they tried their now-standard duo approach for the first time.

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