Interview with Willy Vlautin
Ahead of his recent appearance in Belfast with The Delines I sat down with Willy Vlautin for a chat and began by asking him how lead singer of the band Amy Boone was recovering after a severe traffic accident in 2016.
WV: She’s a battler. She’s good enough to travel, she can walk upstairs. She was recovering for over a year and a half, and she came up to Portland, and could barely get in and out of a car, and she recorded some more songs for ‘The Imperial’. She’s tough, but it’s been really a struggle for her. I really admire how resilient she is, but it’s taken a lot out of her.
FT: So how did Amy become Singer with The Delines?
WV: She and her sister were in a really good roots Americana band called The Damnations. Richmond Fontaine toured with them, and I had a duet, a song that I wanted to sing with one of the sisters, who I admired. I didn’t know them at all, and I said, the first sister that I could talk to, and I was really shy about, but the first one I had a conversation with, I would ask, and that turned out to be her sister Deborah. So Deborah was nice enough to do the song and then she sang on ‘The High Country’. She was brave enough to do that record and then she was pregnant when we went to tour that record, and so we decided to ask Amy, and Amy was nice enough to do the tour. While warming up for gigs, just watching and listening to her, I just fell in love with her voice. She’s just so cool, she sings soul and country ballads so well and I dreamed about being in a band with her. Her voice is sweet and weary and kind of beat up and innocent all at the same time.
FT: People love the world-weary tone of it.
WV: Yeah, but it’s tender and sweet too, it’s cool! It’s really fun to hear her sing every night.
FT: You written female characters in your novels, but is it different writing for a female voice?
WV: Not that much different really. The fun bit about writing songs for Amy is I can write songs like ‘He Don’t Burn For Me’ and ‘The Imperial’. Those are songs I never would have written for myself, I never would have had the guts to sing them, any of those tunes, I never would have written for myself, cause I wouldn’t have felt comfortable singing them with my limited voice, so when I write for her, I feel I can write any tune, if I can pull it off, cause she can sing anything. It’s really been fun for me as a songwriter, cause I can take the handcuffs off. For me I can only do, what I can do.
FT: I think you being harsh on yourself, people loved your voice in Richmond Fontaine
VW: Well that’s nice of you to say
FT: Speaking of Richmond Fontaine, you said that’s the band over, that’s it done and dusted. But do you think you’d ever be tempted to reform?
VW: Do you know I felt so good about where the band left off, and I liked all the records we made, and we got out of the van for the last time, really good friends, and I don’t want to mess with that. I mean so many bands stick around too long. I mean our band was always small time, it took a lot of effort on each guy’s part to be a part of the band, and no one ever said no in Richmond Fontaine, everybody always said yes. And so I didn’t want for one of the guys to say, I can’t do any more, or I’m tired. We had a really good run, and the band’s been really nice to me, so I want to be to be nice to the band and not push it, and I think everyone’s happy with that.
FT: And what about a greatest hits, or a retrospective?
WV: Oh yeah, I’m sure we’ll do something like that, at some time.
FT: You written a track on Alejandro Escovedo’s fantastic new album, ‘The Crossing’. Can you tell us how that came about?
WV: Well he came up with the idea, you know about going to a wedding, and being thrown into, or being next to a racist conversation. So I wrote the story around that and then Freddy Trujillo of a The Delines kind of took it, and moulded it, cause he is a Mexican, American, Chicano guy I’ve been a fan of Alejandro, since I was 14. He was in a band called Rank and File, and I took my first and only guitar lesson, trying to learn the licks on that record. I’ve always been a huge fan, and in 2001 I got the chance to tour with him, and he was really nice to me and the band, so it was really quite an honour, he’s a great guy, he’s wonderful.
FT: You’ve been called “the Dylan of the dislocated”, and you have a real soft spot for the people at the periphery of society, where did this come from, from your own background.
WV: Well to a degree, obviously, I never lived as rough as some of my characters, emotionally, maybe. I think a few things happened, at a young age I was raised by a single mother that had always struggled to make money, she worked in as a secretary in a really sexist place, and she struggled, she had no money and she was worried about money all the time. And, about the same time, I was reading a bunch of John Steinbeck novels. He was really popular in my school for whatever reason during that time. So I read most of his major works by the time I was 16. Guys were putting posters of The Clash on their walls, and I had John Steinbeck. And I listened to a lot of The Jam and The Clash kind of pseudo working class bands, and I really bought into it. As I got older I felt a, not a kinship, but I felt an understanding to people that were beat up.
FT: There’s a real social conscience at play there?
WV: Yeah sure, I think about that stuff all the time. And I want to write those tunes, I try and write them. Sometimes I can do them okay, sometimes I have to throw them out. The other thing is, my life has never really changed, money wise, or socio-economic wise. You know you don’t make a lot of money being in a band. I’ve gotten some lucky breaks, for sure, but in general I haven’t changed, I haven’t moved to the fancy part of town. Nothing’s really changed for me, you know I’d love to have a driver, and a chef, that’d be pretty nice, but that day has not come man.
FT: I think it is those social issues that feature in your songs and novels that resonates with the audience. Outside the venue for tonight’s gig, there’ll be a lot of street activity and rough sleepers and your songs and novels, do connect with people here. Some of the folks on the street tonight outside the Black Box, could be characters from the pages of one of your novels.
WV: It’s heart breaking to hear that that’s happening in Ireland, because it’s such a huge problem in the states, and you hope it never goes anywhere else. In Portland, Oregon, where we live, it’s grown to where there are tent cities. I guess when it really struck me was maybe 10 years ago, when I was walking home in downtown Portland and I saw a man and a woman sleeping along the side of the street. And, it was the first time I had noticed a woman on the street, and that was a huge shift to see women sleeping on the street, maybe here and there. Now you see it all the time, couples, families, started seeing kids, like gangs of kids, and it shocking.
FT: And it’s been accepted by society?
WV: And they accept it. It can be hard to get people off the street. I thought about it a lot. In Los Angeles they say there could be between 60,000 and 100,000 sleeping on the street of a night. A city of people without a home.
FT: Getting back to the writing. The same marginalised characters sometimes populate a song and appear in a novel. Where do the ideas come from?
WV: Sometimes the idea can come from any source. I wrote a song called ‘A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses’ simply because I wanted to write a song about nurses. ‘Colfax’ was a song after I saw a couple of minutes of
FT: So what’s next for The Delines and for yourself?
WV: Touring, hopefully. Amy’s health continues to get better, and we’ll tour and have fun gigs for her.
FT: This is your band for the future?
WV: Yes, it’s the only band I got! I just want to write songs for her, until we decide I’ve written enough of them. Novel wise, I working on a novel about gentrification, part of the problem with homelessness in Portland. There’s a lot, but one of them is rents have tripled in just ten years. Wages haven’t tripled. So I’m working on a novel based on that, and we’ll see if it works out.
FT: Willy, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you, thanks for taking the time.
WV: Oh sure man, it’s been my pleasure.