Could you start by explaining how the album New Multitudes has come about?
It all happened in phases, but the idea took root in 1996 when I was asked to work with Billy Bragg on a project. That didn’t happen, but I just kinda kept the idea of working with Woody Guthrie lyrics in the back of my head because he’s an iconic figure and some of the first music I ever actually heard was Woody Guthrie music through my parents. So fast-forward to 2006 – Anders Parker and I started going to the Woody Guthrie archives and started writing and doing some recording, separately at that point – at that point we thought it was going to be a continuation of this other side project called Gob Iron that we have – and slowly it just evolved over time because both Anders and I had other main projects, his band Varnaline and mine Son Volt. So it took three years to really get anything together and we did some recording together and some recording separately. So then by this time it’s 2009 and Yim Yames goes to the Woody Guthrie archives with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Nora Guthrie, whose a kinda curator there, she played some of this music that Anders Parker and I had been recording for Yim Yames, and Yim liked it. I had first met Yim Yames in 2004 so Yim contacted me and we started talking like maybe we could make a band out of this. So at that point we gave Will Johnson a call.
So it was all very organic, the recordings just came together very naturally?
It was an organic evolution but it evolved over a long period of time, like six years. So we’re very happy that it’s actually finally out, or almost out, next month.
How have you tried to record the album? Have you tried to do it as Woody Guthrie may have recorded those songs or have you put your own twist upon them?
Since the lyrics were Woody’s I guess we felt like it would be important to just let it all happen organically and not really have a pre-arranged concept. We decided not to go into it conceptually saying “this must be something like what Woody Guthrie would do”. We thought it would be best to just let it happen organically and probably somewhere along the way some of our own aesthetic would be rubbed off in the process of it.
How did go about picking the songs?
Basically at the archives, Anders and I went and Yim went as well so it was just a process of looking through the lyrics. I mean it’s a veritable repository of all things Woody – artwork, poems and lyrics. There are even a couple of journals where little pieces of detritus fell out, just little pieces of leaves and grass and stuff that he had picked up along the way and put in books to keep, so it was really interesting being there. It felt like an honour that Nora allowed us in there to work with Woody’s lyrics. But from my own perspective I would choose songs that I felt I had some sort of connection with or there was some sort of frame of reference that I could draw upon. Some of the songs just jumped right out and I was able to write and work with them.
How many songs did you end up recording over that length of time?
26 in total. So there’s actually going to be an extended release package coming out as well – I think in the UK, definitely in the United States, it’s going to be like a double CD.
Woody Guthrie is obviously a big hero for you. Did you have any reservations about coming to his lyrics and writing music for them? Did you ever fear it was like some form of plagiarism and that you should leave Woody Guthrie and his writing alone?
I guess I felt like that weight was on Nora Guthrie’s shoulders. If she didn’t want us to participate, she wouldn’t have let us into the archives. But there was just that familiarity with Woody’s music from my childhood so I felt like I could do it. I guess you never know until you get into it properly but I felt like there was enough of a common aesthetic there that I could draw from my own frame of reference from hearing his music as a kid.
Did Nora Guthrie have much influence on the album? She’s executive producer isn’t she, but did she have anything to say about the sound of the work or what was particularly chosen?
No once again everything just happened very organically, there were no real rules or guidelines. The only guideline Nora put forth was that whatever lyrics we chose to work with should be lyrics that no one else had worked with before, which at the Woody Guthrie archives that’s not a problem because there are so many. Woody had such a prolific creative output – he was even a sign painter so there’s sign art, there’s poems, journals, and the journals could get into just about any subject.
He does come across as an incredible storyteller from his lyrics and writings, like in his autobiography Bound For Glory.
Oh yeah, Bound For Glory. There’s a great passage in that book where he’s talking about early on in Oklahoma when he was starting to play music out and he learned that if he sang songs about current events or songs of a topical nature, that people would pay more attention. Well that’s pretty huge, I think he was one of the first people to really realise that. Consequently through Woody being the first person to successfully try that, he was influential to so many people that came after, Bob Dylan and the whole folk music movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was like a sort of domino effect.
How important would you say Woody Guthrie was to music and the progression of music over the years?
I think he was definitely the archetype for the travelling barroom musician, the guy that goes around and writes about things he sees. I think Woody – at least in my estimation – was the first guy who came up with the idea that music can change the world and he really put that belief forth. And I think other people consequently picked up on that, and I think music has changed the world.
So would you still consider his work to be relevant today?
Yeah that premise is still relevant for sure.
And I guess what with the state of the world today, with such massive economic problems and global unrest.
Yeah that’s another thing you realise when looking through the archives, a lot of subjects that Woody would work with were pretty timeless, whether it’s social or economic injustice. Those things are always going to be around.
This album is the seventh retrospective album using Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, following on from the likes of the Mermaid Avenue series and last year’s Note of Hope. Did you look back at those at all? Did they have any influence, apart from obviously not using the same lyrics?
Apart from being asked to work with Billy Bragg, so there is that connection there, I was conscious of not really delving into that recorded body of work just because I knew that since I had been previously asked, at some point I was going to want to work with Woody Guthrie lyrics and I didn’t want to be influenced in anyway by those projects. I just wanted it to happen organically.
How did you first discover Woody Guthrie’s music? How did you first learn about this iconic musician?
Well I guess it was probably from day one when I was a kid, when I heard his music through my parents. But probably when it really resonated with me was when I found his records in my parent’s record collection and then I started putting the pieces together from there. I was probably 10 or 11 years old and I had already discovered Bob Dylan at that point, but I’d already got an earful of Woody Guthrie for the prior 10 years. I was also listening to The Clash when I was 10 and I just had like some sort of epiphany, just this big realisation that here was this guy where all of this music really comes from.
What kind of influence has he had on you personally as a songwriter?
Probably the primary one is just writing about topical and current events. Whenever I do that I’m conscious of the fact that Woody was pretty much the guy that influenced me to do so.
You had the album Okemah And The Melody Of Riot in 2006 where you sung about ‘The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head’. Was that your own kind of tribute to his work?
That was an album that was created a year after George W. Bush had been re-elected. Maybe that was what actually drove me to the Woody Guthrie archives at that time. In retrospect maybe that’s what George W. Bush’s re-election actually did.
Would it have been different now with America in its current state? Obviously you’ve got Barack Obama in power but at the same time you have such social and economic problems.
It’s weird I’ve noticed that during the Bill Clinton years in the US and now in the Obama years I turn to other subjects to write about, I don’t really write too much about current events.
So I guess that could all change after November if the likes of Newt Gingrich gets into power?
(Laughs) Yeah, there’ll be a lot to write about there! But it just seems to work that way, I get inspired to write about other stuff. But if there’s an administration in power that I don’t particularly agree with then I’ll turn to Woody Guthrie.
Do you think there is anybody else who compares to Woody Guthrie as a songwriter? Is there anyone else’s body of work which you’d like to write songs for?
Well I did a project with Ben Gibbard called One Fast Move Or I’m Gone. On that project we were working with the novel Big Sur by Jack Kerouac which also has some poems at the end of the book called ‘Sea Poems’. I worked on that project a few years after I had started working on this Woody Guthrie project so it was through this experience of working with Woody’s lyrics that gave me the experience to work on the Jack Kerouac project. But so far it’s just been that one.
And if you had a choice of having anyone’s lyrics to work with, would there be anyone who particularly stands out?
You know, that’s a good question. There’s a record I think that came out just recently where different artists have been putting music to Hank Williams’ lyrics. But I wasn’t asked (laughs). Maybe next time!
Do you think there could ever be another Woody Guthrie? His travelling lifestyle seemed so important in turning him into such an influential writer and performer.
I think one of the most important things about Woody is that he really committed himself in that way. But I don’t know that people would really be able to do that these days, just take off and ride the rails and write about what you see. I’m sure there are people out there doing that but whether or not they’ll have the impact that Woody Guthrie had. You know there may well never be another person that had the impact that Woody Guthrie had.
You’ve collaborated with many different people on a variety of projects, like Gob Iron and the Jack Kerouac novel. Are there any further collaborations on the way? Is there anybody else you’d particularly like to work with?
Nothing in the works, I guess we’ll see. This experience has been great working with Yim Yames, Will Johnson and Anders Parker. We’ve all worked together before in different situations. Anders and I had Gob Iron. I’ve shared the bill on shows with My Morning Jacket before and Will Johnson actually filled in as drummer for Son Volt for a while when our drummer Dave Bryson broke his collar bone eight hours before we caught a flight to Europe to do a European tour. We gave Will Johnson the call and he did great, so that’s really how I got to know Will well. So there’s just this great chemistry in this group because everyone has these different layers of participation.
Where was the album recorded? Was it a bit all over the place?
Yes and no I guess. Anders did some recording initially in Brooklyn, I did some in St. Louis. Then Anders and I got together in Brooklyn and did some recording together. Then Yim, Will Anders and I all got together in Brooklyn and did some recording. Then we all got together again in St. Louis and did some recording, so it was a complex arrangement. That’s a result of us all having our own main endeavours which makes for a lot of moving parts and conflicting schedules and that just threw the process out quite a few years. But now it’s going to come out and we’re excited about that.
What are the plans for the release? The record comes out shortly and then isn’t there a US tour as part of that?
Yeah there is a US tour planned. It’s a couple of weeks, then after that I think maybe we have a festival planned in the summer as well. But it’s a limited schedule I know.
Are all the rest of your live performances going to be US based or do you have any plans to return back to this part of the world?
No plans right now but that all remains to be seen. But I think it definitely could happen.
You can’t give your only UK performance to the Glaswegians alone, we want you down here as well!
(Laughs) Glasgow was good to us, we got to rehearse there for a few days and debut the songs there, so Glasgow holds a special place for us now. But it’s good to be here though just to see the sunshine!
It was Scotland in January, you’re never likely to get sunshine up there.
No one told us that! (Laughs)
Will you be working with your fellow collaborators on any other projects after this? Obviously you’ve worked with them all in various ways previously.
I think there’s a high likelihood of that. If we don’t work on another extension of this project, it’ll be on something else.
Do you think there will be any more Woody Guthrie songs?
Well there are definitely more unused lyrics at the archives so we’ll see.
Is there any other artist around today who you’d like to hear do something similar to what you’ve done – taking Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and writing their own music for them?
You mean besides Bob Dylan and Neil Young?! (Laughs) I mean there is that story about Bob Dylan actually taking some of the lyrics and he kept them for a while, but I don’t think that came to any fruition. Unless that’s urban myth? but I heard something like that.
Do you have any projects with Son Volt on the way after you’ve finished this?
Son Volt actually did some recording over the last six months and it’s getting closed to being finished up, so hopefully that’ll come out next year.
With tours and the like after that?
Yeah, I think so, definitely.
Finally, if people could take anything from the life of Woody Guthrie, be it his music, persona or what he stood for, what would you like that to be?
The fundamental idea that people could take from Woody Guthrie is that he’s the first guy who put across the idea that music can change the world, and he showed us that that is possible.
New Multitudes will be released by Rounder Records on 28th February 2012