Interview with Willy Vlautin

Lonesome Highway has had the pleasure of interviewing Willy Vlautin on several occasions. It has always be an open and interesting exchange. We are fans of Willy's writing both his songs and his novels and his down-to-earth demeanour. Here we got his responses on some topics such as ...

On The Delines

Well the singer Amy Boone is the whole focus of the band. The songs are heavy on the country ballad, a country soul feel whereas Richmond Fontaine were more country punk and could be a lot of different things this is more of a late night thing with Amy’s at the forefront. So the songs I wrote where for her to sing, which was really fun for me. So the first thing was I really loved her voice and I wanted to be in a band with her. I like hearing the way she talks and I loved the Damnations, her band with her sister. So when I thought to write songs for her I suddenly realised I had more courage to write as she can pull of a lot of stuff that I can’t. There’s a lot of songs that she sings that I don’t have the guts to sing. I get embarrassed singing really romantic songs but I can write those songs for her. I can get closer to trying to write something more a classic country soul tune. I wouldn’t have the courage to sing that kind of stuff often. I tend to write songs around my voice and what I feel I can pull off. So that’s actually really freeing and fun. They’re the kind of songs I’ve always wanted to write and I’ve written a bunch of new songs for this project so I’m hoping it carries on.

On Colfax 

I wrote all the song for Amy, they weren’t songs I had other than one of the tunes I’d written as a poem/short story called “He told her the city was killing him”. Aside from that I wrote them all thing about her to sing. We’d been on the road together as she’d toured with Richmond Fontaine, she toured with us. Listening to her sing every night and warming up with the Bessie Smith type of songs she’d come up with. I though man, I really love to be in a band with a real singer, a good singer, it would be so much fun. I was saying to het that she should write so more of those soul style songs and she said to me “well then, why don’t you write me a record”. I think she was just joking and she doesn’t remember saying that but it was something that I wanted to hear. So when I got off the road I just started to write her songs. I probably wrote a good year’s worth of songs before I even told her I was writing. Then I did demos of them and wrote her a long thesis on why she should join a band with me and hen I send her the songs and thank God she wanted to do it.

On Richmond Fontaine’s next album

We’re mixing a new record right now but I’d like to keep doing this band too. I love marrying a Rhodes and Wurlitzer with pedal steel. I feel it creates a spaciness and I’ve always loved the soul ballads. I’d like to do both. So if I can pull it off I’d like to be in both bands and write novels. I’d be a happy man then. 

On receiving praise

I always feel like it’s dodging a bullet when somebody likes something I do. I tried so hard on that book and it about killed me. I think I spent about three and a half years writing it pretty much off the road. I rewrote it thirteen times and that’s before I even showed it to anyone. It was such a heated and personal subject for me. It was a tricky novel. I’m really happy people liked it but I’m also really happy that it’s behind me. I love writing more than anything and I guess that The Free is a little more complex in structure. You hope that you get better at what you do bit I do worry that maybe I’m getting dumber as I get older and I know that I’m not a master but I keep trying hard. Some days I look in the mirror and I think “Jeez, I’m looking worse every day” but you still try to wear a clean shirt. 

On doing a book tour

Touring a book is fun because you get to be in a book store. I just rode around to book stores and gave readings. It’s healthy. Most people who go to my readings are middle aged or older and no one’s dredging you out to go and get drunk every night. When I’m driving around I listen to books on CD and as I usually driving by myself going through state after state to talk about books at night. I try the best I can to not get suckered into going out after. 

On being interviewed by Roddy Doyle

That’s different. That night was like finding a million dollars on the side walk. It was just a lucky break for me. My grandmother gave me The Commitments when it first came out because she knew I liked music and she knew I was a big reader. So I’d followed his career from his very first book. To imagine that I’d get to sit next to him and that he’d read my book was something that’s hard to explain about how lucky it made me feel. Then to find out that besides from being a great writer that he was a really nice man, that he was really smart and really humble and has great taste in books, movies and music and that he was interested in people was great. He was one of the most down to earth guys I’d met. He knows he’s a good writer but he also know it’s not the most important thing in the world. A lot of guys who are famous get big heads, so I loved that night. He and I went and had a drink afterwards. Which I thought was really nice that he took the time to do that. I tried not to talk too much. 

On ego

I’ve toured with bands that right when they get to have a green room with a twelve pack of beer and some sandwiches they get a taste of it and then it’s “why aren’t these sandwiches on rye bread”. And you thing man, six months ago we were eating at 711 and sleeping on people’s floor. So I think it’s something that’s inside them. I’ve always been interested in that seeing when people get to a position of power or when people like what they’re doing that their personality changes. In every walk of life you have your moments when you do good and you do bad. 

On assessing his work

I’m really proud of Richmond Fontaine for sticking around and trying really hard over the years to make cool records, records we loved. If I had to narrow it down I’d say getting a book published was something I’d always dreamed about. Maybe some guys dream of owning a speedboat or marrying a model but I just wanted to publish a book. I also really love this Delines project so I’m really excited to be in this band too.

On being a writer

I never think of things that way. I decided a long time ago that I just wanted to be part of it. I like being around musicians and writers. I like aligning myself with that club. I want to be in that army in life. I’ve always approached things as a fan. It’s hard when you compare yourself to the greats - the great novelists - I read some and feel that it’s as far away from as the moon to be able to write as good as those guys. But to be a part of it is enough. Steinbeck said a really great quote that always stuck with me which was something to the effect that “I knew early on I wasn’t going to be a great artist, I didn’t have what it took, I didn’t have the brains to write a brilliant novel but I worked hard and I’m going to take the gift that hard work gives you. That makes  you feel decent about your self”. I’ve always looked at it that way and I’ll work until I drop to be as good as I can be. To make a record as good as I think I can get it and then move on. I feel good about that. Tonight I get to share the stage with great musicians and other great bands like the Lost Brothers - two guys who sing as good as anybody. If I didn’t keep trying I’d be at home just watching the TV. I get to meet other musicians and to hear about their adventures. If you stay in the fight and are open minded and you get a good run. 

On being in a band

The camaraderie of being in a band is a really hard thing to quit whether you’re good at it or not. I’ve always liked being a part of something. Being in this band is fun I can just be the guitar player where as in Fontaine I’m the singer and guitar player but I’m just a cog. But I like that. I like being a part of a group and I’ve never been able to shake that. To be with your friends after a gig is really fun and I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I’ve tried to quit it and ,a s they say, it’s like trying to quit a bad woman … it takes a long time. I haven’t figured out how to quit being a musician.

Interview by Stephen Rapid  Photograph by Ronnie Norton