Richmond Fontaine were playing at Whelan’s inDublin for the first time. It was after the soundcheck that I first met their frontmanWilly Vlautin. He is someone who is interested in meetingpeople and as such more likely to want to have a casualdialogue than in doing an actual interview. He is quick to laugh and engage and is profoundly modest about his own talent as a singer/songwriter and guitarist (at that stage he was an unpublished author). He has faced and overcome his seemingly crippling shyness to function as a recognised literary and musical talent.
At that first meeting I gave him a copy of a book by Pat Ingolsby, the Irish self-published street poet. He became a fan and on a subsequent visit wanted to go and meet Pat on the street - such was his interest in talking with another writer. We got to continue our ongoing conversation prior to his recent performance with The Delines in Liberty Hall.
Has the wait to finish and release the new Delines album (The Imperial) been a difficult time for you?
We did three quarters of the record and then we took a break because Richmond Fontaine was doing a tour. We were on the road when we got the call that Amy had been hit by a car while walking on the sidewalk in a car park. That started two and half years of hell for her because she was so beat up. The first time she could walk she was brave enough to get on a plane and fly up to Portland so that we could finish the record. She could barely walk up any steps or even get in or out of a car.
It was really fun for us just to get to see her and that at the end of it she could get back to being her. We had all missed her as a friend and had put on the back burner the idea of the band. Obviously, I wanted it to continue and I loved being in the band with her, but we just wanted her to her alright.
But she kept fighting and getting a bit better and as she still wanted to be in the band. That was exciting for us and she has been improving. We were going to put the record out earlier, but she just wasn’t strong enough, but she has started to turn the corner and we have been moving on ever since. It’s exciting to be in this band and that people are liking the record is seriously a big relief for me. You’re always going worry that nobody’s going to care.
How difficult is it writing for someone else to sing?
It’s a relief in that it’s like taking handcuffs off as I couldn’t sing the songs that Amy’s singing. If I wrote for my voice that would be a problem as I’ve always struggled with confidence, so I wasn’t writing outside things that I felt comfortable singing about personally. But now I just wanted to write the best songs I can. Classically orientated songs that would work for her. That is really fun for me. I can write bigger songs because she can pull it off. I couldn’t as I wouldn’t have the guts. He Don’t Burn For Me or The Imperial are the kind of songs that I wouldn’t have written if it wasn’t for her. I couldn’t sing them.
Is it a different discipline writing the books as distinct from the songwriting?
Writing the books and being in the band are hard because the writing takes up so much time. We’re a Mom and Pop outfit so it takes a lot of grunt work. But with writing for Amy means she can say that she is not comfortable singing a certain song so I can say okay I’ll write another one. I want to write songs that she can get behind, that she feels a part of. So, it’s like pulling a chapter out, it’s not that big a deal. You get depressed about if for a couple of hours then you move on. I think about her voice all the time and what I think she can get behind, but I don’t get hung up on the fact that I’m writing for somebody else. I love hearing Amy sing. In the van today she was goofing on Sade’s Smooth Operator and I buy into that voice. It’s a lucky break for me.
Has not being the frontman changed things for you?
Oh fuck, yeah man! I never liked being the front guy. When you’re sixteen and you’re the guy that writes and comes to practice with songs and you ask someone to sing and their like “No way man, I’m not singing” so you have to step up as you know the songs as you wrote them. I could barely go to school at sixteen as I was so shy. So, all of a sudden, I’m getting drunk so that I could go onstage. I did that for 30 some odd years. I never got comfortable with it. The guys in Richmond Fontaine, we got to have some adventures and we got to play some cool gigs and have some fun. I felt so guilty that in the first seven years nothing happened, but we didn’t quit. So, I felt that I always owed them and now I feel, not that I played them back, because I haven’t but I felt that it wasn’t a disaster either and I gave them a nice run. At that time only one of us had a passport but then we got to go to some cool places. So, I felt a little better about myself and so I thought maybe I can sing. I admired the guys in Fontaine so I always wanted to show up with a Cadillac and a big cheque just to pay them back for sticking with me - but I never could. But we were still friends and we still liked going out for a drink after the gigs and we still had fun times after twenty years together. So yeah, I like being in the back. I’m having the most fun I ever had playing.
Did the move the guitar rather than being lead singer and guitarist effect your guitar playing?
Well, I’m not a very good guitar player so I think that I’ll work on my guitar playing after I finish a song but it’s a bit like working out, so I say, ‘I’ll do that next week.’ So, I worry more about my guitar playing but luckily this is a band that is meant more for space in the songs. So, I don’t need to show off too much. I’ve always been a fan of serving the song and that’s maybe because I’m a songwriter. So, I always want a song to be good whatever way that that happens. Having said that I’m in a band with some real musicians, Freddy, Cory and Sean are real hot shot session kind of guys, so I just don’t want them to beat up on me too much. So, I try to learn my parts and not fuck up!
Amongst all this band activity how is the book writing coming along?
I have two books that are pretty rough, so I’m trying to see which one is fixable. But as I said the band takes up time as does the writing so my output will slow down until I get off the road as I’m sharing a room with someone when we are touring so I can’t write. I’m also quite tired and I’m trying to figure out the next place, so that the writing takes a back seat. You’re more worried about getting something to eat. So, I do most of my writing at home.
I love writing novels and I’m lucky enough that I get to publish them, and I’ve always liked writing the songs too.
With your writing can you also experiment with that? In The Free for instance there was some sections that were more surrealistic in some ways.
That was really just for that guy in the book. My interest in that was to take this cool kid who gets sent by the US government to Iraq for reasons that he doesn’t understand. As Willie Nelson once said “99% of us never find the right person, that’s why there are so many sad songs.” But the character in the book had found the right woman and he was a happy guy with a good job as an electrician and he’s sent over there and comes back with a brain he can’t control, one that sees darkness and the harder things in life. He can’t escape that. It’s a brain injury - they called the Iraq war “the brain injury war.” I was interested in that so and I’ve always been interested in working class issues and working people. Mainly because I don’t know any different. Growing up I always wanted to read novels about the kind of people I saw around me. I never felt comfort from reading books about people in New York City or middle or upper middle-class people. I just felt like a loser reading those books. I didn’t want to feel that way. My novels will probably stay in the working class until I get gold teeth and making some big money!
You have had two novels made into movies and I felt that Lean On Pete got closest to the mood feeling of the book.
That was a fun experience. The director Andrew Haigh was such a nice person to me. He genuinely cared about the story and he had a lot more to lose than I did. I felt that he really tried and was an experience that I learned a lot from it. About just how to be a person as he was just a really cool guy … and I got to meet Steve Buscemi.
From what you learned would you like to get involved in writing screenplays?
No, I’m not tough enough to get involved with arguing with some kid about why I wrote a story maybe five years ago. So, I don’t really have any interest in it. Messing around in the past I have written screenplays, as I’m much more in love with the novel. With the novel you’re the king and you can put the novel out and not have to argue with some young producer. I got in an argument once about my novel The Motel Life. The guy seemed really nice and he paid me but was questioning “why does the one brother have to die. Can’t he be in a coma and wake up?” But he’s the guy paying you, so it puts you in a funny situation. So, I’d rather just stay home and write novels. Plus, as I said, I believe in the novel. A guy like Larry Brown, out of Oxford, Mississippi, made me feel normal and more comfortable in my own skin. It makes you feel less lonely when you read novels written by people, not necessarily normal people, that you can understand.
Songwriting can serve a similar function.
The interesting thing about music is if you listen to something like Irving Berlin or those old Bing Crosby tunes, they can on some days be the most beautiful things. I wish I could write fiction like that - but I can’t. I have tried to do it. I was thinking about Amália Rodriques, the Fado singer, because you can listen to her and some days you will be transported and you can feel so much better about life. You can be walking down the street and listening and suddenly you’re in heaven. I wish I could do that, with my books especially. I’m too dark minded, I think. It would be nice to create that world once.
Having met you on several occasions I don’t really see that dark side - in conversation anyway. Perhaps in the writing though there is a tendency towards that.
I don’t want to bother anybody with that stuff. I like people. I don’t want to be a burden, or ever wanted to be one to anybody. So, by writing about the darker side of yourself, your own struggles and your own scars … at an early age I didn’t know what to do, so I just started to write stories and sometimes it’s just a sad story. In my newest book The Horse Hopper, I write about a kid going through a really rough time and you are really helping that character out because he’s not alone and you’re not alone. You get to have that friend when you’re going through a hard time. And, crazily, even if its imaginary I can get to be nice to the people around me. I might put someone through something that’s pretty tough, but I feel like I’m holding their hand through it. That takes the edge off me. The hope is that if you write it right that someone who may be feeling the same way that you feel - isolation or loneliness - they can think the there’s someone else that feels that way too. You hear that song and you think “Jesus, I’m not a freak.” Early on I planted my flag with being a musician even though I’m too shy to be one. And, as a writer, I’m not that gifted with language. It was more out of being a fan as with anything else is the reason I did it. You love records so much because they let you escape. It’s so lucky for kids today because they have their record collection with them walking down the street. I remember knowing that my songs would be waiting for me at home. Willie Nelson would be there to say “hi” to me. That was great gift for me. I got into a band as you can’t eat records and it doesn’t help you to hold them. So, you join up to show that even if you might suck at it and least, I’m in the same world a Husker Du and Willie Nelson. You’re a part of it then. That felt better to me than just being a guy who worked in a warehouse.
Do you think were you might have ended up if you hadn’t made that step to be in a band?
I think I would have been a mid-level manager in some warehouse or trucking company. Being so shy I could barely even go to the fuckin’ store. Being in a band cured me of that shit as number one you are with your friends and number two you get to humiliate yourself every night. I used to use drink as a crutch until Fontaine played a gig when I guess I was pushing 30 and no one liked us really, but we had some fans. This guy had driven 9 hours from California to Portland to see us, a working class 23-year-old kid, and I played really drunk and played bad. He was really nice but said “you were so drunk I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” We got to talk, and he said that he was going to sleep in his car for a couple of hours then drive back to work the next day. I was so ashamed of myself that I didn’t want to be that guy anymore. I didn’t want to be the Replacements guy. I’d spent all my money to go and see them and they just fell around the place. I mean that guy had driven 16 hours to see us so after that I thought you either quit or get can a handle on it. So, I started every gig sober - though I may not have ended it that way.
The things is with being shy, and it is a burden, it will beat you if you let it. It’s one of those games that never quits and It will always take advantage if you. Playing gigs has been my ability to stand up to it so I can push it back in its place. You become a recluse because it becomes hard to go to the post office or you can only go to the grocery 10 minutes before it closes. Or you go Sunday night when no one is in there!
Interview and photograph of Willy by Stephen Rapid