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Red Dirt Girl - JAM!

Monday, September 18, 2000

JAM! Q&A with Emmylou Harris

By PAUL CANTIN
Senior Reporter, JAM! Showbiz

TORONTO -- Emmylou Harris concedes it off the top: "I have always been a late bloomer."

How else to account for the nine-time Grammy-winning singer, godmother to the alt-country music scene, keeper of the real country flame, with 29 albums to her credit over a 30-year career, who just now, with her new album "Red Dirt Girl", has become a fully-fledged singer-songwriter?

The last time Harris had a hand in writing a full album of songs was 1985's "The Ballad Of Sally Rose," a collaboration with her then-husband, producer Paul Kennerley. For "Red Dirt Girl," which arrived in record stores Sept. 12, Harris wrote or co-wrote all but one of the 12 cuts.

For someone who has had a relatively high artistic profile for 30 of her 53 years, the very personal songs on "Red Dirt Girl" provide insight previously unavailable via her admittedly superlative interpretations of other writers' songs.

"Bang The Drum Slowly" is a mournful expression of regret at the passing of her father. "My Baby Needs A Shepherd" hints at the pressures and guilt of a working mother. The album's first single, the scorching "I Don't Want To Talk About It Now", is as tough and uncompromising a relationship song as you could hope to hear, while the lead-off track, "The Pearl," is an uncommonly clear-eyed articulation of spiritual questing.

With Phil Kaufman -- her legendary Man Friday and the self-proclaimed Road Mangler Deluxe lurking in the background (check his website for more details, www.phkauf.com) -- Harris is gracious and apologetic. She's over an hour late for her interviews after a limo flat tire left her stranded on the freeway shoulder, but she seems unrattled.

Between her last studio album, 1995's Grammy-winning "Wrecking Ball," and "Red Dirt Girl," Harris filled in her "time off" by touring with her band Spyboy, releasing a live album, participating in another "Trio" album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, collaborating with Ronstadt on the album "The Western Wall," making cameos on at least a half-dozen of her friends' albums and organizing a tribute album to the late Gram Parsons, the alt-country icon who discovered Harris and duetted with her on his early-'70s solo albums "G.P." and "Grievous Angel."

In fact, Parsons and Harris make a strange "cameo" in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical new film "Almost Famous." When Crowe's teenage rock critic character wanders through a Sunset Strip hotel, he glances in an open doorway and spies a singer in a Nudie suit seated on his bed, duetting with a young, raven-haired woman. The actors are playing Gram and Emmylou.

"Someone called me and asked if that was all right, and I thought it was cool," Harris says vaguely. "I remember Cameron following Gram around on that 1973 tour. He must have been 16 years old. Just a baby."

She continues to maintain a frantic pace. Promo duties, rehearsals with her band, live dates, work with the anti-landmine movement, guesting on other people's records. She also sings on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers upcoming film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Malcolm Burn, the Ontario-bred producer of "Red Dirt Girl", says Harris was staying at his home studio in New Orleans during the sessions for the album, and he would hear her begin singing as soon as she woke up in the morning.

"She has to sing," Burn said in a separate interview.

"If she didn't sing, her head would blow up."

Harris laughs richly when told of Burn's remarks.

"I go for days without singing. But when I am making a record or I am on the road, I sing all the time. It is just like keeping the blood flowing," she says.

"I don't know what it is. I could easily do 30 takes of a song and go on from there. I feel like I am just learning and just getting warmed up. Malcolm has seen that, but he has never seen me laying around the house or going out to movies or watching baseball, where I do absolutely nothing and don't go near a guitar.

"There is the other me, my evil twin. The non-singing twin."

Below is a transcript of our conversation with the non-evil, singing Emmylou Harris.

Q: Why, after all this time, did you decide it was time to write an album full of your own songs?

A: I found myself in a situation of following "Wrecking Ball." It was really as simple and as complicated as that. If I was going to go back into the studio and do a solo record, I had to add more weight to the bar-bell.

I wasn't going to become a better singer or a different singer. I probably wasn't going to find an even better group of 10 songs. I could probably find 10 great songs, I have been pretty good at that. But I was going to be competing with myself in a way that, no way was I going to win or even come out even, I felt.

So I had to bring something new to the table. The only other talent that I had let lie fallow was as a songwriter. I had some success (as a songwriter in the past). The songs I had written over the years, I felt good about. I knew I could do it. Whether I could do it at this period of time, even though I had no pressure ... I let my record company go (she left Warner proper and has turned to the Warner-distributed label Nonesuch), so I had no pressure of, 'When is the next record?'

But still, you put pressure on yourself. I didn't want to wait 10 years to put out another record. I had to just sit down and attempt to do it. So that is basically it. I know it is not as simple as that, but it is as simple as that, really.

Q: So having done a full album of your own songs, do you think that's what you'll do from this point forward?

A: Oh God, I don't know if I will ever do it again, if I will ever do it in that quantity. I never intended to give up my day job as an interpreter. But I hope I would continue to keep those muscles flexed, and if the songs I write are good enough, that they will appear on the records. I hope I wouldn't just put them on there because I wrote them.

Q: Looking back on the completed album, in hindsight have you learned something about yourself from the experience? Is it therapeutic?

A: I think writing is therapeutic even if you don't sense it yourself. Maybe it is something that comes farther down the road. Certainly it is a sense of relief and satisfaction, and almost being a bit stunned by it, by how much work actually went into it.

There was not like a long period of time after I wrote the songs before I went into the studio. I only had three songs finished when I met with (producer Malcolm Burn) a year ago in July. By the time I went to record the album in November, I had written four more songs. The rest were written between the end of November and when I went back in in March. (The song) "Red Dirt Girl" was written when I thought the record was finished.

If there is anything therapeutic, it is the fact that the fear of songwriting, maybe I have gotten over it. I still have a healthy respect for it. It is not like I jump up in the morning and think, God, I can't wait to put myself through all that pain and agony!

I still have a bit of reticence. Maybe I am going to fail and going to end up not following the scent of the song to the logical conclusion, or the poetic conclusion. Maybe I am going to miss the point and write a bad song or a mediocre song. But perhaps, at least I can say everything did turn out all right. Maybe I won't be as reticent. I don't know.

Q: The song "The Pearl" uses the way an oyster makes a pearl -- produces something beautiful out of a grain of sand that is actually agitating it -- and I couldn't help but think songwriting could be like that; taking perhaps some painful things and converting it into something beautiful and artistic.

A: I think it was more of a larger metaphor, for the suffering everybody goes through in their lives. I don't know if there are any answers. I have a hard time accepting the answers people put forward, and that is not without an extraordinary respect for people who have made their peace with answers and ideologies and done something wonderful with their lives, with that.

I think perhaps without even knowing the answers, in spite of ourselves, life creates something quite beautiful. Lucinda (Williams') song, "Sweet Old World," says in spite of everything, this is the only show in town, and it is extraordinary and something to be honoured and cherished, no matter how difficult it gets. Perhaps it is about that, but it is following that scent, and something seemed to be ringing true for me, and I wasn't sure what it was.

A lot of it had to do with my life, and I read a lot and I was inspired by the writing of an author named Annie Dillard (author of "For The Time Being," "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek" and "American Childhood"). I think the prose she writes has that philosophy to it. She is alternately horrified and completely exhilarated by consciousness and by just being in the natural world.

Q: It's one thing to go through the process of writing these songs, but now you face the task of travelling around the world and performing something so personal, over and over again. Is that daunting?

A: I don't know about that. The song about my father ("Bang The Drum Slowly"), more than anything, it is the most brutally honest song. You feel so naked and so personal. Even the songs you write, you can -- I don't want to say you can hide behind -- but in the process of singing, it is a kind of Zen process anyway. You are more in touch, and yet you are standing outside looking in. Actually, I am very deeply involved in the songs I interpret. I have to be, in order to choose them.

I have had this question before, and it is a very valid question, but the only analogy I can come up with is, if you had your own children and then you adopted children, I assume you would love them equally. The adopted songs still resonate, very much.


Emmylou gets around

New album from everyone's favourite collaborator

By JANE STEVENSON -- Toronto Sun

TORONTO -- Country-rock legend Emmylou Harris had a taste of her own mortality while making her new album, Red Dirt Girl.

Harris, 53, told The Sun last week during a promotional trip to Toronto that she had been in a serious car accident.

"I hydro-planed and rolled over twice and hit a tree," says the striking Nashville-based singer.

"I broke three ribs and got banged up pretty bad. But it was actually nothing compared to what it could have been. My dog was okay. My car was totalled. There was this moment where you realize how fragile life is. But I have a feeling I'm going to be around for a long time."

Harris plans to tour Red Dirt Girl "well into next year," but first is spearheading a five-star studded concert to promote the anti-land mine campaign. The series, which will be recorded and released as a CD next year, includes a Dec.4 show at Massey Hall with Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and John Prine.

"It was my idea," says Harris, who found out about the land-mine problem through a friend working at the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation. "It's great for musicians because there's no pressure of being the headliner. You get to meet people, hang out with people. There's very little production cost, so almost all the money that comes in can go to the cause. So it's a beautiful vehicle for raising money."

Harris -- who's said to have sung on close to 300 albums by other people -- certainly seems to have the networking knack. Among those artists whose new albums she sang on in 2000 alone are Neil Young, Marianne Faithfull, Terri Clark, Trisha Yearwood and Tracy Chapman.

On Red Dirt Girl, it almost seems as if it's payback time with such guests as Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff.

The new album, Harris' first solo studio effort since 1995's Wrecking Ball, also marks only the second time in her 30-year career that she has contributed so many songs. She says the last five years have been good preparation for her songwriting.

There were three very well-received 1999 projects: Her duet album with Linda Ronstadt -- Western Wall -- The Tucson Sessions; her executive production of the all-star Gram Parsons tribute album, Return Of The Grievous Angel; and the Trio II album with Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. In 1997, she also released a Wrecking Ball documentary.

"It was very busy," admits Harris. "But I think that was the key. I think it was changing the routine. The projects were collaborative, so they didn't require the kind of pressure where it was all up to me. I could save that space for writing as a priority."

Hamilton-born Wrecking Ball producer Daniel Lanois encouraged her.

"Right after Wrecking Ball, he said 'You've really got to think about writing for your next record.' He said, 'It's really important that you bring your own songs.' And I knew that, but I think I needed to hear it."

This time it was Wrecking Ball engineer Malcolm Burn, a Toronto native, who produced.

"I'm just still feeling the lovely splashes of the circling of the stone in the water from Wrecking Ball, musically, lyrically, rhythmically," says Harris. "Obviously I wanted to go back to that territory, and that's why I chose Malcolm."

Speaking of Canadians, Harris is currently pushing the idea of Ronstadt's recording an album with her frequent collaborators, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

"That's a fantasy of mine that I'm really going to push Linda (to do). They want to do it. I think it's just like an album made in heaven. They sound extraordinary together and the way they think about music and the songs that they would pick. I mean it would just be gorgeous."

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