Husband-and-wife act Linford Detwiler and Karen Bergquist, better known as Over the Rhine, are coming to ear X-tacy (2226 Bardstown Road in the Highlands) this coming Friday, February 18 at 6 p.m. for a free, all-ages, in-store performance. (They will also appear at WFPK’s Live Lunch earlier in the day.) While the band will be appear as a quartet rather than their usual six-piece group, their power will be undiminished as they perform songs from their new album, The Long Surrender. Pianist/guitarist/bassist Detwiler talks about the new record, working with Joe Henry and Lucinda Williams, the timelessness of music and why working with one’s spouse isn’t for everybody.
Louisville.com : I was absolutely floored when I heard “Undamned,” your magnificent duet with Lucinda Williams (with Karin on vocal), and you also had Joe Henry as your producer on the album. Did you start out envisioning these two artists being a part of the production from the start?
Linford Detwiler: Joe Henry had been at the top of our list of potential producers for awhile not only because of the records he had been producing (for the likes of Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Allen Toussaint, among many others) but also, of course, because of his own remarkable body of work as a songwriter and recording artist. One of the main reasons we wanted to work with Joe Henry on an Over the Rhine record was we couldn’t imagine in advance what that record would sound like, and we wanted to be surprised.
Karin and I had actually written “Undamned,” but Joe had a feeling about the song and sent it to Lucinda, who connected with it and offered to sing on it. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room when she leaned into the microphone and began singing with Karin.
Louisville.com: The record feels very cinematic, evocative, smoky, almost archaic in that there’s a kind of a pull that takes you back to a place you didn’t realize you missed. How did Joe help shape this, and were you reluctant to go along—or open to whatever he suggested?
Linford: I love the idea of songs reminding us of places (often internal) that we had forgotten existed. I think that’s one of Joe’s gifts as a producer and has a lot to do with the particular musicians he surrounds himself with: all of a sudden the songs feel like they’re drifting out to sea, or rolling out of a midnight train station. And we were wide open—we just wanted to lean in and go along for the ride.
We’ve always been interested as songwriters in the idea of timelessness. Why do certain songs written by Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell, or Bob Dylan, or Tom Waits (to name a few) sound so good 30 years later? On a good day as a songwriter, you sometimes feel like you’re uncovering something that already exists. So hopefully certain songs have a strange sense of familiarity even the first time a listener hears them.
Louisville.com: This year marks the 20th you’ve been recording together. Does the title, The Long Surrender, have something to do with this life together, personally and/or professionally?
Linford: Yes, I think so. I think it has something to do with “living the questions,” in the words of Rilke, and our lifelong commitment to a creative endeavor regardless of recognition. It’s a rare partnership that allows you to be able to pursue a passion and vocation with your spouse. A rare gift—but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Louisville.com: I understand you turned to your fans to help you fund this record. How did this affect how you approached the recording, if at all?
Linford: You know, I don’t think it changed the process much. The pressure to write songs that feel authentic and alive is self-imposed. We had already written most of the songs before we approached our listening audience with the idea of making the record together. But their involvement from the beginning did add a certain sense of “blessing” to the proceedings, and a sense of shared anticipation.
Louisville.com: You’ve come to Louisville quite a lot, and you’re first a well-known regional act with national recognition. Doing two free performances seems pretty daring; is it more a fun or grassroots effort than going out to theater stages?
Linford: We just had a wonderful concert in December at the Bomhard Theater—and we always look forward to visiting Louisville. You all have a rare gift in your public radio stations in Louisville—the way they work together and collaborate to offer such a wide spectrum. We’re surprised that more cities don’t take that approach. Over the years, WFPK has been hugely supportive of our music and ear X-tacy as well. And yes, it is fun for us to mix it up a bit and play some more informal, impromptu settings occasionally. Something a bit more conversational...
Louisville.com: Of course, you named your act for a Cincinnati neighborhood. Do you still live in Cincinnati?
Linford: Karin and I moved about an hour outside of the city. We’re surrounded by tree-lined rolling fields. We have a little “farm on the fringe,” our refuge from the road, a place where we can see the sky properly at night, take deep breaths. We love the energy of touring city to city, but we also like the opposite extreme—spells of deep solitude and quiet.
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Photo: Courtesy conqueroo/Over the Rhine