Portland’s resident americana outfit, Richmond Fontaine, will see the stateside release of their eighth album, Thirteen Cities, May 22nd. Having already received near unanimous praise upon its European release, the group’s chief songwriter and vocalist Willy Vlautin sat down with AD to discuss the evolution of Richmond Fontaine’s recorded output and the recent release of Vlautin’s first published novel, The Motel Life.
Aquarium Drunkard – Your last LP, The Fitzgerald, ended what some have referred to as a trilogy of albums beginning with Winnemucca. Do you agree, and if so, in your mind, what tied those LPs together, both thematically and in terms of sound?
Willy Vlautin – I guess more than anything all those had a lot of references to Nevada. For a long time I couldn’t stop thinking about Reno, Nevada where I grew up. For years I wanted to move back there and that seemed to come out in those albums. Plus those three were our first records on our own where we made all the decisions. Also my good friend Greg Allen did the artwork for those. As far as sonically there’s not much holding them together. Winnemucca is more of a low budget desert record, Post to Wire was recorded by JD Foster so it sounds great, and then The Fitzgerald is a stark raw acoustic story record.
AD – Recorded in Tucson, Thirteen Cities again finds the band working with longtime producer JD Foster. What draws you to Foster, and how much influence does his hand have in the shaping of your albums?
Willy Vlautin – I can’t say enough good things about JD. First off he took a chance on us when we didn’t have much to offer and I’ll always owe him for that. The whole band did better once we met and began working with him. Above all he’s a great producer with a ton of ideas and really, he gave us confidence and that was something we badly needed. ‘Cause we aren’t the most confident band in the world. So JD has really been a life saver for Richmond Fontaine.
AD – You all are presently based in Portland, but have long achieved a Southwestern tinged atmosphere on your recorded output. I’ve read you grew up in Nevada; would you say that physical upbringing works itself into the songs, and if so, is it more of a subconscious influence or something you strive for?
Willy Vlautin – I lived in Reno, Nevada until I was 26 or so. It’s in the high desert, and I always loved it there so it just comes out. I’ve always wanted to make music that made you feel you were in the desert. Plus I always like songs that make you think of an area or a place. I put a lot of references to towns and places because of that. So hopefully the listener will disappear into that world. That’s what was great about recording in Tucson. I really wanted to make what I thought would be a Southwest record. I tried to write songs set in that area with that sorta feel. We all hoped that when we were done people would be looking through our records and say “this is their Southwest record.”
AD – As a rule, it seems the genres of americana, roots music, alt.country, etc. etc. seem to garner greater acclaim and overall fan appreciation abroad than here in the U.S. Have you found this to be the case with the music of Richmond Fontaine, and if so, in your opinion why is this the case?
Willy Vlautin – The band does do better in Europe, but we also tour over there more. We probably do three months a year there and only three weeks in the US. A lot of that has to do with us as a band. None of us had seen much of Europe and this is a great chance for us to see some of the sights of the world. So when we get offered shows there, we take them. I didn’t even have a passport before Richmond Fontaine. But in general I do think a lot of roots music does better over there. I’m not sure why but I’m sure grateful for it.
AD – What contemporary artists and/or groups do you identify with in the here and now of 2007?
Willy Vlautin – I’ve always been a big fan of Richard Buckner and Calexico. I think Richard Buckner’s record Meadow is really something. Also I’m a big fan of Grand Champeen and their new one Dial T For This. Also the new Dolorean (LP) You Can’t Win is great.
AD – Switching gears a bit, let’s talk a bit about your novel, The Motel Life. As an artist, what did you gravitate toward first, songwriting or that of writing prose?
Willy Vlautin – I started writing songs when I was a kid, 13 or 14. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 20, but fiction is what feels the easiest and most natural. I’ve always been a pretty shy person and so it’s a lot easier to hide in a room and write then play in a bar. But they both have gotten me through a lot of rough times. Without music I would still be shy as hell, and without writing I’d be crazy as hell.
AD – How similar and/or dissimilar are the two crafts?
Willy Vlautin – They are similar in that the world of my songs is the same world of the stories. Often the songs will become stories and the stories will become songs. I might put a character in a story in a horrible bind and so I’ll write a song to cheer them up. So it just goes around and around. The only real difference is when I’m writing I tend not to drink and I try to go running and keep my shit together, and when I’m writing songs is usually when I’m a wreck. When I’m hung-over and my mind’s a bit unstable.
AD – Do you have plans for a follow-up novel?
Willy Vlautin – I just sold one called “Northline.” It should be out in a year or a year and half. Paul Brainard (RF’s steel player) and I just did an instrumental soundtrack for it. So hopefully that’ll come with it.