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A Sliver Of Hope: An Interview With Willy Vlautin
John Freeman , April 14th, 2014 11:48

Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin talks to John Freeman about his new music project, The Delines, and why latest new novel The Free almost put him "in a sanitarium". We also have an exclusive stream of Colfax, the new Delines album

Three years ago I met Willy Vlautin ahead of a Richmond Fontaine show in Manchester. It was a mild autumnal evening and we were sat outside on a bench. As an adjacent church bell tolled, I remember Willy saying "it's beautiful out here".

Except it wasn't. We were in a quadrangle on the Manchester University campus, surrounded by a terror-vision of concrete and grisly 1960s architecture. The bench was next to a set of over-flowing rubbish skips. Okay, it may not have been raining and the church bells did sound pretty, but I would have struggled to describe the scene as "beautiful".

But, Willy Vlautin has a fantastic ability to pull the tiniest shard of beauty from the most depressing situation. Whether it be through his music (Vlautin's primary band Richmond Fontaine have perfected their melancholic alt. country over 20 years and ten albums) or via his burgeoning career as an acclaimed novelist, Willy is a highly-skilled champion of the plight of America's underclass.

At the gig at Manchester University, Richmond Fontaine employed a backing singer, Amy Boone. Her beautiful, world-weary voice almost the show and it appears her performance on that tour impressed Vlautin. Later this month will see the release of Colfax, a debut album from Willy's new music project The Delines, a band created for (including members of The Decemberists) and built around Amy Boone. Colfax is a magnificent record that showcases Boone's tender and bruised vocal against a backdrop of nocturnal country soul.

And if a new album from a new band wasn't enough, February saw the release of Vlautin's fourth novel, The Free. Perhaps his most ambitious book to date, The Free interweaves the lives of Leroy, a seriously-injured solider, his nurse Pauline and Freddie who works two jobs (at a paint store and at Leroy's care home) in order to pay off his disabled daughter's medical bills. It's a story that tackles some major issues – war, discrimination and, even more topically, the failings of the US healthcare system – against a backdrop of the relentless daily struggle of the main protagonists. But, as in much of Vlautin's work, he provides just enough hope to illuminate even the bleakest of reads.

So, when I speak to Willy we have a checklist of topics – a new band, a debut album, a book and also a movie. The film of Vlautin's first novel - The Motel Life, starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff and Dakota Fanning – is set for a UK release in April.

Once again, Willy is the perfect interviewee and puts in a strong case for this year's Nicest Man In Music award. He seems genuinely grateful that I'd taken the time to read The Free (I'd devoured it cover to cover on the day of release) and remains as humble and self-deprecating as any insanely-talented human could be. The interview almost feels good for my soul. Talking to Willy Vlautin for an hour makes me feel lighter – and just that little bit more hopeful.

I believe Amy Boone was the inspiration behind The Delines. What was it about her that made you want to build a new band around?

Willy Vlautin: First up, she's been in a band called The Damnations since the 90s with her sister. I'd known Amy, and her sister had sung on [Richmond Fontaine albums] Post To Wire and The High Country. During that tour Amy would warm up before each gig by singing these country and soul tunes. When she was warming up I would eavesdrop on her and the ways she would sing those types of songs would really move me.

One night during that tour she drunkenly said, "Why don't you write me a record" and I went home and couldn't stop thinking about how much fun it would be to be in a band with her, where she was the singer and I got to write the songs. So, we were off the road for almost two years and I was trying to finish The Free and I would stay home and write song after song, and then put a band around her.

Did writing a set of songs especially for Amy's voice present you with any particular challenges?

WV: No. I wrote every song thinking of her voice but it also gave me more confidence because I could write songs that I wouldn't feel comfortable singing. I wrote songs that had more soul and more breath and would take a better singer than me to pull off. I've always liked the mixture of country and soul and I knew Amy could sing those types of songs. I wanted to write a mood record – one where you would come home at one or two in the morning and just want to hear one more record before you go to bed.

And then at some point, you would have had to first play these songs to her. Were you confident she was going to like them?

WV: It's made me nervous. I made a bunch of demos for her and I had no idea if she would like them. Turns out she did. Then me and the drummer from Richmond Fontaine put together all our favourite players from around town – who we've always wanted to play with – on the record.

The album is entitled Colfax and contains the track 'Colfax Avenue'. Where is Colfax Avenue and what's so special about it?

WV: Colfax Avenue is in Denver, Colorado. For maybe 20 years I played that street. It's a kind of rough street – we've been snowed in there, we've had the van breakdown there and played a handful of really rough gigs on that street. The song 'Colfax Avenue' is the story of a sister looking for brother who has just got back from Iraq and is falling apart, and she's driving up and down Colfax looking for him. The idea of a late-night search on a rough street felt like the whole idea of the record to me.

What was that idea?

WV: I wanted it to be kind of beat up and a little worn out but also resilient. Amy has a great weariness to her voice that is half beat-up and half beautiful. I wrote every song thinking of her going to work in a city like Detroit or Baltimore – an old US city that is a bit haggard – and on the way to work she would stop to put brandy in her coffee to get herself through the day, meaning she is starting to crack but she hasn't cracked yet. She is still 'in the fight' I guess. That's where the heart of all the songs comes from. Both Amy and I can get behind that idea.

Can we talk about The Free? What was the initial inspiration for the book?

WV: Well, I was a house-painter for 12 years. I used to go to the same paint store and for 12 years I would go maybe four times a week. I would always talk to the same clerk and I liked him – we were pals for 25 minutes a day. When I went back having not been for a couple of years, I found out that he'd had a kid and the kid had been born with disabilities. The guy was going broke and he and his wife were fighting as they had a really marginal health plan. He knew he was stuck and he was starting to drown and I could see it too and it kind of broke me a little bit. It was something I couldn't shake.

On that same day I stopped at a bar and there was a two-minute segment on the bar's TV about soldiers coming home with brain injuries. It was a subject I'd followed; I think it would be horrific to finally come home with all your limbs intact but your mind has been crushed. As a citizen I was really ashamed. Portland is not a military city so this is something no one has to deal with and the issue is never discussed in the local press. I felt we should at least know what we are putting these men and women through. Again, it was a subject I couldn't stop thinking about.

One of my favourite characters is Pauline, who is a nurse.

WV: She's wonderful. I had always wanted to write a story for a nurse. The working title for the book up until nearly the end was A Letter To The Patron Saint Of Nurses. The patron saint of nurses was a guy called Camillus de Lellis. I wrote the book for him in a way as a distress call. I wanted to shake him and ask him to look after the soldier Leroy and the working class guy Freddie but also for him to take care of the nurse Pauline.

Amidst these incredibly difficult lives, you manage to inject glimmers of light in moments of kindness. An example would be the character who works at coffee shop and each day she gives Freddie the middle sections from doughnut holes. How important are these details to you?

WV: The idea of her character was that sometimes someone being kind to you – just a small gesture or someone just listening to you for five minutes or asking how your day was – can really push you in a good direction. Sometimes I can get pretty cynical and go down the hole of my own problems that I forget to be kind to the people around me. There is the famous quote saying "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle" and I think, to a degree, so many people are and have so much pressure on them and are struggling so much. An act of kindness can make it easier and I was trying to remind myself of that when I was writing the book. In general, my interest in these characters is that they are in the fight. Regardless of what pressure they are under, they still get up each morning and try get to a better place. I write those characters as much to remind me to keep trying.

Much of the plot revolves around the US Healthcare system. With Obamacare being such a hot topic, did you ever worry that the book could be seen as too political and be judged purely from that angle?

WV: Well, when I started writing The Free it was before Obamacare. But, it's such an intense issue here and it was an intense issue for me. I've always worked for myself and my healthcare payments doubled in three years to about $350 per month. It was a serious bill each month to even get marginal healthcare. For a family - a good friend of mine has a wife and two kids and they pay $1400 per month – it's like paying another mortgage. If you get ill in America it is really expensive. It's a subject that really makes me angry on many different levels. What I always say about Obamacare is that it's like when your brother comes to your Christmas dinner and he's late and he's drunk and his date is a hooker – but at least he showed up. Obamacare is kind of the same. It's not what it should be and it's a mess but at least there is a chance that you now can get health insurance.

I think we could talk about this all night, but can I change subjects? The film version of The Motel Life is getting a UK release in April – how happy are you with how your book has been cinematised?

WV: The thing I am really grateful for is that they shot it in Reno where the book takes place. They shot in the old restaurants, bars and even casinos that they could and were in the book, so it is a document for me and really fun to see. The cinematography is amazing and Reno and Nevada look brilliant.

As the author how close are the film versions of your beloved characters, compared to how you initially envisaged them?

WV: I think Frank [played by Emile Hirsch] and Jerry Lee [Stephen Dorff] look a little different to me in my head. The girl I based Annie on wasn't as good looking as Dakota Fanning - she was more of a Reno-style Dakota Fanning. Having Kris Kristofferson play Earl Hurley in the film was obviously really great for me. The directors brought me down to Remo to meet him which was really cool.

How did it feel going back to Reno as the author of a book which had been made into a film in the city?

WV: It was the first time I ever went back to Reno and didn't feel like a bum – that's for sure. I felt good about myself as the economy was bad and my little story was supporting people for a few weeks and putting money into the city. I've always loved Reno and wanted to live there, but I moved away to get in a band. When I lived there it was really conservative. My mum was not a big fan of the arts and it is hard to be in a small town when your family is not really into what you are doing. So, I ran to the nearest big city that I could afford, which was Portland.

In your status as a musician, did you have any say in the film's soundtrack?

WV: The biggest complaint I have about the film is that they should have put more Willie Nelson on the soundtrack. They talk about him but they don't play any of his songs. I always have my ideas of what the music should be – and I never think it should be me – and the only thing I ask for when I sign over the rights is to at least be able to talk about the soundtrack and to be able to give them notes on one draft of the script. But, once I've signed over they don't really give a shit what I think!

What's next for you? Can we expect a new Richmond Fontaine album anytime soon?

WV: Fontaine will probably put out a record next year. We've been rehearsing and I think it is going to be a cool record. We all know what we want to do with it. We will let The Delines runs its course and then I may take a couple of months off, so I can work on my new novel, and then we will finish a Fontaine record.

So there is a new book in the pipeline too?

WV: Yeah, I always try and get a first draft done before my previous book is released. I always equate the publishing of a novel to be like dropping off your favourite kid in the world in east LA or a dodgy part of Mexico City with just five bucks. I always feel worried about the book, that's why I toured The Free so much to help it get street smart and help it along a little bit. But, also I always try to be in love with the next story so I don't worry about the published book. I really put a lot of work into my novels and they are pals of mine. All of my novels have really helped me out in one way or another, so putting them out into the world always makes me nervous.

Will you tell me anything about the new book? How is it coming along?

WV: Well, I wrote The Free in six months, which was pretty fast, and then spent three-and-a-half years editing it. I was off the road for a lot of that, and I did 13 full edits. The subject matter was so intense and so the new novel is a gift to myself. It's a story about two unemployed ranchers and one of them is Lonnie Dixon who was in [Vlautin's third novel] Lean On Pete for just a few pages. Lonnie Dixon is my favourite guy, and I figured that because The Free nearly put me in a sanatorium, that instead of going there I decided to hang out with Lonnie Dixon instead.

The album Colfax Avenue by The Delines is out on April 28th via Décor Records. The Free is out now via Faber and Faber

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