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Baker's Dozen

Escape To The Country: Willy Vlautin Of Richmond Fontaine's Favourite LPs
John Freeman , April 6th, 2016 09:55

Following the release of Richmond Fontaine's tenth and final album, You Can't Go Back If There Is Nothing To Go Back To, the singer and author talks to John Freeman about his favourite albums of storytelling escapism


Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones
When I was at high school, everyone was talking about Swordfishtrombones. I knew who Tom Waits was and, when I was about 15, I had my mom take me down to buy the record. I was really interested in him, as everyone said he was so cool. However, the record scared the shit out of me. I started out with 'Shore Leave' and I guess I just didn't understand it. Songs like 'Underground' and '16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six' really frightened me.

Therefore, I didn't really like the record, but there was one song that I liked, which was 'Johnsburg, Illinois' and was a really soft ballad. I really liked that song but not enough to keep the record. I began to think the record was haunted and that I should get rid of it. Even the cover was scary. So, I sold the record back to the store.

However, I missed hearing 'Johnsburg, Illinois' so much that I went down and picked the record up three months later. It was still sitting there. When I re-listened, I began to like 'Soldier's Things'. So, that meant I liked two of the songs. Then I liked 'Town With No Cheer', which meant I liked the three ballads, which were the safest songs.

Then 'Shore Leave' got me. By this point, a year had gone by and I started to get more adventurous. Swordfishtrombones became this record on which I liked four songs, then five songs, then six. Gradually, all of the songs made sense and it became my favourite record of all time. I became obsessed and I didn't really know much about him. Again, I think he was a classic songwriter. He could have written great songs in any decade – even the '20s or '30s. He is also really gutsy and wild.

When you have never gone anywhere or done anything and suddenly you hear a song about a guy going on shore leave – a married guy who loves his wife – and plays pool with a midget, buys cards with naked girls on them and drinks a Singapore Sling. I was like, "What the fuck is a Singapore Sling?" He created this whole world where you wanted to be – in east Asia, in a port and you are this cool guy who is in love with this woman and you are writing her a letter, but you are still going to go out and play pool with a midget. So, that and the ability to write ballads that would make you swoon, then to go to songs like '16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six' and be really dark, I thought it was just genius.

Both Waits and Gentry are great storytellers within their lyric writing. Did they inspire how you wrote lyrics for Richmond Fontaine?

Absolutely. I was always attracted to story-style songs for their escapism. As a fan, just to be transported from your town and be living in a different world via the music is really romantic and those songs become like a best friend. I was raised to be a huge fan of America and states like Nevada and the western US. That was set into me. Even when I started writing songs when I was 13 or 14, I was really obsessed with where I lived, which was the high desert of Nevada. I still am. Therefore, when I wrote, I wanted to transport people to the places I thought were cool.