When Gillian Welch released her last album with musical partner Dave Rawlings in 2011, she openly admitted that the eight-year gap since her previous collection (2003's Soul Journey) was due to a pronounced "slip" in their mutual songcraft.
The aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest played directly to that theme. When inspiration finally struck, the couple reaped the bounty, garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album and taking to the road for much of 2011 and 2012 in its support.
In its wake, however, the couple again retreated to their home in Nashville, rarely performing in 2013. With just five albums to her name in a two-decade-long career, fans have wondered if a second hibernation might be underway. On the phone with City Paper before departing for her return to the stage — a two-week jaunt circling the Southeast—Welch insists that the duo are in fact at a peak moment of shared productivity. "The truth is, one of the reasons we booked this tour is, we just go crazy when we don't play for that long," Welch admits. "Dave and I, we're troubadours. We like being out there playing. We went for towns that we know and love and where they know and love us, so we're not trying to break any heads. We just wanted to play some music."
Most of Welch and Rawlings' last year was spent strengthening groundwork for their homegrown label, Acony Records. The pair recently co-produced the solo debut of former Old Crow Medicine Show singer Willie Watson, set for release on May 6. After returning from this tour, Welch reveals that they'll start work on her own next record.
"We've never gone so deeply into studioland — writing and producing and being a record label — as we have in the last year, but I think we're ready," says Welch, adding that another Dave Rawlings Machine (the pair's side project with Watson and Led Zeppelin bassist-turned-mandolin player John Paul Jones) is also in the works this summer.
"Hopefully, there's going to be a lot of recording in May and July. I'm sure the people who like our records will be happy to hear this; I aspire to put out records more frequently, and Dave and I, at all moments, are doing everything in our power to achieve that goal."
Since her 1996 debut, Revival, Welch has always conveyed herself as a traditional, album-oriented artist. She's not one to release singles or launch an innovative Twitter campaign, preferring to expend her efforts delving deeper into the artistry of an individual song or collection. But even with new songs being worked out at home by day, the proliferation of cell phone videos posted to the web means that she's less likely to debut a track on stage before it's perfected in the studio.
"We used to write a verse in the car on the way to a show and then play it that night, but that doesn't happen so much anymore. Times have changed," Welch says, with a hint of lamentation. "We've become a little skittish. Phone recordings have really compromised the way a gig used to function as a testing ground, where you could pull a song out and try it, and if it didn't work, what's the difference? It was four minutes and then it evaporated. The problem is, now they stick around, and it kind of messes up the whole process."
Welch adds that she and Rawlings always feel better with "a little bit of new stuff sprinkled in," but it's more likely to be a polished, crafted song they've arranged with care, over time.
On their upcoming album, Welch says the songs' thematic threads are still revealing themselves, but if history is any indication, the lyrics will tend toward darker elements and tragic moments in history.
"Making an album is a decision-making process of, 'Does this song go with this song? Do these songs complete a statement?'" Welch asks. "I guess we have an easier time answering those questions if there appears to be a reason why the songs relate — an undercurrent or thread. We're kind of obsessive people. If we get on something, we're going to go deep."
In the case of 2001's Time (The Revelator), the glue is a repeated mention of April 14, regarded as Ruination Day for its repeated tragedies, from Lincoln's assassination to the sinking of the Titanic to the Black Sunday dust bowl storm of 1935.
"I got invited to five Ruination Day concerts this year where they were going to be playing all of our songs that relate to it," recounts Welch. "That really warmed my heart. That's the kind of girl I am."
From "Ruination Day Part 2" to "Red Clay Halo" and well-known tunes like "Look at Miss Ohio," Welch says she's thrilled to have a tour where the focus is simply to revisit material from throughout her career.
"Having stepped away from the road for a year-and-a-half, the old songs feel and sound different, and we're slightly different people," Welch explains. "I'm pretty excited about walking out on stage and seeing what the songs sound like. It may be subtle for most people, but I guess what I'm trying to say is, everything feels new to me. This whole run is for the love of playing, so I think you'll get us in a good mood."