Web version: Over the Rhine on politics, sex and American music 

Full-length interview with Linford Detweiler


Over the Rhine
Friday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m., $18/$20, all-ages
Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington

NUVO: I’ve been following Over the Rhine’s albums and live performances since “Films for Radio” in 2001. Since then, you’ve run the musical gamut from folk to jazz to blues and gospel. … What style of songwriting seems to suit you currently, and what brought on all the transformations?

Detweiler: I think all of the above — just a big messy mix of American music. I think our music has jazz and gospel and country and Americana and rock and roll influences, but we’re none of the above exclusively. It’s more about, I think, our music reflecting some of that musical melting pot that is American music. Our record collections are pretty diverse. I hope that as we filter all this music through our “Over the Rhine” filter that something unique happens. But we’re interested in a pretty wide spectrum of American music.

NUVO: What are some examples of records in your collection?

Detweiler: Ah, well, it can be anything from John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme,” to Van Morrison’s “Into the Music,” Leonard Cohen records … Mahalia Jackson. I love some of the music I grew up with. My dad had pretty eclectic tastes. I’ve pulled out some of those old Eddy Arnold records he used to listen to, and he listened to a lot of gospel music. He’s the first person to plat Mahalia Jackson for me. [Those are] kind of a few off the top of my head.

NUVO: Your new album, “The Trumpet Child,” has some religious and political undertones. What messages do you hope your listeners will take from the record?

Detweiler: I hope that our music, first of all, gives people permission not to live in fear. I feel like a lot of us, in addition to having a lot of pressure put on us from the media world and from the political world, are just kind of afraid. Along with that, there’s some kind of a numbing effect, I think, in our society, where we tend to go through life half awake, just kind of absorbing what’s in front of us. I think songwriting can be a spiritual discipline that invites people to wake up and live life with their eyes more fully open, more fully engaged. Karin [Lindquist, Over the Rhine’s vocalist], as she goes through “The Trumpet Child,” sort of is like looking at the essence of the song. She says something like, ah, I wish I could remember this, but it was something sort of like, ‘God, sex, sex, politics, religion, sex, God, politics, sex. Ya know? (laughs) Our music has always been sensual and spiritual and hopefully — I think even in more recent years — we have written more protest songs just sort of inviting people to stay engaged with power [and] to challenge those in power. I think one way of describing it is maybe we hope, in some small part, you know, our music, can take power from people that have too much and give power to those that have too little.

NUVO: Your Web site has a slogan that says, “Linford/Bergquist 2008 — Rock the Vote,” referring to your tune “If a Song Could Be President.” Is that part of your new marketing campaign, or is it just a joke? How are you hoping that inspires some of your fans?

Detweiler: It’s kind of just a joke, I guess. “If a Song Could Be President” is kind of humorous. … One thing that we wanted to do on this record, which Van Morrison was good at doing, is we wanted to actually name some of our musical heroes in the songs, [to] speak their name in the context of a song. Now Van Morrison was really good at giving shout-outs to his heroes, people that he considered giants of song or whatever, world blues musicians. … And, I guess it’s kind of a hip-hop thing, too, but, you know, we wanted to actually see how it felt to say Satchmo in a song or John Prine or Emmylou [Harris], or Thelonius [Monk], you know? And so, “If a Song Could Be President” is kind of just a little celebration of American music.

If I can tell one quick story: We were recently in Europe trying out some of these songs. We were getting ready to play a pretty big festival in Holland, and I was talking to two Dutch guys and a guy from what used to be East Germany. The German guy organized the music festival and was asking us if we’d be interested in coming over sometime and playing, and he was asking me about my name, Detweiler. … Do I have German background? He was curious, and I said, “Well, all us Americans are mongrels, where most of us have a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” And he said, “You’re bastard children of imperialism is what you are.” (laughs) It had a little bit of an edge to it, and I said, “OK, hold on now. Back up. … America is a place of great contradictions. We’re greedy and we’re generous. We’re very optimistic, but we’re superstitious. We believe in the separation of church and state, but we’re very religious. There’s all these contradictions in the water, but we’re the only country that could’ve given the world Johnny Cash.” And there was a pregnant pause. Then he said, “You’re absolutely right! I think you could disarm any European by saying that.”

I think “If a Song Could Be President” is a celebration of the fact that all this music could have only happened in America. It’s one of the greater gifts we’ve given the world. So, just in the context of sort of the climate of endless campaigning — and certainly our frustrations with the state of politics, the current administration and all that — I think this was a playful meditation on the fact that, regardless of what’s going on politically, American writing and songwriting is a great gift that we continue to give the world. And who knows? Maybe we should let John Prine run the FBI.

NUVO: This year, there was a YouTube presidential debate contest where regular people could record and send in questions for presidential candidates to answer.

Detweiler: Yeah, I remember hearing that covered on NPR, but I didn’t get to see any of [it].

NUVO: If you could have participated and possibly asked any question of one of the candidates, do you have an idea of what that might have been?

Detweiler: Ah. That’s a good question. (pauses) I don’t know. I don’t know if I could narrow it down to one question. I think it’s a little bit sad that for some reason, the political arena really seems to zap peoples’ humanity. I think Hillary Clinton would be fun to sit down and have a glass of wine with and have a conversation with, but when I hear her speak, she sounds really so wooden now when she’s up on the platform. And obviously Al Gore — I voted for Al Gore — but he often came off as a kindergarten teacher, sort of that persona. I found that really hard to stomach, frankly. And then in his film, he seemed so much more human. There was a human side of him that came out. [In] “An Inconvenient Truth,” that documentary, you know, I was thinking, “Why couldn’t he have let us see that side of him, just his humanity, when he was campaigning so heavily back in the day?” That’s what I feel kind of sad about. For whatever reason, this particular arena — the current climate of American politics — it just seems like it’s a humanity killer. I would be curious how these candidates [or] if they had any kind of framework for retaining just the essence of their humanness.

NUVO: Stepping aside from political discussion, some have been saying the title track from “The Trumpet Child” may be one of Karin’s finest hours vocally. Do you agree?

Detweiler: I think so. Someone described it as a “jazz hymn,” and I really liked that. Obviously, I think people are a little bit surprised at the way Karin approached that song as more of a classic torch singer or something, but there’s something going on there that’s pretty special with her performance.

NUVO: In the past year, your Web site has been redesigned, as well as your overall marketing image. For instance, your publicity photos now portray you and Karin in a much more serious light. But when you relax on stage, you seem much more lighthearted and humorous. What are the real Karin and Linford like?

Detweiler: I think we’re pretty lighthearted at the end of the day, although we ask big questions with our music, so there is seriousness about what we do or a spiritual aspect to the songwriting that we work hard at, and it’s not a joke. It’s not ironic. We’re not detached. We’re really putting something on the line personally. We’re trying to be vulnerable and honest with our listeners. “The Trumpet Child” was really our attempt, believe it or not, to throw a musical party, and we hope the feel of the record did feel like a party unfolding [with] friends gathered around. I think some of the material is some of the more lighthearted [and] joyful stuff we’ve committed to tape to this point. I think there’s a combination of, like, really wanting to laugh and yet wanting to go deep.

NUVO: As a married musical couple, how well do you work together? How do you keep each other motivated and keep writing and recording?

Detweiler: We’re pretty good editors. It’s nice to have a writing partner. We don’t write everything together, but we know that there’s gonna be a pretty tough critic (laughs) waiting there for the first listen. I think we’re capable of pushing each other. We’re trying to grow as writers. We don’t ever want to stop being surprised, or we don’t ever want to get in a groove where we keep making the same record over and over. We do want to push ourselves.

As far as the married part, I think we had to learn that balancing act between working together all the time on something that we’re both passionate about, namely music, but not letting that come in and just drown the marriage in a sea of excitement with what’s going on in our career. We worked pretty hard to make space for both our working relationship and our marriage. I think the biggest thing we had to learn on the road was how to stay connected. We’re traveling with a group of people all the time who we care about and love, actually. It’s a very communal enterprise, but you can sort of get lost as a couple in that.

NUVO: What other married musical couples do you admire?

Detweiler: Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan are an amazing creative partnership. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They’re fairly private about their relationship, but it’s another amazing musical partnership. Don and Karen Peris in a band called The Innocence Mission have made beautiful records together for years. Buddy and Julie Miller are both exceptional songwriters and musicians. We’re always curious of that dynamic and how different people make it work, and I’m happy to say there’s some great music being made by married couples (laughs).

NUVO: When you do find rare spare time, how do you spend it now? ... Do you still have your dogs?

Detweiler: I’ve got a big Weimaraner right next to me here on the porch swing. He’s sniffing around at the mint we have growing at our steps. I don’t know what he’s curious about, but he’s really focused on the mint. Maybe he’s trying to get a little buzz off of it or something. And then we have a Great Dane mix. He’s sprawled out in the grass in front of me.

It’s kind of windy. It feels like summertime — like this hot weather is trying to break. It feels like fall is trying to blow in a little bit today out here on our farm. We moved outside the city [of Cincinnati, Ohio], about 45 minutes [out], a couple of years ago, so we’ve got a lot of wide-open space. The golden rod is starting to turn golden out there, and it’s starting to feel a little bit like September, but it’s still summer.

NUVO: I know you tour a lot, but how do you feel when you return home? What do you love most about performing in the Midwest region, in particular?

Detweiler: Ah! Someone described our music as “Midwestern soul.” I think there is something Midwestern about us. We’re fairly earnest, even though that can kind of be a bad word. (laughs) Karin and I — we aren’t cool. We’re not detached or ironic like I was saying. We’re kind of messy. We kind of wear it on our sleeves. I think that’s kind of the way we like it. We want to remain real and retain that humanity I was talking about.

Karin says our reward for touring is coming home. We love the balance of that really intense community of putting on a show and people driving in. It’s one of the few remaining, truly communal enterprises in America — people getting together for music, all different kinds of people on both side of the political spectrum, college kids, professional people … whatever, all getting in the same room. We really love that. And performing is just one of those sort of mysterious, spiritual, nurturing, exhausting, addictive things that we humans love to do. We love to see somebody get on stage and risk making a fool of themselves. We love to do that thing we do. It’s definitely in our blood, and we love performing.

NUVO: This year, not only did you release “The Trumpet Child,” but you’ve also released a holiday album and a collection called “Discount Fireworks.” How did you handpick the songs for these albums?

Detweiler: The Christmas record, “Snow Angels,” is a really special record for us. It was recorded here at the farm. It took us probably close to 10 years to write all of the material on “Snow Angels.” We really wanted to try to set the bar high. I was thinking of songs like Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a beautiful Christmas song she wrote, and The Pretenders had a song called “2000 Miles” … and some of Vince Giraldi’s fantastic music on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I love Christmas songs, and of course, the music I grew up with as a child in church and all that. So we really wanted our record to feel like something different. We wrote the songs on there for the most part, and it was recorded here in our farmhouse with great players, mostly acoustically. This project is very close to our hearts. We’re excited about it.

As far as “Discount Fireworks,” we had fulfilled our contract with EMI. We were on an imprint called Back Porch, and they really wanted to do sort of a compilation before we moved on, and we said we would help out with that. We just picked a handful of some of the early songs from our days on I.R.S. Records, and then we picked a smattering of, I guess, some of the favorites from the last handful of records. Although, there was some fairly vigorous discussion about some of the obvious selections we didn’t pick. It’s hard to narrow it down, I think.

NUVO: But you are still performing some of those songs live?

Detweiler: Oh yeah. We’re still playing songs from “Drunkard’s Prayer” and “Ohio,” and we even pulled out a couple of early tunes again recently, and we try to keep pretty good representation of our musical journey. [laughs]

NUVO: Since last fall, you’ve been selling Over the Rhine coffee. How have sales been? Do you have any other unique gift items for sale under the Over the Rhine moniker?

Detweiler: Yeah, the coffee’s been a hit. We sell it steadily, but I don’t think Starbucks is in any danger of going out of business any time soon because of the Over the Rhine blend. But it’s great coffee, and what I love about it is it’s just kind of a conversation starter, you know, if it’s sitting on top of somebody’s kitchen counter.

We really value conversation being a part of what we do musically, and it doesn’t get any better than sitting down with a cup of good coffee with people that are close to you. So that was the thinking there. There [are] other unique gifts. I think our political sticker that you referenced is pretty unique. (laughs) People can slap that on their cars. We’d appreciate your vote.

Hopefully the Christmas record, “Snow Angels,” will be something that people enjoy passing around. It does get filed squarely in the “now for something a little different” category. Hopefully, that’s a good thing.

NUVO: Are you planning on conducting any more music workshops in 2008 as you have in the past year or so?

Detweiler: Yeah, you know, in the past two years we’ve done a week-long workshop in Santa Fe [New Mexico] with a wide array of songwriters, some very established, some just starting out, and it’s been really fascinating and scary and, ultimately, rewarding for Karin and I to show up in a room full of 15 songwriters and talk about what we’re drawn to as songwriters and listen to music and then have people start presenting their songs so we can talk about them as a small group. It’s a pretty special week. I think there are plans for us to return the first week of August and do that again [in 2008], so if people are interested, I’m sure there’ll be some info posted on the Web site probably early next year about that.

NUVO: Where is that usually held in Santa Fe?

Detweiler: It’s at St. John’s College. There’s a literary journal that hosts a week of workshops out there. There are poetry workshops, short story writing workshops. There’s life drawing with a wonderful American artist, Barry Moser, who is sort of the premier wood engraver in America, and he’s illustrated lots of books like “Moby Dick” and the King James Bible. He’s a true American treasure. But other award-winning authors and poets come in. It’s just a great mix of people, and obviously, there are glasses being filled in the evenings, with the various writers and musicians hanging around, and lots of stories being exchanged. It’s a nurturing time for Karin and I. We’ve been out there the last four years. The first two years, we just went out and were what they call “musicians in residence,” which meant we just performed throughout the week. But the last two years, we’ve actually been leading a workshop, and it’s been a great experience for us.

NUVO: What other current projects are you working on, and what can we look for in the future from Over the Rhine?

Detweiler: Hopefully, you can look for our best record to be released in the future. (laughs) We hope that each one is better than the last. And we started a little tradition, two years ago, where at the end of the year, we gather some concert highlights and do a limited edition CD release of the previous year’s touring adventures. So, we’ve got two of those out, and we’ll be doing volume three in 2008. That series is called “Live from Nowhere.”

And as far as other projects, I’m trying to knock together a first book of poems, which is my loose description of any words that didn’t make it into a song, I suppose. So I’d like to get a couple of books out hopefully in the next couple of years. With “Live from Nowhere: Volume Two” and those other records you mentioned, we’ve actually released four CDs in the last 12 months, so that’s kept us kind of occupied. [And] we’re looking forward to coming on through Indiana again.

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