Interview with Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine, the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, has been making beautiful music together for 20 years. We got the chance to talk with Linford about their new, Joe Henry-produced album, their upcoming Birchmere show, and failed polar expeditions.

American Noise: The Long Surrender is the first album you’ve released since 2007. How much material did you have to work with, and how did you choose what would be on the record?

Linford Detweiler: We had about twenty songs finished and probably about another twenty in various states of disrepair. Joe Henry really helped us narrow down the song selection to the thirteen that would be on the record.

AN: How was it working with Joe Henry? He’s not someone you’d first think of as a producer when you think of how Over the Rhine sounds.

LD: It was a wonderful experience working with him. We slowly but surely moved his name to the top of our list of ideal producers. We were fans of Joe’s songwriting and fans of some of the amazing projects he was producing. We reached out to Joe to see if he had heard Over the Rhine’s music, and he said “As a matter of fact, my mother and father have tickets to your upcoming show in Shelby, North Carolina.” We thought, “Wow, if we can get Mom and Dad Henry on our side, this might actually happen.”

AN: I guess you guys did get them on your side.

LD: (laughs) Yeah! We had an amazing week recording. We leaned into the band that Joe put together like a really good dancing partner and recorded everything live in the space of five days. It felt like we really captured something.

AN: My favorite song on the record is one you wrote: “Undamned,” which features guest vocals from Lucinda Williams. How did that end up happening? Was it Joe’s idea to bring her in or Over the Rhine’s?

LD: Karin and I had kind of given up on that song: we didn’t think it was going to make the final cut. Joe had a feeling about it and sent the song to Lucinda, and she offered to sing with Karin on it. When she showed up at the studio and leaned into the microphone and we heard the two voices together, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

AN: You released the record on your own label, Great Speckled Dog Records. Are you guys playing off of [country classic] “Great Speckled Bird?” Are you Roy Acuff fans?

LD: It is a play on the title “Great Speckled Bird;” that was a song I grew up listening to. I always thought it was a strange, mysterious song. We had a great speckled dog of our own that showed up—an amazing Great Dane named Elroy, so we named our record label after Elroy.

AN: What’s the biggest challenge of having your own label?

LD: We’d been on and off various record labels over the last twenty years. I think Over the Rhine has always had a strong DIY ethic. One thing is for sure: we never expected a record label to do the work of reaching out to our audience for us. We always wanted to make a direct connection with the people that were interested in Over the Rhine’s music. We always were curious about who these people were and always finding excuses to get them in a room, talking to one another. I think the challenge is balancing our creative writing lives with running a business. It’s hard to just find the right balance there. Sometimes the business side kind of takes over, because there’s always a lot to do.

AN: The Long Surrender was financed by a large group of your fans who are mentioned in the liner notes. Tell me a little about that experience.

LD: We had fun with our audience on this one. We kind of invited them to buy a record that hadn’t been made yet (laughs). We were excited about recording on the West Coast for the first time with Joe Henry and this amazing band he had put together. It felt like an opportunity to invite our listeners along in real time on this adventure. They’re already asking when we can do it again, so I think something went right.

AN: What’s the songwriting process like for you, either when you’re alone or collaborating with Karin?

LD: It happens in every imaginable way. Sometimes we get a snippet of the lyrics first; sometimes we might begin by humming a melody or coming up with a little idea at the piano or guitar. I think as I’ve grown older, writing for me has become a lot about patience and about sitting and listening to an unfinished song. Sometimes you can’t force it—it feels like a song has something it’s trying to reveal, but you have to be willing to sit with it and be patient. Of course, we throw away a lot of work along the way while we’re trying to get at the right words.

AN: What are you reading these days?

LD: I’ve become obsessed with some of the expeditions that were happening back in the 1800s when people were trying to get to the North Pole. I’ve been reading the history of some of these expeditions that went horrendously wrong when two dozen people would set out on the ice and try to win the fame that would come from being the first humans to reach the North Pole and the amazing hardships that they endured. It’s fascinating to me in a weird way.

I became interested in this by reading a couple essays by the writer Annie Dillard. She even wrote a couple of poems that pulled excerpts from the journals of these poor, obsessed explorers. Karin and I read pretty regularly; I usually read a little while every evening. We got to hear a poet speak recently by the name of Charles Simic, so we were rereading some of his poems recently. He also wrote a wonderful little book called Monster Loves His Labyrinth, which is sort of excerpts from his notebooks; it’s a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend.

AN: And what are you guys listening to on the road?

LD: I really love the last record that Allen Toussaint put out, called The Bright Mississippi. It just so happens that some of the players on that record played on our record. Allen Toussaint is one of my favorite piano players in the whole wide world and I just adore this record. It’s mostly instrumental and it’s just beautiful.

AN: Over the Rhine has been making music and touring for twenty years. How do you keep it interesting and also avoid burnout?

LD: Number one, we insist on writing songs that are interesting to us, so if we got bored with the actual music, I think we would call it a day fairly quickly. In the last couple of years, the thing that really inspired us was the idea of making a record that we couldn’t imagine in advance. So we were excited about working with Joe Henry, but we couldn’t decide what an Over the Rhine record produced by Joe Henry would sound like and we had to travel to the West Coast in order to find out. Finding ways to continue to be surprised is important for any artist. If you completely figure it out and come up with a formula, I think some of the excitement can leech out of the proceedings and you can find yourself going through the motions.

Also we try to find new ways of approaching the music. We’re going to do a couple of shows with the Cincinnati Ballet in April. They’ve choreographed twenty of our songs with three different choreographers from around the U.S. There will be two dozen dancers performing with us onstage for these performances, and that sounds like a worthy experiment.

Another thing we’re doing—it’ll be the second time—is this fall, we’re inviting people from around the world to join us on a train. We invite some other musicians to join us and we take a train trip and play music and explore. We’ll be taking a train ride through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado this September and hopping off to build fires and play music.

AN: What’s in store for folks who come out to your Birchmere show next week?

LD: We’re traveling with an amazing six-piece band. Karin and I have been known to tell a few stories throughout the course of the evening. I hope the people laugh really hard, and if they tear up, that’s great, too. I hope the experience causes a whole array of feelings. Maybe they’ll get to see people doing what we were born to do, and hopefully that feeling will be contagious.