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Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings slow it down

By Andrew Iden, CNN
Gillian Welch, right, and musical partner Dave Rawlings found inspiration for their new album on the open road.
Gillian Welch, right, and musical partner Dave Rawlings found inspiration for their new album on the open road.
  • Singer Gillian Welch and musical partner Dave Rawlings struggled with latest project
  • The pair started driving to their shows and finished songs eight years in the making
  • They contributed to the latest record from The Decemberists

(CNN) -- Gillian Welch was trying too hard.

After her 2003 release "Soul Journey," she and her musical partner Dave Rawlings, were at the forefront of the contemporary folk music movement. But as the public was clamoring for their next effort, the two were not happy with their latest material.

"It wasn't really writer's block -- there are notebooks full of songs," Welch said while she and Rawlings barrelled down the highway to their next show. "If I were going to explain how (the songs) failed, it's still a slight mystery to me. Because a bunch of them seemed really close, and yet we just gave up on them."

When they finally found the right songs in late 2010, they released "The Harrow and the Harvest."

"I think what was happening with this record in the microcosm is we had to stop trying so overtly hard," Rawlings said.

"Because we'd done a lot of the mental work you have to do but we weren't ever relaxing enough to sort of let the thought come."

In order to stretch out and relieve some of that self-imposed pressure, Welch and Rawlings decided to slow things down. Instead of flying to shows, they started driving.

Welch said they realized that "the last thing we needed was this mode of travel that kind of does everything in its power to negate the fact you are moving."

"All the regimentation of it was kind of bad for our heads."

As their mode of travel slowed, their rate musical output increased dramatically.

In addition to "Harrow and the Harvest," Welch worked with Rawlings on his own album, "Friend of a Friend," and both contributed to the latest record from The Decemberists.

"Your thoughts gather weight as you travel on the ground, and see the country, as you see things go past you," Rawlings said. "And you actually have some experiences between point A and point B you take with you. In an odd way it feels like it gives you more time."

While all of the records Welch has released bare her name, Rawlings is just as much a part of the sound, be it from behind the microphone as a producer, or wielding his distinctive acoustic guitar chops.

After working with other musicians in a number of different capacities, the two were ready to get back to working as a duo.

"After the eight-year break, I feel like we had a certain amount of pent up ferocity for duets," Welch said.

"That was the first thing I feel like was absolutely settled about this record was, OK this is going to be just the two of us, you know, I feel like we respond very well to a certain amount of isolationism."

"Harvest" isn't a drastic departure from the folk sound that's made them such a staple in the Americana music community. They are still dealing with melancholy themes, and showcase lyrics that seem to have jumped off the pages of a John Steinbeck novel.

The lush acoustic sound that Welch and Rawlings have developed in the studio continues on this album.

"I'm so proud to have put this out into the world as a document of what acoustic guitars sound like. You know? Because at this point we've kind of devoted our lives to that sound," Welch said.

"The sound waves are actually mixing in the air and going into the microphones" as opposed to using mics on the individual instruments and voices and recording them separately.

"It's a subtle difference, but to me it's a profound difference."