Interview: Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris. It's a name that hardly needs introduction. The singing and songwriting legend has had a career that has spanned 40 years filled with stunning solo albums and colaborations with a who's who of musicians, from her start with Gram Parsons to her work with modern alt-country heroes like Ryan Adams and Connor Oberst.
When we found out that we'd scored a rare interview opportunity with the country music icon, we knew there was one person who's skills we had to enlist - Emmylou expert and the host of CMC's Alt Country, Catherine Britt. Catherine and CMC caught up with Emmylou for a 10 minute phone conversation to talk about her new album, Hard Bargain, her upcoming Australian tour in November, and her other passion in life - rescuing stray dogs.
Hi Emmylou, thanks for speaking with us today.
You were last here in 2011 for Sydney fest, how many times would you say you’ve toured the country now and what would you say are some of your earliest memories of Australia? How do you find Australian audiences?
I came over at least once with Spyboy in the late 90s. I’m pretty sure I was over there in the 80s with The Hot Band – probably the Nash Ramblers. You know I determine my past history by my bands [laughs]. But it’s always a pleasure to come down and see your beautiful country and the fans are fantastic down there.
Your new album Hard Bargain seems to have a lot of existential themes about relationships and life and music – are they all things that you dwell on or reflect on a lot in this stage of your life and your career?
I think you just get to a certain point where what was behind you is longer than probably what is ahead of you and it just makes you look at your life a little differently and it’s not good or bad – it’s just what it is.
You’re obviously one of the great collaborators in modern music history - do you have any idea on how many albums your work has been featured on?
Well we did a quick count in the office yesterday and it came to about 869.
My goodness! You’re making me tired!
Are there any artists now that you would still like to collaborate with and is there anyone you never had the chance to work with and wished you always could have?
I kind of collaborated with Rodney Crowell before but we just finished a duet record that we promised we would do for years and we’ve just finished it and it will come out early next year. So I can cross that off my list.
Your career has spanned 40 years and the music industry has changed so much in that time, particularly in the last decade or so. Do you think it will be possible for an artist to emulate your career and be as prolific as you have been with the set up of today’s music industry?
Oh gosh, I think so. Music is such a powerful, creative force and people are always going to be drawn to it. I hope there are people out there that can have as much fun as I’ve had. I don’t want to keep it all to myself.
You’ve got such an amazing and extensive back catalogue of music, how many songs would you say you think you have memorized and how do you pick songs for a tour?
Quite a few I would say. Each band, we work up songs from the old records and then obviously the new records and the sets evolve around that, depending on: what songs sound best with the musical instrumentation; what’s going to show off the musicians that are in the band and the vocal arrangements; all different kinds of things. It comes about very sort of naturally. For example I have a mandolin/fiddle player in the band, so there are certain songs that I am able to put in that otherwise I wouldn’t have done because I would’ve missed not having the fiddle. For a while we didn’t have an electric guitar player in the band, but when we made Hard Bargain there’s all that beautiful guitar playing by the producer, Jay Joyce, so we’re lucky to have a great player named Will Kimbrough who’s playing the electric guitar. So it’s one of those things where I have a great catalogue to choose from, and obviously you can’t do every song, but you like to change it up a little and keep it fresh.
How would you say your current band, the Red Dirt Band, contribute to your live performances?
The band contributes so much – I don’t want to be out there playing by myself because that would be no fun. There are just so much colours and textures surrounding the song that make the performance more powerful.
Your friend Susanna Clarke sadly passed away recently. Susanna wrote songs like 'Easy From Now On' and 'I'll be your San Antoine Rose,' which have been some of your most celebrated songs. What was it about Susanna’s songwriting that you connected with?
You know, she wrote so romantically. She really has a sense of a woman’s heart but it wasn’t precious or cloying. There was something independent about it but also romantic. Of course I knew her very well and she just had a particular voice in her writing.
Your career famously started with singing for Gram Parsons, and you recently said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, “It's terrible that Gram died so young, but I'm grateful that our paths crossed.” The time you spent with Gram was only a small window in the context of your career but has seemed to have cast a long shadow across it. Do you think your partnership with Gram continues to influence you as an artist today or was that simply an important chapter in your musical history?
I think both because I think that whenever you have one of those explosive, big bang sort of moments with certain people that sort of change the trajectory of your life and impact it in a certain way, that even though it was many years ago, you can’t take that away from your life. It’s not something you dwell on and obviously other people come in and have a strong influence on you. But I think that moment of sort of creation happens that was not there before – it’s just part of your DNA.
Hard Bargain was partially co-written with Will Jennings (a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar winner who wrote the lyrics to 'My Heart Will Go On'). What did collaborating with Will bring to your music and your songwriting?
Oh, he’s such a wonderful writer and, oh God, he writes these beautiful melodies! I tend to be a bit liner with my melodies and more of a lyricist. I was a little intimidated to be writing with someone who is so successful and who I did not know well, but he’s so gracious and so generous and he already had those ideas for those songs started, so I was able to come in and put my stamp on them.
Outside of your career one of your passions is rescuing stray and homeless dogs in your home city of Nashville. What got you into that cause and how much of that takes up your time now?
Well, it’s kind of like a second career [laughs]. I tour a lot to pay the vet bills but I couldn’t be happier to do it. I’ve always loved animals and I come from a long line of animal lovers on both sides of my family. I had a dog that travelled with me that I adopted in 1992 and he died in 2002 quite suddenly, and for a while I was dealing with a lot of grief. I didn’t really think I would adopt another dog. But I have a fairly big, flat, back yard and one day I had an epiphany that I could build some dog runs and become sort of a satellite to the local Nashville humane, which was where my dog, Bonaparte, was adopted from and that’s how we started, so it was sort of in his memory and a way to turn the loss into something positive to save other dogs. It’s just one of the best things I’ve ever done. I get so much joy from it.
Well our time is up but thank you for spending some time with us today Emmylou.
Well it’s my pleasure and thanks for asking about the dogs.
Words: Nathan Wood & Catherine Britt
Head to the CMC Tour Page to find all the info for Emmylou's upcoming Australian tour presented by CMC.