Last spring, when Over the Rhine invited fans to financially partner with them for a new album, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler were overwhelmed by the response. In less than three weeks, all anticipated costs were covered, and then some. Maybe it's because OTR fans have been partnering with the band for years in other ways—sharing music, writing letters to Bergquist and Detweiler, attending concerts in dark, smoky pubs, in green city parks, and in crumbling churches. Or maybe it's because OTR fans "have a way of inviting that music to be part of the big moments of their life," as Detweiler says.
The married couple have been making music together since 1989, and in 2007, they started an independent recording label, Great Speckled Dog. OTR has consistently crafted thoughtful, sacramental songs, songs about love in both its beautiful and painful manifestations, songs about politics and places, songs about the playful and unpredictable moments of everyday life.
The Long Surrender, which releases today, was recorded with famed producer Joe Henry, who wanted to, in Henry's words, "blow the seams out of the songs." And they did. In an e-mail to fans, Detweiler wrote, "It felt like Joe put everything on a train—all the surprising things we saw out the windows as we rolled through the night, the rumble and the rhythm." But it isn't just Henry's influence; it's the more than 2,000 fans who hopped on that train before it even left Nowhere Farm, the home Bergquist and Detweiler share just outside Cincinnati.
Your fans funded The Long Surrender. How'd that come about?
I think it's part of the larger conversation of the music industry being in a mess. It feels like the veil between songwriter and listener has been rent from top to bottom, and that corporate structure that used to be in between the singer and the listener has been greatly diminished. Making a connection directly with an audience has never been easier, so we decided to go directly to our audience, tell them about this new project, and invite them to come in at whatever level they were comfortable with and fund this project. The response has been incredibly inspiring and humbling.
Why do you think that happened?
People seem to invite our music into the big moments of their life—falling in love, walking down the aisle, dancing their first dance at the wedding, conceiving [laughs], all with our music in the background. They were taking those records to the hospital, to the delivery room, burying loved ones with certain songs nearby. People are connecting with it on that level, and they're happy to be a part of something they believe in.
You've said that one reason you keep making music is "presence." Explain.
It's an insistence on telling the truth and not faking something for the sake of finishing a song. You have to be willing to sit with a song until something is revealed that feels real and honest, and that doesn't necessarily happen overnight. It's been three years since our last studio record (2007's The Trumpet Child), and there are songs on the new record that I wrestled with for every bit of that three-year time period, really waiting for that right thing to be revealed, when the song felt substantial and well-made.
Is good songwriting more a matter of discipline or inspiration?
Inspiration is great, but fairly early as a writer, I wrote down "Inspiration comes afterwards." That is not an original thought, but writers put pen to paper and they start wrestling with words, and that needs to happen regardless of whether or not you're feeling inspired. That being said, I'll take any scrap of inspiration I come across [laughs].
Some of your songs, both old and new, are playful, and yet carry weight—political, emotional, spiritual—just beneath the surface, as if you write on multiple levels.
Some of that comes down to craft, and being aware that most of the music that I'm drawn to has various levels. The best metaphor for that comes from the poet Billy Collins, who says his poems are like an eye chart at the eye doctor. There's the big "E" up on top that everybody can see. And then there's a second line where the print gets a little bit smaller but most people are still very much on board, and then the print gets a little smaller, and then a little smaller still, and—Wow, as I'm saying this a beautiful blue heron is flying right over my head!. In my songs, I want a focus point where everybody in the room can come together and share in that moment, without a great deal of effort. But I want there to be layers available to those who are willing to look more closely.
A good friend, Greg Wolfe, the editor of Image journal, says that the best way to approach mystery is through metaphor. So when Jesus is teaching, when he really wants to get at something deeper, he's usually telling a story that invites the listener to enter a place where things are happening on different levels. That's really where we want to live as songwriters.
I think your songs do that. Rather than a big proclamation of what is good or what is beautiful, you sort of tiptoe up to the good and the beautiful, unearthing it in this ordinary, lived experience. This is something that I call "sacramentalizing," though I might have made up that word.
I like it [laughs]! In terms of whispering hope versus shouting from the mountaintops, I'm much more interested in the former. I just doubt my ability to shout convincingly from the mountaintops. One thing that happens on a fairly regular basis in our writing is that if I tend to cross a line over into making too many pronouncements, my wife and partner and editor will often say, "Why don't we rephrase that as a question?"
For instance, a song on the new record is called "All My Favorite People." I had written a line that said, "I see each wound you received as a burdensome gift." Karin was uncomfortable with that, so she made it, "Is each wound you've received just a burdensome gift?" I thought it was so much more powerful, because you're just putting the question out there, like, At those most difficult moments, are they a gift of some kind? I don't always know that; what do you think? And that opens up a special place where real conversation can happen.
A lot of Over the Rhine songs seem to be about finding beauty in brokenness—sometimes clearly from a faith perspective, sometimes not.
I think that stems from an unwillingness to divide the world into sacred and secular, or into the broken and unbroken. We're all broken, and it's all sacred. That is sort of where we live, and if we fail, on a personal level, I think songs can remind us what we aspire to.
Having both grown up in the church, one of the first things we did was take our music out of the church and put it in a physical place where people were listening to music, in any particular town, regardless of where that might be. We were aware that that was a little bit radical when we started; for instance, if we played Cornerstone Festival, that was sort of the only "Christian" concert that we would play that year, and then we would go back out to the general marketplace.
I've always been interested in breaking down barriers that divide us into camps when we're really all part of the same family, even if it's a dysfunctional family. We'd love to see those lines get blurry.
You recently wrote in a newsletter, "We believe that making music has something to do with what we were put on this earth to do. If we leave our songs alone, they call to us until we come back to where we belong. When we live in the sweet spot of that calling, it gives others permission to discover the sweet spot of your own calling and live there." Talk some more about the combination of calling and community, maybe starting by talking about the music that you grew up with.
Karin and I both grew up around a lot of gospel music, hymns, church music. And we both spent some formative years in small coal towns near West Virginia, where there was a little bit an Appalachian thing happening. We were hearing country and western music, and rock 'n' roll on our friends' car stereos. I think I wrote in the liner notes to Ohio that it was kind of this strange musical world where Elvis was king and Jesus was Lord.
The first most influential community on me was my family. Both of my parents were raised on Amish farms, and musical instruments were essentially forbidden. As a child, my uncle had hidden an acoustic guitar in the barn and an accordion under the horse's manger. There was this idea of forbidden music. That has been a huge influence on me, inheriting that part of my family's story, because it reminds me that there is something dangerous and subversive about songwriting, and if I'm not risking anything as a writer I might be wasting people's time.
The other beautiful image as far as the community of my family is my mother wanting a piano as a child. She wasn't allowed to have a piano, so one of her school teachers helped her cut out a cardboard keyboard and bring it home to her bedroom, and she would play her cardboard keyboard and hear the music that was only inside of her. Forbidden music.
What about the community of your fans? How have they influenced the music?
They've certainly given it a life by listening to it and passing it around. They complete the circle and make it feel like a complete conversation. We love the fact that young kids continue to find the music. I think if that quits happening, you know, it's time to look at the expiration date.
And I come back to what I was saying about listeners inviting the songs to be part of the big moments. Someone told me about playing one of our records for a woman in hospice the day before she died. When we do songwriting workshops, we ask, "Who are we writing for?" I always say, "Why not write for the person who is living their next-to-last day on earth? Why not write that song?"
How would you describe the new album?
A little bit dark, cinematic, sea-faring. We cut the whole record live, I mean, with everybody playing together. It really felt that we were hopping on a train or setting out to sea, and we had to occasionally hit the lifeboats, but we made it back, and the record is what happened.
What influence did producer Joe Henry have on the album?
I wanted to make a record that I couldn't imagine. And that happened. I wanted to, in Joe's words, "blow the seams out of the songs" in unexpected ways. That happened. Joe is a very gifted writer, frankly, and I think, it might have been the first time I felt like we were really making a record with a writer; there was a different level of communion that was happening. There was a deep solidarity about getting the whole thing out of the deeps. Professionally, I don't think I would even quantify it. I would just say it was the trip of a lifetime.
Do you have a favorite track on the new album?
One of my immediate favorites is "Soon," a song that Joe co-wrote with Karin. He contributed a lyric for it that was just one of the high points of the record, and it happened, like before breakfast the day before we were done. And I just sort of backed slowly out of the room. [laughs] It was so great. When you hear it, tell me if you don't close your eyes and just have this movie happen in front of your eyes. I think it's one of the high points.
Elizabeth Sands Wise is a freelance writer and editor in Georgetown, Kentucky. She blogs about community at schmexas.wordpress.com.
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