Richmond Fontaine – Live Review & Interview With Willy Vlautin From Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, Saturday 6th March 2010
[Click on the images to enlarge them, and go to Blueback Hotrod to view the full set. I'd like to say a big thank you to Dylan for filming the interview and for letting me use his photos, both for this post and for the titles for the videos.]
It would be a total cliché to describe Willy Vlautin as a natural storyteller, but then again, sometimes the reason that things are clichés is because they are entirely and obviously true. From the start of the interview to the end of the gig it is obvious that Vlautin just rolls thoughts and ideas around in his head, around the conversation, just enjoying the process of building phrases and telling you things.
He is also one of the nicest, most unassuming people I have ever met – just a complete gent from start to finish. I am far from an experienced interviewer, and his readiness to chip in, to participate, and to make the conversation worth everyone’s while turned what could potentially have been quite an awkward half hour into a genuine pleasure. Maybe that’s why he’s such an engaging performer – he always puts enough of himself into the show to make the interaction worth his and his audience’s while.
Listening to Vlautin’s songs, they are brought vividly to life by what is an understated, but nevertheless phenomenal talent for finding the important detail which turns his broad-brush vistas into crystal-clear snapshots of people and places you can almost smell, they’re so real.
I wonder if it’s his genuine sympathy and interest which allows him to spot that kind of detail, and to communicate it so cleanly. It’s hard to describe what’s so special about the way he does it, too. He’s observant, and can be harsh, but never in a judgmental sense. If ever what he describes comes across as harsh, he manages to do it in a sense that implies somehow that he still has great love for his characters, and it is simply reality which is mean-spirited. Even describing a van he bought which clapped out five hours out of the lot he imbues the tale with a kind of pathos: “I don’t know what happened to that poor van. It liked me I think; it just didn’t want to drive any more.”
When he talks to me about how he builds his stories, he tells me that there may be a great deal of reality in there but it’s completely jumbled up, although you’d never guess it. He doesn’t write to expose or to finger point, more as a way of imagining away the injustices and misfortunes of life either for himself or the people he writes about.
In fact, for someone whose stories can be so stark, and whose characters so intensely observational, he is at considerable pains to avoid either being voyeuristic or taking advantage of someone else’s misfortunes, explaining how he’ll exaggerate situations, extrapolate greatly from small moments to create the chains of events which provide the backbone to his plot, and break up and bury the literal observations under layers of new characters, new places and new consequences.
The catharsis, he tells me, is still the same. Just because the feeling is caused by different circumstances and happening to a very different person, doesn’t mean that demon isn’t exorcised – as long as the heart of it is there, it’s still the same.
I was a little nervous going into this interview not to cross any lines by talking about Vlautin’s books or his music either too much or too little; preferring to try and let him define how much separation he wanted to keep between the two. It turns out that boundary barely exists, however.
During the interview he tells me about how his latest book, Lean On Pete, was what happened when he sat down and started writing a story which had begun as a song which didn’t really work. Songs like The Disappearance of Ray Norton from Thirteen Cities remained as songs, but ended up being spoken word because he just couldn’t get the story he wanted to tell to fit into a traditional song format.
As he chats his way through the gig it becomes increasingly clear that the clichés are perhaps still the best point of reference, at least to begin to understand Willy Vlautin. He is, simply, a storyteller, and the medium is flexible. What doesn’t change though, to expand on that cliché a little, is that perhaps as much as a storyteller, he comes across as a listener, and that’s probably why he’s so good.
The band have been together for fifteen years, and the obvious consonance between them as musicians seems to flow from that openness to other people, and the performance itself is full of that spirit. I love an awful lot of Richmond Fontaine’s music, but there are definitely times when it’s not entirely my cup of tea. Live, though, the generosity of Vlautin and his friends has so much impact that I found myself drawn in by the warmth they project and even loving the songs I hadn’t enjoyed as much on record.
It was a lovely evening in general, and the interview was so interesting that I am going to publish it in its entirety as a podcast in the next couple of weeks so you can all hear it for yourselves. I’ll intersperse the conversation with the songs which get mentioned, and I absolutely defy anyone not to be captivated.