Making Songs Out of Stories: Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler on 10 Years of Songwriting

[This interview was originally published at the website for a non-profit arts organization called Promontory Artists Association in February 2000.]

Linford Detweiler has learned to take it easy.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Seattle, unusually sunny for late February, and he joins my wife Anne and me for coffee and cranberry juice at the University Plaza Hotel, his home for the weekend, far from his Cincinnati headquarters. Linford, his wife singer/songwriter Karin Bergquist, and their band––Over the Rhine––are in town for two special shows, a momentary tangent from their larger purpose…touring with the Cowboy Junkies.

This tour has brought new opportunity and energy to Over the Rhine, not to mention exposure to a larger audience. Appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Sessions at West 54th have placed them on well-watched platforms. This publicity is an unexpected highlight after a period in which their previous record label, I.R.S., folded, and their future seemed uncertain. It’s been a decade-long rollercoaster ride from varying levels of obscurity to varying levels of fame.

Now, a new record contract with Virgin/Backporch may be the greatest opportunity they’ve yet had. While Over the Rhine have never been in the Top 40 or on the cover of Rolling Stone, word-of-mouth is having a cumulative effect. Current celebrities Sixpence None the Richer even thank Linford and Karin for their influence. The new deal has brought most of their recordings back into print; their latest independent work, the critically acclaimed Good Dog Bad Dog, is available in a new package with the addition of a new song.

An adventure like this might make some performers a bit shaken, anxious, exhilarated. But Linford seems content to take it in stride. Our conversation does not dwell on their imminent celebrity status, politics, other musicians, or scandals, but rather on books, songwriting, and the personal experiences that enrich his writing.

What are you reading these days?

A book that I just started is called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I kept hearing her name, and my sister Grace lent me a few excerpts from it last time I was up visiting her. And Karin picked up a copy of Traveling Mercies. So Lamott is the current writer in our lives. We’re going to be performing at the writer’s conference at Calvin College. It’s a pretty amazing little gathering up there. Anne Lamott’s one of the main speakers, and Maya Angelou, one Karin’s favorites is speaking as well. And Chaim Potok.

I tend to come across a writer and try to read a good handful of what they wrote before I move on. My sister Grace and I both quit reading when we got to high school. We both went to boarding school in Western Canada, and we’d been avid readers. I didn’t start reading again until I was a junior in college. In school, we read what was assigned to us; we didn’t read for pleasure. The author that got me reading again was C.S. Lewis. Then I went through a big Dylan Thomas phase. I read a lot of what he wrote. Then I discovered Southern American writers like Flannery O’Connor and read everything she wrote, and then Annie Dillard. I’ve been reading a lot of Frederick Buechner’s stuff.

How did you get started writing songs and starting a band?

I wish I could say that my starting a band was shrouded in mystery, that it was some sort of profound artistic part of the project. But I was just naïve. I loved music. We said to ourselves, let’s start a band, get our songs on the radio, make a lot of money, live in England, buy a farm…. And while we didn’t achieve a level of success that we’d hoped for right away, we have in one sense or another accomplished most of these things. Just not all at once. It’s been life changing in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I learned fairly early that being famous was not what I really cared about. What I do love and care about is the words.

What do you find is the best kind of support and encouragement you receive from your friends and your fellow songwriters?

Michael Wilson has been a great inspiration. He was the first real “artist” that showed me what art could be about. He has this ability to pick out the unremarkable details of our lives and hand them back in a way that makes us see them for the first time. He’s shown me how we can learn to keep our eyes open to what’s behind the fabric of the ordinary. His work has been hugely influential. He’s also a very deep listener. He introduced me to a lot of good things. For example, he was the first person to play Tom Waits for me. Now that’s a perspective-altering experience!

And there’s another individual… I suppose technically he’s my pastor…. Dave Nixon. He’s a gifted writer, he has his doctorate in classical languages. He married Karin and I. He’s in the process of working through reinventing what church might look like.

It’s an extra challenge to work together with Karin as a creative couple, isn’t it? How do you two manage to work together as a team? Do you do most of your work together, or separately?

Karin and I… we’re together probably more than any other couple I’ve ever met. We do try to give each other some degree of solitude, to give each other that gift of time. We’ll work separately and then bring our work and sit down together. She’ll play me a song, and often I’ll say, “Don’t change a thing.” Other times, she will have worked out the melody and I’ll supply the words. Often I’ll have a whole song worked out ahead of time. I see my job as being to write songs that allow her voice to bloom.

Many of our readers tell me about struggling with their work, about lack of success, doubts about their calling to be an artist. A lot of your work seems to deal with periods of doubt, struggle, darkness, even depression. Tell me about how you’ve dealt with the hard times as an artist, how you’ve worked through them.

There have definitely been difficult times. At the beginning sometimes things wouldn’t go the way we wanted them to, and I’d think “I’m not cut out to do this.” Some of the most difficult relationships of my life so far have occurred with somebody that I was working with in the band. And that has been an exhilarating and sometimes devastating exercise in being a human being.

I go to this Trappist monastery called Gethsemane in Kentucky, just two hours from Cincinnati where I live. They have about a thousand-acres there where I can walk and think. I found out about it reading Thomas Merton. It’s a chance to be quiet. When I’m there I realize that the world really is a noisy place.

I went down to the monastery in 1995 and said “I think I’m going to let it go” and I made peace with that. Because of these stories we grow up with in the church, I had the image of Abraham’s son on the altar. And I basically said, “That’s it. I put it down. I’m free. I’m still young, and I’m going to go rethink my life.” But when I got home, the first message on my machine said, “Hey, Linford… every spring Miles Copeland has this retreat with writers at his castle in Southern France and we’d like you to come over and hang out with songwriters and be a part of this. We’ll pay your way. All you have to do is show up.” And then the next message was something else. Everywhere I turned it was clear, “Don’t quit music. You’ve started a story that’s not yet completed.” So I ended up staying in it. And I feel really excited about that part of it now.

The mystery at the heart of so many creative people is that we’re trying to make sense of the story that we’ve been handed and the story that we’re helping to write with our lives. We write to try to figure out what we believe is true, and to try to make sense of what’s happened. On the one hand we bemoan difficult childhoods… or whatever it is…but on the other hand those difficult things make us who we are. It wasn’t Karin’s first choice for her dad to leave and never come back when she was three years old, for her to be the odd girl growing up in a small town in Ohio, the only one without a father…. Whatever pain was part of Karin’s journey has made Karin who she is. And she wouldn’t sing what she does if she had no abandonment. You listen to a song like “Poughkeepsie”, and you know she’s definitely wrestled with depression at times.

You’re reminding me of watching Roberto Begnini win his Oscar in 1998. He ran to the microphone and thanked his parents for the greatest gift they could ever have given him… poverty.

Yes! Karin taped that, and we re-played that so often. I think that’s why I desire to write more and more. To try to make sense of the story of my past. And what went down in my family…oh, if you only knew. There’s a lot there, and I feel like I’m ready to start opening it up and looking at it. I think that’s where it starts. It starts with what we experience, and if it ends up being a fictitious character or a memoir or whatever, it doesn’t really matter.

So I go up Poughkeepsie,
look out o’er the Hudson
and I cast my worries to the sky.
Now I still know sorrow,
but I can fly like the sparrow
’cause I ride on the backs of the angels tonight.

-from “Poughkeepsie”

Do you write for an audience or for yourself? You make it sound like songwriting is a very personal private thing you do for yourself.

What goes along with writing for yourself is accepting the fact that your audience may be non-existent. It’s not really fair to write to please yourself and then bemoan the fact that you’re not hugely popular.

I’ve learned this from other artists that I respect. If you can’t say to others “To hell with what you think” to some degree, you’ll second guess yourself, and you’ll never create anything. A fair amount of what I do, I do based on a set of instincts that I’ve developed, by paying attention to what I love or what moves me, and hanging around with people that inspire me. I’ve never done anything that I really care about while trying to second-guess what somebody’s going to like. The healthy position for me is what I called in a song ‘healthy apathy’.

I’m not really big on seeing a newspaper clipping and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to write a song about that.” I’m not one of those writers like Bruce Cockburn who tries to get a point across; it’s more of an intuitive thing. I’m trying to tell something that feels taut from beginning to end. I learn about what I’ve written along with everybody else.

C.S Lewis talked about wanting to “delight” and “instruct” in his writing. Sometimes the wanting-to-instruct was a bit too much for me. But he certainly did delight as well.

You certainly don’t preach at us, like the Christian music you hear on religious radio. But the language of faith is woven throughout your work. It seems that right now there are lot of artists blurring the lines between other genres and Christian music, revealing more of what is possible for a musician of faith.

What has been your relationship and experience with the church and church communities in view of your music?

I’ve made it a point not to engage with the reactionaries. I try not to go into a place where the people expect us to be something that we’re not. When we started Over the Rhine part of my naïve self, having grown up in the church, hoped that Over the Rhine would be somehow a damaging blow to “Christian Music” in that it would be something that would blur the lines and draw people away from that mentality. And to some extent I think we’ve succeeded in shaking that up a bit.

I can remember people looking at us eight or nine years ago and thinking we were something alien in that we would play 150 club shows a year and then play the Cornerstone and Greenbelt festivals. People that were exposed to us at Cornerstone thought that we were a little bit odd. But now it’s a “no-brainer” for some band that came out of somebody’s youth group to go play in a club. Everybody does it now.

We did stop once at the Creation festival, right before we signed with I.R.S. Records. We were out on tour, we were going to play Cornerstone the next week. We thought “Why don’t we just stop by and put our records out.” We could set up a little booth and find a few allies. And we were almost run out of there! It was one of those classic things where mothers gather together to protect their children from all of this “New Age” imagery. Karin and I were hanging out there biding our time and people would approach us in groups, a spokesperson with other people looking over their shoulder. We tried to engage them. One of the directors of the festival stopped by because well-meaning sixteen year-olds were coming back with their youth pastors’ arms on their shoulders saying, “I want to give this tape back. You never mentioned Jesus anywhere.” Whatever. It was a bad experiment. Since then, we’ve been really good about realizing that certain people have an agenda for what they want to do, and if we don’t fit in, we’re not going to force it.

There has been definite progress. Sixpence None the Richer have started in a much different place. Theirs has been much more a youth-group audience. And now, with their self-titled album, it’s great to see them setting an example that you can move on to more ambitious songwriting, like yours, without sacrificing faith, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

(laughing) If that’s what they’re going to do, then they’ve got their work cut out for them. That was a very special record.

Do you envy the sudden phenomenal success Sixpence have experienced, or do you say to yourself, “There but for the grace of God go I?”

I was basically tickled pink for them. That’s everybody’s dream, especially at their age, to get that kind of attention placed on a song. It opens a door to a whole new level of a career. I don’t particularly envy them the process it took for them to get there…it was grueling. And I don’t envy them the fact that in a lot of ways their life now is not their own, and every nuance of their career will be scrutinized now. I can look back at certain points of my career and if that would have happened then, I would have taken the money and skipped town or self-destructed in various ways. I wouldn’t have had the resources to handle that.

If you could go back and talk to your younger self, back in 1989, and give yourself any messages or any warnings about the road that lay ahead of you, what would you say to yourself? And would your younger self go on ahead anyway?

I don’t think that I could do it again, but I would certainly encourage myself to do it again.

If you really want to do it, you embrace the chaos and don’t look back. When we first started to get [Over the Rhine] off the ground, to the point where we could actually make a living doing it, I said, “Every resource that I can possibly muster, every ounce of personal energy, I want to put in this. If we fail, I want to be destitute, and out on the street with nothing. I don’t want to have a little nest egg set aside that is my safety net for not making it.” It’s been a labor of love, and we’ve never really cashed in, but we’ve had some nice surprises along the way. The madness of four people in a car traveling across the country staying in one hotel room is something I don’t think I could psyche myself up to going back to.

You’ve been touring and singing with the Cowboy Junkies. Has that affected the direction of Over the Rhine’s music?

The Junkies get a lot of flak because they do this dreamy, “torchy”, smoky music. Some people think it’s boring and sleepy, and to others its phenomenally unique and amazing. I see them constantly trying to rock their own boat, trying different things. Some things we’re recording with them for their new record is in almost a Radiohead vein. I want Over the Rhine to do what we do best. Reckless curiosity is important, but it’s more important at the beginning of a journey, and then you want to rein it in and focus it.

Tell me about some of the more recent songs. There’s a lot of sadness in these songs, as you said earlier, and the first song, “Latter Days,” is a heartbreaker.

There is a me you would not recognize, dear
Call it the shadow of myself
And if the music starts before I get there
Dance without me
You dance so gracefully
I really think I’ll be okay…

- excerpt from “Latter Days”

Where did this song come from?

It’s become an important song for me. It was written in my bedroom, I was just scratching some things down. When it’s happening, you never know at the time that something is going to be that essential to your work. It’s just very informal. And that’s just one of the purest things I’ve ever written.

I was questioning another one of those periods where I felt like I was done with music, that I didn’t have what it took. So the whole bit about “dancing without me” is to other musicians… “You go on ahead and do it. I’ll get there eventually and I’ll be okay.” The lines about, “I just don’t have much left to say”… that’s very literal. “I’m supposed to be writing these songs, but I’ve been dashed on the rocks and I’ve got nothing left.”

It wasn’t too long after Karin’s dad died that I wrote the song. He was really quite known for being a good dancer… he was a Presence. Those two images planted the seeds.

To me, there’s something about that sadness that is ultimately joyful. Some people wouldn’t see it that way. In one of the new songs that I want to record, the first line is “The saddest lines are the happiest, the hardest truths are the easiest.” Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission has this sweet sadness that she carries. Other people have remarked on it. She carried this intense sadness that was so beautiful, and yet when she expresses that and you hear it coming out, it causes me so much joy even though it’s so sad. I guess that mystery, that sweet sadness, is something that fires my imagination.

You try to tell a story on a record. “Latter Days” is the first song on “Good Dog Bad Dog”, but by the second song ["All I Need is Everything"] this person is already starting to realize that this place of brokenness is one of immense strength and renewal. Now that I realize that I’m completely shattered, I’m at a place where good things can happen.

Tell me about the new song “Moth”, from “Amateur Shortwave Radio”.

There’s no savior hanging on this cross
It isn’t suffering we fear but loss
When there’s no one else around to blame
You’re a burning moth without a flame
If you were to take my place tonight
See yourself in a different light
If you were to take my face tonight
Wouldn’t Jesus be surprised?

- excerpt from “Moth”

Karin wrote the chorus and I wrote the lyric. She came up with “There’s no savior hanging on this cross, it isn’t suffering we fear but loss.”

It really could be a song about an abusive relationship. People are willing to suffer for years in a situation that they know is ultimately destructive because the greater fear is losing it, making a fresh break. But you come to a place where the only redemptive option is to walk away. There’s no savior that can bail you out at this point. “When there’s no one else around to blame…”

In a sense it was a song about the original lineup of the band. We took it as far as we knew how, and in order for any good to come out of the future we need to move on to another situation.

“Faithfully Dangerous” is another intriguing lyric.

Your paint dries, the canvas smiles,
with two eyes you lift yourself up.
Stroke your skin, there are teeth marks to be sure.
Maybe we’re best close to the ground.
Maybe angels drag us down.
I wonder which part of this will leave the scar.

- excerpt from “Faithfully Dangerous”

I must have written “Faithfully Dangerous” while I was reading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. She talks about leaving “toothmarks” in manuscripts, and that’s a song to me that’s about creativity. If you do something creative, it’s going to be a wild ride, but make your peace with it. You’ll probably get dragged through the dirt, but maybe that’s good for you.

For me to talk about specific songs is fairly rare. I usually can’t do that too much. Putting the website together [www.overtherhine.com], looking back at our story, at where we’ve come from and where we want to go, I can see where songs fit into the story, but at the time it’s very intuitive.

What do you do to recharge, or when you can’t write?

Reading, maybe just doing nothing for a while. I’ve learned to make peace with that. It’s probably just exhaustion… (laughs) or lack of talent. The ground is just lying fallow.

Your bulletins to fans and the liner notes in your albums demonstrate a love of writing and of poetry. Sometimes I wonder if we’re going to see a book of poetry or memoirs with your name on it.

I’ve been thinking about it, actually. Perhaps when we get to a place where I have some time to focus on something like that…I would very much like to try.

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