The Stuff of Staying Together: Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler on Drunkard’s Prayer

Over the Rhine’s album Drunkard’s Prayer continues to dazzle and delight fans and newcomers.

But the story behind it—of the near-collapse of the marriage of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, and the remarkable salvation of their relationship and music—is, to say the least, inspiring… and a challenge to all who would know the hard-earned joys of marriage.

This week I talked with Linford about the album, the experiences behind it, and the future.

Overstreet:

There was a documentary film this year called The Story of the Weeping Camel, in which a violinist sits down and plays music for a camel and the baby that she has rejected. As the song plays out, something mysterious happens: the mother and the child reconcile. Tears run down the mother’s face. It’s extraordinary to watch. I sat there with tears in my eyes, because it just seemed so powerfully, profoundly, mysteriously true. I thought about how, when I listen to your music, things within me that I didn’t even know were broken are somehow repaired and made right.

Detweiler:

What a compliment. Thank you. We never quite know how to respond when people tell us our music has been helpful or even healing in some tangible way. But it keeps us coming back, I guess.

After we made our first handful of recordings, I remember trying to process why I wanted to be an artist. Was it ambition? (I had grown up in a large, thrifty family that lived simply and often went without.) Was it a need for acceptance and approval? (I was always a bit of a misfit as a child.) Was it a way of getting out of doing hard work? (No. There were some kinds of work that I hoped to avoid, but I didn’t mind working hard. I wanted something I could really throw myself into.)

Anyway, I tried to come up with a job description, some underlying motivation, a bottom line that would define my desire to be an artist, and what I kept coming back to at the time was I just wanted to try give the world something beautiful. That’s what we’ve always limped toward as a band, even if we found we could not dance.

Intuitively, I still know that the desire to give the world something beautiful is a useful pursuit for a life, but I often can’t put my finger on why I believe that. I suppose it comes down to the fact that like you, when I encounter something truly beautiful, significant parts of who I am begin to come to life, parts of me that I care about, but may have forgotten even existed.

I remember trying to explain one time what I felt a definition of good art might be, and all that I could come up with was that I know it when I experience it because it always makes me want to be a better human being. There’s a chemical reaction that I can feel all over my skin. That in itself is a kind of healing. I suppose we have always dreamed that our music could do that for people.

Overstreet:

Am I wrong to assume that these songs are not just documents of your healing, but in some way the songs are the actual agents of healing for you?

Detweiler:

We often end up writing the music that we need to hear at the time. In the case of Drunkard’s Prayer, this collection of songs in many ways celebrates the healing and even survival of our marriage. The songs were mostly written during a chapter in our lives where Karin and I were struggling with the stuff of staying together, when it would have been so much easier to drift apart and be yet another statistic. So yes, the songs themselves are very much tangled up in our healing process.

Overstreet:

What’s different about the Over the Rhine we’ll see on tour in the coming months, compared to the band that was readying for a tour last year? (And I’m not just talking about the lineup … of course.)

Detweiler:

Well, we made Drunkard’s Prayer in our living room, so we want to be sensitive to the acoustic nature of the record. But increasingly for us, playing live is all about catharsis, so we want the songs to evolve and have an energy that’s undeniable. We want it all I guess.

But I think the biggest difference might just be that Karin and I have a newfound sense of what’s important. Our work is vital to who we are, but it’s not all we are.

Overstreet:

It was a brave decision — and, I’m sure, a difficult one — to cancel your tour last year in order to attend to your relationship with Karin. But your fans cheered the decision. Was it also a difficult decision to share these songs, which clearly translate a lot of that pain, growth, and healing?

Detweiler:

It felt very natural to us. We’ve always been amazed by the enthusiasm and dedication of many who discover our music and support it. There is a sense of community that has grown over the years that’s been a huge encouragement to us to carry on. We felt like we wanted to be honest with our community of listeners about what was going on when we cancelled the tour. Honest about our human-ness, the fact that we have to do the hard work of growing up and learning to take good care of those we love just like everyone else. Sharing the songs was just our way of saying, Sorry about all that, but here’s a little consolation prize we think you might like! And yes, at the time, there was an outpouring of goodwill toward us that was humbling and extremely generous.

Overstreet:

You mentioned in another interview that Drunkard’s Prayer might be your favorite OtR album of all. Why is that? If you had to name which song has its roots deepest in your heart, the one that feels most personal and potent to you, which would it be? And why? Would Karin choose the same one?

Detweiler:

I suppose I should temper that by saying that just about every record we’ve made was my favorite at the time. But some projects do feel more deeply rooted in a season of life or whatever, and none more so than Drunkard’s Prayer. I think Karin and I brought a fresh appreciation of each other to this record that made it a lot of fun to make.

Also, Drunkard’s Prayer achieves a simplicity that I believe is quite special, and captures the heart of what Karin and I are about musically in a more immediate way than some of the other records. It feels honest and real. Straightforward. When we can achieve that in a recording we are then free to say, Well, it may not be for everyone, but at least it’s authentic, and we can feel good about that.

I think the heart of the record is the song “Born.” Again, it’s a very simple song, that grew out of this chapter of our lives. It was a true collaboration – we couldn’t have written that one without each other.

I think the sentiment of the song is universal and timeless, but some of the language feels fresh. That always feels like a gift.

Overstreet:

In any given year, popular music has its share of breakup songs. Last year, Sam Phillips gave us a shining example of how to turn pain into poetry on her “breakup album” A Boot and a Shoe. And P.J. Harvey turned in an album of rants over her own turbulent relationships. But it’s rare that we’re given an album that reflects the growing pains of people doing the hard work of reconciliation. You’re taking “the road less traveled.” Is there anything in particular you hope to inspire within your listeners, anything you’ve gleaned from this experience?

Detweiler:

I guess we’re going on record with the reality that any rewarding, enduring, monogamous relationship requires effort, energy, creativity, humor and a dash of luck and prayer. That’s normal. That’s reality. Falling-in-love-good-sex is easy. If there’s good chemistry, it’s more-or-less effortless. Being-together-for-15-years’-good-sex requires an entirely different level of skill, creativity and intelligence.

Being deeply connected to someone you’re just discovering and uncovering is a no-brainer. You more-or-less can’t think about anything else. Being deeply connected to someone you wake up with everyday for years, work with everyday, sit down to eat with everyday is actually something that requires thought and real investment. The problem is, we tend to assume that if we’re together all the time, we must be connected, when actually, people often live very separate lives together.

Karin and I made the mistake of thinking that because we were artists, we could do whatever we wanted, we’d just make up our own rules in regard to our relationship. When Karin and I first got married, we still had separate apartments for instance. We never would have dreamt of doing pre-marital counseling – that’s for losers who live in the suburbs. We’re artists!

Actually, we had to learn that it doesn’t matter who you are – attorney, professional baseball player, high school janitor, Pulitzer prize winning author: if your relationship lacks certain things, it will suffer. We were pretty naïve in some ways. If anybody wants to have a garden, they’ve got to do certain things to get a garden to grow. The garden doesn’t care who the hell you are or think you are. A relationship is the same in that regard.

Overstreet:

For some artists, personal struggles remain personal, and their work only hints at their interior lives. Others exploit their own autobiographies for the sake of spectacle. You and Karin are generous with your personal sentiments, and yet the songs do not feel exploitative or unnecessarily “telling.” Is that a difficult balance to strike?

Detweiler:

Well thanks for the compliment. Yes it is a difficult balance. We try to be open, while still keeping parts of our lives private for just the two of us. It’s a “feel-thang” I guess. If our desire is to encounter and produce art that by some mysterious chemical reaction leaves us wanting to be better human beings – more understanding, kind, empathetic, generous, brave, loving – then part of that picture is the willingness to be open and invite people to participate in the struggle, the disappointments, the tiny victories.

Overstreet:

“Spark” has a riveting refrain:

Sleep with one ear close to the ground / And wake up screaming / When we lay our cold weapons down / We’ll wake up dreaming.

That sounds like a sentiment with a story behind it — something that could be about a relationship, or about the drama playing out on the world stage. (It strikes me as a “sequel” to “Changes Come.”) Can you give us a window into the genesis of that song?

Detweiler:

You’ve nailed it. It applies to relationships for sure, but it’s basically a protest song at the end of the day — very much in the spirit of “Changes Come”. It’s a simple statement that addresses the reality of the fact that as long as we rely on massive military solutions to supposedly resolve conflict, we deny the possibility that there could be more innovative, creative, helpful solutions. We deny the fact that America, the country that gave the world Jazz and Bluegrass and Blues and Gospel music, could be equally as innovative when it comes to human conflict. The fact of the matter is, when we ignore the lives of people like Jesus, Gandhi or Martin Luther King and rely on force to bring about change, we do irreparable damage to the psyche of our nation.

Overstreet:

Another song — “Firefly” — seems to bring the album farthest from its simple, personal opener to one of your more abstract, metaphor-heavy works. Is there a story behind that one?

Detweiler:

Karin wrote that one primarily, but to me the pivotal line in the song is “My memory will not fail me now.” I like the idea of learning something or experiencing something so deeply that forgetting becomes physically impossible.

Overstreet:

You’ve seen “the landfill rainbow.” What’s that about?

Detweiler:

We were traveling once and I literally saw a rainbow over a landfill – I think it was somewhere in Indiana or Illinois. I thought is was a powerful image, a sort of hopeful mess, and it came back to my mind when I was processing the potential wreckage of a relationship, relieved that our own relationship hadn’t ended up on some junk pile. “We’ve seen the landfill rainbow, we’ve seen the junkyard of love, baby it’s no place for you and me” was my way of saying, Let’s take care of each other and never go through that again!

Overstreet:

Is that you singing backup on “Bluer”?

Detweiler:

I did sing back-up on that song, thanks to Karin’s encouragement.

Overstreet:

In the last year, you’ve also joined the rest of us in trying to comprehend the devastation of the tsunami, even as you’ve struggled with the loss of a close friend’s son in a car accident. Where do you and Karin find comfort in the midst of these things? You wrote in a recent Web site letter, “We can’t imagine, but we hope in small ways to bear each others burdens. We think about our faith. We believe, and we pray for help with our unbelief.” In the face of these losses, what prompts you to keep believing? What challenges that belief?

Detweiler:

Whew, that’s a big one. Some days are better than others. Some days we believe that theologians got it wrong somewhere, that God isn’t all-powerful. Otherwise, how could you pull for someone who idly stood by while unspeakable cruelties were perpetrated? (C.S. Lewis wondered during a difficult time of loss if God was just some “cosmic vivisectionist” who played recklessly with human suffering.)

Maybe God struggles along with the rest of us to move the world to a better place. Or maybe God needs us to help move things forward, and we’re limited and broken so that limits God. I guess we don’t have the answers. I think Anne Lamott was talking in her new book, Plan B, about the fact that the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty. Interesting.

We cope by trying to learn along with everyone else, grow, experiment, love well. We cope by talking, slowing down, lingering over a glass of wine. Recently we decided we needed to cope by moving out of the city, out into open tree-lined fields, open sky, cleaner air. We cope by trying to give the world some tiny gift with our lives, by some miracle, something beautiful.

Overstreet:

Another loss — another transition: Saying goodbye to the Grey Ghost, the house where you’ve recorded so much music. What do you miss most about that place? Does the new house feel like home yet, and is it likely we’ll hear any kind of influence that it has on future Over the Rhine recordings?

Detweiler:

The only things I miss about our neighborhood in the city are proximity to our friends and the mockingbirds. Norwood had the most amazing collection of mocking birds. We had good, memorable years at The Grey Ghost, but it was time for that chapter to end. Our new chapter feels like home. I can’t explain it, but being out here under the sky, and having a garden, and some land to look after, and fields full of fireflies, and being able to see the stars properly at night and build proper fires, and shower under what we thought was an apple tree, but what turned out to be a cherry tree – this is all very healing somehow as well.

Overstreet:

Anybody who knows you knows to ask about what you’ve been reading, and what you’ve been listening to, lately. (Thanks to you and Karin, I’ve been enjoying Turin Brakes for a while now, and I went back to re-read Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace.) Do you have a recommended summer reading list for us? Or a few discs that we should pick up after we pre-order Drunkard’s Prayer?

Detweiler:

We’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book, Plan B, and laughing a lot. Also, some books by Jon Katz: A Dog Year and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm. I also picked up a book called The Future of Music that’s kind of interesting and revolting and thought-provoking. Karin listened a lot to the Garden State soundtrack, and we picked up the new Bruce Springsteen, the new John Prine, the new Van Morrison and the new Coldplay. When we first got into the farm house, pretty much the only cd we had unpacked was a Nick Drake cd, so we let that wash over us for a few weeks.

Overstreet:

What’s growing out in the garden this year? What’ll you be carting in for salads, etc?

Detweiler:

Well, it’s a late garden by some standards, we’re still getting some things in, but we’ve been working on tomatoes, yellow, red and green peppers, sweet corn, butternut, zucchini and summer squash, green beans, cucumbers – the normal. Next year we’ll tackle an herb garden and a grape arbor and maybe a strawberry patch, and start planting trees.

Overstreet:

What’s growing in the corner where you cultivate new songs? More of the hardwood-floor, homestyle music of Drunkard’s Prayer, or is the new soil surprising you with something else?

Detweiler:

I like that “hardwood-floor” description. We’ve got a lot of those in this 170-year-old house. Hopefully, Karin won’t be surprised by the big snake living in the attic above our kitchen. We haven’t seen him, but he left us his skin a few days ago laying up there on the attic floor joists. Karin really doesn’t appreciate this gift at all, but has named him Herman, to take the edge off, and walks around singing a little song: Herman, eats vermin… She’s trying to look on the bright side. Karin’s got it all: she’s a babe, can sing her ass off, can crack me up, makes a mean Tilapia, can write a classic sounding song. But I think she’s going to be quite a country girl when it’s all said and done.

Overstreet:

Oh … one last question: When you and Karin perform “Hush Now (Stella’s Tarantella),” how do you restrain yourself from just jumping over the piano and sweeping that woman off her feet into your arms? (Wouldn’t that be a concert highlight!)

Detweiler:

Sort of like the kiss in A Mighty Wind? Yeah, we’ll try to come up with something.

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