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Dave Harding - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 29 / 10 / 2012

Dave Harding - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Richmond Fontaine bassist Dave Harding about his second solo album ‘You Came Through’, his family's recent move to Denmark and Richmond Fontaine’s future

In June of this year Dave Harding and his wife packed up their possessions, took their young son and moved five thousand miles from their home in Portland in Oregon to his wife’s native Denmark and a small town just outside Copenhagen. Harding is the bassist with the much acclaimed Americana outfit Richmond Fontaine, which he and the group’s singer and lyricist Willy Vlautin first formed in 1994 after they met at a Portland race track. Richmond Fontaine take their name from an American expat and hippy vagrant that Harding met while travelling in the Mexican desert. Their music over the years has featured elements of punk, folk, country and ambience, while Vlautin, also the highly regarded author of three novels, has with his narrative and realistic lyrics told of the often desperate and destitute lives of his characters. Richmond Fontaine attracted early notoriety in the Pacific Northwest with their first three albums, ‘Safety’ (1996), ‘Miles From’ (1997) and ‘Lost Son’ (1999), but it was with their fourth album, ‘Winnemucca’(2002), that their career started to gain international interest. Their fifth and sixth albums, ‘Post To Wire’ (2004) and ‘The Fitzgerald’ (2005), were both ‘Uncut’ Albums of the Month, and brought them to Europe. The group, which also consists of Sean Oldham (drums), Dan Eccles (guitar) and occasional member Paul Brainard (pedal steel), have returned many times to Europe since then, and have also recorded another three studio albums, ‘Thirteen Cities’ (2007), ‘We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River’ (2009) and ‘The High Country’ (2011). ‘The High Country’, the group’s first concept record, which is set in a brutal rural Oregon logging community, tells of the adulterous and ultimately doomed affair between a sensitive mechanic and a girl who works in an auto parts shop and who is the unhappy wife of a crippled logger. Dave Harding is also a solo artist. His first solo album, ‘Across the Road’, came out in 2008 under the moniker of ‘Harding’ and was a tribute to his late friend, Todd Scherer, who died in a house fire in 1995. Harding and Scherer used to play together in a band, Uncle Fester, which they formed in their native Michigan, and that broke up before Harding moved to Portland in the mid-1990s. ‘Across the Road’ consists entirely either of songs that Harding and Scherer would play during their time together in Uncle Fester, or of tracks that Harding has written about his friend since his untimely death. Harding’s second solo album, ‘You Came Through’, which was released under his own name in August, was recorded in Portland at the end of last year at the same time as Richmond Fontaine were beginning rehearsals for a European tour to promote ‘The High Country’. It takes travel as its main theme, and, like ‘Across the Road’, is a collection of harmony-laden and catchy country rock and folk songs. As well as Harding on bass, guitar, organ, mandolin and lead vocals, its other musicians include Oldham, Eccles and Paul Brainard, and also Ralph Huntley (piano, organ, accordion) and Scott Hampton (electric and slide guitar, dobro), both of whom have made guest appearances on Richmond Fontaine albums. Powerhouse-voiced female singer-songwriter Michael Jodell meanwhile shares lead vocals with Harding on two tracks, the tender ‘Our Own Kind of Love’, which was written as Harding wandered the streets of Florence, and breezy prayer for salvation, ‘Judgement Day’. Other tracks include instrumental ‘Scholl’s Ferry’, which Harding has described in the album’s liner notes as being “written in the hope that we will all cross over one day”, and the reflective closing number ‘Shores of Cornwall’, which sung by the album’s producer Mike Coykendall, is told from the point of view of Harding’s grandfather who left Cornwall and sailed to Michigan as a child. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Dave Harding about ‘You Came Through’, his move to Denmark and Richmond Fontaine’s future. PB: Why did you move to Denmark? Was it just because your wife is Danish? DH: It is a new adventure certainly. Yes, her family is all in Denmark and lives in this area. Her mother had some health issues a couple of years ago, and, while thank goodness she is doing better, that was a major factor in us deciding to move here. I would never have thought in a million years that I would live in Europe. I had never been abroad until 2004, and when Richmond Fontaine toured Europe for the first time. So far things have been going well. I am really enjoying living in a smaller town than Portland. Two minutes, three minutes from our house I can hear trains going by which I like. PB: Your first solo album, ‘Across the Road’, came out under the moniker of Harding, which suggested some kind of band name. For this one you just decided to release it as Dave Harding. Why did you decide not to use the Harding moniker? DH: When I did that first record, I was a little bashful and hesitant about things, and it being my first solo record. I also don’t think my name is all that exciting and I thought if I made it Harding that might make a bit more exciting. I played some shows around Portland as Harding, but it became a kind of a joke in a way. A friend of mine said Harding made it sound like it was some kind of heavy metal band (Laughs), and I realised that I would be better off calling myself Dave Harding. While with that record I was a little scared, with this one I was slightly more confident. Maybe with the next record it will be Dave Harding and the Desperadoes or something like that, or maybe every record will have a different moniker like Will Oldham (Laughs). PB: You began recording this album at the time as you were rehearsing ‘The High Country’. ‘The High Country’ is a very experimental album. It involves a lot of theatre and some very complex musical arrangements, but ‘You Came Through’ is in many ways the opposite of that as all the songs were recorded in a minimum of takes and they don’t have to be listened to collectively. Do you see this album in many ways as being the antithesis to ‘The High Country'? DH: No, I don’t. The stuff that I do on my own has no relation to Richmond Fontaine. Most of the bolts and nuts of Richmond Fontaine is down to Willy. He does the bulk of the songwriting and writes all the lyrics. Obviously with Richmond Fontaine, Sean Oldham and Dan Eccles and I all obviously put a lot into it, but when you get down to it I think that is Willy’s vision. With my own solo material, I am just glad to get to work with people like Mike Coykendall. I will keep on solo making records, just so that I can bring in people like Mike and Sean Oldham, Scott Hampton, Dan Eccles, Paul Brainard, Michael Jodell and Ralph Huntley, all the people who play on my record. PB: The majority of the songs on this album are about travelling. Did you set out when you began this album with the intention of making this your main theme or is that something which began to develop as you began to work on it? DH: I think that maybe subconsciously I did have that idea. Songs about travelling are pretty common ground for a lot of songwriters, but I was preparing to move to Europe when we recorded that album, and I think that because that was in the back of my mind a lot of the songs on it ended up being about that. I love to travel. I love to move. I am one of those people who, while not hyperactive necessarily, doesn’t like to be rooted to one place for very long, and that was probably another reason as well. PB: ‘You Came Through’ was put together quickly. You have said on your blog for this that you wanted to push yourself because you always work best when you are on a tight deadline. How much of it was down to that and how much of it was down to the fact that you were about to make this move to Denmark? DH: It all tied together. I had written a bunch of songs for it, and I had resurrected a couple of songs that had been sitting around for a while. I knew, however, that I was going to be busy with the band and I knew that also that I was going to be move to Denmark in the near future, so I used that deadline to give myself a kick in the ass, and so that I could record these songs while I was still in Portland and still had this great network of people to record with. PB: ‘Judgement Day’ and ‘Scholls Ferry’ both reflect on the afterlife, while ‘Shores of Cornwall’ has a gospel, almost hymnal feel to it. Do you see these songs at one level as being religious or spiritual songs? DH: I wouldn’t classify them as religious songs, although I would agree that maybe they are spiritual songs. I don’t really adhere to any religion at all. Some of the songs for the record came about because of my day job in Portland at the time, which involved helping individuals with medical needs and many of whom were on Methadone. I had to take these people to medical appointments, and a lot of them were in dire medical need, and some of them were mentally unstable. ‘Judgement Day’ came about because of that and from talking to these people. PB: ‘Scholls Ferry’ is dedicated to Kenneth Gordon Harding who died at the age of 98 in 2010. Who was he? Was he your grandfather? DH: Yeah, he was my grandfather. He moved to the United States as a small child. He was a massive influence in my life, and especially in my musical life. He was a huge classical music fan, and so I grew up listening to a lot of classical music. He was also a pianist and organist and a director of a church choir, and even though he didn’t do music for a living he was a huge influence on me because he held music in high esteem. While I didn’t grow up a classical music lover and as a young person I was into rock ‘n’ roll, I learnt to appreciate music because of him. My father wasn’t around when I growing up and he was my dad’s father. I wouldn’t say that he was my surrogate father, but we spent a lot of time together. PB: Who is Michael Jodell who shares lead vocals with you on ‘Our Own Kind of Love’ and ‘Judgement Day’? DH: She is a Portland, Oregon singer-songwriter and she sang back up on ‘Across the Road’. Originally I wanted Amy Boone to sing on my record. Amy toured with Richmond Fontaine last year. Amy is in a band the Damnations with her sister Deborah Kelly, and Deborah sang on ‘The High Country’ but Amy actually toured the album with the band as Deborah was having a baby. Anyway Amy had been touring with us, and she is a great person and a great musician as well, and so I talked to Amy about singing on my record. She, however, lives in Texas and at the time I was going to record the album she had some family responsibilities that she had to fulfill, so unfortunately she was unable to perform on it. I asked Michael Jodell instead and she was just great. I am somewhat self-conscious about my singing voice, and so I was really glad to get someone in there to do some of the singing. PB: ‘Our Own Kind of Love’’ was written inside your head on the streets of Florence. Do you write a lot of songs like that? DH: No. Actually that was one of the first ones (Laughs). PB: Why did you decide to hand over the vocals on ‘Shores of Cornwall’ to Mike Coykendall? DH: Mike was obviously the producer of that record. I really felt very close to and very proud of that song, but right from the start I was having a hard time putting it to voice. I tried changing the theme of the song, and giving it a different slant, so maybe that I could sing it better, but I never felt confident singing it. I thought of asking Michael Jodell to sing it, but I really needed a man’s voice. Mike Coykendall and I got another couple of people to try to sing it, and I gave it a shot in the studio as well and tried it. Maybe if I had spent about a week singing that song I might have been to do it (Laughs), and eventually I said to him half-jokingly, “Mike, why don’t you give it a shot?” (Laughs. His throat was kind of raw and he was coming down with a cold and with a sickness, and he was very apologetic but he said that he would give it a go, and basically it took him two takes and he nailed it. His voice was a little shaky and a little rough-edged, but to me he really captured that song. He gives it the feeling it needs of someone who has lead a long but quite a hard life. PB: All the other members of Richmond Fontaine appear on ‘You Came Through’, but this is the first record that you made without Willy Vlautin being present (Vlautin shared lead vocals on the title track on ‘Across the Road’-Ed). How is his writing career going? DH: He has just completed his fourth novel. I have just had an email from him saying that he has finished it. I don’t know if it is the final edit and haven’t read any of it yet, but I know that it is very bleak. While he didn’t actually appear on this record, I give him special thanks on the liner notes. Willy and I have known each other for nearly twenty years now, and we have spent a lot of time just talking and boosting each other’s self-confidence. On this record he was the one who whenever I was unsure of myself or anything about it-and it happened quite a lot-would talk me around, PB: Final couple of questions. You have always taken breaks from each other between albums and after tours before, but now you are in another continent how easy it going to be to carry on with Richmond Fontaine? Are you going to be working on a new album? DH: I don’t know. We are going to find out (Laughs). We are going to do an album eventually. Willy has been begun writing another album and it is in the works, but it has been a busy year and Willy and Dan have been doing a lot of Richmond Fontaine shows as a duo in Europe. There has been not a lot of space for him to work on an album as well as finish off the book. It is going to be a task. We have talked a lot about how it is going to work with me. As regards touring live, it shouldn’t be really a problem as maybe eighty per cent of our shows are now in Europe. But as for working on songs as we spend a lot of time working up songs together as a band, it is what I am most worried about and most curious about to see how that is going to work. PB: And finally now that you are based in Europe are you going to be doing shows to promote ‘You Came Through’? DH: I hope to. It has been a very productive summer for me. I have been doing a lot of writing, and it is the most productive period of song writing that I have ever had. I would really like to perform solo, and eventually get a band together. I don’t really know many people right now. I am just kind of getting settled in, and trying to learn Danish. We will see what happens. PB: Thank you.

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Dave Harding - Interview

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