“It’s what Emmy calls a ‘third voice.’ It has nothing to do with us rather, I know it had very little to do with me.”
Mark Knopfler lets out a self-deprecating laugh as he explains the magic that materialized during his sessions with Emmylou Harris for All the Roadrunning, a 12-song duets record released earlier this month that the former Dire Straits frontman recorded with the legendary country siren over the past seven years.
“It’s a third voice that’s created by two people singing together,” Knopfler says one afternoon from his home in England. “It’s like something else all its own is created by those two voices blending together.”
The unique personality that Knopfler and Harris developed collaborating on All the Roadrunning spans the gamut of the duo’s influences from the folksy “Love and Happiness” and “Donkey Town” to the square-dancin’ country feel of “Red Staggerwing” to the rock ‘n’ roll swagger of “Right Now”.
Let’s talk a bit about this record. What was the genesis of it?
The start of this record began when I was recording some duets in connection with Sailing to Philadelphia. “Red Staggerwing” is a song I was going to use on that record. I thought Emmy would be dead right for it. But once I heard her singing on it, I realized that it was something all together its own… I had some more songs that were asking for Emmy too [laughs].
So originally it just began with me getting Emmy for a few songs for that album. “Red Staggerwing”, which Emmy likes to call a Johnny and June duet, meaning it’s got the same feeling as those old Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash duets, with the bantering and courting and whatnot. The other song was “Donkey Town”. The next time we recorded, we did “This Is Us” and “All the Roadrunning”. Those two went down with the band and it was even more enjoyable.
We then ended up doing a couple more duets for a Hank Williams tribute. Emmy happened to be in England at the time, and I had my guys over here rehearsing for a tour. By the time the last recording session came about, where we did eight songs in a week, we’d done a fair bit of work together.
It’s just so easy working with Emmy. She’s such an ally, such a friend to the song. It was such a pleasure to work with her. It was fun to do it with just a couple of microphones and us and the band.
It’s interesting you brought up June Carter and Johnny Cash. When I heard this album, Carryin’ on Johnny Cash and June Carter was one of the first things I thought of. Was that album influential in any way in the creation of Title TK?
Oh, of course. Both Emmy and I are huge fans of June and Johnny and those duets. We both have a deep interest in gospel roots music. We both began with folk music at probably not too different times in the 1960s. Our paths aren’t too different really, musically speaking. In fact Emmy was into country blues herself even before she was listening to country music. She has a lot of the same reference points that I do, as far as musical tastes are concerned.
Nearly all of the songs on the album deal with some aspect of love. Is the duet approach the best way to flesh out love songs?
Yeah, certainly. We’ve both lived a bit and seen the world. Maybe there’s room for something that deals with life at this stage. Obviously, the scene for these songs is much more youth oriented—young love songs in a way. But maybe there’s some space left for something else here and there.
Why Emmylou? Do you remember the first time you heard her voice?
Oh, yeah, it would be her first album. At one point, I did have a record collection of sorts. I was a fan of Emmy’s from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, she’s never done a duets album with a bloke since the very, very early days. Because she’d done so many duets I thought she had, but that wasn’t the case. [laughs]
Were you a bit nervous to duet with someone who’s sung with Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson just to name a few?
Yeah, I was! [laughs] I suppose it was a bit daunting at first, but I’m too ignorant. Ignorance is definitely a kind of bliss. I knew that it would be its own thing and could be like anything else or like anything we’d ever done before in our careers. As soon as we sang together, people were saying that we sounded great together, and I think we both heard it too. So we just plowed on.
It’s what Emmy calls a third voice. It has nothing to do with us. Rather, I know it had very little to do with me. [laughs] It’s just a third voice that’s created by two people singing together. Something else happens which is brought together by those two people.
Something else interesting happened during these sessions that was completely unintentional. We weren’t aiming for a specific kind of harmony. It wasn’t like we discovered one harmony where Emmy took the melody and I took a third above it or something like that. The harmonies are all very different; there are unisons and there are times where we trade verses and things. People have told me that they like the fact that they never know which way it’s going to turn next.
What kinds of things does Emmylou bring with her voice?
As soon as she sings the line, I’m in. As soon as she sings the beginning of a song, the character she’s embodying appears. I think she’s been able to achieve that throughout her career. Emmy kind of represents a universal female perspective in some ways. Besides being a terrific individual singer, she brings a lot of patience and love to her duet singing, which are the quintessential female attributes. She’s just a remarkable talent in that regard.
Did you ever consider any other duet partners for this, or was it explicitly something you felt needed Emmylou?
For these songs, I just felt that it had to be her, and I’m just so glad that it was. Our voices worked very well together and in the end, it was just a great gift having a chance to sing with Emmy.
Are the songs on the record yours, or did Emmylou bring a few tunes to the table, or did you collaborate in writing them as well?
Emmy brought “Love and Happiness” and “Belle Starr”. “Love and Happiness” was such a powerful thing to do. “Love and Happiness” was such a part of each of us, really. It’s such a simple song, because it’s what every parent wishes: love and happiness for your children. When it’s time to make a wish, that’s the wish every parent makes. The clichés become very powerful because they’re true in that sense. There’s something about the fact that both of us are parents singing this song that adds to the picture and the overall feeling. Both sexes are represented. I just think that song really completed this album because it fit so well with the other songs. It completed the story the other songs on the album were telling, from young love to marriage and family to wishing love and happiness for your children to having to say good-bye.
Let’s talk about saying good-bye and specifically the last song on the record, “If This Is Goodbye”. Reportedly you were inspired by some words that Ian McEwan had written shortly after 9/11?
It wasn’t so much that, it was just that he’d mentioned those mobile phone calls. Of course I was thinking about them that day already, but the fact that he isolated them and pointed them up in a way gave me something to start writing about. I felt that I didn’t want to write for a long time after that day. I think it was probably a challenge for writers of all sorts all around the world, you know, how to come to terms with what had happened. I wanted to wait before I wrote a response.
How hard is it to keep your energy and enthusiasm for a project that takes seven years to come to fruition?
Well, the thing is, the total recording time was probably no more than two or three weeks. One of the reasons this record took so long was because we had to wait for four other records to come out before it. [Laughs] The labels had some best-of compilations they wanted to get out and then they wanted to put out both our last solo records, so we had to wait for all of that to die down.
After all that happened, I went back and looked at what we had and thought that we may not put it out, to be honest. I was scared that it might not stand out as much as it would have if we’d done it earlier. It’ll have been on the shelf too long. But in the end, the male-female themes and shapes of this album still made a lot of sense to me, so I thought it could still fly. Emmy felt the same, so here we are.