Infamous Love Songs: An Interview with Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine
The Long Surrender
Great Speckled Dog

They’ve gotten thousands of letters, like one from a fan who’d listened to their music during cancer surgery. Their songwriter-multi-instrumentalist was almost a missionary. They’ve released a plethora of albums while retaining contact with their fans. And now they’ve made another superb record — that was financed by said fans.

Over the Rhine’s (comprised of husband-and-wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist) latest release, The Long Surrender, is a departure for the band in many ways, but it fortunately keeps their poetic spirit alive and thriving. Funded by fans, produced by Joe Henry (who also helped out with the songwriting), and featuring Lucinda Williams on guest vocals, The Long Surrender was recorded in just five days and features many songs that are first takes.

Regarding the fan-funded effort, Detweiler comments:

“A few years ago, we opted to return to the model of having our own label with national distribution, and when we had the opportunity to work with Joe Henry, it just felt like the venture was unfolding, and we thought it would be fun for all to just invite our listening audience to make the record with us in advance. That added a blessing component to have them onboard for the project, and we had a lot of fun.”

The fruit of that effort was The Long Surrender, a 13-track of the contemporary folk band’s latest effort. These tracks reflect the band’s deft songwriting and the diversity of their inspirations. “There Is a Little Bluebird In My Heart”, penned by vocalist Bergquist, was inspired by a Bukowski poem. “Only God Can Save Us Now” was inspired by a visit to a nursing home. And the album’s title comes as a tribute to the strength required to let go and trust in the unfolding.

It was, in fact, partially due to the band’s songwriting prowess that Henry came onboard for producing the album. But that still may not have come about without the blessing of Henry’s parents, says Detweiler:

“We had been fans of Joe’s records for years. We were really interested in the records he was producing, and we were curious what an Over the Rhine record produced by Joe Henry would sound like, so we wanted to be surprised. So we reached out to Joe to see if he had heard any of our music. He said, ‘As a matter of fact, my parents have tickets to your show in Shelby, North Carolina.’ I thought, ‘Wow! If we can get Mom and Dad on board, this could really happen!’ Actually, we did meet his parents before we met Joe, and his mother gave him the most glowing recommendation. She said, ‘Now, Linford and Karin, I think if you work with Joe, it would be a really good experience for you. I’ve talked to some of the other musicians that he’s worked with, and they seem to really like working with Joe, so I really think you should think about doing this.’ And we thought, ‘Wow! A glowing recommendation from Joe’s mom! We should take this really seriously!’“

When Henry joined the project, the album quickly came together. Henry assembled a cast of talented musicians for the album. Then came the idea to ask Lucinda Williams to join the project. One of the record’s gorgeous ballads, “Undamned”, nearly didn’t make the cut. It was Henry who suggested they reach out to Williams. Though Williams wasn’t familiar with Over the Rhine, she agreed to lend her vocals to the project. Longtime fans Detweiler and Bergquist were surprised when Williams showed up, and they recall the tear-jerking moment when Williams began to sing.

Considering the recording took only five days, one might think The Long Surrender was quick in the making. But the songwriting took years, according to Detweiler:

“The most difficult part is probably putting your head down alone and doing the work of writing the songs, letting the songs reveal what they need to reveal without rushing the process. It can be a little tricky to remain in a good head-space for writing when we’re coming and going on and off the road. Touring has its own rhythm, and when you return home, that has its own unique rhythm. Most of the work goes into the writing, and that doesn’t get easier as the years go by. It’s also the most rewarding part. That’s the heartbeat of the thing. […] Again, songwriters like Leonard Cohen teach us that sometimes we have to wait around for years for a song to really reveal itself.”

Although the songs were long in coming, the band wanted to keep surprises in store and preserve the raw element, or, as they call it, “keeping the edges wild”, as referenced in the liner notes.

“Joe Henry wrote the beautiful liner notes for The Long Surrender, and he referenced a conversation I had with my father. When Karin and I bought our little farmhouse on the edge of Ohio, a little ramshackle pre-Civil War farmhouse, we were excited to move out of the city and turn this farm into our own private retreat from the city. My father and mother came down from the city, and my father heard songbirds and bobwhite quail, birds that he hasn’t heard since he was a child growing up in Delaware. He loves songbirds and had a very intimate knowledge with the natural world. He knew we were intent on fixing up the place, and he took me aside and said ‘Linford, leave the edges wild. Let the songbirds have their hidden, thorny places for their wild music.’ I thought that was lovely advice and a beautiful metaphor for writing although I don’t completely understand it. I do want to leave the edges wild in my songwriting and in my relationships, in my life, really. It’s a beautiful idea, really, not to have everything tamed and quantified. So I think that wildness was gathering six or seven musicians in Joe Henry’s house and playing the songs live together and capturing what happened. It was about musicians playing in real time and uncovering and discovering the songs in front of us. A lot of times, what kept it wild was that we only played the songs one or two times, and we just tried to lean in and make peace with the surprising results. You’re listening to musicians that were discovering the songs together. The way it translates to The Long Surrender is that bit of wildness.” (Detweiler)

And there is wildness. But there is also a shimmering perfection to the songs, ones that make sure that The Long Surrender will keep the band’s 20 year career going strong.