Side Projects: Willy Vlautin

Vortex Music Magazine

Willy Vlautin weaves dark narratives in novels—and in song.

“The world doesn’t need another band,” explains Willy Vlautin, whose brand new outfit The Delines released their debut album, Colfax, in June. “But I like being in a band and I wanted to be in a band that had a late-night sound—a sound that mixed desert music, country and soul.

“And I wanted to be in a band with a good singer.”

Vlautin, of course, is the lynchpin to longtime Portland dark country group Richmond Fontaine, as songwriter and vocalist, making his desire for a suitable singer for The Delines a bit self-effacing. Richmond Fontaine has released 10 albums over the last 20 years, and has achieved, mysteriously, much more attention and acclaim in the UK than they have in their own backyard. Over the last eight years though, Vlautin has been more revered for the successful publication of four very well-received novels: The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete, and his most recent book, The Free. Additionally, The Motel Life was made into a feature film starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson and released in late 2013.

The Free examines three separate storylines, each detailing, within Vlautin’s typically athletic prose, the tribulations of three hot-button issues (war, religion and health care), when it’s not delving into science fiction dream sequences and heartbreaking fits of lovelorn tragedy. The novel is easily Vlautin’s most experimental and, as such, has yielded some of his best reviews to date. It’s also positioned him as one of the heirs to the elusive—and intangible—post of Great American Novelist.

“I think I did 13 full edits before I even showed anyone the manuscript,” admits Vlautin, who wrote the book in the three and a half years he was off the road. The ideas tackled in The Free “are all heated subjects so it about did my head in.”

Vlautin's creative drive is varied, divvying up essentially the same muses into a cross section of expression. The characters from his novels seem to have strutted, downtrodden and lost, right out of some of his songs, and vice versa.

“I always think of my songs as the soundtrack to my stories,” Vlautin says. “All my novels started as songs—they’re all sitting on the same bus, really.”

The bus Vlautin drives gives lifts to passengers who, for one reason or another, have fallen on desperate times. Colfax distinguishes itself, music-wise, from Richmond Fontaine’s oeuvre primarily by relieving Delines’ vocalist Amy Boone from having to associate with the sordid cast of characters that typically haunt Vlautin’s plots.

“I’m not going to put Amy in with a lot of the maniacs that appear in Richmond Fontaine songs,” Vlautin says. “Amy’s too classy.”

Willy Vlautin with the current incarnation of The Delines at Hamburg's Nochtspeicher in May 2019—click to see more photos by Frank SiemersWilly Vlautin with the current incarnation of The Delines at Hamburg's Nochtspeicher in May 2019—click to see more photos by Frank SiemersThe Delines are something of a Portland supergroup—the soul-country sextet is rounded out by Jenny Conlee-Drizos on keys (The Decemberists), Tucker Jackson on pedal steel (Celilo), Richmond Fontaine’s Sean Oldham on percussion, and renowned bassist Freddy Trujillo.

“The lyrics might live in the same part of town as Richmond Fontaine’s lyrics,” Vlautin says, acknowledging the tendency for shortcutting threads between the two projects, “but I think they’re different—a bit more romantic, less brutal maybe.

“I’ve never heard a Richmond Fontaine album sound like this and I’ve heard them all.”

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