An interview with Willy Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine

Photo Jul 19, 2 52 11 PM

Photo by Vivian Johnson

Richmond Fontaine is a band that was formed in 1994 in Portland Oregon when Willy Vlautin (singer/songwriter) and Dave Harding (bass) discovered their mutual love of bands such as Husker Du, X, Willie Nelson and The Replacements and decided to begin playing together. The band’s career has spanned over two-decades and the release of 10 full-length albums. According to the band, the recently released You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To go Back To will be their final album.

The alt-country band, who has received much critical acclaim, particularly overseas, has peppered its songs with stories of the working class, the down-on-their-luck and the lonely.  Vlautin, who is also the  author of four highly acclaimed  novels- The Motel Life,  Northline,  Lean on Pete and The Free- is an expert at the craft of creating a character. And the characters he writes about are ones that you have a hard time forgetting about, even if they aren’t necessarily people you’d like to meet up with yourself. One of his characters, Pauline Hawkins, from Vlautin’s novel The Free, made such an impression on fellow musician Patterson Hood from the band Drive-By Truckers, that he wrote a song by that name for the bands 2014 album English Oceans. 

I asked Willy to speak to me about a range of subjects, including his writing, how he crafts a character, Richmond Fontaine, and his other band, The Delines.

J. The new album  You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing Left To Go Back To, seems to have a theme about people being lost and trying to find their way back home, or at least to a place where they once had peace. As we approach the midpoint in our lives, this seems to be something that happens to a lot of us. What inspires you to write about characters like these?  And have you experienced your own midlife “crisis”?

W.V. I have had a few midlife crises, but shit, I think I’ve always been in a bit of a crisis. With the new record, I kept thinking about how all of the friends I have had have lived rough, or lived to hard and are now starting to pay the price. The bill’s coming due for their bad ways. That and also the idea of being tired, of always looking for the next place to solve your problems, only to find it’s your own self that’s the problem. Hell, I guess those are all middle-aged themes. But RF is getting old.

J. Your songwriting has always struck me as the kind that sucks a person in, makes them empathize with the characters and want to know more about them You always want to know what happens next. As an author, is it harder to condense the essence of a character into a three-minute song?

W.V. They’re both hard to do well. I struggle with both. Songs are harder to grab on to. There’s more magic to getting them. I often feel that you write song after song, just so that one good one will appear and you just grab it. Writing books is more about your work ethic. If you have something to say, then it’s just about putting in the work to say it in a way that you can get behind.

J. Some of the characters from your novels, turn up in your songs. Hell, Pauline Hawkins from your novel The Free, even turned up in a Drive-By Truckers song. Does it feel natural to intertwine your novel writing and your songwriting?

W.V. Pauline Hawkins was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. It was like finding fifty grand in the street. I’m a huge DBT fan, so I was blown away by the character becoming a song of theirs. As far as my own stuff, the two do combine. I go through so many songwriting jags while writing a novel that the two can’t help but influence each other .I always think of them living in the same apartment building.

J. How do you come up with such strong characters in your songs and novels? Particularly the women?

W.V. Thanks for saying that, about my women characters.  I don’t know. I was raised by women and all of the best people in my life growing up, or should I say the ones that cared about me the most, were women.

J. What projects are you working on now?  Writing?  Your band, The Delines?

W.V. The Delines have a new record but we are on hold until (singer) Amy  Boone (recently injured in a car accident) gets rolling again. Other than that I’m finishing a new novel that will come out in about a year.

J. Do you think you will always need to write both novels and songs, or do you see a time in your life where you’d be okay with leaving one of them behind?

W.V, I hope to keep writing novels for as long as I still have my mind together. It’s my favorite art form and I love the process of it, the work of it.As far as songs, shit, I’ve been trying to quit being in a band since I was 15, so I don’t know what to think.