For more than a year, Emmylou Harris sifted through a treasure trove of music to serve as the foundation of Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems. Over the course of four CDs, she illuminates her favorite album tracks that never made it to radio, along with numerous collaborations and contributions that are worth rediscovering. In addition, a DVD spotlights several top-notch television performances from throughout her career.
Phoning from her home in Nashville, she talks about discovering new music, sharing it with others and why it’s OK if you don’t always know what the song is about.
CMT: Several religious and spiritual songs are included here. Why do those songs draw you in?
Emmylou Harris: There’s something so real about the lyrics of those songs, whether they are the more modern songs or the older ones that have been around forever. They’re just infused with … I guess a friend of mine would call it “washed in the blood.” Although I think secular songs can have that, too. That same quality is what I tend to choose on a lot of secular songs. When you get to a period where you can pick the ones you want, like on this compilation, it’s really going to be accentuated. I think most of these songs have a weight to them. Even something like “1917″ — what a masterful piece of writing by David Olney. I just couldn’t believe that song when he sent it to me. It brings the whole experience of war and life and death and everything into such focus in a way that makes no judgments. It just tells a story. That narrative quality has always drawn me in, too.
When you hear a new song, do you listen to every word to make sure it fits?
Well, the first time I listen, I can’t possibly hear every word. But something will catch me. It will be a phrase. It will be the way certain words blend into the melody. It will be something there that will intrigue me. I might have no idea what the song is about, but it somehow catches my attention. Later, of course, I’ll go back and write down the words, unless somebody gives me a lyric sheet. … I like writing down the words myself anyway. I like that process. And then, sitting with the guitar and finding the key, and trying to make it your own. And then it almost doesn’t matter what the song is about. (laughs) It’s kind of like when you read poetry. I don’t always know what the poet is saying to me, but I’m completely swept away by the sound of the words and the emotional response it’s soliciting from me. Who knows where that part resides in us.
What happens when you find a song that’s exactly right? Is there a certain reaction?
Oh, yeah. When you hear a song like that, then you’re ready to book the studio. (laughs) That’s why I’ve made all these records all these years — not because I sold a gazillion records and the record company is clamoring for my next release. I’ve always sold just enough to have an audience to where I can put out another record. It’s like getting your license renewed. There hasn’t been this competition with oneself — that I have to sell so many records. I think that must be a terrible burden. … You’ve got the great giants like Neil Young who couldn’t care less about how many records he’s sold, but he’s had such incredible success that he’s been given carte blanche to do whatever he wants. I don’t believe he takes that lightly, but he waits until he has a real idea, and he’s truly inspired, before he goes in. He’s kind of my hero.
How do you personally discover new music?
It just seems to come my way. The last couple of records, I was writing my own material, so I wasn’t really looking for material. This next record I’m working on — I’m actually doing a record with Brian Ahern [her former husband who produced her early albums on Warner Bros./Reprise Records] — is a combination of some songs that I’ve written, some older songs that I revisited and made work, some songs I wrote with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and there are a lot of covers of songs that I have loved for a long time. We just took a shot at them. We’re still working on it, but I think we have all the tracks. It will be interesting to see the face on this baby because they’re all different.
Do you make mix CDs for your friends?
I do. I got into doing a Christmas CD for a friend of mine and made copies, just things that I’d heard over the past year, either new or old. Sometimes they were tributes to artists who had passed, a year-in-review kind of thing. It also helps me to be more active in listening to music. I admit, there are times when I just don’t want to hear music. I don’t seek it out. I do have to be a little more active with that. My car is an open-air Jeep so I can’t hardly hear anything on the radio.
What’s the best part about not having one big song that you have to sing at every show for the rest of your life?
Oh, everything. No matter how great a song is, if that’s the one song, then it’s got to get boring after a while. Although I’ll probably sing “Pancho and Lefty” until the end of my days. I never get tired of that song. But I know that I don’t have to depend on that song. There are other songs that people delight in, even if they weren’t ever on the radio and … just album cuts like “Pancho and Lefty.” It gives you so much freedom to enjoy the music more. All that room to have the music move in and out of you, so you’re not boxed in.