It all started with a trip to the Galway Races and a chance encounter with a lady who liked a few bets on the gee-gees. It was further compounded by another chance encounter, this time with two men, who offered a seat and good company in a crowded Galway city bar.
For Willie Vlautin, the novelist and leader of the Portland, Oregon based country-rock band Richmond Fontaine, these two events made him fall in love with Galway and have seen him return numerous times.
Willy is in a good position to make sure he gets back to Galway regularly. As part of their European tours Richmond Fontaine regularly play the Róisín Dubh and The Crane - indeed Willy was in Galway on Tuesday for a reading with Roddy Doyle, followed by a gig in the Róisín with RF guitarist Dan Eccles for the Galway Arts Festival.
Willie has also read at Cúirt in his capacity as a novelist and he has enjoyed critical acclaim for his debut novel The Motel Life; while second novel Northline was a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, and last year’s Lean on Pete won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.
“Galway is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been,” Willy tells me as we sit in the Róisín Dubh on a Tuesday afternoon for the interview. “The things I come back to see are the ocean, the good music, and the good bookshops. It’s a beautiful place to walk around.”
The songwriter’s passion for Galway began when he and his girlfriend toured Galway for a week a number of years ago and decided to take a trip up to Ballybrit for the Galway Races.
“Me and my girl were at the races and I started a conversation with an old lady - she must have been 75,” says Willie. “She asked me who I was betting on and she was giving me a hard time for the horses I was choosing, and it was then I realised I must be in Heaven, just talking like that to an old lady about horse racing.”
Indeed chance encounters with elderly strangers have dominated Willie’s experiences of Galway.
“I like ‘old men bars’ and my girl and I went into this bar in the city, it was crowded and there was only one seat left and there were two old men who started calling us over saying there was a seat for my girl.
“Well they dragged her over and made her sit with them but we ended up talking with them for six hours and had a great time. We didn’t know them, but they were sweet, crazy, really kind old men. Those kind of things make you really like a place and those kind of lucky breaks I’ve always had here.”
The forests of Oregon
Willy clearly adores Galway, but his mind, heart, imagination, and work is deeply rooted in and inspired by his native US northwest, particularly the regions around Portland, Oregon, where he lives. However Willy spent the first 26 years of his life in Reno, Nevada.
“It’s a conservative town,” he says, “and being a musician and aspiring writer is difficult. People thought you were crazy for doing stuff like that. My family was not happy about me wanting to be in a band, so I moved to Portland which is a more progressive, arty town. There’s great support for the arts and literature there; hundreds of bands, a great music scene. Weatherwise it’s a lot like Ireland, just with huge trees.”
Richmond Fontaine formed in 1994 with Willy and bassist Dave Harding as the central core of the band. Drummer Sean Oldham joined in the early noughties and Dan Eccles came on board in 2005. Since 1996 the band have released nine albums, with Post To Wire (2004 ), The Fitzgerald (2006 ), Thirteen Cities (2007 ), and We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River (2009 ), in particular, enjoying great critical praise and public acclaim, especially in Ireland, Britain, and the Continent.
In September Richmond Fontaine will release their 10th album, The High Country, but it will be unlike anything they have previously released.
The High Country is a narrative concept album which tells the story of a mechanic and a girl who works in an auto parts store who fall in love, but their plans for the future are threatened by the violent jealousy of a another young man who wants the girl for himself.
The story is set in the logging community near Portland and its sights, sounds, and landscape both inspired the tale and its themes of Gothic romance, violence, and light versus dark.
“We live in the logging country outside Portland and I wrote the first song as a logging truck was going by our house one day,” Willy says. “It’s foggy and gloomy for six months of the year in these parts and it’s surrounded by huge trees. It’s eerie and spooky. You can take long walks on the logging trails and not see anybody, but you can hear gunshots as everybody own a gun.
“The whole idea came to me from that and The High Country is about being stuck in a small town and stuck in a situation and the difficulties of getting out of it. I find the American northwest to be very Gothic. There are eight churches to one bar where I live and that tells a lot about the place.”
The twist with The High Country is that instead of the story being told entirely through song, a la Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy, the narrative is related through a mixture of songs; monologues with musical accompaniment; and sections interlinked by two or three characters arguing, talking, or pondering their actions.
“Me and the guys in Richmond Fontaine meet regularly in a bar to plan out what we’re doing for the coming months and I told them about the idea for the new album,” says Willy. “They thought I was crazy! ‘Has he lost his f*****g mind this time?’ but making the album was the most fun we ever had as a band. We all got excited about it as it is eccentric and avant garde for us and was an opportunity to do something different.”
Vlautin and Kristofferson
Willy’s novel The Motel Life, originally published in 2006, is now being turned into a film, due out next year, which will star Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, and Kris Kristofferson.
“It’s crazy,” says Willy. “I sold the rights to [the film’s directors] Alan and Gabe Polsky in LA but I didn’t think anything would come of it as in general people in Hollywood are world class bullshitters, but they made it happen and I hope it does them good as the book did me good.”
Kris Kristofferson is one of Willy’s musical heroes and seeing him being involved in the production was particular thrill.
“I met him - for a minute,” says Willy. “He’s a cool guy, really humble guy. His main scene in the film takes place in an old Italian restaurant that I have been eating in for years and Kristofferson’s scene took place in the booth where I like to sit and eat my meals. That restaurant was the first place, outside of diners and cafés, that I ever went to eat on my own and act like an adult, so that was special.
“I’ve always been a fan of Kris, my mother had Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson and I became interested in him through that. I’m a huge fan of Willie Nelson too. Willie’s my saint. He gets me through the day. His music is a good friend to me