In another time, Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist would have spent their days with Henry David Thoreau discussing their collective expressive insights over a cup of coffee at Walden Pond.
And in another place, the trio’s poetic proclivities would have rocketed into hyperdrive surrounded by the idyllic inspiration of Detweiler’s and Bergquist’s Nowhere Farm. After all, they’re two thirds of the way there already. There’s no point in messing with success.
The aura of the couple’s ramshackle 1830’s farmhouse set among the rolling, tree-lined fields of rural Ohio served as the primary inspiration for the musical twosome’s forthcoming masterwork, “Meet Me At The Edge Of The World,” set for a Sep. 3 release.
The exceptional double album’s 19 songs – 18 remarkable original compositions plus a memorable reading of The Band's classic “It Makes No Difference” – are at once introspective and expansive, embodying the same mix of lyrical eloquence, emotional nuance and melodic soulfulness that have already won Bergquist (vocals, acoustic guitar, tenor guitar) and Detweiler (vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards) a passionate fan base and considerable critical acclaim.
The talented couple and their equally talented band meld brilliant songcraft with creative restlessness to deliver a matchless collection of extraordinarily affecting new songs , as exemplified by “Meet Me at the Edge of the World,” “Sacred Ground,” “Favorite Time of Light,” and the haunting “Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down,” featuring guest vocalist Aimee Mann.
The introspective Detweiler chatted with me recently about the exquisite new record and he and Bergquist’s expanding appreciation for Nowhere Farm’s natural soulfulness. The beautiful locale provided the duo with an intense creative spark. But if all it took to put out an incomparable record were to move to a farm in Ohio, there would have been a mass exodus to the Buckeye State long ago. Nonetheless, the melodic pair made it look easy.
“Well, it represents a couple of years’ worth of writing,” professed Detweiler, “but the actual recording of the songs with the band was effortless. We recorded the three days before Easter Sunday and we had ten songs. We knew we were gonna take Easter Sunday off and I said, ‘You know, it feels like we’ve made a record. Why don’t we come back Monday and see if we can make a better one?’”
“And so we reconvened on Monday and recorded Monday and Tuesday and had another nine songs. We listened back on Wednesday and Jay Bellerose (drummer) overdubbed a little bit of percussion and we had our double album in six days there.”
“Meet Me at the Edge of the World” was nothing short of an astounding achievement, given that OTR went into the studio expecting to make a single album. “(Laughing) You know, I told Joe (producer Henry) that I was haunted by the idea that this could turn into a double album. And I knew we had a couple of dozen songs that had grown out of this chapter of living here on our little hideaway farm.”
“But we had decided that if we ended up with 12 or 13 keepers that we would be more than happy. So Joe and I had talked about the possibility that there might be a double album waiting in the wings, but it had to be revealed.”
“Part of that is a testament to the wonderful musicians that Joe helped assemble for this project. And I should mention before I forget, that we’re extremely blessed and excited that Gabe Bellos, Eric Heywood and Jennifer Condos are all coming out on the road with us to follow the tour on this project.”
“Meet Me at the Edge of the World” is quite simply a magnificent record – helped along in part by the native Ohioans’ flourishing awareness of the magnificent beauty surrounding them on their farm. And as Detweiler declared, the “voyage of discovery” wasn’t an accident.
“Karin and I stayed here in Ohio and we have some roots. And we’ve probably missed some opportunities in terms of our career by not moving to Nashville or New York or wherever. But we were always intrigued by some of these other American writers that had a piece of earth associated with their work. People like Robert Frost or Flannery O’Connor or Wendell Berry, you think of a particular place. And for us, that’s Ohio.”
“We moved out of the city about eight years ago. We realized that we wanted something very different from our life on the road to come home to. We wanted a refuge and a place to disappear to.”
“I was out driving back roads trying to finish some song and drove around this bend and there was this old Civil War brick farmhouse sitting underneath some tall trees and some old ramshackle farm building scattered about and a for sale sign stuck in the front yard.”
“We ended up moving out here and we didn’t know the names of anything when we moved here. There were amazing trees and birds everywhere and wild flowers and weeds growing. We slowly started to try to call things by name and then they began to appear in our songs.”
“We could also see the sky properly out here. When the full moon came up, it felt like a sacred event of some kind. And we could just feel the seasons change in a more deep way. Ohio has really come to feel like home since we moved out here.”
If the insightful songs from the soon-to-be-released record are any indication, there’s no place like home. The most striking aspect of the album is Bergquist’s peerless vocal stylings. It’s the rare performance that can calm the soul while artfully delivering a two-by-four upside the head.
But Bergquist does just that on “Meet Me at the Edge of the World,” playing the modern-day melodic siren, enchanting any and all “hapless” listeners that are fortunate enough to be caught in the melodic vortex of her honey-sweet voice.
Bergquist has no bigger fan than her bandmate husband Detweiler, who was thrilled with the opportunity to sing with his talented wife more on the new record. "(Laughing) Yeah, I like to say I married a small town girl with a big voice.”
“For years I was happy to sort of stay out of the way and let Karin do her thing. It’s pretty special. But part of the story of this record is the fact that we’re singing together a bit more. I always felt like my voice was a bit unwieldy. I had kind of a low voice, I can also sing high. But the middle part of my voice seemed to be missing (laughing).”
“Karin kept on me gently for the last couple of decades to chime in more. I was usually good for one or two songs on any project. I would pipe up and add a little something vocally. But I had a little bit of a stumbling block, I guess, and somewhere in the last couple of years we kind of found our groove.”
“I think the song that kind of opened the door to that was called ‘Sacred Ground.’ We started singing in unison. And I’ve heard Karin sing for so long now that I know what she’s going to do and realized that I could shadow her.”
“So ‘Sacred Ground’ was the first song where we began to sing the melody together and it just felt like the room started to change. We took a similar approach on ‘Blue Jean Sky’ and then of course, on the song ‘All Over Ohio.’ For the first time we started trading verses back and forth. And it’s been such a joy to sing together more, it kind of feels like we’ve started a new band.”
The perceptive tunesmith couldn’t have been more on point about “Sacred Ground,” one of the seemingly endless sparkling cuts from “Edge.” The tune is just one shining example of the duo’s brilliant songwriting, stunning the listener with the affecting line, “Love me like a memory held too long.” And then there’s this one from “Called Home”: “Life is a beauty that’s mocking you.”
To the uninitiated, songwriting would be easy if it were only about building a tune around a single marvelous line. But Detweiler was quick to point out that it’s about much, much more. “Well it happens every imaginable way, this mystery called songwriting.”
“With a song like ‘Called Home,’ that started with just a little strummy acoustic guitar part that you hear introducing the song. Then Karin started humming a little melody over it and I filled in most of the words on that one. Then Karin came back and did some editing on the words.”
“We worked together on some of the songs. ‘Sacred Ground’ came out of a conversation that we were having. We were wondering what a folk song or a mountain song might sound like a couple of hundred years from now. We were thinking that they may not sound all that different, because they haven’t changed that much in the last couple of hundred years. And this little weird melody came out of this conversation and some of those words spilled out pretty quickly along with the melody.”
“But there’s a real refining process that happens. A lot of times there’s a rush of inspiration when a song is coming into focus. Then you have to put it aside and be able to come to it and look at it as if somebody else had written it – sort of remove yourself from the song and look at it.”
“One of the things that we do care a lot about is fresh language. So there’s always a few throwaway lines. It’s a bit of a discipline to go through and identify those and then try to up the ante and toughen up the language and try to find a fresh door to open.”
“Somebody said there are only three subjects available to the writer; God, love and death. We try to write about all three I guess. But our job is to try to find a fresh door to open on some of that stuff. Subject matter is not all that different but hopefully we can find a fresh way in.”
And in spite of what some may think, lyrics don’t just drop out of the sky. “(Chuckling) No, they absolutely don’t. There’s a lot of teeth marks on the page and crossed out words and ripped off corners. That’s the thing a lot of young writers don’t realize when they see that beautifully packaged CD and everything is all cleaned up. It’s a process to get it there.”
The exceptional new album certainly provides convincing evidence as to Detweiler’s and Bergquist’s ability to craft a lilting, peaceful melody. But with “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body,” the twosome leaves no doubt that they are equally as comfortable dazzling us with an up-tempo, blues burner. And as Detweiler confessed earlier, the songwriting process “happens every imaginable way.”
“That song grew pretty quickly out of a conversation that Karin and I had. We were traveling to Japan – you and I were talking about time zone changes at the beginning of this conversation – and that was 12 or 13 hours’ difference. And boy, that was a time turned everything upside down. It was hard to get on board with that one.”
“But Karin said at some point, ‘Wow, I feel like I just need to sit down for a minute and let my soul catch my body.’ I think she was looking for a little sympathy from her better half (laughing). And of course I chimed in with, ‘That sounds like a song.’ So she started stomping out that little melody not too long after that and that song landed pretty quickly.”
While it may not always be the case for a musical husband and wife team, it was apparent after chatting with Detweiler that one of the big reasons that Over the Rhine’s music is so special is the couple’s enduring relationship. He recognized the challenges of working so closely with one’s spouse but declared that he never felt too close to his “soul mate.”
“No. That’s a big word, ‘soul mate.’ We definitely try to make soulful music together. We have found a rhythm with our marriage and our creative collaboration that works for us. Even before we started the band, Karin and I made a little bit of music together in college.”
“We met at the little Quaker Liberal Arts College in Canton, Ohio. They had an old restored barn on campus where we would offer music upstairs underneath the beams. They had a grand piano. They had a little bit of a concert hall in the barn. I guess that was a little foreshadowing of this little farm that we’ve found out here in southern Ohio.”
“But that’s when we first made music together and it felt like the room changed a little bit. I think there’s a chemical reaction when you put certain musicians together and we never forgot that feeling.”
“It’s not for the faint of heart, to have a creative partnership with your spouse. But it’s something that does feel pretty special and something that we’ve sustained now for a couple of decades. We’re feeling like we’ve learned a lot and are in a pretty good groove.”
We can only hope that Detweiler and Bergquist don’t ever forget the feeling of that chemistry – because lovers of exceptional music are diggin’ the groove.