Music interview – Willy Vlautin: ‘You can’t escape yourself’

Willy Vlautin is to perform at Far From Any Road festival in Leeds.
Willy Vlautin is to perform at Far From Any Road festival in Leeds.
Have your say

From Dylan’s (in)famously impenetrable Tarantula onwards, esteemed songwriters have tended to struggle to turn their talents to fiction. Willy Vlautin has had no such problems.

Rooted in alt. country and twilit retro soul, the musical endeavours of the former Richmond Fontaine and acting Delines songwriter may be destined to remain a cult concern. Vlautin’s novels, however, have gradually gained the Reno native now based in Portland, Oregon the type of wider renown his remarkable songwriting so richly deserves.

Deservedly so. Centred on themes of compromised lives and constrained circumstances on the margins of American life, and populated by troubled characters who are desperate to run away but can never escape the nagging doubts that mess up their minds and, consequently, lives, Vlautin’s latest novel, the freshly published, deeply moving Don’t Skip Out On Me (which arrives with a beautiful instrumental soundtrack by the officially disbanded Richmond Fontaine) inches ever closer to a literary equivalent of Vlautin’s unrivalled ability to make us believe in the characters in his songs long after they’ve stopped believing in themselves. This makes his songs and novels resonate with warmth and sympathy that’s a million miles removed from the type of relentless gloom you might expect from his favoured settings and themes.

Willy answered Yorkshire Evening Post’s questions in the run-up to his debut solo performance in Leeds at the Howard Assembly Rooms on Sunday as part of the Far From Any Road festival in a set that combines songs and readings.

Your writing often centres on characters who are uneasy in their own skin and longing for escape. What draws you to these troubled characters?

I’ve had trouble in my own skin and I’ve always dreamed of escape: that there had to be answer, a better life somewhere else. But the problem with escape is you end up somewhere else only to still be you; you can’t escape yourself. You just have to figure your scars out. I’m interested in the struggle of that.

I used to write with a lot more lightheartedness but with the lightheartedness also came insanity. The books are crazy and I’m told too crazy for the general public.

Willy Vlautin

‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ focuses on the world of boxing. What is your connection to the sport?

I’ve been a fan of boxing since I was a kid. For a while my hometown had some big fights so it was always around. For maybe 20 years I subscribed to The Ring magazine. In each issue they’d have the life history of an old boxer. I loved those stories: so much tragedy in them and I’ve always been drawn to tragic stories. I love boxing literature, too. Books like Fat City, The Professional, and Rope Burns…so many great novels and stories set around boxing.

The new novel again focuses on lives in the margins of American life that most novelists steer well clear off. What draws you to these settings?

Part of it is that I read so much Steinbeck as a kid. He was a hero of mine from an early age. I had his picture by my bed; I still do. He cared about the guy on the bottom and he brought me great comfort as a kid. My mother supported my brother and I. She was always scared of losing her job and of being homeless. She worked with a lot of guys who had been homeless so the idea was always around that it only took a few bad moves and some bad luck to end up living in your car. When I started working I always did manual labor jobs. Mostly because I was too shy and unconfident to get any other job. I just took any job I could get. By doing that you see how hard some lives and jobs are. Not just physically hard, but the drudge of them day after day. In the US workers’ rights and benefits are slowly being whittled away. Things are getting worse. Less pay and less hours. When I started writing I wanted to tell stories about those sorts of things. For once I wanted the warehouse worker be the hero, or your favorite checker at a grocery store, or a house painter. Why can’t the janitor get a shot?

Your writing is characterised by a great deal of compassion for characters who may not always have made the best possible choices in their lives and that many people might be tempted to ignore or dismiss in real life. Do these characters continue to live and linger inside your head?

In a lot of ways the characters never leave. Frank Flannigan from The Motel Life, Allison Johnson from Northline, Charley Thompson from Lean On Pete, and now Horace Hopper from Don’t Skip Out On Me all seem to stay with me. Each of them becomes a sort of a saint. Frank the saint of day dreams, Allison the saint of weakness, Charley the saint of perseverance, and Horace the saint of the isolated. I think about them in those terms more than that they’re real people. I’m always scared to go back to them and put them in a book because if I do they start living again and when they do that they get beat up, ‘cause you get beat up living.

Your writing – fiction and songwriting – is characterised by considerate amounts of sadness and hardship. Are you ever tempted to kick back and indulge in a bit of light-hearted comedy for a change?

You’d be surprised, but I do have a couple comedy novels. I used to write with a lot more lightheartedness but with the lightheartedness also came insanity. The books are crazy and I’m told too crazy for the general public. I wrote one about a used car salesman who goes on a three-day bender and blows up other dealerships. I love that book more than anything but it’s just too wild.

Last year brought an end to the 20-plus year story of Richmond Fontaine. Why did the band decide to quit now?

The guys in RF are some of my favorite people in the world. I love those guys. It was just time for us to stop. I always think of RF like an old van. You don’t want one of the wheels to fall off while you’re on the highway, you want to get somewhere safe, a nice dark lounge and then you all get out together as pals. So that’s what we did. But I do miss the camaraderie.

What are your next musical plans?

Musically I’m all about The Delines. We just got waylaid by Amy’s (Boone, vocals) accident. She was hit by a car and broke both her legs. The poor gal has had over 12 surgeries and is just now able to walk around. It’s been over a year and a half of her struggling. But we’ve just finished a new record and are hoping she’ll be up for touring this coming fall.

The film version of ‘Lean On Pete’ is due to be released soon (unless it’s already out in the US); it’s the second film based on your books following ‘The Motel Life’. How much of an involvement did you have in the adaptation?

I didn’t have much involvement in either but in both cases the filmmakers were nice to me. They let me come around the set. In particular I can’t say enough great things about Andrew Haigh (Director, Lean on Pete) both as a person and a filmmaker. He’s a serious class act. Never met a guy cooler under pressure. I wish him a lot of success with the movie. In general, I’m a huge fan of movies, but I love the novel more so I don’t see myself getting involved in that world.

Your own beginnings weren’t that far removed from those of your characters. How would the younger version of you feel if he could have fast-forwarded to the future and seen that you are now able to make a living out of music and writing?

I think my head would have come off to think I got in a band like RF. My big dream in life was to be in a band that had a van and drove around and escaped normal life. I never once thought I’d get to travel to Europe and see places I only knew about from school books and movies. I don’t think my younger self would have ever thought I could write a book. He might have bet on it, but back then I lost most of the bets I ever made.

Willy Vlautin is at Howard Assembly Room on February 4. Far From Any Road festival runs from February 1-4.