Cardiff Arts Institute, Cardiff
Wed 10 Feb
It’s well-established that a large portion of people in possession of a checked shirt and a few American records have a desire to up sticks to Portland, Oregon. Tonight, Willy Vlautin provides the justification for this whim.
The first part of Portland native Vlautin’s performance comprises a reading from his recently-released third novel, Lean on Pete. The tale of a 15-year-old kid getting an illegal job at the local racetrack and forming a desperate bond with a racehorse is told in Vlautin’s trademark simple, evocative prose.
Backed by a lapsteel accompaniment, the reading marries the Richmond Fontaine frontman’s huskily-accented tones with his stark words to touching, atmospheric affect.
After the reading, Vlautin straps on an acoustic guitar and plays a handful of Richmond Fontaine tracks. On the sparse, melodic ‘The Water Wars’ – one of the tracks which, along with ‘Laramie, Wyoming’, inspired Lean on Pete – his voice swells to fill every spare nook and cranny of the venue.
He breathes three-dimensional life into these characters, rendering these vignettes of those on the run with an incredible assurance which means it’s not at all hard to see how he made the leap from lyrics to literature.
Buzz: How did you choose what section of the book you read from tonight?
Willy: I change every night, and tonight I knew I should read short because I could hardly see up there! The kid is trying to get a job and he ends up working for this horrible guy – he’s walking into a really bad situation but he has no choice. I think it sets up in a few pages [the character of] Charlie Thompson and what’s gonna happen to him.
From what you read of Lean on Pete, and also from The Motel Life, it seems that you like to write about outsiders, about people who don’t really fit into society. What is it that draws you towards this sort of character?
I guess really I’ve always felt like that. Those are the kind of characters that have always made sense and those are the kind of people I’ve always hung out with. I don’t even think about it; those are the kind of people I write. I never think my characters are screwed-up or bad people or trash: I just think they’re people I know. I like them generally, so I never think of them as anything but cool people – but when you get away from it, they’re all outsiders.
You played a couple of the songs which you said inspired Lean on Pete – how does that happen?
I wrote Lean on Pete as a song first. It was a really horrible song and it was, like, seven verses. It was really depressing: it made my girlfriend cry and it made one of my buddies pass out when he heard it. I play songs for my friends late at night – you know, drinking beers. That song did him in, so I figured it wasn’t going to make it as a song but I liked the story of it. When you write them, you write for two years: I’ve been living with Charlie Thompson and Lean on Pete, the horse, for a couple years. I did that a lot with the book Northline, about the woman Alison Johnson; that’s why I put the CD with it, because there were so many songs [about her].
Obviously you’ve got a different time span for the writing of a novel than for a song but, that aside, is there much similarity between how you write your lyrics to how you write your novels?
It’s kind of the same world: they all might live in the same apartment building, the songs and the stories. Sometimes they interconnect; sometimes they live together. Really, the basic thing is the heart of the stories and the songs are always the same. The songs, I write usually with more blood more emotion. I guess I write [songs] when my life’s more unstable or when things are really hurting me. Fiction I write better when my life’s going good, ‘cause writing fiction you’ve just got to sit there for hour after hour – you’ve got to put in the work.
Do you have a preference between the two types of writing?
I like them both; they’re both really hard to do well. I find songs more intimidating but, again, it’s really hard to write good stories. I’m most comfortable hiding out writing stories, probably, more than anything else. Writing songs is a little trickier for me – I’m probably a natural writer.
Does it feel strange getting up onstage without the rest of your band?
Oh yeah, I’m a nervous wreck! That’s why I’ve been in a band and I have no desire to ever not be in a band. I just like Lean on Pete a lot, and so I’m out supporting it, trying to tour.
Are you excited to be getting back out on the road with Richmond Fontaine?
Yeah, in a week they’re coming over to start playing in Europe. I love those guys and it’s like a really nice family feel. I like playing in a band.
Lean on Pete is out now.
Richmond Fontaine are touring the UK from the end of this month, including a gig at Clwb Ifor Bach on March 1.