In a way, Dave Rawlings decided to play against his strengths.
One of the most acclaimed contemporary guitar players, Rawlings made his mark teaming up with one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters, Gillian Welch. The musical pair has garnered heaps of critical praise on albums such as Time (the Revelator) and Hell Among the Yearlings. In the process, they've become darlings of the Americana movement, crafting a post-modern take on traditional American music.
But with their latest project, Dave Rawlings Machine, Rawlings takes front and center, singing all lead vocals, while Welch harmonizes and sings back up.
Although that approach, Rawlings says in a phone interview, was challenging, it stretched him as a musician, forcing him to rethink the way he structures songs in the studio. He's used to building songs around Welch's voice, but that was no longer possible.
"When we make Gillian's records, I feel like I have a particular way we work. We had to stretch a little bit from that," Rawlings says. "Everything needed a slightly different treatment or sound. But in the end it was rewarding to do something different. You don't get to those place unless you try and fail."
Live, Rawlings occasionally takes the lead vocals. But the project came about somewhat accidentally.
"It hadn't been a long term plan to make a record where I was the front person," he says. "We got a few songs and enjoyed playing them with me singing them. Once that pile was big enough, it seemed like we'd be foolish to not at least try to play a record."
The result, A Friend of a Friend, is at turns raucous and plaintive. Rawlings voice is more of a traditional bluegrass falsetto than Welch's, and as a result he's capable of pulling off more lively performances, such as "Sweet Tooth."
"I tend to sing with quite a bit less control," Rawlings says, comparing his voice to Welch's. "There are some things that are fun to do this way. I think everyone has things they think their voice is best at."
Rawlings admits that his famous partner has influenced him, though. "I must have learned something singing harmony with her for so long," he says. "There's no way that wouldn't have affected my phrasing. But it's hard to put my finger on it exactly what that is."
Most of the songs on the album were written by Rawlings, including, "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," which was made famous by its co-writer, Ryan Adams.
"I wanted to give it a little bit of a different flavor, especially having played on the original record," he says. "But I knew it wasn't going to fall that far from the tree. I just felt like giving it a touch of the country honk, Stones flavor. It's a strong tune in my mind and I think it bears reinterpretation."
Rawlings wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on the record, but he tackles two notable covers, a medley of Conor Oberst's "Method Acting" which drifts into Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer."
The later song is one that, Rawlings says, "changed the way I heard music."
"I have a vivid recollection of listening to that when I was young. I just know that it was something I thought was beautiful," he says. "When Gillian and I started playing together, we moved closer and closer to that sound and the space we try to create on the Revelator record bears some resemblance to the space on 'Cortez' and also the pacing and how long the song goes on without any vocals."
He decided to pair the song with Oberst's in part "to amuse the engineer we were working with." But the pairing also makes sense thematically. Oberst's tune is about turning to music to make sense of life in dark times, while Young's song remembers the beauty of a lost civilization.
"They're both very personal songs in different ways," he says. "It started to feel like a community to me and all that music comes from the same well."
And with A Friend of a Friend, Rawlings has added more to the well.
The Dave Rawlings Machine featuring Gillian Welch is performing at the High Noon Saloon at 8 p.m. on Monday, December 7.