Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone overcome the odds to create their best album with The Sea Drift
Willy Vlautin has become an increasingly celebrated novelist since his first book, The Motel Life, was published in 2006.
His territory is dramatically gripping, sometimes tough but also tender stories about those struggling to adapt to the modern, changing American west. His work has won accolades from such acclaimed peers as Richard Russo (Mohawk), Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone) and detective fiction virtuoso George Pelecanos. Two of Vlautin’s novels — Motel Life and 2010’s Lean on Pete — have been adapted for films.
AUDIO: Willy Vlautin reads Little Joe
This would seem to mean Vlautin has successfully left his original career choice–music–behind him to become an author. From 1994-2016, he was the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Portland, Ore.-based Richmond Fontaine.
That band’s music, with its influences of pedal-steel driven Americana/alt-country and punk, was heralded by those who saw them on tours and/or bought their records. And Vlautin’s lyrics, which often mirrored his novels’ concerns and settings, won attention, too.
But there were just never enough fans in the United States for success as a recording and touring band. “In Richmond Fontaine, we lost a lot of people money over the years,” Vlautin says now, in a phone interview from his home in Portland.
But, in truth, he has not given up on music. Far from it. Just this month [February], his newer band, the Delines, released their third studio album since 2014, The Sea Drift. These songs, which he wrote, are as finely crafted as short stories, and conjure noirish images of lovers, losers and strivers adrift along the towns of Gulf Coast Texas. (There is an actual Texas town called Seadrift.) The band is a quintet that augments its studio sound with session players. This record features, besides traditional rock instrumentation, prominent keyboards, trumpet, saxophone and strings.
And its vocalist is not Vlautin, but rather the remarkable Amy Boone. Her singing has a wistful country-soul presence, a jazzy clarity that convinces with a lived-and-learned honesty that calls to mind Bobbie Gentry or the Sammi Smith of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” fame. Boone had been in Austin’s Damnations before touring with Richmond Fontaine and then agreed to become a key part of this new band.
Vlautin acknowledges there is an overlap of subject matter between his novels and songs. The atmosphere of The Sea Drift’s 11 songs (two are instrumentals not composed by Vlautin) is usually ruminative and downbeat, moody in their balladic or midtempo pacing. (There are exceptions; “Kid Codeine” has a jaunty, celebratory feel.) The lyrics are cinematic in the way they conjure specific times and mysterious places. The opener, “Little Earl,” maps out the terrain immediately and seductively:
Little Earl’s brother is bleeding in the backseat
It’s been twenty miles and he can’t stop crying
Passing the houses on stilts on Holly Beach
The A/C don’t work and Earl’s sick in the Gulf Coast heat
But the Delines are more than a musical adjunct of the worldview delineated in Vlautin’s novels. And Boone is the reason.
“Although it is the same world, I’m now trying to write for Amy,” Vlautin says. “Generally, when I write for Amy, I just listen to her. She’s really fun to talk to, she’s really cool, and I just take mental notes when I listen to the things she’s interested in. Then I try to write more romantic than I probably would for myself. But I do stick in tragedy in the more story-oriented vein, from the kind of beat-up world that I’m from. But she’s from that world, too.”
In that world, love and romance are possible — sometimes, Vlautin’s characters cry out for it. But it don’t come easy. The woman whose viewpoint frames the starkly ominous “Surfers in Twilight,” and whose story is given voice by Boone, discovers that to stand by her man she must risk confrontation with the cops:
Flashing lights, flashing lights
As my man walks toward me
Patrol cars stop, police rush out and
Throw my man against a wall
In a seaside town with tourists all around
My man handcuffed on the sidewalk street
Vlautin is particularly proud of the standout “Hold Me Slow,” an achingly gorgeous song that lets Boone convey a woman optimistic about love amid life’s hardships, but nonetheless nervous about it:
Open up a bottle and I’ll close the shades
Put on something that sways and
Kiss my neck that way
But go slow, I’ve been so tired and alone
I want you here but you gotta know
Hold me slow.
“She (Boone) said, ‘Can you write me a romantic one?” Vlautin says. “If she can get behind it, I write stories wrapped around those ideas I think would make sense to her.”
Boone should clearly be able to authoritatively interpret a song in which a woman — anyone, really — has been through a lot, which happens often on The Sea Drift. In 2016, while still living in Austin (she has since moved to Portland), she was the victim of a horrific, freakish auto-pedestrian accident. Richmond Fontaine was doing a last tour when the members got the news.
“Her life just completely stopped for almost three years,” Vlautin says. “She was walking on a sidewalk and a lady got her foot caught on the accelerator, driving with a cast. And (the car) ran Amy into a lava rock wall. It was brutal. The broken bones I think she recovered from fairly quickly, but there were a lot of skin grafts, a lot of surgeries. The whole time, you’re just worried about her and hoping she gets her life back.
“We’re all friends, and we all care about her so much that the band didn’t mean anything compared to her being able to walk again,” he continues. “And if she decided she never wanted to play music again, that would have been great as long as she could walk and get her life back.
“It was big struggle for her,” Vlautin says. “But the second she could use a walker kind of cane, she flew up to Portland and finished The Imperial. (Much of that album, released in 2019 as the Delines’ second, had been recorded before the accident.)
“So when we got her back, we did a tour and she was using a cane and having trouble going up stairs,” he recalls. “But she’s seriously tough and wanted to keep going. So we were all obviously excited she wanted to keep playing. And now she’s walking. I think you can hear on The Sea Drift her voice has changed a little bit and has aged a bit and is a little wearier, but it also has a confidence to it that I don’t think she’s had before.”
The Delines’ other members also help the band and The Sea Drift achieve their evocative sound. Two, bassist Freddy Trujillo and percussionist Sean Oldham, were in Richmond Fontaine. Keyboardist and trumpeter Cory Gray also handled many of the beautiful string and horn arrangements that provide so much color to these songs, which at times recall the way such arrangements could lift classic “road” songs like Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” (The album’s producer, John Morgan Askew, handled string arrangements on three songs.)
Gray also supplied two instrumentals, both of which feature the kind of strong, slow, pristine and somewhat mournful trumpet playing that recalls Chet Baker. When Vlautin heard one, he named it “Lynette’s Lament.” It’s a reference to the main character in his most recent novel, 2021’s The Night Always Comes. In that book, Lynette—still-young but approaching 30 —is desperate to find money to buy the rundown Portland home she rents with her mother and developmentally disabled brother before the city’s galloping gentrification raises its price beyond her means.
“I asked Cory to write a couple trumpet instrumentals for the record, and he came in with this song,” Vlautin says. “When he was finished playing it, I said that’s music for Lynette, that’s her song. I had never really heard music in this book, and now I finally did.” So Vlautin named it.
“After that, he and I started writing all these songs out of the world of that book,” Vlautin reveals. “There’s a soundtrack that we haven’t put out yet, all inspired by that one song, ‘Lynette’s Lament.’ I found my way into the music of her world through that song of his.”
The Delines’ exposure to American audiences has been limited. The band has yet to extensively tour the U.S., though it has done much performing in Europe, where Richmond Fontaine had been better welcomed than in this country. After postponing some February dates due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the Delines will do two album release events in Portland and then begin a 22-date European tour in Oslo, Norway, on April 19. Why is no U.S. tour planned so far?
“One reason is we toured to varying degrees of failure in the U.S. for years — her with the Damnations and me with Richmond Fontaine,” Vlautin says. “Everyone in the band loves touring Europe. But when you say tour the U.S., no one wants to get in a van. So we kind of just follow where we’re wanted and where everyone wants to go.
“We will be touring more, COVID permitting, but for shorter times just for her health,” he continues. “I don’t think we’re going to become this road dog band, but we will hopefully get a more normal touring cycle, I think. But we’re not going to be this big touring band, that’s for sure.”
VIDEO: The Delines “Little Earl”