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CDW – Dulli Interview

We’ve all been there: the break-up. Okay, so not all of us make sense of an emotional fallout by resorting to a snappy, Hi-Fidelity-style “Top 5 Break-up Songs” list. Still, there are few better comforts for a broken heart – or a guilty conscience, for that matter – than a soundtrack to saying goodbye. Particularly if it’s She Loves You , the Twilight Singers’ smoke-stained selection of seven decades’ worth of love songs.

This week we kick off our series of exclusive CDW artist interviews with Twilight Singer Greg Dulli. Dulli continues to explore the twisted rock, R&B and New Orleans-filtered gothic blues he first tapped as the tortured poetic voice of grunge outsiders the Afghan Whigs. We ask him about sketching a goodbye letter to his lover with interpretations of some of his favourite songs.

Miles Keylock

You once said that writing is “a very unnatural act” for you. Was the “covers” album a way for you to get inspired creatively?
No – because I’m probably different from anyone who’s ever done a covers record. I did one with the Whigs in 1992, and covers are such an integral part of my show and certainly my life. They’re kind of a natural extension of me. The way that I do covers – they’re certainly not rote, “karaoke” versions. The best way I can describe covering a song is that I disappear into the song and reappear as myself with the song.

So you treat each song like a “jazz” standard?
Yeah, they are. At first I was going to make all the songs by females… then I changed it around so if it wasn’t by a female, it was about a female. I have a pretty wide interest in a variety of music, and gender, genre, race or style means nothing to me. It’s whether I can reinvent the song with myself as the singer. For instance, I can’t sing like Björk, Martina, Billie, Nina or Hope. Björk is a seven-octave monster, and I’m about a three. So I have to adjust those songs so that I can emote them properly. In effect, I’m claiming them as my own – even though they’re someone else’s. The highest compliment I can give someone is to cover their song.

Your interpretations seem fascinated with exploring the nature of songwriting itself.
Well, my way of doing things – especially if I’m going to do somebody else’s material – is to deconstruct and reconstruct them. Take for instance the Björk song. It’s a Nellee Hooper production, it’s lush, it’s skittering, it is a dance song. I don’t have the ability or inclination to do a song that way. I mean, I don’t play jazz, but I cover jazz. I don’t play horns, but I cover John Coltrane. You know? So you’re only limited by your imagination… and I would call mine limitless.

Obviously these songs are personal favourites, but what other criteria did you use when choosing this setlist?
Well, I was breaking up with my girlfriend. I think I was trying to say goodbye to her with other people’s songs. In a way, only she and I would understand the sequence of the songs.

It’s tempting to read a narrative into the songs. After the anger of Fleetwood Mac’s “What Makes You Feel”, the closing “Summertime” leaves you feeling optimistic.
It has a narrative. It is optimistic. I mean, I love the girl. She loves me to. We just couldn’t be together. You know? That’s kind of… I haven’t talked to her. So I haven’t really been able to find out what she thinks. But, you know, we’ll talk again some day. But, uh, for me, I did it very quickly. Music is not just a way of life for me, music is like my companion, you know, like my shadow. It always goes with me. It’s the friend who’s never “not there” – but I had no plans to do this. I’m already like eight songs into a new Twilight record. But sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let what wants to happen, happen.

Is it fair to suggest that you’ve pared each track down to some kind of emotional core?
Absolutely! My goal for every one of those songs was to strip away any ambiguity they might have and send it right to the “hard chakra”. Like I said, I was making this album as a goodbye letter to my ex. So in that way, it was kind of personal, but it still had a tone enough for me that I could release it and have people think what they’d like.

Are you the kind of guy who listens to music morning, noon and night?
It depends. Like right now, when I’m working on a record, I tend to steer away from it – unless it’s something like Miles Davis or something which is not going to remotely get in on what I’m doing. Or some kind of wallpapery, cinematic orchestra kind of vibe, you know what I mean? Something that I can just put on – I don’t like to be steered anywhere when I’m on my own trail. That said, it shocks people sometimes – I have a 3 000 record collection. It’s a rocking library!

That’s a cue for a “Hi-Fidelity” question. How are they arranged? Surely not by break-up songs?
(laughs): No! That would be way too scary! They are split into… well, there’s jazz, classical, rock, hip-hop, soul… It has to be genre-based, and then alphabetised within there!

The Twilight line-up is constantly revolving. Seems like you’re open to working with anybody.
If it’s me and your grandma playing bongos, then it’s the Twilight Singers. I am the Twilight Singers, and I pick who rides with me on the trail. Everyone’s treated with respect – you come and go as you please. I’m the trail boss, and if you want to ride the trail, I’ve got a horse for you. (chuckles).

You once said the first Twilight Singers record was “cold, stainless steel precision”, and the second was “perfumed in mud”. So what’s the new album?
Let’s see… “Swallowed… and then politely given back”.

You have this dark, brooding image where you’re always sucking on a cigarette. Are you a chainsmoker?
Yeah. I started chainsmoking after I quit doing drugs. It’s probably the last thing I have left. But pretty soon someone’s gonna stick a patch on me and there won’t be any pictures of me smoking any more.

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