In 1996, Emmylou Harris headlined a rapturously received concert at the Park West, where she broke out plenty of new material far removed from her days as the coolest cowgirl in country music. She was coming off a groundbreaking 1995 album, "Wrecking Ball," with producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his atmospheric rock productions with U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel.
"Thanks for sticking with me down all my left turns," Harris told the audience that night. "That's what makes it interesting. And if you got company, that's even better."
Harris lost some country die-hards because of the radical textures on "Wrecking Ball," with its soft-focus guitar haze and rumbling, opium-dream textures replacing hard-country twang, but the album revived her career. Now it's being reissued with bonus tracks and a making-of DVD on the Nonesuch Records label, and Harris and Lanois are performing its songs in a brief tour that brings them and a rhythm section to the Vic on Tuesday.
The following is an excerpt of a conversation with Harris.
Q: What made you want to revisit "Wrecking Ball"?
A: Nonesuch wanted to give it another shot, and I thought it would be a good idea. When it came out initially, it was so confusing to many people. "What genre is it?" "Where do we rack it in the record store?" "Is she still a country singer?" It succeeded on its own. One person would tell another person who would tell another and so on. They didn't play me on country radio. We took it to the streets. It sort of snowballed because it was a record that touched people.
Q: It represented a radical shift in your sound. Why'd you do it?
A: I didn't have anything to lose. I will give some credit to Asylum (her label at the time). Warner Brothers country (division) didn't know what to do with me, so I moved to Asylum. They signed (Texas singer-songwriter) Guy Clark and me. They were incredible optimists (laughs). I did make an effort to make a country record ("Cowgirl's Prayer" in 1993) within that eclectic framework, which did well but not great. The years go by, I was over 40, and they were a little surprised that we could not get in the door at country radio anymore. They came to me and said, "What would you like to do? Who would you like to work with? We'll be behind you." I told them there were only two records I was listening to that were moving me: Daniel Lanois' (1989) solo record, "Acadie," and (Bob) Dylan's (1989 album) "O Mercy," which Daniel produced. I said I wanted to work with Lanois; he was interesting to me."
Q: What stood out about those recordings?
A: The production. The sounds he put around the songs, it moved me. I listen to all types of songs, and the sound he got moved me emotionally, drew me in. I had no idea what we would do together, but I was happy to take a chance.
Q: How did you and Lanois figure out how this was going to work?
A: He came to Nashville, Tenn., in late 1994. I had some songs — I hoard songs, and this time I had (Gillian Welch's) "Orphan Girl" and (Anna McGarrigle's) "Going Back to Harlan." I remember him talking about how you could find country melodies in pop and rock songs, and he started singing me (Jimi Hendrix's) "May This Be Love," and I joined in on harmonies. Most of it was arranged on the fly. I could never have imagined "Orphan Girl" sounding the way it ended up. The musicians and Dan took it to another place. There was no working out of anything. It was "Heads down, see you at the end."
Q: Lanois has a reputation for putting his thumbprint on the records he produces. Did you want that?
A: I was hoping for that. I wanted that thumbprint. I was giving myself over to whatever he wanted to do. As long as I had songs I loved and was moved by the songs, I trusted him. My producers all have different styles. Lanois is more of a presence, it's true, whereas some others are invisible. I felt those songs really benefited, they came alive in a beautiful way, because of the musicians he chose (including bassist Daryl Johnson, U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and Lanois himself). All I had to do is sing. Most of the vocals were done live, responding to what the musicians were putting down. There was so much air and atmosphere, so much room to sing. I was so inspired as a singer by the people in the room and my love of the songs.
Q: That was a different way of working for you, right?
A: Yes, but it's all about the song. If you are committed to a song and love the song and find the right key, it's a matter of singing and responding to what the musicians are playing. I wanted to do a Lucinda (Williams) song, "Sweet Old World." It was medium tempo, but Dan wanted to bring in Lucinda to play on it, and she played it a lot slower. To sing slower I had to raise the key up, which made it more fragile and vulnerable sounding. It gave it a lot more power. I thought the power was in the groove, but it was in changing the key. You have to stay open when making the record. If you're set in the way a song is going to be, you lose opportunities for creativity. I was working on (Dylan's) "Every Grain of Sand" in a little side room, and Dan pops his head in: "Would that work as a waltz?" Dylan's version is in 4-4, but we turned it on its head, and it worked.
Q: Were there any songs that you wanted to record but couldn't figure out how to make them work?
A: We had written a song called "Deeper Well" and had about 20 different versions, none of which really worked until we cut another song called "Still Water," which is going to be among the extra tracks on the rerelease. They had finished the track and they were playing the track backward without a vocal track. I just said, "This makes me think of 'Deeper Well.'" Next thing I knew they stuck a microphone in front of me. It was in a much lower key than I had sung it, way down in Johnny Cash territory. But it cracked the mystery of "Deeper Well." That low key gave a mysterious vibe to that song that we couldn't get otherwise.
Q: It was your first album in decades that didn't crack the country charts. Did that bother you, knowing you were leaving that audience behind?
A: Country radio wasn't going to play me anyway, so I just set off on a new frontier. I went further out into left field. You've got to be excited and inspired by what you're doing. You can't fool yourself or your audience. I was lucky to hook up with Dan. That album didn't sell millions, but I knew I was touching people. Over the years people would say to me how much "Wrecking Ball" meant to them. It gave me a renaissance in my career, and I was able to bring in some fresh ears, new people. It put me in a place where I felt I could do anything I want. I didn't have to compete with myself over record sales. I was able to remain in my own bubble.