Willie Vlautin interviewed: “When my life got bad, I disappeared into records”

When Willy Vlautin says The Horse is his most autobiographical book, it’s a cause for alarm. As a novelist and songwriter with The Delines and Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin has always mined a deep seam of melancholy. But The Horse’s embrace of bleakness is startling. The story centres on Al, a jobbing songwriter living alone in the high desert in winter, whose depressive isolation is punctured when a blind horse appears outside his shack.


It was inspired by the time Vlautin went camping in central Nevada. “My friend and I were driving out in the middle of nowhere, near a salt flat,” he explains. “There were no trees, not even sagebrush, no water for 20-50 miles, and suddenly there’s this blind horse. It stopped me in my tracks. A couple of days later we came across an old mining claim, and this old shack that you could tell somebody lived in for a while. I was feeling pretty rough anyway. I was like, ‘Man, I think I’m gonna stay here and call it a life.’ My friend laughed at me. That’s where the book started, with those two things, and my own problems with booze and songwriting.”


The underlying theme of the book is compulsion. “I was interested in that idea: what do you do when you can’t quit? You can’t quit writing songs. You can’t quit alcohol. Al’s idea was to hit escape and disappear, which you can do literally by running out into the middle of nowhere. It’s easy to connect the dots on me. I mean, for maybe 20 years, every day when I opened my eyes, I’d say: ‘Would you rather have a Denver omelette or French toast? Or would you rather have a tequila and ice cold beer? My answer would tell me how my day was going to be.”

The more obvious parallel between Vlautin and his troubled hero is the way the story evokes the hardscrabble life of a working musician, firstly around the casino circuit, then with younger musicians in a cowpunk band. Al’s emotional state is tracked in his lyrics, reflecting Vlautin’s unbending belief in the power of song. “My brother had a stereo that could shake our house, it was so loud, and he was always playing records. A friend of his, a really cool guy, came over. I was 11, he was 15. I was a beat-up kid, not the most stable little guy. He said, ‘If you find the right song, you can live inside that song. Just hum it, and you’ll never be alone.’ He didn’t say it quite as romantic as that, maybe. But that’s what I got out of it. When my life got bad, I disappeared into records.”

Around a dozen of the fictional song titles in The Horse have grown into actual songs, a couple of which will feature on the next Delines album, due next January. Vlautin says it’s the group’s most cinematic record, and it includes some upbeat material, at the insistence of singer Amy Boone. “Amy will grab me, and she’ll go, ‘Can you just write me a romantic song where no one gets killed, for fuck’s sake?’ She likes the romance. So it has a few of those.”


“With Fontaine,” he adds, “the only time that I’ve ever seen those guys pissed at me was when I’d bring in eight ballads in a row. They’re like, ‘Eight ballads with no chorus? Could you just write us something catchy and fast?’ But I’ve always loved the big country-soul ballad, so I got to lean into that.”