In any good marriage, communication is key. So you'd think that the husband-and-wife duo of singer Karin Bergquist and multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler, who form the band Over the Rhine, would be the ideal couple, since communicating with others is the way they pay their bills.
But as Detweiler reveals, being in a band with your wife can be almost as challenging for a musician as finding an audience. Especially for a group like Over the Rhine, whose cinematic music is sung through the perspectives of a variety of different, first-person narrators. Sometimes these voices are rooted in fiction, sometimes not. On the eerily quiet "When I Go," the last song on Over the Rhine's latest, Films for Radio, Bergquist asks, "Will it make a difference when I go?" Detweiler admits that a few months after his wife wrote the song, "I asked her if I should be worried."
But Bergquist explained that her lyric is less literal than it sounds, and Detweiler reassured himself further by remembering his own goal as a songwriter. And that's "to write for characters other than myself and find voices for other people," he says by telephone from the couple's Cincinnati home.
"The record can be summarized with a line from the album's first song, 'The World Can Wait,'" Detweiler adds. "It says, 'Roll the movie of my life inside my head.' All these narrators on the disc are asking the same question: 'How do I live a life worth remembering?' They're discovering that they're writing a story with their lives."
Detweiler's use of loops and strings gives Films a sweeping, dramatic energy new to an outfit best known until now as the sonic and touring complement to the Cowboy Junkies. (That group's Michael Timmins adds electric guitar to "When I Go.") In particular, their disc is a contrast to the group's 1996 album Good Dog Bad Dog, which the duo recorded during a series of personal crises that threatened their career. Good Dog didn't see proper distribution until 2000, when Over the Rhine (the name comes from a neighborhood in their hometown) signed to Virgin's Back Porch imprint. In the meantime, to get by, the pair sold copies at shows, eventually going through 25,000. The band was also dealing with the death of Bergquist's father and painful questions about whether they should carry on as touring musicians, when the Cowboy Junkies took note of them, finally rescuing them from self-doubt.
"Talk about figuring your life out through music," Detweiler begins. "That record was so close to the bone. We went ahead and put it out ourselves, because we kept coming back to those songs. They seemed to be very healing. The minute we put it out, our lives began to change. It quickly outsold everything IRS [the group's now-defunct first label] had put out, and we got some fantastic opportunities. Other musicians contacted us to express appreciation, and a lot of emerging bands, I hear, play the songs live."
Playing the bulk of Films live might be harder for Detweiler and Bergquist, who -- in an effort to avoid duplicating Good Dog's sound -- recorded the disc with thicker arrangements and more challenging percussion. The pair was asked by NBC to listen to a demo for Dido's song "Give Me Strength" and add Bergquist's vocals to an instrumental track recorded by Dido's writing partner, Pascal Gabriel. The song wound up gracing NBC's firefighters drama Third Watch. The cut attracted enough attention to convince Over the Rhine to include it on the album. Detweiler says that decision helped shape the direction Films eventually took.
"We wanted to make a juicy, left-of-center, literate pop album," he explains.
Detweiler, who nostalgically recalls the seeming extravagance of his first $300 microphone, still prefers to record in the attic of the couple's Victorian home. "I'm not a geek when it comes to gear," he says. "We still go to flea markets and get vintage stuff. You learn to accept that the quirks of older equipment are what give them distinct personalities. Our Hammond organ is 40 years old."
Nowadays, Detweiler and Bergquist prefer recording at home to saving up money for stints in pro studios. Detweiler acknowledges that sharing a home, musical ideas, and a career is not without creative tension. "Karin and I worked in Over the Rhine for six or seven years before we were married," Detweiler explains. "I can't speak for married musicians in general, but in our case, we started out putting our music first before becoming involved. Things can't evolve in that direction unless the working relationship is very good. And she's a wonderful writing partner."
In fact, it's likely that a couple able to ask such questions as "Will it make a difference when I go?" in a song, rather than over dinner, stands a better-than-average chance for longevity. Detweiler laughs politely at the idea that the couple's nonmusician friends must wonder how they do it -- and conversely, that the duo must ponder how others communicate in a relationship that lacks an art form as a conduit. "I never really thought [about] it," he says, "but that's probably true. Looking back over the 70 or 80 songs over the past 10 years, I guess I've been scratching away at an autobiography, a story about what I care about through music."
And as more people discover Over the Rhine, Detweiler and Bergquist are finding that the movie of their lives has an audience. Despite any lyrical allusions to the contrary, this duo isn't going anywhere except up.