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Gillian Welch on How ‘Everything Is Free’ Became a Modern Classic in the Streaming Era

Originally written in the Napster era, Welch’s song has been embraced this year by a new generation of artists including Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett and Phoebe Bridgers

Henry Diltz

Last month, Father John Misty released two new songs as part of his Spotify Singles session, a recurring series in which artists release a pair of tracks — typically one original and one cover — exclusively through the global streaming service.

For his cover song, the irony-loving singer-songwriter made a curious choice: Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” a gently-strummed folk lament that details the existential fear brought on when the labor of a working person suddenly loses its value overnight. When she wrote it 18 years ago, Welch was commenting on the anxiety many recording artists felt as peer-to-peer file-sharing services threatened their livelihoods. The song turns on the corresponding threat that she could at any point withhold her art from the public. “Every day I wake up/Humming a song,” Welch sings in its culminating verse. “But I don’t need to run around/I’ll just stay at home.”

By performing “Everything is Free” on Spotify, where the average per-stream payout to artists is reportedly somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084, Misty made it clear that those concerns haven’t exactly gone away. And he’s not alone. Years after Welch recorded it for 2001’s acclaimed Time (The Revelator), “Everything Is Free” has been embraced by a new generation of independent artists who now see streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music with the same mix of skepticism and despondency that their predecessors once held for companies like Napster.

Just this past summer, Courtney Barnett covered “Everything Is Free” on The Tonight Show and performed it regularly on her August tour of Australia. Los Angeles indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers made the song a staple of her set, inviting artists like Julien Baker and Anais Mitchell onstage to sing it as a duet at Newport Folk and Eaux Claires.

“It’s incredible to me that Gillian wrote a song essentially about the internet, and managed not to compromise her style at all,” says Bridgers. “I love that the chords don’t change, and that the verse melody is exactly the same as the chorus, but it’s so strong you never get bored of it.”

At the time when Welch wrote “Everything is Free,” her record deal had expired. Feeling excluded from any future possibilities in the music industry, she and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, decided to start their own label, Acony Records. Time (The Revelator) was the label’s first release; it would end up becoming Welch’s signature album, and it helped establish Welch as the in-demand live performer and foundational roots pioneer she is today.

Rolling Stone recently caught up with Welch to discuss the original inspiration for “Everything Is Free,” how it evolved over time, and why it’s experiencing a resurgence today. “The song is having a bit of a moment,” she says. “Something is happening.”

Do you remember where you were when you wrote “Everything is Free”?

I do. I remember exactly where I was and what was going on. It was when Napster was starting to decimate the traditional recording industry dynamic, the viability of making your livelihood [from] your art. I used to live in an old shack in an area of Nashville called Sylvan Park. It was built right on the ground — every time I’d go away I’d come back and any shoes I had left there while I was on the road were molded. I had a little tiny nook office in there that Dave [Rawlings] and I called “The Cubby.” I wrote most of the Revelator album in that little room.

What was the initial spark that led you to writing the song?

I was really upset. I had read some piece of news that had to do with Napster — that was the catalyst. I don’t want to pin it down and say the song was about Napster, it wasn’t. It’s about feeling like my personal creative independence was threatened. What I realized over the course of writing the song was that the power I retained was the threat of withholding. I hate those people who get on their high horse and say, “Art is pure. Do it anyway.” Of course I’m going to do it anyway, you jackass. But I’m not going to do it outside of my house. This is what I do. It’s what I’ve done since I was seven years old. But from the time I was seven until I was 18, I only performed my songs in my bedroom. It was only once I realized that I was going to have to get a job that I started to do it professionally.

There were a number of songs I can remember crying while working on them, and that was the case with this one.

There were a number of songs I can remember crying while working on them, and that was the case with this one. I really thought that we were going through enough of a sea change that I felt inconsolable. I was like, “I can’t believe it. I got to this point. I’m a professional musician, and now I’m not going to be.” I really felt that threatened. So, did that come to pass? Yes and no.

“Everything Is Free” stands out on Time (The Revelator), which is otherwise so concerned with history and the past. Did it feel like that song was coming from a different place than the other songs on that record?

No, it was very much in the same world as that whole record. We felt really threatened on that whole record. We were out of our record deal. Everything was collapsing. We doubled down and decided to work outside of the entire industry. We used to walk around our neighborhood after midnight, Dave and I, and just talk, like, “What are we going to do? How are we going to do this?” We would walk through the dead streets of Nashville, because at that time, Nashville was dead after 10 p.m. It was a ghost town. What we came up with was that we clearly had to do it ourselves. We didn’t want to — it’s not like I wanted to start a record label. We didn’t want to start a record label, we had to. And so everything on that record has this crazy, fierce core of independence and being threatened and feeling alone. I think it’s what gives it its reverberence today. It seems to resound with adults who are just dealing with their own true independence, certainly young musicians who are trying. And I’m really happy about that. What a beautiful thing.

Was there a moment when you realized the song is having a resurgence?

It’s mostly a retired song, so I was always very moved when people would be brave enough to holler for it at my shows, this quiet little threatening song. It’s probably the quietest threat ever delivered. But it was when Sylvan Esso covered it in a session [in 2016], and I started seeing it around and people talking about. I know Conor [Oberst] was doing it. Phoebe was doing it. Courtney did it. And the the real capper was when Father John Misty played it with beautiful irony at a Spotify Session.

What do you make of the song’s renewed popularity?

As all of this was happening, it was sort of self-propelling. More people started yelling for it at our shows. We hadn’t been playing the song very much, but on this last tour we kind of reinstated it. And it really felt like a culmination of the show, in a way. People are starting to ask me about the song in interviews, out of the blue. Other people have asked me if I was sad that it was still relevant. “Did I think that things would have been basically fixed by now?” I said no. I was sorry that it is still resoundingly resonating with people, even more so with younger musicians. I feel like the climate is a little bit better now, but a couple years ago, most of the younger musicians that I know were really cynical, really doubtful that they were going to be able to really do this for their career. It’s the same thing — they’re still going to do it. They’re still going to play music. But there’s going to be another job involved, because it was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to pay. Which is sad.

I want people to feel the unjustness. I want people to feel the robbery, the theft.

I’m such a purist that it offends me when people say, “It’s pure not to get paid for it.” Because what I get by having music be the only thing I do is that I invest everything in it. I take the risk. Some deep things happen when you bet on your art to sustain you. My art sustains me. I owe everything to it. I don’t think that’s less pure. I guess I could go and be a farmer and literally raise everything I need from the land, and then sit and play music, but I’m not even sure if that’s purer. I’m literally sustained by my art. So, that’s where I’m at.

When you perform the song today, does it feel like you’re reflecting on a threatening feeling that’s passed you by, or do you still feel that acutely?

I definitely still feel it. That song is like a lightning rod of white-hot anger. I still get angry, but in a way I’ve worked through. When I play that song, it’s kind of like anger in proper alignment. I want people to feel the unjustness. I want people to feel the robbery, the theft. I want them to understand all of our guilt and culpability in this situation.

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