A lot of the new album feels like a Chess record from the Fifties. Was that sound in your head going in?
Well, some of the things do have that feel. It's mostly in the way the instruments were played.
You like that sound?
Yeah, very much so... The old Chess records, Sun records: I think that's my favourite sound for a record.
What do you like about that sound?
I like the mood – the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There's power and suspense. It's alive.Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache.
Do you think the Chess brothers knew what they were doing?
Oh sure, how could they not? I don't think they thought they were making history, though.
Did you ever meet Howlin' Wolf? Muddy Waters?
I saw Wolf perform a few times but never met him. Muddy I knew a little.
Do you have a picture in your head of where these songs take place? Where is the guy in "Life Is Hard" standing when he sings that song?
Well, the movie's kind of a road trip from Kansas City to New Orleans. The guy's probably standing along the way somewhere.
How did you get involved in that?
The French director Olivier Dahan approached me about composing some songs for a film he was writing and directing.
What did you find intriguing about that? You must get approached for movie songs all the time.
I had seen one of his movies – the one about Edith Piaf – and I liked it.
What's this new one about?
It's kind of a journey... a journey of self-discovery... taking place in the American South.
Who's in it?
I think Forest Whitaker and Renée Zellweger are in it.
And he wanted you to do the soundtrack?
Yeah, pretty much. But he wasn't too specific. The only thing he needed for sure was a ballad for the main character to sing. And that's "Life Is Hard".
Were all the songs on this record written for the movie?
Well no, not really. We started off with "Life Is Hard" and then the record sort of took its own direction.
The record's very different from Modern Times. It seems like every time you have a big hit, next time out you change things around. Why don't you milk it a little bit?
I think we milked it all we could on that last record. All the Modern Times songs were written and performed in the widest range possible so they had a little bit of everything. These new songs have more of a romantic edge.
They don't need to cover the same ground. Modern Times' songs brought my repertoire up to date, and the light was directed in a certain way. You must have somebody in mind as an audience.
What do you mean by that?
There didn't seem to be any general consensus among my listeners [concerning their preferred Dylan eras]. My audience feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don't hang anybody up. If there's an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs, it's not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.
In what way?
Well, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that's what they are in their essence. There's no mystification.
Like a locomotive, a pair of boots, a kiss or the rain?
Right. All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It's the way you move them around that makes it work.
'Together Through Life' is released on 27 April on Columbia