When Matthew came with the script it was obvious that, because he’s been commissioned to do a piece for Japan, he had to sort of start with the most sensitive subject, obviously the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing.

I guess his angle on it, being Matthew, was just a bit sort of not obvious and multi-layered, as usually, and so what he did was - I don’t know if you know this story, it’s a long story - at that time general MacArthur was the general in Japan for the US, and when he saw the aftermath of the bombing where it was not only all the people who died from radiation and all this stuff, it was also that there was no jobs, no places to work, no food and crazy starvation.

So what he did was he asked the US government to lift off the ban of whaling, and then he approached the Japanese people and asked them to change their huge huge warships, that they had nothing to do with at that point, and change them into whaling factories. And this was done and the area, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was totally revived and they were selling a lot of whale, and eating whale, and wearing whale, and doing everything whale. It’s basically what got them going back to being, you know, normal, or whatever you call it - at least surviving.

And Japanese people, being Japanese people, they started sending like thousands of presents and letters ; thank you letters. "Thanks for lifting off the ban of whaling," and, "You’ve revived our community," sort of making him almost into a saint, which is obviously a bit peculiar since like almost five minutes earlier, um...

- They destroyed everyone.

They’re the ones who put the bombs there in the first place ! So, Matthew felt that a US person should sing the letter. He found the actual letters that the Japanese sent general MacArthur. And Matthew felt that an American person should sing the words. And we went through, and I think Matthew was very keen on Dolly Parton to do it. And I was trying to work out why, because Matthew’s a mysterious kind of guy. He usually doesn’t know why he wants to do things, he just wants to do them. And I felt maybe it was because she was alive when these events happen, so maybe she could be a spokesperson for all that.

How did you feel about Dolly Parton singing one of your songs ?

I mean, I was thrilled ! I’ve actually asked her before and we’ve talked about doing something together at some point. I think she’s amazing, I’m like her biggest fan. But somehow my gut was saying it should be Matthew’s voice, you know.

Because I just found it really interesting, the last five years living in the States half my time, what’s happening with this Bush-thing, and people, especially my generation and younger, not being particularly proud of what the US stands for. And it’s sort of quite complicated to be a US male these days, you know ? You’ve got like this guilt of your ancestors on your back, and you’re still trying to be free and creative.

And it’s kind of interesting how people tackle it, and I felt that maybe in many ways Will Oldham and Matthew have maybe tackled it in a similar way. They’re not gonna do it by the book, and it’s a bit slippery at times, and still they have a true love for real old school US values, you know.

He sings it very beatifully.

Yeah ! He’s an amazing amazing man. And he was incredible. The first time we sent him the letters through e-mail, and he was faced with singing quite peculiar words, like, "million year old fossil." I don’t think that’s in every pop song you hear.

It’s quite an unusual song in the way it stops and starts, and it seems very sectionalized. How did you actually record it ?

The stopping and starting is sort of how it was arranged, partly because when Matthew first described to me the song he wanted this section to be a box within a box. So he wanted it to be like wrapping up a present. Which is probably the reason why I ended up doing a music box version, because it should be like wrapping up a box inside a box, sort of thing.

So the sort of stopping and starting is kind of trying to exaggerate the, like, sparkles that come off this present that this woman is trying wrap up. So it’s actually a visual decision.

But I had quite a strict melody for Will Oldham to sing. And I sent it to him and he worked on it a lot, at home I think, and when he came to the studio he sang kind of his own version. He did change it, which was amazing. And he did it in one take. He just came and sang - one take. and then we went out drinking for six hours. So it’s just like the right balance of work and fun... nah, just kidding. [laughs]

BBC Radio 3, Mixing It, 5 august 2005