Jim White: The LEO interview

Jim White

BY DAMIEN MCPHERSON

leo@leoweekly.com

Jim White
with Alex Wright & the Maven Down
Friday, October 26
Uncle Slayton’s
1017 E. Broadway
uncleslaytons.com
$10 adv., $13 door; 9 p.m.

Jim White is a singer-songwriter who spent the first 10 years of his career with the weirdos at Luaka Bop, crafting nu-Americana with unique production from the likes of Morcheeba and Sade’s Andrew Hale. He more recently collaborated with Joe Henry and Aimee Mann, among others, before joining the Yep Roc label.

The music may be a little less oddball now, but the stories still stand. His latest, Where It Hits You, chronicles the dissolution of his marriage halfway through the album’s creation. Even through the heavy, White’s perspective keeps things fresh and a little slanted. LEO’s interview felt like a porchside conversation.

LEO: Greil Marcus has his “old weird America”. The America your characters portray fit that description well. How would you describe them?

Jim White: I’ve lived a marginal life in many ways – under employed, poor, misguided romantically – and the characters in my songs reflect that arc. You might call them “marginalites”. I’m not conversant on Marcus. I know his name and have a general idea of what he’s getting at. When I hear that “old weird South” term of his, it reminds me of a chapter in Richard Grant’s book American Nomads.  He describes the rural South and who settled it, leaning heavily on the Scotch-Irish poor white South. I’m not much of a history buff and was unaware of what fate the Scotch Irish endured over the centuries. Eternal displacement, betrayals by the powers that be. Warfare and dark dealings. Heartbreak and ruination, generation upon generation.

Grant suggests that the machinations of time and circumstance have left scars in the psyche of the poor South that have led to an indelible distrust of authority and, due to the relentless privation that was the norm for poor white settlers, is still evident in much of the South today – a voracious hunger for the beyond (heaven, redemption, escape from this woeful plane of existence).

That’s part one of what I think makes the South the erratic, ecstatic region that it is and what I find compelling in it. Desperate people are usually more, for lack of a better term, “alive” than comfortable ones. And, as we hurtle toward a world of pervasive mind-numbing comfort, the stimulus of the unfathomable universe becomes more elusive and, as such, I guess more attractive, particular to those far removed from the reality of the region. I’m most popular in the UK,
Europe and Scandanavia … not so in the South.

Part two is my own whackadoo theory. I got attacked once when I was a kid by a demented Saint Bernard dog. About 200 pounds of slobbery fury. Tore a big hole in my leg and would have castrated me if I had been a step slower. The owner said the dog suffered from “canine dementia” as a result of the oppressive heat and the dog’s genetic makeup for cold weather. Apparently, the vet told the man such cold-weather dogs frequently lose their minds in sub-tropical environments like Pensacola, where I grew up.

When I was reading Grant’s book, that memory returned to me and made me think about the Scotch-Irish, who also were not engineered genetically for the intense heat and humidity that is the centerpiece of Southern life from March to November. So, I think the heat takes an already unstable predisposition and amplifies it, expanding the amount of erratic, eccentric often downright lunatic behavior that the South is known for. Just my own crackpot theory.

LEO: How do you meet your characters?

JW: Well, all too often I just look in the mirror. I wish I wrote more about others, but when I get to the core notion of any song I’m writing, I’m usually talking about some spin on my own trials and tribulations. I really admire songwriters like Joe Henry and Sam Baker, who write with such illumination and compassion for others, and I’m aiming to get to that place as a writer, but most of the stories told on my records are just interpretations of myself and the
struggles I’ve faced finding my way as a human being. Essentially when I invoke the guise of others, I do so as a vehicle to illustrate the chore I face of working out my own identity, which for much of my life has been a full-time job.

I feel a little guilty about this fact. There’s an old saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, I can report that an over-examined life is equally as worthless. We’re as good as our contact with the human condition, the world, life in general. You get too caught up in your own mind, it’s a form of death that I’m not much interested in. As such, on this last record, I tried to expand the scope of my considerings, writing about people from my past. The songs “Brother’s Keeper” and “The Way of Alone” are both recountings of the plight of individuals from my past. Story songs, and not especially happy ones at that.

LEO: Joe Henry told me he keeps a distinct wall between himself and his characters, so as to not confuse the man and the art. Do you internalize your characters/stories, or is it a means to tell the tale?

JW: I’ve already covered that, but let me add a little. On the record Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, there’s a song called “That Girl From Brownsville, Texas”. The marginalite character in it is as lost as a human being can be and is having a crisis of faith, but sees it as a cockeyed opportunity to do some wheeling and dealing with The Lord. That character’s a composite of folks I’ve met along the way working minimum-wage jobs, staying in flea trap hotels, holding on by my fingertips to this plane of existence. But his crisis is my crisis.

LEO: How is your songwriting process different now than when you started?

JW: In some ways, it hasn’t changed much. I’m not the type who writes as he goes, penning songs in the laundromat and the grocery store, so years will pass when I don’t write a song; then, in the course of a year, I’ll sequester myself and write dozens of songs – some good, some bad. As I get older, I grow less concerned with demanding eternal originality from myself. I did that for a long time, refusing to consider using any material from discarded songs.

This last record, I found myself revisiting songs that failed for some reason or another, and, in coming back to them, I saw clearly where I went wrong and how to rectify that misstep. “Sunday’s Refrain” is like that. The first verse is from a song I wrote when I was 20 years old. It never made sense back then, but now I understand what I was trying to get at.

Sometimes it takes a decade or two for an idea to shake out, and the more decades you get under your belt – and I have a few at this point – the more opportunities you’re offered to resolve previous unsolvable conundrums.

LEO: How has this album experience differed from your time with Luaka Bop?

JW: Everyone complains about record labels. Not me. I released four records with Luaka Bop and they funded everything, paid for tours and handled
logistics, finance, publicity. They incurred the lions’ share of the risk, freeing me up to be my kooky artistic self.  This record I paid for on my own dime, investing my life savings in it, which was a huge gamble, considering the state of the oxymoron known as the “music industry” at present. Traditional revenue streams are drying up left and right and ways to make a living – even a working class living – are becoming more and more elusive.

As I took on the role of label, I became increasingly aware of the fiduciary aspects of this business and had to tighten my thinking cap a lot, and become much more pragmatic. Pragmatism usually creates a headwind for creativity. Sometimes not, but often it’s the case. The more you crunch numbers, the less you think out of the box. So, as I ride the bucking brahma bull of music commerce, I feel more and more like a businessman, and less and less like an artist.

LEO: Any interesting Louisville stories?

JW: I have a great one, but I’d probably cause trouble for some in town were I to repeat it. Discretion is the better part of valor.

There’s a second one that comes to mind. When I released my first record, my label told me my song “Still Waters” was getting a lot of airplay in Louisville.  Three, four times a day, usually during the afternoon show, which was hosted by a woman whose name I forget. They arranged a show for me at a small venue there and an in-store performance at Ear x-Tacy, (which I was saddened to hear is no longer in business).

Since I was in town, my manager thought it would be a good idea to stop by the station and thank the DJ for playing my song. It was the NPR station there in Louisville and, with me being a completely unknown artist – I was still driving a cab in NYC when I wasn’t on tour – it was a big deal. So I stopped by the station and asked to say hello to the DJ. When she met me, her face lit up and she said, “So you’re the guy who wrote ‘Still Waters’!  I love that song!  It’s six-and-a-half minutes long!” The last sentence didn’t really commute, but I just smiled and blinked like I do when I’m too vain to admit that I don’t understand what’s actually transpiring.

She could see my confusion, so she added, “I can put that song on and walk to the bathroom, pee without hurrying and come back and it’s still playing! That’s a long song!  Do you know how hard it is to find a good six-and-a-half minute song? Most of these songs are under three minutes. You really have to rush! It’s awful!” Welcome to the music business. I had inadvertently discovered a niche market, the pee-song.  Thanks, Louisville.

LEO: What’s next for you?

JW: Lots: This record has run its course and I’m about to explore a few new frontiers. I have a memoir-ish collection of essays called Incidental Contact which is just about done. One of the essays, called “The Bottom,” has been published already in the new West Coast arts mag Radio Silence. The book details a dozen bizarre encounters I had while I was a cab driver in New York. Once I get this round of touring done, I’ll start polishing it and getting it ready for publication.

I’m producing more and more these days, and have several records to work on, including one from The Skipperdees, twin sisters from Knoxville who write amazing songs and sound like the Every Brothers. I’m also producing and doing some remixing for Haroula Rose, a West Coast singer songwriter. Producing is fun, I’m pretty good at it, and it’s a pleasant outlet from making my own records, as it requires a  different type of more focused, contained energy. Making your own record is a saga, but producing is not so. You do your work, then can walk away at the end of the process and let the artist find their way with it. I enjoy helping others, and I’ve learned a lot along the way thanks to mentors like Joe Henry, who’s a friend, collaborator and trusted advisor. He’s blazed quite a path for himself and is always generous with utter sound advice.

I’ve been moonlighting as an outsider artist more and more. I enjoy making these assemblages that I make and they seem to appeal to people. Last year, I offered 20 of them as part of my Kickstarter campaign and raised enough money with them to get my record mixed and mastered. Over the last couple of years, I’ve mounted bonafide shows in highbrow galleries both in the US and in Ireland. So I’ll make some more art. I find it incredibly relaxing and am bewildered that it’s also apparently a profitable endeavor.

Finally, I’m thinking about starting a charity based on this end-of-the-show routine that I’ve developed over the years. At the end of the evening, I auction my shirt off to the highest bidder at the merch table, then donate the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. These are shirts I buy at flea markets for nominal sums – two to three bucks. I raised nearly a grand last year for charity doing this, and enjoy helping out and giving back. So my charity idea, which I’m calling
the Shirt Off My Back campaign, would involve me forming a coalition of musicians who are willing to do the same. It’s basically the perfect show souvenir – the very shirt the your favorite musician was wearing the night you attended their concert. It’s got the artist’s DNA on it! Think of the cloning possibilities!  And if little old under-the-radar me can get $60 for a $3 shirt (and I regularly do), imagine what big stars could pull in! And all the money would go to charity.  So I’m going to investigate how to set up a non-profit and start reaching out to my peers to see who’s willing to do what. Musicians in general want to give back, and this is a totally painless way to do so. I figure we’d get clothing companies to donate shirts, which would create good press for them, and also make it so no hardship is visited on the artist.

Aside from all this, I’m gonna spend time with my girlfriend and kids, who I love ferociously and have missed profoundly during this round of album touring.

One Comment

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  1. [...] McPherson has an interview with singer/songwriter Jim Wright, who is appearing at Uncle Slayton’s on Friday, October 26. [...]

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