Exclusive interview with Jim White
With another wonderfully strange but extremely good album out (Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See), Jim White is slowly establishing himself as a sure talent and born entertainer. With a checkered past (surfer, model, pentecostal preacher to name but a few) and a nasty band saw accident that almost cost him his left hand, the Floridian has set his mind to share his experiences with us. Just before he sets off on tour, he took some time to answer our searching questions...
So how did the new record come about? Is there a particular reason for always working with very eclectic producers and musicians? Does this help the recording process or complicate things to the point of distraction?
Me and Joe [Henry, producer of the new album] had been talking since the get go about collaborating. He and his wife were the first people in the music industry to hear the a tape of songs I'd recently written (I'd been writing songs for 20 years) they got their hands on the tape after a buddy of mine played it for his girlfriend (who went on to write and direct the feature film "easy listening") and she played it for Joe's wife Melanie Ciccone [Madonna's sister], who at the time was managing Daniel Lanois. She called me up to say she thought the songs had something unique and asked if I ever thought about being a professional musician. I thought it was some kind of practical joke at the time. I was unaware that a low-fi alt.country movement was brewing in the vacuum of American music. I told her I thought she was misguided, but she said she'd played the songs for her husband Joe Henry and he liked them too. I was kind of stumped at that point. Next thing I know we're in the studio and Joe is there singing and playing guitar for me. so sooner or later it made sense that he should produce something for me.
As for the live band sound of Joe's tracks. Joe insisted on this and I wasn't real thrilled about the prospect of being in a room full of musicians and trying to rein them all in at once and make them play the way I hear things. Too overwhelming. Too many battles to fight at once. Joe assured me over and over that these players knew how to fit in and finally after he guaranteed that if I didn't like it he would forfeit his producing fee, I agreed (I was thinking practically--if the tracks didn't work and we'd blown our budget, we'd have been in bad shape). The players, David Palmer, Jay Bellrose, David Piltch, Chris Bruce, & Ralph Carney all were simultaneously thoughtful and incredibly inventive with their contributions, when to step forward and when to hold back. That's not something you find every day, a group of people who can casually gather and instantly cohere in just the right way. Joe's assembled quite a group of musicians there.
As for the other contributors, whenever I make an album I embrace the philosophy of the more, the merrier. You meet so many beautiful folks when you're out doing your shows, you want to include them all when it comes time to document your endeavors in the form of an album. I never worry about the disparity of viewpoints. I figure when I get the tracks back home to my little studio in the garage I'll be able to build in continuity that might otherwise not emerge during initial tracking. I'm at my best when I'm sitting in my studio with a screen of pretty colored tracks in front of me, chopping them up, moving them around and endlessly experimenting until I come up with something that has its own internal integrity. so whenever anyone came to mind as being right for a track, I'd just call and see if they were interested and had a spare moment to help out. The ones that you see listed were the ones who said yes, and I can't thank them enough for all their help and generous contributions. Hell, Chris Heinrich and Paul Fonfara [from 16 Horsepower] drove all the way from Colorado on their own dime just to help out. now that's what I call good people.
You've had quite a rambling past- how does this fuel your songwriting?
Well, pretty much in every way. Mostly by perpetually throwing myself out into the world, I've encountered every kind of person and mindset. I'm an inveterate eavesdropper and do my best to listen to and document peoples stories, their language, their way of thinking. Being your garden variety self obsessed artist type, in the end everything ends up being about me, but hopefully that solipsism is ameliorated by my interest in and experiences with others.
Spirituality seems ever present in your writing - is it something you are still attracted to or do you regard your dabbling with Christianity a passing phase?
Well for better or worse, being raised poor in the south, my framework for viewing reality has a filter of primitive divinity confusing everything. I guess I could try to pry that damn filter off but I wonder if it wouldn't render me blind in the process, so I leave it there and just try to remain mindful that it's there. I don't take the notion of God too seriously when it's presented in a religious context. No matter who it is, whenever anybody uses the word God, as far as I'm concerned they're just using a self exalting reference to theirself. That's fine, you can think of yourself as God, so long as you wink in the process and remember that if you're God, you're the devil just the same. Too many people in the world think they're just God. That's how wars start and atrocities are committed.
Do you think the European audiences understand you better/worse/equally to the US audiences?
America is a big sprawling place with a million different subcultures. In big cities they seem to have a nostalgia for simpler things and so my mythospheric representations of life seem more palpable to them than to rural types. In Europe, Ireland and Great Britain, people seem to find my fairy tales tinged with dark reality perspective on the south as being a compelling blend of dream and reality for them, allowing them to access the intrinsic truths of the region that might otherwise escape their attentions, truths that far exceed my minuscule talents as a reporter. I guess I got the right kind of finger to point and say, "hey look at that". I think that America is such a strange place to foreigners, and my use of place builds certain bridges that let them better understand something that intrigues them. Here in the south of course they could care less about me. Hell, I'm telling stories about the idiot child they keep locked in the closet. They don't want anything to do with advertising that particular aspect of their shame.
Flannery O'Connor seems to be a major influence on you - do you see yourself working in the same tradition as her, in that she was a committed Catholic but wrote sharp satires of the Bible-belt?
Yep. I had no southern voice until a friend gave me her collected stories in my early 30's. I read A Good Man Is Hard To Find and The River and all of a sudden the richness of where I was from came flooding back to me. I'd been trying to find it in other places, like the slums of New York, and the wrong side of the tracks in far flung lands but it was never a satisfying representation of what I needed to express. once i read those stories the scales were removed from my eyes and I knew roughly what I wanted to say and how to say it. Like her, I was an outsider in the south who beheld the oddity of southern culture with a kind of repugnant fascination, so I guess it makes sense that I'd find deep resonances in her work.
You're a bit difficult to classify musically. Do you enjoy eluding classification?
I could care less. I wish I could play in one classifiable style. Maybe then I could make a living at this damn full time hobby.
How did the Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus BBC documentary come about ? Did you enjoy making it?
Well it was a real honor to be picked by them to help describe the certain mysteries of the south that they were interested in. Originally I tried to steer them toward Johnny Dowd, who I regard as a superior storyteller and authentic southerner, but they wanted me precisely because I was such an outsider here. I'm college educated from a respectable northern family, but assimilated into the southern lifestyle at a fairly early age (5 when i moved here). Of course down here an assimilator is always just that. When I was coming up, unless you had the south in your blood for countless generations you were still a yankee.
What were the last 5 CDs to grace your CD player?
I seldom listen to music, but when I do I usually put on something familiar that calms my frenetic mind. So World Standard's album Mountain Ballads is a favorite. Gorecki's symphony 3 is a wonderous dark journey. Someone gave me that Laura Viers album Carbon Glazier, which I find utterly hypnotic. Mary Gauthier (Drag queens in Limousines) is a real inspiration as is Terri Binion (Fool). Real formidable female songwriters that have something to say.
Jim's on tour! Here's the European dates...
June 11, 2004
The Music in my Head Festival
June 12, 2004
June 13, 2004
June 14, 2004
The U. K.
June 16, 2004
The Wedgewood Rooms
June 18, 2004
June 19, 2004
June 20, 2004
Night & Day
June 22, 20004
June 23, 2004
June 24, 2004