O, LUCKY MAN! Jim White (Pt. 1)

With
new album
Where It Hits You just
out, the Georgia
singer-songwriter has finally emerged from the other end of the most protracted
ordeal of his life.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Jim White is a storyteller, and proof that the great ones
are made, not born. The veteran country rock songwriter with the compelling sonic
and lyrical quirks — and even quirkier back-story as a fundamentalist
Christian, apostate, professional surfer, model, addict, NYC taxi cab hack,
etc. – definitely has the innate curiosity you find in the best storytellers. But
that’s also the resume of a man who isn’t afraid to try new things because he
knows, at the very least, he’s going to strike story gold no matter what
happens along the way.

 

Yet midway through his latest record Where It Hits You (his fifth overall, and his first for Yep Roc;
previously releases were on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop), White ran into an
experience he never sought or wanted as narrative fare. After six years of
marriage, his wife declared herself to be born again and ran off with another
man who claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian. So instead of finishing an
album initially intended to be about the joys of family life, White found
himself in divorce court while his family fell apart and the mortgage vultures
circled his Georgia
home.

 

White tumbled into a deep depression, and when he resumed
recording the songs took a very different – and darker – cast. Still, like
every White release, there are moments here of such stunning beauty and
sensitivity to the human condition that they act like illuminated waves of
audio grace, White’s lonesome voice and the crushing stories cushioned and
raised aloft by the music’s rich textures and the dignity of resilience.

 

That state of grace, says the 54-year-old, is what you have
to hope for along the rocky road of life.

 

“This last ordeal that I went through was a real challenge
to this idea,” he says. “I’m happy to come out the other side not crazy and not
dead from a suicide – which would have probably, in previous epochs, been a
major consideration.”

 

The loquacious White – he once told an audience he could
provide a 20-minute answer to the question “where’s the bathroom?” – took BLURT
on one wonderful tangent after another during an hour-long phone interview that
hopscotched from 16th century mystics, Egyptian
novelists and Ingmar Bergman films to Tom Waits and the Low Anthem.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell
me about the title for this one – the pre-release publicity said this one was
there waiting for you, unlike the other records’ titles…

JIM WHITE: Well, I’ve been skirmishing with a transcendent
feeling. The last record was called Transnormal
Skipperoo
, which is some strange phrase that developed in my mind about
finding happiness and meaning because I’ve been a restless soul. I got the name
for this really before I wrote the songs for this record; ‘this record will be
called Where It Hits You.’ It strangely
prefigured things, because half-way through the record my wife left me and I
had like a year of Jerry Springer shit go on in my life, so I got hit
extraordinarily hard during the process of it. Sometimes something’s in the
air, and the little things in the breeze comment on what’s to come, not what’s
been. I’ll have these little windows open up like this sometimes. A lot of
songs on the record likewise prefigure some calamity coming. I didn’t know it
was coming, it just came. Kind of out of the blue for me. It was sort of like
God whispering in my ear, “Get ready to get hit, and get ready to have your
ideas tested.” And by “God,” I certainly don’t mean Jesus, but the forces that
organize the universe.

 

 Does it not come in part of having an
intuitive nature, or being an empiricist? You know, the other shoe does tend to
drop…

 Yeah. I used to see
pictures in my mind, these elaborate dioramas of the way my psyche worked. And
one of these, and this gets way out and trippy, well, in our consciousness
there’s always the availability to kind of see the future – Carl Jung talked
about it when he discussed collective unconsciousness. There’s a lot of hints
that our ability is far more than we perceive or employ. With me, I’ve always
had these flashes of seeing things that would come later on, in jumbled forms,
you know. So I had a couple of these. One of these was, imagine a prevailing
wind, and on that wind crazy ghosts and spirits are carried. Most people, when
they build their interior houses, their castles – The Interior Castle, as Saint
Teresa of Ávila called it — the direction that the prevailing wind comes from
that carries that stuff, they block that shit up. They don’t put any windows on
that side of the house. Me, for whatever reason, there are windows on that side
of the house, and at a certain point in my life I started throwing them open
and just letting anything blow in. Spooky things happened to me for a while;
strange, weird, crazy, unexplainable phenomena happened to me when I was really
reckless about it. As I get older now I recognize that some of those windows
need to be closed, you don’t want too much weird stuff blowing in your life.
Every once and a while one blows open and peculiar stuff comes in.

        I wrote a song
on this record about a man whose wife left him because she became lost in this
weird religion, and that’s kind of what happened with my wife. She apparently
became a fundamentalist Christian and had an affair with a fundamentalist
Christian guy, which is all weird – and the song I wrote five years ago
basically prefigures that situation. There’s a lot of strange little passages in
the lyrics that, as I look at them now, I say, “Oh, now I see why I wrote that
line – didn’t understand it at the time.” So it can be kind of a burden not
only dealing with the information that comes to you in your ordinary life that
you have to process, like bills coming in the mail and people telling you have
to be here or there at this or that time, but also having this strange esoteric
information, which isn’t as easy to decipher, having that come to. It can be a
challenge. Thankfully, as you get older, you develop systems for dealing with
it; when I was younger, I just freaked out. Now I say, “I know I’m receiving
esoteric information, let’s not jump to any conclusions about what it means.”
Usually when I feel that feeling coming, I now say, “Okay, just listen, don’t
jump to any conclusions. Don’t say this is a good omen, or a bad omen.” Do you know
who Naghib Mahfouz is?

 

 The Egyptian
writer?

 Yeah, he wrote a
collection of these short stories called The
Time and The Place
, and there was one in there that really hit me hard. It
was about a man who lives in his ancestral home, and he feels really guilty because
he’s selling it. And the night before he’s supposed to leave the house and the
new people are supposed to take ownership of it, he has a dream – this is a
house built 2,000 years ago in the old part of Cairo – that there’s a treasure buried under
the floorboards in the downstairs living room. So, acting on this strange
impulse, he goes downstairs and tears up the floorboards, and finds a small box,
and in the box is a map of old Cairo.
And there’s a mark on the map about a mile from where he is. And he recognizes
some of the streets even though the map is thousands of years old, and starts
to follow them. And he comes to the house where the map leads, and knocks on
the door, and the door opens and there’s a man sitting in a chair, bound and
gagged, and the Egyptian secret
police are torturing him. And they say, “Who are you?” And he says, “I’m here
for the treasure.” And they pull him inside and that’s the last line of the
story. So if I find a map under my floor, I am NOT going to run out blindly. I
am now going to say, “What does this mean? Let me listen.” And hopefully that’s
a signifier of maturity finally hitting me at the age of 54. I’ve been slow to
accept the whole “Let me be an
adult” proposition. I have two kids now, and when you have kids, you have to
not go running willy-nilly toward every giddy wind that blows away.

 

 How old are your children?

 Thirteen and five.

 

 You talk about these notions that appear
randomly, and your back catalog suggests that’s not a new phenomenon — there’s
this sort of pros and cons of consciousness running through your narratives…

 (chuckles) That’s a great way of putting it. This young girl who was
the daughter of a friend who recently moved to Georgia, she wrote recently on her Facebook
page, she’d come across the phrase, I think it was Sartre or someone who said,
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” And all of her friends went, “Ooo,
cool,” and they’re all like 20 years old. And I wrote, “Let me tell you, the
over-examined life is a far worse burden.” Go to a football game and see how
those people who are un-examining their lives are enjoying themselves. And then
go to a Nietzsche convention and see. Yeah, the “pros and cons of
consciousness,” thank you.

 

 You’re welcome, but I don’t think that’s mine.
Well, let’s talk about the pros of it… it’s not all a curse, is it? It does,
without sounding too pretentious about it, allow you to enjoy art, no?

 It does allow you to
apprehend deep meaning. There’s two points to this: One, if you have that
inclination, you can’t deny it. You can’t just say, “Oh, I have these deep
thoughts, I will just ignore them to try and be happy.” It doesn’t work that
way. What happens to a lot of people is that they wrestle with their
consciousness and then say, “Fuck this, I don’t want to deal with this,” and
they try to be free of it. But you can’t be free of it. You have to make peace
with yourself. And somewhere in the making of peace with yourself you hope that
you come to a point where one form of grace or another descends on you, and it
is a “peace.” It’s not just an uneasy truce.

        There’s a
beautiful film that Ingmar Bergman made called The Wild Strawberries, and at the end the protagonist — a
celebrated physician who during the film realizes that his life has been
somewhat meaningless and empty and
cold – realizes that he loves life, and he feels love. That’s what we all aim
to get toward. We’re all given this big jumble of meaning and signifiers and if
we’re diligent, we can put them in an order that’s harmonious. I don’t want to
use too spacey a word, but I think that that’s a good way to put it: You make
peace with yourself. And I feel like I’ve come pretty close to making peace
with myself. This last ordeal that I went through was a real challenge to this
idea, and I’m happy to come out the other side not crazy and not dead from a
suicide – which would have probably, in previous epochs, been a major consideration.

 

 Is a song like “What Rocks Will Never Know” about
that, in essence?

 Yeah. That one, and
“State of Grace,” they’re two songs that say, “Okay, this is what I have to
deal with, let me find a way to celebrate it.” “What Rocks Will Never Know”
actually came from a visual cue; I was on tour with my guitar player, Pat Hargon,
who’s a really bright person. We were riding in the Pacific Northwest, it was
February I think, and we were in a terrible traffic jam trying to get to Portland to play a show
there. We decided to hit backroads instead, and we passed this giant Christmas
tree farm, huge, acres and acres. And on one side of the road, all the
Christmas trees had been cut down. I don’t know why, and they were all brown and
just laying there – it looked like a Christmas tree massacre. And on the other
road all the Christmas trees were standing, apparently as witnesses to their
brothers’ massacre. And we started shouting, “Run, Christmas trees, run!” (laughs)

        Then we
started talking about the fact that Christmas trees can’t run but people can.
And just as people can commit massacres, people can have the sense to run, and
have the sense to love. And because we have those opportunities, we have to
embrace them, and embrace this mess called the human experience, you know?
“State of Grace”
is kind of the same thing: You can make a mess of your life but one day, if
you’re lucky, that state of grace descends on you where you have the tools to
make peace with the things that have happened. And thankfully, my challenges
are marginal – I’ve had Western civilization problems. I haven’t had an
invading army come in and rape my family and murder them in front of my eyes or
anything like that. So my problems are within a Western context, and I’m deeply
grateful for that. I’m deeply grateful that we live in a stable culture. When I
hear these Tea Party types railing against government and government control, I
think, “Okay, go live in Chad,
then talk to me a year from now about government control.”

        A friend of mine
[Ed. Note: Richard Grant] just wrote
a book called Crazy River,
and he went down a previously unexplored river that went down through Rwanda and Uganda. He talks about that world,
the lawlessness and the chaos and genocide and all those things. When he’s
reading it I just think, “Wow, there’s never been genocide in Georgia in the
last 100 years or so. I’m pretty lucky not to live in a place like that.” And
the people who do live there, they have to make sense of that. They don’t have to make sense of their wife leaving them,
they have to make sense of their family being massacred. So I feel very
grateful that my problems are this limited.

 

 It’s such an old saw about wisdom with age,
but once you live it you learn that’s the wisdom, perspective: It could always
be worse.

 Yeah, it’s nice to be
to the point where there are gray hairs on my head and the head inside doesn’t
mind. I wear these grey hairs proudly!

 

To be
continued. Tomorrow, in Part 2, White outlines how he funded the new album
through a unique Kickstarter campaign, how he wound up on the Yep Roc label
after spending his entire career on Luaka Bop, and how the darkness and
depression that surrounded him when his marriage crumble didn’t kill him, but
made him stronger.

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