O, LUCKY MAN! Jim White (Pt. 2)

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Yesterday,
in Part 1,
White held forth on the nature of intuition and consciousness,
touched upon his songwriting, and recalled The Great Christmas Tree Massacre.

 

 BLURT: This is the first LP without Luaka Bop,
and you oversaw every element of it. What has the change been like? You used
Kickstarter, right?

JIM WHITE: Yes I did – and praise Jehovah for that! I had
this battle plan going in which was I was going to use my life savings and make
this record, and I was going to sneak out the other end just barely making it.
And then my wife left halfway through the record, and bankruptcy looked like a real possibility, losing my house
looked like a real possibility. It was terrifying. A few of my friends said ‘You
can raise the money, you can do it. Do the Kickstarter thing.” I was desperate,
I mean really desperate. I thought about the fiddlers in Auschwitz
when I was making this funny, happy video while I was in as bad a state of mind
as I’ve ever been in my life. So it was a weird process. I just decided that I
was going to try to make it fun for people and try to reward them generously if
they participated. So I didn’t just do the “free t-shirt if you participate”
thing, I made 20 pieces of original art, and offered a house show where I raked
someone’s yard – I tried to make it as personal as possible. We set a very,
very low fundraising point, and everyone told me “Gosh, you could make it twice
that.” But in fact, no.  

        I think the
people who are generous and give are getting a little bit of fundraiser
fatigue. So I think with things like Kickstarter, everybody’s trying to raise
money through things like that, and the corollary companies that are doing the
same thing, and the novelty has worn off. It’s a harder proposition now to
raise money; you have to really have an organized fanbase to do it, whereas
previously you could just come on with a funny idea and a bunch of people would
just say, “Hey, great!” So I was fortunate enough to get in while there was
still an easy way to make money. It’s the same thing being a quote-unquote,
alt-country musician. When I started there were 20 musicians who were
professionally doing what I do; now there are 20,000. So for those 20,000 to
try and break through and get people’s attention, it’s hard because there are
many, many, many more people vying for the uninitiated ear. When I release a
record, I have a track record – people know who I am. You’re talking to me
because you know who I am. Do you know who Derek Dukes is?

 

 I saw the name in the one-sheet but I don’t
think I do…

 He’s an amazing
songwriter out of Savannah.
Kind of a weird combination, like Okkervil
River and Vic Chesnutt
and Woody Allen – very funny, smart urban lyrics. And he’s hoping to sell 4,000
records with the new record he’s made, and it’s amazing – a great record. And
he’s hoping he can find 4,000 people in the world to buy it. He’s hoping to get
a couple of interviews because it’s so competitive now, there are just so many
unbelievably talented bands out there right now. I played a show with Low
Anthem a couple of years ago in Holland, I’d never heard of them – best show
I’ve ever seen. Amazing musicians, just astonishing. And they’re now breaking
through. But breaking through now…it used to be a crowd of 20, now it’s a crowd
of 20,000 and there’s still just one little door that you have to find your way
through. So I’m lucky that I’ve been early to things like Kickstarter, and I
raised the money. I had already spent my life savings making the record, and I
used that money from Kickstarter to get me through to the point where we’re
talking now, in my house which would have been repossessed a couple of months
ago but for those people.

 

 How long did the record take, start to finish?

 Everything kind of
feeds into the disruption right in
the middle of it. I started writing it in 2008, probably because in 2007 I
toured, and as soon as I get home from a tour I start writing new songs. I
don’t write anything until I have a free and clear slate to sit down and
quietly write. By 2009 the songs were ready, and then I left Luaka Bop. I was
then going to release it in the fall of 2010 and then I was suddenly in a fight
for my life to keep my house and do all those things. So it’s three years in the
making, and four by the time it comes out. I was stunned when I saw the
discography; “Four years since I released a record? Wow, that’s not a good
pattern.” But I did release that Julliard side project, too, if you saw that.

 

 I did – you dropped an EP, too, somewhere in
there, right?

 Yeah, that was Luaka
Bop’s doing; I didn’t have much to do with that. They just put together a live
show kind of thing. I’m not sure what the motivation was, I didn’t care for
much of the performance on it. They said they thought it was important to do,
and I always let them operate whatever they wanted to do, because when I made a
record they let me do what I wanted to do. So when they made business decisions
I usually nodded and said, “Sure, go ahead.” They’re such smart people, and
such kind and caring people. It was hard to leave, but there’s not enough money
for the artists like me and the strata of where I am in the music business to
create revenue for me and for them. So when they offered me a budget it was
basically, “Well, we can afford to make money for us, but we can’t afford to
make money for you.”

        So I just
decided that that was enough of a sign that it’s time for me to move on, they
told me, “Yeah, we completely understand and we wish you well.” I sent the
record to Yale (Evelev), the guy who runs the label, and I thought that when he
heard the songs he would change his mind and offer me a better budget, but I
guess he couldn’t in good conscience run his company into the ground. Still, I
thought when he heard them, well, I think this batch is some of the best songs
I’ve written in a long time. And they’re very different than previous records,
where there’s a lot more navel-gazing; this record is more about walking out
into life. But they had their business decisions to make and I had mine. And we
are in the music business, not the
music hobby. It’s a business, and you
have to understand. I hear people slaggin’ labels all the time, fans saying
labels are so greedy – you wouldn’t have heard most of those great records you
heard if there wasn’t some label person who believed in it. You wouldn’t have
heard of Tom Waits; Tom Waits would be playing in some bar in San Diego right now but for label people
saying “Hey, we believe in this.” There may be some intrinsic corruption when you get into big money in labels, but
there are so many labels who care so much – like Yep Roc, those people really
care. I felt like Santa Claus when I walked up there – they were looking at me
like they loved me when I visited them a week or two ago. It was really
encouraging, they’re very good at what they do, and that art and commerce really
can work well together… if people have the right priorities.

 

 It seems like it has something to do with
scale, doesn’t it? When something gets too big…

 Yeah, when the dollar
starts ruling the show, that’s when you need to jump out and go find another
occupation.

 

 Did you have trouble finding another label?
Did you have suitors?

 Luaka Bop was the
only label I’d ever been on; they signed me when I was a mentally ill cabdriver
with a demo tape that everybody reported was the worst demo tape ever made.
Sound only came out of one speaker when you played it, and it was a cassette
tape with me singing into a Pepsi bottle because that made it sound like
reverb. I made it by myself in my house, in my house. These weren’t demo tapes
at all, just me sitting in my house doing what one of my teachers at school
called “The talking cure.” I was making art as therapy, and the art-as-therapy
tape that I made found its way to them. So I am so filled with love and
gratitude to them for offering me the chance because it’s been a beautiful
experience. They are distributed by Red Eye, which is part of Yep Roc, so we
had a working relationship in the distribution leg of it, and when I left Luaka
Bop, my manager said “Well, I’m going to talk to the Yep Roc people and see
what they have to say.” And I said, “Should we talk to other people?” And he
said, “No.” So I said, “Okay.” Now I see why he was so focused on that because
I went up there and visited them and they’re like a bunch of on-fire Christians
for the Lord, only they’re on fire for music. And that’s really heartening.

 

 If I can switch back to the record – when you
got this terrible news about your wife, did you stop recording completely? And
how long were you married?

 We were married six
years, just turned six years while we were getting the divorce, which took
longer because of some complications. I had to stop everything; I sank into a
profound depression. It was a depression of many dimensions. People who are
married need to think about this before they walk away from their partners –
she was my business partner, too. We shared half of the expenses, and suddenly
my expenses doubled at a time when I couldn’t afford it. Yeah, it was a crazy
time – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It got crazier and crazier.

 

 How did the layoff affect the recording that
followed, do you think? Did you write more music afterward?

 It’s a really germane
point – I dropped two happy songs about our lives together, my wife’s and mine.
And when I wrote “Chase the Dark Away,” that was a song I wrote for my wife,
because she was worried about the world, and I was trying to tell her the way
to chase the dark away is smilin’ that smile every day, which is the smile of
courage and love. So when I had to sing it – because I record vocals last – I
was in tears a lot of the time because the song changed. It was a very
positive, uplifting Pogues kind of song, and it became very brooding because a
part of it was suddenly missing. So a lot of the songs were changed, and
certainly the vocal performances of them.

        Like the song
“The Wintered Blue Sky” – it’s funny, I don’t think I could’ve done that song
justice vocally if my heart hadn’t been broken when I was singing it. It’s
weird – when I listened back I saw I’d poured my lament into that vocal. I’m
not the world’s greatest vocalist, but I feel like the terrible things that
happened to me actually helped that song be what it is. It’s a song about a
friend of mine who was sexually molested as a kid and a conversation that we
had – the chorus is “nobody never got nowhere alone,” and that song was being
mixed the day I was sitting in divorce proceedings. I thought it was going to
be a brief experience going in and signing a few papers, and it ended up being
10 hours of hell. The mixer, John, is a friend of mine and I trust him, so I
just said “start mixing this song” and I walked in and he looked at me and
said, “Man, that is a dark song you wanted me to mix.” I said, “Yeah, you don’t
know the half of it, man, you don’t know the half of it.”

        So it impacted
the record in many ways – the album became quite a bit darker as a result of
riding through it. It was a weird challenge because a lot of the songs were
about my life with my family; to sing about something that was gone… well, it
may make the songs more interesting, but it certainly made the experience
unpleasant. (laughs)

        But you know
what – once again, let’s keep our perspective. At the end of the day I have two
really beautiful kids and I sent out a plea through an internet service saying
I’m desperate and people from all over the world helped me save my house and
make a record. So I feel very, very, very lucky.

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