YEP ROC 15 (Pt. 5): JIM WHITE

Appearing Saturday, Oct. 13, at Cat’s
Cradle in Carrboro, NC, as part of Yep Roc’s 15th anniversary celebration. The festival’s schedule can be viewed online here.

 

 

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!

 

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?

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.

 

 

Leave a Reply