Monthly Archives: March 2012

A ROSIER PERSPECTIVE Rosie Thomas

A new
album finds the songwriter renewing her faith in life, love and the
transformational power of music.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

After only three albums and a decade or so of plying her
craft, Rosie Thomas had every reason to believe that her career – not to
mention her life as she had known it – had come to a close. Diagnosed with a
thyroid condition and suffering from severe anxiety, she found herself
debilitated and unable to work, much less function as far as her day to day
activities were concerned. The struggle took a full two years to overcome, but
with a new husband, a change of locale and a focus on a new album to occupy
her, she eventually gained control and steered her life back to where it had
been before. Assisted by longtime compatriots David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Blake Wescott (The Posies, Damien Jurado), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)
and Jen Wood (The Postal
Service), she gave the project a simple but inspired title, With Love, making it an homage not only
to her enduring influences, but also to the transformative powers of that
singular human connection. Producers Bazan and Wescott gave her her marching
orders; she was instructed to list every artist and performance that had been
her source of inspiration and then funnel those seminal sounds into the new
work. The list spanned a vast musical spectrum, from soul singers like Stevie
Wonder and the Jackson Five to those who had always somehow surfaced in her
sound — Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and her all-time idol Bette Midler.

 

The process aided in her recovery
and her recovery was nothing short of a revelation. “For the first time I just
lived,” she says. “For the first time I was able to stay in one place long
enough to pour into friendships. I learned that there was more than just
performing to life. I had lived my whole life with one pursuit in mind — being
brave and going after my dreams. What I missed out on were the normal things
that were even more vital — pouring into the lives around me, getting my mind
off of me and putting it more on others. I was joyful and the pressure was off
of me for the first time and I learned I had even more to offer than just
entertaining people. I guess I had forgotten, or I was just too self focused to
see what I was missing out on.” 

 

BLURT recently sat down with the singer and sometime
comedienne for a lengthy conversation, during which we asked her to describe
the process that led her to rediscover her muse and find her mantra as well.

 


Rosie Thomas – Back to Being Friends by boorin

 

BLURT: This album was sprung some unfortunate circumstances. Tell
us a little bit about the illness you suffered from and how it was reflected in
your songwriting? When were you diagnosed with this disease and what was your
immediate reaction? 

ROSIE THOMAS: When I was first diagnosed with
being hyperthyroid, I was both bummed and relieved. I was relieved because I
knew there was an answer to the way I was feeling — super duper anxious
— and it was a relief to know I wasn’t going mental. No one wants
something to go wrong with your body, and I was bummed that something in mine
broke I guess — mostly my pride. 
“I’m Rosie!,” I thought. “I’m invincible!” But alas,
I wasn’t. That whole experience changed me entirely. When you go from feeling
like wonder woman in your head to being bed- ridden, it’ll change your
perspective pretty quickly and really force you to pay attention to what really
matters. What really mattered during that time were the people in my life that
loved me when I felt that I had nothing worth loving at all. In some sense it
made me realize how spoiled I had been and self indulgent too.  I went into making this record with a lot
more heart and a lot more gratitude, no question. For the first time, I
appreciated the small things and the small things looked big, and I knew I was
onto something.

        I
began writing “2 Worlds Collide” about anxiety, for example, but
opened it up to a much broader theme when I felt that it was sounding a bit too
pitiful. “Now I can’t hear music, and I can’t take train rides, I can’t
remember the last time I felt right” was all about anxiety.  I just put the love twist on it and it became
a much stronger song. In some ways, singing about anxiety gave me anxiety, so
it was nice to steer off a bit from the subject. I definitely didn’t want to
obsess on it too much. Things happen and set you back, but it’s important to
pick yourself back up and keep moving.

 When I wrote “Like Wildflowers,”
it was my way of wondering if I would be okay again. I think I cried the first
time I sang it beginning to end. The lyrics — “Where will I go from
here?” — was an honest plea.  Is
this my new best I wondered?  Rosie in
her PJ’s watching life pass her by? I wanted to be like the flowers in the
field… able to sway along despite the circumstances. 

 

Was there ever a point where you felt overwhelmed by the challenge
of recording a new album in light of all the stress in your life? How did you
overcome the intimidation? 

There are three stages to this process —
writing it, recording it and sharing it. The biggest challenges are writing it
and then sharing it with the world. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into
this one, but I was ready to make this record… more than ready. It was
exhilarating, nothing but! I had done loads of pre-production, some with Sam,
some on my own, some with Dave… so by the time it came to the recording, it
already felt like we were crystal clear with the direction we were going in.
Plus, I really respected the friends I picked to make this record with; they
have so much class, and they know me, and I knew they had my best interest at
heart and I trusted every challenge they threw at me. It was so much fun and I
felt so cared for and so encouraged and so tended to.  I mean, when you’re in good company, and
around your peers, you feel kinda invincible you know?  I definitely
thrive when I’m around people that love me. I mean, don’t we all? It’s pretty
vital and it just makes me feel braver and more heroic. I get lost when I’m
alone. 

        Definitely
coming out of a pretty tough time made me appreciate it that much more, and
made me really sing my head off. One night when I was singing my head off,
Bazan came in the studio, and said “I believe you.” and it made me
cry. I knew I was singing from a different place this time. “How
cool,” I thought. Even more life experience for Rosie, and more places to
pull from. I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made… and that rules.  

 

How did you manage to juggle an illness, relocation and a new
marriage simultaneously – and then organize your thoughts to reflect it all in
the music? 

I think we are capable of more that we think.
You know those times in life when you think, “How did I do that?!” I
have had a lot of those. Having a loving community helps too, and now a loving
husband who adores me so.  I also think I am better when I’m busier and
there’s less time to contemplate, less time to think about myself or be self
focused. I knew it was my time to rise up.

 

When you thought about the idea of calling the album With
Love
, did you have a clear
idea of how you were going to stretch that concept
and make it more than just another collection of love songs? After all, it’s a
topic that’s used A LOT and the title itself doesn’t necessarily betray the
fact that there’s a different angle to it.

We definitely throw the word love around far too
casually, so unfortunately it can lose its meaning, but I knew the weight that
it carried. Honestly, I was just walking around by myself in Brooklyn
when the title came to me. I had just been thinking about that time, and what
we go through and endure as people. It was love that sincerely carried me
through, and it was that simple. I know I’m a complex enough individual that
calling it With Love wouldn’t
narrow the focus. Love obviously has so many angles to it and I felt that this
record covered it all — between friends, family, and of course the romantic
side both good and bad. The longing, the passing, the letting go and the way it
can lift us up too. That’s an important one, because that’s the part that keeps
us hopeful. 

 

There are a lot of classic influences on the new album. How did
you factor all that in while managing to retain your own distinctive style? 

Influence is inevitable and when you’re strong
enough in your own character it will stay in its place and do what it’s
supposed to do — add and not take away from you. I’m always pretty cautious
with that kinda thing however; you gotta be inspired right? You gotta be pushed
so you gotta pay close attention to what you like and then ask yourself if it
works for you. For instance, I like R&B, but I’m not an R&B singer, nor
do I write those kinda tunes. But there are elements about it that work for me,
and can inform aspects of what I do. 

 

What was it like when your producer told you to write down every
song and every artist that had a marked influence on you.? Was that an
arduous task?      

Surprisingly, no. I couldn’t write the songs and
artists down fast enough. Bette Midler was first on my list and I started
laughing, but I couldn’t deny how her songs and her personality had grabbed my
attention over the years, I mean I tried to write her a letter once! How could
I forget that?! What I always loved about her in particular was how she could
switch from silly to heartbreaking in a heartbeat and how much it worked. I
relate to that! I’ve got a lot of personality, and I absorb a lot, which means
I have a lot to share in a lot of different ways. In the beginning of my
career, music was the main focus, but as time has gone on, all of me has been
poured in — the jokes, the stories and the songs. I’m one heck of an
entertainer because I don’t hold back; you get all of me, and I sure have a lot
of love to give.

 

Are there any specific songs that you can cite as being especially
noteworthy in terms of the album as a whole?  

“Over The Moon” and “Sometimes
Love” are the first that come to mind. These tunes in particular seem to
represent two very different sides to anyone’s love story. “Over The
Moon” was exciting to write and when I finished it I exclaimed, “I
think I just wrote my first pop tune!” and it was all about love gained
and not love lost this time around an obvious nod to my husband. 

        “Sometimes
love” was written by my dear friend, and one of my favorite songwriters,
Tim Miser. I have always wanted to cover this song- and it really fit as a bit
of a summation of the various themes throughout the album. It covers it all in
my opinion — every aspect of love in a way you can swallow and accept. Love, just like life, is really out of our
hands.

 

How did you assemble the all star backing band that worked with
you on this record?   

I paid ‘em a lot of money! No, that’s not true.
I guess I was just lucky. That’s not totally true either. I was really blessed
to have friends that really cared about me making my best record, and that took
the time to be a part of it with me. Now, that’s true.

Is your new husband flattered that he
inspired the sweeter sentiments that echo throughout this album?
 

I don’t know, let me ask him. Hold on
please. [pause in conversation]

        I
guess it just occurred to him, because now he’s bawling his eyes out.  
   

      

When your career was just getting underway, at what point did you
know that making music would be a viable career option
for you and you wouldn’t have to think about a day job?   

To be honest, I never counted on that ever. I
hoped for it sure, but knew I couldn’t count on that.  Even when things
look they might be on the up and up, there’s still no guarantee they’ll stay
that way.  That’s important to know and no matter what happens, you gotta
cling to that truth and if you do you’ll stay afloat. For instance, in one year
I went from playing the Royal Albert Hall to someone’s wedding and back to
small clubs again. Anything goes! If it goes well, that’s all bonus in my
opinion. You can have the best intentions –you can even think, “No one
can do what I’m doing better than me!” and though that may be true, doing
what you love can be a risky business. I’ve been blessed that I haven’t had a
day job in years, but I practice on a cash register every now and again… just
in case my luck runs out. 

 

How do you see the trajectory of your career? Have there been
different elements and a different way of thinking that’s evolved with each new
album?  

Definitely…especially this time around. I
finally feel that I have found my stride. Sam encouraged me to make a record
that made me a bit uncomfortable; I had always said and did what made me
comfortable and I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. However, that made me
coast a bit. It kept me shy and held
me back from being a little bit bolder. It held me back from finding out what I
was really capable of. I feel like this time around I pushed myself to places I
didn’t know I could reach. I sang out more, I stretched myself musically, I
switched up tempos and rhythms, and finally made a record that matched my
personality a lot, lot, more. I felt like I grew an inch, like I had another
growth spurt. Maybe I did. Hang on, I’ll measure… Nope, still 5’5.” It’s just
in my head.  

 

When it comes time to create a new album, do you have an overall
concept in mind, or do you have a
batch of songs that dictate the concept?
    
It’s the batch of songs that tell the story of the record and of
my life. 

 

Tell us a little bit about the documentary that was done on
you – All the Way from Michigan Not Mars. How did that come about?
    

What’s funny is that the documentary was
supposed to be a short about Suf, Denny and I making a record together until I
screwed that all up by saying, “Do you want to film me talking about
stuff?” and then we ended up with hours and hours of footage! I guess I
thought, if they were going to do this, I should say something that I think
matters, but I don’t think I knew how to stop talking once I got going. There
was just so much on my heart and so many stories I wanted to share. Good grief
Rosie!

 

How do you think you distinguish yourself from all the other
singer/songwriters out there right now? What special approach or insight helps
imbue you with a style or stance all your own?   

I guess the simplest way of answering this is
something that gets a lot of lip service, but not much follow-through, and that’s
being yourself.  The biggest
thing I have to offer is myself.  If I ever consider compromising that,
shame on me. It took me a couple of records to feel confident about that and
fully realize all that I had to offer. It became a bigger responsibility to me,
to engage with the audience, not just perform for them. I realized that if I
didn’t break that wall down, I might miss out on the opportunity of really
saying something they needed to hear, or relate to, and the truth is, I needed
it too.

        I
believe that this world is getting more and more self-focused and we are
forgetting to take care of one another, to relate to one another, and encourage
one another.  I have a lot of compassion, too much for my own good at
times, but I think I can use it to help people feel better, and that feels
awesome. So many folks these days are so concerned with keeping up appearances,
and presenting themselves as what others will think is cool. I find that if you
are willing to risk being vulnerable with people, and open up about our own
struggles, people will feel like it’s safe to reciprocate, and then you can
actually get somewhere meaningful, not just the shallow baloney that we’re
force-fed from most of pop culture. I take that pretty seriously and I am
willing to risk not being cool for being real.  

        Bazan
even said to me the other day, “Don’t hold back Rosie, if anything, push
further,” and here’s how I do that differently than anybody else. I wear
my heart on my sleeve. I am not interested in a self-indulgent career. I know
better; I know that only leads to letdowns, meltdowns and breakdowns. I’m
interested in using the platform I’ve been given to help people feel less
alone, and I feel honored to be that voice for people. I love making people
laugh, so I involve comedy in my shows. I like to share stories, so I tell
stories. I like to sing, so I sing my heart out. I like to write about what I
write about because it’s pure and real and honest and relatable. Someone’s got
to shout it out!

        Basically,
I draw on every strength I possess and share ‘em all. Why not? My beloved
friend Mary always says, “If you don’t do it Rosie, who will?!” So I
raised my hand and said, “I will! I will!”  And I do it with my whole heart, and I do it
for those that might be afraid to admit it themselves. I don’t mind; I have
always worn my heart on my sleeve remember? I couldn’t live my life any other
way. It’s a good life when you’re giving. It’s the key to real fulfillment, and
true happiness, so I don’t hold back because that would bore me. I give it all…
with love in my heart.

 

Anything else you’d like to add? 

No, thank you. Unless we want this to end up
like my documentary, and turn it into a self-help book, we should quit while
we’re ahead.  

 

Rosie Thomas begins an extensive North American tour March 15.
Tour dates at her website:
www.rosiethomas.com

BREATHE DEEP Amy Ray

The Indigo Girl
launches her latest solo album,
Lung Of Love, and continues to navigate the waters of a dual career.

 

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

In many ways, Amy Ray seems to operate in two parallel
universes, each of which lean towards opposite poles. In one, she’s the
reassuring earth mother, part of the duo known as the Indigo Girls, whose
lengthy and prosperous career has spawned legions of devotees and a goodly
number of best selling albums. In the other, she’s the hard-scrapping indie
rocker, who takes a back-to-basics approach that draws a modest fan following
on its own merits.

 

The first world seems to take care of itself; after all, the
Indigos have been a well known entity for the past twenty years, given the
advantage of record company support, a well-stocked canon of anthemic material,
and a core audience that assures them headliner status. As for the other,
suffice it to say that Ray’s recognition factor on her own doesn’t even come
close, and for every main stage she and Emily Saliers fill as the Indigos,
there are dozens of dives and seedy out-of-the-way watering holes that don’t
come close to equaling their draw potential.

 

Still, six albums on, Ray’s solo ambitions have yet to
falter. If anything she seems to have grown more tenacious along the way. The
Indigos may tend to embrace and inspire, but on her own, Ray’s a raucous rocker
who’s etching a career by her own devices and strictly on her own terms. “It
takes a long time to etch you own identity,” Ray concedes. “I think especially
when you’re a woman trying to play rock ‘n’ roll. And being in the Indigo Girls
is such a strong identity too. So to depart from that and do something that’s
very different — that’s more rock and more underground and stuff – it’s hard
to break out of that. You can’t force people to identify you a certain way, so
really you just have to keep playing the music and let people make their own
decisions.”

 

It’s appropriate then that Ray’s new album is titled Lung of Love, an expression she uses to
describe her attempt to communicate and share her art and ideals. Yet, while
she still grapples with the exact meaning and explanation, its clearly the best
set of songs she’s issued on her own to date — its rugged, reliable melodies
assuring it an immediate accessibility. BLURT recently spoke to Ray during an
extended break from the road and got a quick lesson in how to multi-task when
it comes to dual careers.

 

 


02 Glow Amy Ray by AngieFigure8PR

 

 

BLURT: So tell us –
how did this album come about?

AMY RAY: I actually didn’t think of a concept and I guess
there’s something that makes everything hang together but I’m not even really
sure of what it is. The title’s is taken is from a song but I also felt the
whole record could be represented by that. Initially the idea for the record
came about when I got together with Greg (Griffith), the producer, and the
drummer, Mel – pretty much I start with them first and start working on
arrangements and flushing out songs, and there was stuff I hadn’t finished
writing that Greg ended up co-writing with me, and some things I hadn’t even
started yet, so we had a handful – probably four or five songs to start, and
so, as we work, I’m also writing, so the beginning of our work kind of inform
as what I’m writing next. But really, I thought I’d make a record with ten
short power pop songs on it, but it totally didn’t go that way. So much for
concepts I guess.

        I think the
main thing was we were going to record on two-inch tape and get as much stuff
on tape as possible. That’s kind of what our main goal was to start with and we
did a lot of that, so that was good. And musically, whatever served the song
was kind of the way we were looking at it.

 

That gospel song,
“The Rock is my Foundation,” was an interesting inclusion.

I hadn’t actually planned on including that on there because
I write because I was going to put our a whole record that was country and then
have some Appalachian songs, but I was playing it to warm up one day and Greg
said, ‘”I really want that on the record.” And I said I didn’t think it would
really fit in, but then I thought, that doesn’t really matter. Because other
records I’ve done have been the same thing, I had songs on my earlier records
that were kind of like that too. So, as time went there were things that were
included that I thought might end up on a different record. I just kind of
decided to go with it and I’m glad for the way it hangs together now.

 

When you write songs,
is there a clear idea which will go on an Indigo Girls record and which will be
reserved for your own projects?

I pretty know what I’m writing for as soon as the song takes
shape. And I think I can hear the harmonies and how the guitars will take
shape, and I think it’s pretty much a function of who I collaborate with. With
Emily, there’s a certain way I hear it, but if I know I’m going to work with my
band I’ll hear that a certain way too. It used to be about subject matter,
where the stuff that was a little more intimate or raw would be the solo stuff,
but then that kind of changed and became more like who the collaborators were
going to be.

 

With six solo albums,
you’re well along into your solo career, Are you finding it easy to juggle both
your won efforts and your work with the Indigo Girls?

It’s a challenge this time, but I think it’s because I’ve
had a label for a long time, and the way you run a record label nowadays as
opposed to 15 years ago is really different. I don’t have a staff so I’m doing
a lot of stuff on my own and delegating or hiring other people for press or
this or that. And there’s so much you can do on the web. It’s kind of like
putting out two different releases with the extra stuff you have to do. So
there’s a ton of footwork to do and that’s the kind of stuff that takes me
aback, where I’m going “Whoa…!” And it’s the same thing with the Indigo Girls,
because now we’re putting the stuff out ourselves and it’s kind of up to us as
well. So it’s a little bit of juggling. Fortunately I got a little bit of a
break so I’ve had some time to get things organized for this, because I don’t
know if I could have done it if I was out on the road touring. Yeah, I think
I’ve learned a lot with this record, just in terms of set-up time and what to
plan for and everything. I enjoy it. It’s something I enjoy doing, so thank God
for that.

 

It always seems to be
an interesting proposition when you have a duo, it’s basically the two of you,
and one person decides to do some solo work. Is there resentment from the other
person?

Emily is kind of a different bird in that way. I don’t think
she was threatened and I don’t think she had a desire to be a part of it
either. I think she saw it as kind of an outlet for me for, things that didn’t
fit in and she knew it would make me happy to collaborate with a different set
of people. She’s always been super supportive and she’s even come to my shows.
Sometimes she’ll even get up and play guitar. So I think I’m lucky because
she’s kind of different from most band members, She definitely has never said
something negative, or had a moment where she was jealous or envious or
anything like that. I think she’s pretty satisfied with what we do and she gets
her artistic ya-yas out with what we’re doing. If she was to do anything solo,
it would likely be to express those kind of R&B influences that she has,
kind of the more soul, urban, hip hop world which we can’t really do as an
Indigo Girl. So I think that would be the one thing she would want to do
different from what we do. I think the expression of the Indigo Girls is a lot
of Emily and in a good way, it’s a lot of me too, but I think there’s a big
chunk of me that doesn’t come out in that. I started realizing that and just
wanted to do something different. It’s been good for me because it’s made me a
better songwriter so when I come back to the Indigo Girls, it makes me better
at that too. I can see how for a long time how I needed to maybe grow.

 

What is exactly is a
“lung of love?”

I guess I was maybe equating it to your breath and everything that comes out of
you – the singing, the art, the whatever. It’s very hard for me to articulate
because I was kind of talking about the clumsiness of our bodies compared to
the grace we want to have in everything – in our love, in our lives, in our
art, in our activism, in the way we handle ourselves in the world. So I was
saying I have this way to express myself, but at the same time, I get tired, I
run out of breath or I have a heart murmur,,, all these physicality’s that sort
of slow you down in life, no matter how old you are, there are these things you
have to deal with…

You’re too young to have all those
concerns…

Everybody has them. Even when you’re on the road when you’re
in your twenties, you get tired. You can’t play more than eight shows in a row
without losing your voice, and then you get frustrated because that’s your form
of expression. And I think I was saying I can’t really be there for my loved
ones as much as I want to be – for my partner, my family, my parents – but the way
I have to offer myself is like this — the performing, the singing… using my
gifts like everybody should do in their way.

 

Yet now that you have
this solo career, and with all the activity that comes with the Indigo Girls,
do you find it even harder to reconcile all these needs and responsibilities?
It would seem like the challenge would get even greater.

I’m home now for a couple of months. I toured for a couple
of weeks in January and a week in December, so there has been stretches where
I’ve been away. For the most part though, I’ve been working at home to set this
record up and I’ve done a bunch of stuff here to catch up. And the Indigos
don’t start up again until June. I think after this record and after we tour a
little bit, I’ll step back from it and go, hey, I need to organize this a
little better to give me more time at home. I think I’m just kind of in the
middle of a frenzy right now. Things got heaped on and I didn’t realize it was
going to turn out this way.

 

And then there’s
always the need to go back into the studio and start on the next record, right?

The Indigos probably won’t go back in the studio for awhile,
because we really didn’t tour much on it to begin with and we’ll definitely
have a lot left to do on that, as far as touring in concerned. They just put
out another single from the album this week I think. But for my next solo
project, I’m going to record it here at home. I have a little eight track
studio that I kind of put together and it sounds pretty good, I’ve been
tweaking it for the last couple of years and I’ve done a few things in it just
for me. So I think my next project will be more like a country project and it
will be done here, so that will be good. The Indigos will probably wait another
year. There’s time, ya know? You got to write. We spent a lot of time writing
for this last record and we’ll probably want to do the same thing this time.

 

Where is “here”?

Up in north Georgia, kind of near the mountains. I’ve lived
in the same place for the last twenty years. There’s a college close by, and
there’s a lot of artists and musicians and bluegrass players in the area, so
it’s very rich in that way. It’s like in the foothills of the Appalachians, in
a town called Dahlonega. It was the site of the first American gold rush. (chuckles)
It started here and then they moved. (laughs)

 

Is the audience that
you get for your solo shows the same audience that comes to see the Indigos?

It’s different. It’s a lot smaller for one thing. (laughs)
But it’s not just a subset of the Indigo Girls. There are definitely a lot of
people that go to my solo shows that don’t go see the Indigo Girls. Maybe a
little more of a rock crowd for lack of a better word. There are definitely
Indigo Girl fans who don’t love this (laughs), but that’s okay. I’ve weeded
them out. When I first started playing solo twelve years or so ago, there were
a lot of people who came out just out of curiosity, but slowly it’s become
people who know what it is, and people come who just appreciate it. But we do
get a small crowd. (laughs)

 

But after six solo
albums, one would think you’re starting to etch your own identity.

Well, we’re starting to.

 

Do you do any Indigo
Girls songs in your solo show?
No. Although I did do several acoustic shows with a singer/songwriter named
Lindsey Fuller – a great songwriter – and we went out for two weeks together
where we did songs back and forth and then did one long set. We did do a couple
of Indigo Girls songs because she wanted to cover them, so I did some obscure
ones that we never play any more. But when I play with my band, I never do
Indigo Girls songs. There’s just not time anyway. If I have my band with me I
just want to use them to play everything that I want to play that’s solo stuff
that I just don’t get to play very much.

 

But do you have
people calling out requests for Indigo Girls songs anyway?

It’s mostly beyond that, but every now and then I get a
drunk, and they’ll start requesting something like “Closer to Fine,” something
I can’t play myself. I just laugh about it because I know where it’s coming
from. (laughs)

 

It would be nice if
at least that drunk would request something you wrote.

Nope. That’s what’s really funny about it. When people start
requesting “Galileo” or “Closer to Fine,” it’s just kind of one of those
moments where you go “Okay.” It’s pretty absurd. It usually happens at a bar
where it’s half-filled and those people are drunk and no one really knows who I
am. And it’s usually this gig that I’m trying to play for the first time, sort
of like I’m trying to start over for the first time, And it’s one of those
moments that really humbles you. (laughs) So it’s good for me and that’s the
truth.

 

That must be an
interesting dynamic considering the fact that the Indigo Girls are really so
huge. It must take you back to your roots in a way.

Yeah, definitely. I keep going back to them. My solo stuff
has some areas, like New York, where it’s built up and it’s in a really good
place and you get a bigger crowd because it’s in a bigger city. And there’s
places where I go back every time I put out a new record, but I have to go back
and redevelop that city and try to get people back out to hear me. So it really
keeps you on your toes.

 

Do you have to
caution the promoter not to put “Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls” on the marquee?

It’s funny because we used to put that on there. This year, me and my agent and
my manager were talking about it. It’s one of those double-edged swords where
we use it sometimes in cities where people don’t really know me. We use it to
get people out who are interested. But the flip side of it is that they expect
something similar to what they’re used to from the Indigos. So we decided if a
promoter really wanted to use that, they could, because it provides a
connection. But we would prefer that they didn’t so I can just step out under
my own name. And it was a funny conversation, because it’s weird talking about
myself in third person. But then I decided that when I go out and do my
acoustic shows, I am going to do some Indigo Girls songs because I’m out with
other songwriters and I’m just going to have fun. Then we would put Indigo
Girls songs in it because it’s a context that’s appropriate. But when it’s me
and the band, it has nothing to do with that, other than I’m the same
songwriter.

 

When did you know
that you had made it as a musician and you could make it a career and you
wouldn’t need a day job of some sort to support yourself?

Well, you never know. (laughs) Even before we got signed, we
were playing so much. We had our first indie record out, our first full-length
record, and we were touring up and down the east coast out to Texas and back,
and we were definitely making enough money to make a living and didn’t have to
work other jobs. Emily for awhile was working, and for awhile I worked, but it came
to the point where we were making enough money in Atlanta where we could fund
the other gigs we were doing and we were also living in really inexpensive
apartments. I mean, my rent was like $325 a month. So I had a very low overhead
in my life, I was living a very simple life, I was like 21 and I knew there
might be times when I’d have to get a job, so right before we got signed, I had
filled out an application to be a substitute teacher in the county I was living
in, just for those times when we didn’t have a gig. Then we got signed to Epic
and I could throw the application away for awhile. Once we got signed, we got a
big advance and those were the days when the record companies spent a lot of
money and gave a big advance and all that jazz. So we were set for awhile. It
remained to be seen whether we had staying power but we knew that for the next
couple of years, we would be okay and we could live on what we made. We were
free to tour and do our thing. It was really lucky and a lot different from
what bands experience now.

 

Amy Ray’s Lung Of Love
tour kicks off this week in Atlanta. Tour dates at her official website. She’ll
also be playing the BLURT day party March 16 in Austin during SXSW – check
details here
.

 


EMERGING FROM THE WILDERNESS Howlin Rain

How to
survive a four-year creative odyssey while laboring in (on)
The
Russian Wilds.

 

BY DAVE GIL DE RUBIO

 

 Four years is how
long it takes to earn a college degree. But in the fickle music industry world,
it’s time enough for a group to lapse into obscurity. It’s a fact that Howlin
Rain mastermind Ethan Miller is well aware of, having spent that amount of time
working on The Russian Wilds, his
band’s third full-length studio album. “The risk there obviously is that bands
break up. They get sick of the material and of each other and after a few
years, everyone feels like they’ve gone crazy, they tell each other to fuck off
and decide they should be doing something with their lives,” Miller admits.
“Not watching the entire world go by while focusing on a single fucking
project. On paper that seems insane but in reality it’s even crazier.”  

 

Best known for his time making a beautiful racket as a
member of Santa Cruz noise-rockers Comets on Fire, the Humboldt County native
started spending more of his time working on Howlin Rain, a project with a
considerably more melodic bent to it that harkened back to the tie-dyed country
rock of early ‘70s Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Following
the release of a 2006 self-titled debut, 
Miller’s side project slowly became a full-time pursuit and in the
process, attracted the attention of musical Renaissance man/svengali Rick
Rubin. Shortly after convincing the Comets founding member to sign his new
group to his American Recordings imprint, Rubin released the 2008 sophomore bow
Magnificent Fiend, before starting to
working closely with Miller on a follow-up, a process that dragged on
considerably longer than either party anticipated.

 

When Miller greets me at the door of his friend’s Williamsburg
apartment, his hirsute visage and wild mane of hair gives the appearance of
lived off the grid whilst wrestling with his muse. Having spoken with him back
in 2009 and being assured that this project was going to drop in March or April
of 2010, explanations were in order. “Everything that could have possibly
happened to elongate the process did. It was to the point where I’m not sure
that we could of gone much longer. It wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t the label’s
fault. It wasn’t Rick’s fault or my fault. It was all those creative elements
that make the thing go,” he recalls, with a sigh. “When we got back at the end
of 2008/early 2009, we started putting the band back together. It was just Joel
[Robinow] and I. That took some time – to get a band together in a natural way.
At the same time, I had asked Rick what I could do to start working on the
record while we were out on tour. He said whenever I was home from touring,
just go write songs. He wanted to have the best nine songs of all the ones that
I wrote ready to go. So I started writing between tours in 2008 and the journey
began there. ” With Rubin being pulled away to work on a number of other
projects, his involvement shifted to that of an executive producer while Miller
reunited with Tim Green, a producer/engineer, who’s been a constant dating back
to the Comets days.

 

Working from two 70-minute CDs of demos, Miller and Green
culled the material down to eleven songs that reflect the band’s diverse
influences.  The frontman’s testifying on
“Can’t Satisfy Me” and “Walking Through Me,” a pair of power ballads soaked in
equal parts Hammond
organ and screaming guitar brings to mind a fusion of Joe Cocker’s grit and
Brad Delp’s soulful upper register. A cover of the James Gang’s ethereal gem
“Collage” is one of the album’s more overt homage but closing number “….Still
Walking, Still Stone,” offers a subtler yet effective nod, fusing Robinow’s
Vince Guaraldi-flavored piano runs with Isaiah Mitchell’s Warren Haynes-ish
soloing. Most impressive is “Phantom in the Valley,” a proggy seven-minute-plus
epic that goes from gothic imagery, pointed harmonies and a keyboard solo
worthy of Jon Lord to an abrupt
change-of-pace outro bubbling over with Afro-Cuban rhythms and mariachi horn
arrangements that might have come from a lost Santana session.

 

Credit a combination of opportunity and Miller’s willingness
to go outside of his comfort zone for this compositional twist. “I did this
salsa performance, which I’d never done before, with [Latin jazz legends]
Arturo O’Farrill and Larry Harlow. I didn’t know anything about salsa but they
had me take a solo and do some singing,” he says. “I had this crash course in
this music – checking out Fania stuff the week before and trying to get down
some of the scales. After being up there with those guys and some of the best
horn players, it was amazing especially with the endless energy that comes out
of salsa music. So of course I went and started trying to write some salsa
parts and trying to get one of those things onto the record.”

 

 


The Russian Wilds by howlinrain

 

 

 

When Miller tucks a soulful howl that wouldn’t sound out of
place on an Aerosmith record in front of the funky Steely Dan-inspired strut of
“Dark Side,” it brings to mind Miller’s oft-quoted comparison of The Russian
Wilds
being a blend of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric
Ladyland
, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and
Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge
of Town
. “More than those being an influence, although they were a little
bit, I started to look at these albums that I considered great that were
troublesome. Honestly, it got to the point of working on our record for such a
long time that we went to a dark place. I just felt like it was never going to
end and I just went to those three records for whatever reason to have some
sort of anchor or meaning,” Miller explains. “I was gravitating towards these
projects that were big and messy. This is how some things that can take over
your life and threaten to destroy your artistry, band and career – this is how
it could turn out. Still rough and complex emotionally yet successful just in
the fact that this is what they convey.”

 

With the emerging success of Howlin Rain there remains the
question of the state of Comets on Fire. With all the Comets band members
relocating to other cities or in some instances, starting families, the band
drifted apart with the last official performance being at Sub Pop’s 20th Anniversary Festival four years ago. This group disconnect became even more
apparent when the quintet reunited for the first time since then earlier this
year to back up fellow member Ben Chasny on his forthcoming Six Organs of
Admittance record (due out this fall on Drag City). While it would be easy to
say this was a Comets record without being called a Comets record, Miller is
quick to set the record straight. “It was the Comets making music for Ben
Chasny and his vision of Six Organs in a Comets way. What I think he wanted was
to not necessarily have the guys together and have a good time but to have a
Comets feel to the Six Organs rock record that he wanted to do. The five of us
also realized that when we got in there that we couldn’t help but sound like
us. I think we thought we would sound Comets-esque backing him up but of course
it just sounded like us playing together.”

 

Howlin’
Rain is currently on a North American tour (including multiple shows at SXSW).
Check tour dates at the official website.

Reed + Metallica) x (White + ICP) = WTF2

Pondering unlikely
pairs and conjuring a few of our own.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

In all honesty, I didn’t listen to more than a 30-second
clip of Lou Reed and Metallica’s much-hyped/much-maligned collaboration last
year, Lulu. That’s hardly enough to
make an informed critique – but I know 30 seconds of stank when I hear it.

 

Spoken word and Metallica just don’t jibe – it sounds like a
father reciting poetry over his kid’s music in a panicked attempt to scare the cat out of the cradle. And Reed’s
calling it “the best thing I ever did” with “the best band I could find.” Seriously? You do recall the Velvet
Underground, Lou? Or Transformer?
There’s just no way.

 

Christ, could it actually be more off-putting than Jack
White and Insane Clown Posse (with JEFF the Brotherhood) covering Mozart’s
“Leck Mich Im Arsch?
” (For those who don’t sprechen, this supposedly translated to “lick me in the ass.”) The joke tried too hard.
Even if ICP was just the trash-kitschy centerpiece, that’s probably just a greeting in Juggalo parlance. It would’ve
been nice to give at least a taste of
irony and recruit a socially-conscious rapper like Common for this gig. At
least they got the B-side – “Mountain Girl” – right. Violent J and Shaggy 2
Dope tell a twangy talk-sing story about a meth-head hillbilly and a shotgun
wedding. That’s right on the money, and likely will be the new Juggalo
prom/wedding/funeral song. (Meanwhile, White has a new solo album, Blunderbuss, due in April, and all signs
point to it being one of the still-early year’s best bets.)

 

Here are few musical unions that might actually be crazy
enough to work.

 

 

Dwarves and Taylor
Swift

Performing: Swift’s “Should’ve Said No”

Because: They say she’s fearless – let’s test that. How does
the ol’ girl hold up against these legendary pervs and their bloody
dwarf-and-lesbian entourage?

 

AC/DC’s Brian Johnson
and Adele

Performing: “Endless Love”

Because: If Adele keeps smoking like a champ, she may
someday achieve a scratch that could match Johnson’s sodomized-kitty yowl.
Ponder the two levels of harmony, here: pitch and rasp. It’d be the new Tuvan
throat singing!

 

Beethoven and Marlee
Matlin

Performing: “Ode to Joy,” with lyrics by Diddy

Because: The juxtaposition of sweet, lilting melodies with
avant-garde vocals and the poetry of a fuckwit. No-brainer.

 

Johnette Napolitano
and United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

Performing: “That’s Not My Name” by The Ting-Tings

Because: It would dispel the ubiquitous blogosphere rumor
that they’re the same person.

 

Lady Gaga and Freddie
Mercury

Performing: “The Great Pretender”

Because: One is a flamboyant queen and the other is a dude.

 

Ted Nugent and Los
Lobos

Performing: “Born in the U.S.A./Born in East
L.A.”

Because: This medley would probably only happen with a court
order. But it’s a fun idea, especially if Los Lobos dressed like cholos to make
Nuge extra nervous. Speakin’ of…

 

Ted Nugent and Antony Hegarty

Performing: “Ebony and Ivory”

Because: Oh, the chemistry! Pale, sensitive, intelligent Antony and a hairy a-hole
who knows ebony as the stuff at the end of his rifle stock and ivory as the
tusk around his neck.

 

Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber

Performing: “We Go Together” from Grease

Because: Wouldn’t everyone want to see two nothings trying
to make something of their future drug-addled, VH-1 Celebreality selves?

 

Tom Petty and Nashville Pussy

Performing: Original collaborative material

Because: He seems so mellow – so you know Petty’s a freak.
Pair him with some unabashedly loud and twisted folks that share just a yard of
musical common ground and it’ll be tons better than Loutallica.

 

 

A version of this
article originally appeared in BLURT #11.

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.

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.