“Lambchop comes up a lot, and I’ve never heard them in my life.”
The big bearded Richmond-based artist, Matthew E. White, tells me in a soft voice as we discuss the many categorizations of his music. I share with him a personal favorite in which his music is described as “a meticulously crafted blend of reggae-infused folk-gospel, tropicalia, swirling indie pop, and Stax-era R&B”—Allmusic.com. While all these descriptions are fair and somewhat accurate, they’re also beside the point. Which is that White’s music is charmingly simple, much more than this hodgepodge of descriptors might suggest.
Take for example “Rock and Roll is Cold,” a tune which is based on a standard 12 bar blues. With its thoughtful yet plainspoken lyrics, it’s an open acknowledgement that no one knows for sure the secret how-to of making good music, but we’re nonetheless able to recognize it. And we’re also without a doubt in love with talking shit about others when we feel they’ve made a creative misstep.
But unlike many young musicians who find their sound quickly becoming trapped within a certain set of musical boundaries, White lets his personality speak out unhindered by any form of musical fix-headedness. Even when the mood turns dark, like with the song “Tranquility,” a meditation on Philip Seymore Hoffman’s death, the music never succumbs to cliche or melodramatics. In the plainest of terms its pop music that doesn’t pander, largely in thanks to White’s ability to craft songs that are both familiar yet feel refreshingly original.
Be sure to check out his latest release Fresh Blood and catch the band this Tuesday, April 7 at the Rock and Roll Hotel.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to the On the Corner Sessions the Miles Davis box set collection.
Really? I was gonna ask you about Mile Davis. I know you love jazz.
I do. I’m sort of a little precise about that narrative because its easy to talk about—its sort of the cultural climate these days—the only description writers seem to have for musicians that know a little about how music works, either how to write it down or knowing more about the nuts and bolts of how things are built, they describe them as jazz musicians or classical musicians. You see terms used for me like jazz arranger, or went to jazz school, or they’ll say someone was classically trained or stuff like that. I think that’s a bit unhealthy in the sense that I’d never call myself a jazz musician. I’m not good enough. If I got on stage with guys who call themselves jazz musician, I’m not…
You’re not a Cecil Taylor.
(laughs) Well I’m not even that. I’m not a good local town jazz musician. Back in the day when James Jamerson was playing bass or other people where playing their instruments like Ry Cooder—those guys were great musicians and people knew them as great musicians without it being said that they were classically trained or went to jazz school. And I went to jazz school not because I love jazz necessarily, but because I wanted to learn more about music, and similarly in music school the only places you can go is to jazz school or you can go for classical music. I choose jazz music because I liked that music more. And I did dive into it quite a bit, and I learned a lot about how music works, and how American music works, in terms of how folk music became popular music.
I think jazz for a lot of people is like wine. It’s this thing that everyone is familiar with, and everyone knows the big names. But to really dive into it, it seems something overly sophisticated. Which is silly because if you listen to those early Miles Davis’ records, especially with his first quintet, that music is so smooth and pleasant. It’s not difficult music at all. Or you listen to a Jimmy Smith that stuff is moving. Any one could get behind it. So there’s definitely a façade there that doesn’t match the reality of the music. But the cool part of musicians like Miles is they got to do what they wanted. Sometimes it feels like rock musicians would like to do that, that they’d like to break outside of the normal boundary lines, but they don’t have the means.
I agree with you a hundred percent. I think its because—and this is a little of what “Rock and Roll is Cold” is about—that rock and roll very early on became a caricature of itself. I mean Elvis Presley covering “Hound Dog” is a caricature of what that song really is. The Rolling Stones are definitely a caricature of a Howlin’ Wolf band. Rock music has always been that, its floated away from itself in terms of a genre. It quickly became a mirror of itself. R&B has never done that, and I think that’s why artists like D’Angelo and Frank Ocean are able to make music that’s very modern and traditional. Because the music never became a caricature in the same way that rock and roll has, and I think that seventy-five years down the line R&B and music that’s much closer to the source is healthier. Rock music is much more in a box because it put itself there almost immediately. And Jazz music has never done that, too, although jazz music right now is in that situation. When Miles was playing music, he did such a good job of consistently reinventing himself and doing what he wanted. He had the chops to do that. Not everybody is good enough to do that. That’s not just a matter of intent or the want; it’s about having the ability to perform what you want to do.
You’re hailing from Richmond, which is a sort of underground melting pot of art right now. How do you feel being in the city has benefited your music?
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the city being what it was, for the musician community being what it was, and I’m incredibly thankful for that and really fortunate. I was lucky to move into the city at a very vibrant time and I didn’t know what I was moving into. There’s just so much life there and so many great musicians, for me, that’s what it comes down to. You have the ability to play with very great people and that’s special.
What is it that really makes it a special community? Is it the city’s insular quality?
No, not really. It’s just having the ability to play with great musicians. That’s a rare thing and to have so many of them across a wide age range and stylistic range. That’s something that’s unique to Richmond, especially in regards to its size. If you go to New York there’s obviously tons of great musicians, same thing for L.A., but there’s something to the fact that it’s small. So you know everybody, and you can talk to everybody. You can talk about music and speak about music and live music together over a long period of time. I’ve been basically making music with the same people over the past ten years, and that’s a unique experience. There are only so many times in a life, and maybe its just one, when you get to develop a relationship with people, a musical relationship, like that.
Music communities are obviously important. But what’s interesting to me is that they often circle around a certain sound or aesthetic, while you’re sound is so amusingly diverse. Writers have no idea how to categories you, and I think that’s pretty cool. How do you feel about that?
I mean it is what it is. I never know how to describe my music. I never think about that. It’s not like we’re in the studio and its like, ‘I want to combine this and this and this.’ They’re just ideas. If it comes out in the music it makes sense, but it’s not something I consciously think about. It’s not like, ‘I need to bring in a little reggae influence and gospel and southern soul and a little blues.’ I don’t think about it. I just write the songs, and then we play the songs, and I have ideas of what I’d like them to sound like. I’m glad it sounds unique. I know for me, as an artist, that’s one of the main things you want to have, a voice that’s instantly recognizable and unique and can stand along its time. Out of all the compliments that people give about the music, that’s one that I really appreciate a lot. It’s common to have people say it’s a very unique voice, that there’s nothing quite like it, and that’s the direction I’d like to be headed in. Everyone makes their only connections; I’ve people say in reference to my music, Lambchop comes up a lot and I’ve never heard them in my life. I’ve never heard him sing; I’ve never listened to a record; I’ve never put it on. That’s kind of a funny thing. Maybe my music sounds like that, and that’s cool for you. But that’s not part of my listening vocabulary.
I like your singing voice a lot. You have this soft, whispery vocal style—something very laid back like a Curtis Mayfield or J.J. Cale, if we’re going the rock route. Was that vocal style something natural or did it develop over time?
It kind of developed. The amount of times I recorded myself singing hasn’t been very much. Growing up I didn’t do a ton of that. I think when I found that voice it was sort of a specific time. I was recording these demos and I sung that way and it really worked. It works not only because it’s pleasant to listen to, but because it matches my personality so well, and because of that it matches the lyrics that I write. There’s a very nice focus, like a vibe focus, between how I am in general and how I present myself on stage and in interviews, all that kind of stuff. Just how I am and how it sounds like I am by my singing and the lyrics I write. I don’t think I would have made a solo album if I hadn’t found this way of singing. Because when I came across it, it was something where I was like, ‘this could work, as a thing, this could work.’
Critics when they talk about you they speak about your ability to structure a song. Which is interesting because most of time when critics talk about singer-songwriter types they talk about lyrical content. But a lot of critics cite your jazz background as the root of your knack for structural arrangement, which is strange that they’d attribute your avant-garde jazz background to your ability to find structure.
I’ll say this, my narrative that I’ve read and that I’m pretty familiar with, is really heavy on my background and the community. Which is all accurate and fine, and it’s possible that I subconsciously direct it there. For me, these songs are so incredibly personal. They’re songs, real songs, in the emotional sense that you sit down and write a song because its cathartic and your feeling this emotion and you use the song craft you have to make it into something good, but you’re writing from a very personal place. I think that sort of part of the narrative is covered over by the more technical aspect of making a record, which I’m certainly involved in and like to talk about at length. So that’s been a interesting thing for me to read, and most things are really positive. Its funny sometimes that the narrative becomes so technical in a way or form oriented when a lot of times I’m sitting down writing these songs because I’m in love with somebody or somebody died and I feel a lot of pain about that. That pure emotional part of the narrative is lost a little bit. But I’m kind of okay with it. That’s why I’ve started thinking maybe I sort of do this to myself. I just sort of talk about the process because I love talking about the process, too, but it is like a pure songwriting record to some extent. The production is just there—I don’t know—its part of the voice and makes it three-dimensional.