2012 Breakthrough: Matthew E. White

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 12.10.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Windblown, way-out-west R&B that builds a driftwood bridge between country and soul

For fans of: The Band, Bill Withers, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Bobby Charles

From: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Sometimes breakthrough albums capture attention because they are sonically arresting — big, blaring albums with huge crescendos and canyon-sized choruses. Big Inner, the debut from Matthew E. White, went in exactly the opposite direction. Its title is an indication of its content: exploring the vast reaches of a small, interior space. There are nods to Randy Newman, Bill Withers, the Band and Jorge Ben, but the result is distinctly White’s. His tender croon nestles deep into sumptuous string and brass arrangements, and the entire record feels like a musical update on Song of Solomon: deeply sensual lyrics that have an undeniably spiritual dimension. (A healthy helping of the album’s lyrics are reconfigured Bible verses).

It’s no surprise to learn that he is a devoted, meticulous student of popular music. He sought out Sex Mob trumpet player Steven Bernstein simply because he was a fan of his music, and the two met regularly to talk about the craft of album making, and to dive deep into the history of rock music. “I just thought that having as deep an understanding as a 30-year-old guy who grew up in Virginia Beach can have about popular music was important,” White explains. His close attention is immediately evident in each of Big Inner‘s carefully-placed notes.

eMusic’s Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes talked with White about Jesus, Randy Newman and the ghost of slavery in the South.

On stalking Randy Newman:

When I was on tour with my old band [The Great White Jenkins] we had a day off in LA. I’d found Randy Newman’s address on this weird Star Search-type website. It was so old, like a Geocities website or something, so we didn’t even know if it was still his address. But we drive around the corner, and there’s the exact view that’s on the cover of The Randy Newman Songbook, and I was like “Holy shit! This is it!” I’m so not brave, so I’d never really done anything like that before. But I was there, and I had two of my CDs, so I wrote him a note like, “Hey man, you really meant a lot to me. Here’s my contact info.” And I went to his door — he didn’t answer, but his housekeeper answered. I was like, “Is this Mr. Newman’s house?” She just laughed out loud. She was probably thinking, “Who comes to find Randy Newman in L.A.? That’s ridiculous. You’re a 25-year-old man and you’re trucking around L.A. trying to find Randy Newman? What are you doing with your life?” So I was like “I love his music, he’s meant a lot to me, I just wanted to give him these CDs.” I never heard from him or anything. But that started a pattern of me just reaching out to artists that I wanted to learn from. I’ve just always believed in trying to get to the source of something. There was a time when I would send Ken Vandermark like three emails i week. I was just like, “Tell me this, tell me this, tell me this.” I was on his shit.

On treating record-making like an artisan craft:

There’s only been like four generations of people who have made records. I mean, there are hundreds of years of making music, but not that many generations of making records. But even still, a lot has been learned. There’s a whole 100-year history of how to do this — things that work, things that don’t work. There’s a lot to learn, you know? A lot of times people are like, “I’m just gonna go in and make my record,” without any sort of awareness of how you might do things better. It’s a deep, deep craft, and I care a lot about making it as good as I can. When I was studying with [Sex Mob saxophonist] Steven Bernstein, most of our time was spent listening to music and listening to him point out, “Did you notice this? Did you notice this?” Sometimes it’s technique thing — “Did you notice the trumpet is in this register?” — and sometimes it’s history things. He talked a lot about Sly Stone, he talked a lot about the Band, he talked a lot about Jack Nitzsche and Phil Spector. He taught me a lot about American music, and how jazz and blues and rock are all kind of one thing. They are related in a special way.

On growing up a missionary kid:

My dad still runs a mission, and my parents are born-again Christians. And that was very important to me at one time. Which is not to say that it’s not important to me now, though I’m a little bit more removed from it. My brother-in-law is a pastor, and my brother’s a Christian author — he wrote a book called Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian. So it’s a heavy family in that sense. And I wanted to put some stuff on the record that represented that part of my path. I think [Christianity] is something songwriters tend to shy away from. I don’t know if that’s unconsciously, or just the way the culture is now, but I wanted to be up front about the fact that, one, this is something that’s a part of my past, two, this is something that I think about, and three, this is something that I don’t know the answers to.

I get so many of these questions. There’s a huge population of kind of “ex-evangelical” or “ex-born-again Christian kids” [in the indie subculture]. I think it’s the kids of, like, the rise of Christian culture in the ’70s and ’80s. And I don’t mean to overly politicize it, but with the rise of that, there’s gonna be a backlash to that. So there’s just a shit-ton of kids our age who were raised in that culture and who are either in the game, way out of the game or somewhere in the middle. And I am one of those people.

On spending his childhood in Manila:

I was young, I wasn’t there that long, but that’s where all my first memories are from. I just remember the community being great. I remember we were there during the coup in the ’80s, and I remember tanks turning around in our driveway. It wasn’t scary — as a kid, it was like “Let’s go play on the tank.” I mean, you don’t know that that doesn’t happen everywhere else. So you’re like, “Oh, there’s tanks. That’s cool.” My dad’s like an adventurer to the max, so we basically went to every Southeast Asian country during that time. We spent a lot of time in Thailand and Singapore and Hong Kong. He took us around all kinds of places, and we went on all kinds of adventures. I want to make a record over there — I kind of want it to sound like Theres a Riot Goin’ On, real minimal. I think it would be fun to get in touch with that side of my world.

On Big Inner‘s enormous minimalism:

I just wanted to see if it could work. Could we make a record like this, that was big in scope, that leaned on people’s skill sets, but in a new way? Can we pull this off? So we put a date on the calendar, and I was like “OK, now I gotta write some songs.” I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people write about the record and say, “It’s big, but it’s not cluttered.” And it’s not cluttered because there’s not a lot of things happening. We worked for a long time to make sure there was space in the songs for all of the arrangements. I do that in advance — that’s not happening the night before. It’s just worked out and worked out again and thought about and tweaked. We recorded the record in seven days. When you make a record, there’s a certain amount of things you have to accomplish — you have to get lead vocals, you have to get the bass, you have to get the drums. So it’s like, “If we can make the decisions [about those elements] beforehand, we can get all that done in the first three days, and then we have four days to just do whatever the fuck we want to.’”

On “Brazos” and the lasting impact of slavery:

Basically, it’s about an escaping slave couple. And the man is talking to the woman and trying to comfort her, as well as talking to himself about how shitty his situation is. He’s being introspective. I’ve tried to be as knowledgeable as I can about the civil rights movement — I think being from Virginia, you’re a little more aware of race relations to some degree. It’s just so easy to forget. We think of slavery as 300, 400 years ago, but Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, and that was not that long ago. All kinds of viciously racist behavior has happened and still happens. The tentacles are way longer than we think. As a kid who grew up in a white suburban family, I look back on pictures of, like, the food counter sit-ins, and white people are pouring ketchup and stuff on the protesters — just horrible, horrible shit. I just wanted an opportunity to be like, “Hey, if we can be more aware of this, maybe that will help a little bit.”

There’s a spiritual part of the narrative, too. The “Jesus Christ, he is our friend” part is from a Jorge Ben song. I heard it and thought, “That’s cool — I like that melody.” And then I thought, “You know, that adds a kind of third dimension to the song.” And it’s also to me invoking a very specific religious figure that is part of my life. When I talk about religion, it’s not a faith or mysticism or a vague religious thing, it’s Jesus Christ. So it forces you to ask, “What’s going on in the narrative of these people as they’re escaping? What just happened? Did they die? Is this a prayer? Is this an ironic — like, white culture is telling them “Jesus Christ is your friend,” but they’re still slaves?” There’s all of that in there. It just felt like it was a really interesting way to end it.