An Interview With Jim White
Jim White is a prophet of human loss who sings about Southern misfits in a sly, haunted tenor. Saved as a Pentecostal at fifteen and lost again shortly thereafter, White did stints as a professional surfer, fashion model, taxi driver, and filmmaker before his music was discovered by David Byrne.
He’s the star of the recent documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, loosely based on his critically praised debut album, Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Luaka Bop, 1996). He has released two additional albums, No Such Place (2001) and Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See (2004), which features cameos by high-profile fans including Aimee Mann, Barenaked Ladies, and Joe Henry, who produced most of the eleven tracks.
The Jim White sound will be impossible to explain to those who haven’t heard his music. The Flannery O’Connor of alt-country is about the best I can do, in the arena of insipid rock-critic tags. His songs are spooky, languid, densely layered, and impossible to shake. He also writes the most evocative lyrics on earth. Here’s a snippet from “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes”:
Sometimes I think the sky is a prison and the earth is a grave
Sometimes I feel like Jesus in some Chinese opera
Sometimes I’m glad I built my mansion from crazy little stones
Sometimes I feel so goddamn trapped by everything that I know
I spoke to White by phone, during lunch, and then after dinner, at his home in Pensacola, Florida. He refused to disclose what he was eating for lunch. It sounded crunchy.
I. HALLELUJAH BREAKDOWN
THE BELIEVER: How did you get into music?
JIM WHITE: Well, the main thing is I broke my leg twice in one year. This was when I was nineteen, and I was like an ADD poster child. It was the South, in 1973. I didn’t know about literature yet. All I could think to do was to play this guitar that somebody had left at my house. I kept waiting for the guy to come and take it back, but he never came.
BLVR:You were living at home?
JW: No, no. I moved out of the house when I was sixteen. It was a tough kind of Eugene O’Neill family. Anyway, I never documented any of the songs I wrote. I just thought I was mumbling to myself. Whenever musicians would hear me play, they’d usually say things like “You have a serious intonation problem.” Or “You just made that middle 8 into a 8 and 3 ⁄ 4.” So music was mostly this therapeutic exercise. I have a chaotic, tormented mind, and I found that a sense of order settled on my world when I started naming things and naming them accurately.
BLVR: Were you really a professional surfer?
JW: Yeah, I was a top junior men’s surfer. After I graduated from high school, I went out to California to see how I’d do. But I didn’t really have the killer instinct. Some guys would do anything to win—take steroids or take cocaine before their runs, whatever. I wouldn’t do that. And I was very inconsistent. If the ocean didn’t want me that day, then I didn’t fight the ocean. I just figured,“Hey, it was the wrong day.” As a professional, that attitude is not a good thing.
BLVR: Did the surfing thing lead to the modeling thing?
JW: Not really. Everything’s kind of disjointed with me, though often it connects up somehow. But the modeling thing, what happened with that is that I had what you call a hallelujah breakdown and I came back to Pensacola to work at this church and my sister Kate invited me to come up to New York City to do some modeling. Well, that seemed like the most ludicrous thing on earth I could choose to do. I mean, you talk about an absurdist statement, well, there it is. I ended up getting an agency and was shipped off to Milan. It wasn’t really my world, though.
BLVR: Too much intellectual rigor?
JW: More like rigor mortis. It was the death rigor
BLVR: How did the first album come about?
JW: It was a very personal set of circumstances. That’s a story, really, that’s too long to get into.
BLVR: I’ve got all day.
JW: Well, alright, you asked for it. I was at NYU studying film, trying to squeeze a feature film out of them. Actually, that I financed by driving a cab. Most people, to get funding for a movie, they talk to group of dentists or something, but I was trying to get funding off the streets of New York City during a crack epidemic without selling crack, which is a daunting challenge. So, the short version is, I fell ill during this time. A strange series of events befell me, stuff that a lot of my friends linked to the occult.
BLVR: What kind of things?
JW: Like finding severed chicken legs in front of my door, stuff like that. I was in a dark place, so I left New York and returned to Pensacola. My sister Kate, who’s always rescuing me, put me up in this house on the beach. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was sick mentally, physically, spiritually. I was in the metaphorical ICU. So just to pass the time, I started writing songs again. And my friend Jim flew down to surprise me. He drove out to the house and heard me playing guitar and he knew that if he came in the house I’d stop, so he stood outside my window listening, and when I was done, I heard this gentle little applause. Then he came in the room and sat on the bed and said, “I want you to promise me you’ll do two things. First, get better. And second, record those songs so I can listen to them in my car.” Anyway, I got well enough to return to New York and I recorded the songs on my old four-track. I had a Radio Shack mic and one of the outlying channels on the four-track was busted, so the sound came out in mono. But I finished it and I guess he passed the tape along to his girlfriend who passed it along to someone else and one day I’m sitting there and this woman calls me up and she says, “I’m Melanie Ciccone, I’m married to Joe Henry and I’m Madonna’s sister, and I just heard your tape and I’d like to get you a gig at the Viper Room.” I just laughed and laughed. You have to remember, I’d just gone through this dark metaphysical spiral, nearly died, and now I’ve got this woman calling me who’s got this show-biz pedigree beyond any conceivable belief, and she’s going to lure me to a motel room in Wisconsin and stab me to death and it’s going to be this huge cosmic existential joke. So I said, “Sure! I’ll do anything you say, because you know what? You don’t even exist! This is all just an illusion, but we might as well make it a good one.” Anyway, I sent the tape out to eight record companies and seven of them never responded. The only one that did was Warner Brothers. They wrote me a letter saying, “The material is very weak. We want no further contact with you. Your tape is returned herewith.” I liked that: “Your tape is returned herewith.” So I forgot about the whole thing. But then Melanie called me back and said, “What happened with those record companies?” I figured, at this point, the best possible scenario was that she was this deluded person on the fringes of the music industry. But she said, “Listen, your music is great. My husband Joe listened to it, and he likes it, too. I’m going to find you a record label.” And she called back twenty minutes later and said I should send the tape to David Byrne and I just started laughing again.
JW: Because I had this whole history with Byrne. In New York, I used to get mistaken for him all the time. People would come up to me and start chopping on their arm1 and I’d be like, “What do they want? Do they want to do cocaine with me?” Then at some point I saw “Burning Down the House” and I remember something in me just twitched when I saw Byrne because he was this fully realized version of myself. We’re both these uptight white guys trying to stumble into grace. And I remember another time I was standing on a corner with a friend, Jane, who’s a black writer, and I had told her I’d always wanted to be a black person, for as long as I could remember, but that if I tried to act black I would be what the black people call a “perpetrator.” Because if you’re white, that’s already pathetic enough. But there’s nothing worse than a white person trying to be a black person. So I decided I was going to go the opposite direction and that maybe if I went far enough I might fall off the edge of white and into black. So Jane said, “You’re trying to become superwhite!” And right when she said that, an image of David Byrne popped into my mind and I made one of these spontaneous decisions that I sometimes make: If I ever see that man, I’ll say the word superwhite to him and see if he recognizes what I’m saying. So sure enough, a little later I’m driving my cab down around Washington Square and I see David Byrne on the side of the road. I should mention that I had this Travis Bickle haircut at that point.
BLVR: Of course. Perfect.
JW: Well, I didn’t mean to. I was cutting my own hair and the razor slipped, so I just Bickled it.Anyway, I came pulling up behind him and followed him for a block and he finally turned and saw me there and I shouted “superwhite!” He looked pretty scared. I followed him for another block, shouting, till he ran into a store.
BLVR: But you must have met him later, when he signed you to Luaka Bop? Byrne’s famously frenetic dance move from the video for “Once in a Lifetime.”
JW: Yeah, he came out and said,“Wow.What an honor! You’re a great songwriter! Would you like some coffee—from a Thermos?”
BLVR: Please tell me you shouted superwhite at him again.
JW: No. My sister said,“Not until the contract is signed can you scream superwhite at him.” But I told him about the whole thing. In fact, that’s what we call each other now, Super White.
III. DARK SALVATION
BLVR: How did the short story “The Day I Yelled Wrong-Eyed Jesus” wind up on the first album?
JW: That was David Byrne again. When we got done with the album he said, “This is an interesting album, but it needs a handshake.” I didn’t know what that meant, but you don’t ask the Buddha what the hell he’s talking about, so I had to ponder it myself. And what I realized is that I had a highly personal set of symbols in my work and I needed to give more ready access to those symbols. So I wrote a story that was emblematic of a certain era of my life and I showed it to David and he said, “That’s a good handshake.” It was a real fight trying to get a piece of literature into a pop music product, though, especially for this tiny little indie record. The label wasn’t too happy about it at first.
BLVR: Can you talk about the ways literature has influenced you?
JW: Well, there were really two periods. The first was when I was reading Dr. Seuss as a kid. And I mean, really, I think he’s one of the most influential writers in all of American history, in terms of the mathematics of his language and his philosophy. He did everything. I really didn’t read another book until I was twenty. I was in Milan being a fashion model and I had no TV to watch, so I had six hours a night with nothing to do. So my dad—he fancied himself quite the intellectual—he sent me The Fountainhead and The Idiot. And if you think reading those is any fun, you’re wrong. But there was this one model girl in Milan and I was telling her, “Man, reading is hard!” So she gave me Slaughterhouse Five. And it was like: Wow! Reading can be fun! You don’t have to embrace some great, choked philosophical nonsense or remember seventeen different names for the prince.
BLVR: At some point, obviously, you discovered Flannery O’Connor.
JW: Yeah, we were married when we were sixteen. It was a chaste relationship, though, because she was Catholic and dead. No, actually, I was back in Pensacola, one of the times I was going crazy and having a nervous breakdown, thinking I had to flee the South. My friend gave me her collected stories and I read “The River” and it knocked me out. It deals with a bourgeois family and the child in this family is taken to a serious Deep South religious realm and he sees salvation and it’s utterly dark. And for me, it was like all those thoughts I’d been having for so many years, they finally had a place in the world.When I read her stories, I could feel her outsiderness as a Catholic in the south. She crystallized it so clearly. I’d read Faulkner before, and he interested me, but his work didn’t set my brain on fire. With O’Connor, my brain burned as I read those stories.
BLVR: It sounds like books come to you, in a sense, when you need them most.
JW: Yeah, that’s how it was with Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. I was depressed and suicidal and Suttree kind of fell into my hands and saved my life.
JW: The book provided me a fine example of what I needed to do. It’s the story of a guy who has to find the bottom of himself, in exactly the world I grew up in, and he unearths such beauty when he turns over the stones of the poor South. It just kept reminding me that the answer was under my feet,the answer was under my feet.
BLVR: So art, in that sense, plays some kind of redemptive role?
JW:Well, I can give you a story to back that up. I played a show in Seattle once and this big old lesbian lady came up to me afterwards. Now, I didn’t know too many lesbians in the Pentecostal Church, but I said,“Pleasure to meet you!” and she said she wanted to tell me a story. It turned out her and her girlfriend had had a child who developed a terrible health problem and went into a coma in 1997. It was that way for three months and all the doctors told them they should pull the plug and let the child die.They would ride back and forth from the hospital and she told me the only song they listened to that whole time was “Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes.” Just over and over. It gave them a kind of solace, I guess. And they decided not to pull the plug and their child came out of the coma.And that made a certain amount of sense to me, because that’s a song that says,“There is my fear and I will not flee it.” In a broader way, I guess, art is supposed to be building a bridge back to the human condition.That’s why I’ve worked hard to make sure my songs have a time and a place, because an interesting idea without a larger human resonance is pretty much meaningless. It’s just a puff of cleverness.
BLVR: How do you actually write songs?
JW: I’ll pick up a musical instrument and a melody presents itself and I say, what would that melody do if I tried to build on it, until I have roughly a song.Then words start flying at me and I look through my notebooks for similar words. It’s like building a tree backwards. Most people, if they built a tree, they would start with the roots and then a trunk and then add branches and twigs and leaves. What I do is I start madly throwing leaves in the air, then twigs, then branches, and so forth, and somehow hope they’ll all get attached.
BLVR: Doesn’t sound too efficient.
JW: Nope. That’s why, when my songs are done, they don’t look like normal trees. They’re more like these weird Dr. Seuss–looking bonsai-type things.A song like “Girl from Brownsville, Texas,” that started out being about a wall in Brownsville.Then it became a girl and all of a sudden it had meaning.
BLVR: Does the eccentricity of your music give people an erroneous sense of who you are?
JW: Oh, sure.Ani DiFranco asked me to go out on tour with her and I don’t think I was at all what she expected. I think she was expecting, like, Sam Shepard. But she got, like, Pee-Wee Herman instead.
BLVR: So people expect you to be this dark, mysterious stranger who will decode the world for them?
JW: Yeah, the man of few words. But in reality I’m a very agitated, troubled person and my mind bounces around like a pinball machine.You know, there are two kinds of singers: those who sing about who they are, like Townes Van Zandt, and those who sing about who they wish they are, like me. But I’ll tell you, what happens sometimes is that, incrementally, you become that person you’re singing about. What people see in my songs is me in my deep-focus mode.That’s when I get to tear away the veil of my anxiety. If I’m holding out for anything, I guess, it’s that: to become the “me” in my songs.