Jim White's long, strange trip

The idiosyncratic singer finds art and sounds in the refuse of others

Staff writerFebruary 18, 2011 

  • Who: Jim White, South Memphis String Band

    When: 8 tonight

    Where: Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University

    Cost: $5-$34

    Details: dukeperformances.duke.edu or 660-3356

Generally, artists get signed to record deals only after they've played a bunch of shows and built enough of a following to catch the attention of the gatekeepers.

But singer/songwriter Jim White's career has been, to say the least, out of the ordinary.

White's musical career began with a series of homemade cassettes documenting the songs he had written, which was as far as he ever thought they'd go. But then he sent a tape to a friend in California and it was heard by all the right people - including David Byrne, iconic frontman of the Talking Heads. Not long after that, White was walking into the offices of Byrne's record label, whereupon Byrne himself came rushing up to declare, "It's an honor to meet you."

"I thought the universe was going to split in half," White says over the phone from his home in Athens, Ga., laughing at the memory.

"That was just the greatest inversion ever. For 20 years, I'd been writing songs as a hobby. I'd played some of them for quote-unquote 'mid-level professional musicians' and they would say things like, 'Interesting, sounds like a short-wave radio play.' Or, 'Gee, you've got a lot of intonation problems.' A lot of, 'Don't go pro,' in other words. So this was really puzzling. In a good way, though."

That was more than a decade ago, and White has charted a strange and fascinating course ever since. He resides in the same general district as Tom Waits and Joe Henry, composing idiosyncratic songs steeped in after-hours dramatic ambience and populated by oddball characters in the grip of their own freaky visions.

It's not trash to him

Calling him just a musician seems inadequate, however, because music is only one aspect of the Jim White experience. He's always working on one intriguing project or another, often involving found art fished out of trash cans. The Southern religion of White's youth in Florida is never far away from his music or his art, and sometimes he finds ways to combine both.

White's latest album, "Sounds of the Americans," (a soundtrack for a Juilliard Drama School performance based on the works of Sam Shepard) includes an off-kilter little tone poem called "Esoteric Text Found in a Religious Garbage Can." Based on a 250-page typewritten document White found in a trash can outside a Salvation Army in Florida, it's a "crazy preacher harangue" replete with references to aliens - and speculation that outer space would someday be the ultimate mission field for Christians to seek converts.

The document also predicted an end to the world: in 1991.

"I dig through a lot of garbage cans," White says. "I did a show once called 'Deep Fried Ephemera,' just bulletin boards covered with things I'd found in trash cans. It was fantastic, all these fragments like a mosaic artist would assemble - love letters from 1963, religious artifacts. What I loved about it was that all this stuff was about to be hauled off and destroyed. Instead, it was being viewed by posh people at Trinity College in Dublin. There's a great note of redemption in that."

Building mosaics

White is quite serious about scavenging as an art form that doesn't get the respect it deserves.

"As our culture becomes more permeated with incredibly talented people in every field, I think mosaicists will have more fresh things to say than anybody," he says.

"The first mosaicists were hip-hop and rap people, throwing together disparate parts in unconventional ways. I try to do that on my albums, too. I did a cover of 'King of the Road' as a sort of Frank Zappa-style deconstruction, which I was in the middle of when I found a box of reel-to-reel tapes in a garbage pile.

"I took them home, put one on and they were jingles from radio stations. The very first one said, 'Remember this golden classic!' That was like a gift from the universe, so it went right on the record."

White has a highly unconventional approach to sonics, and the fact that he was a recording artist before he ever played live meant that he spent a lot of years on a steep live-performance learning curve. He is a far more confident performer nowadays. But that did not come easily.

"I don't know chords, exactly, but chord shapes," White says. "And I play in different registers and tunings. So if I say 'C,' it might be what everyone else thinks of as C, or it might not. The guitarist from PM Dawn liked one of my tapes, said he'd play with me and quit after three rehearsals. 'You don't need me,' he said. 'You need two more you's' - which was absolutely accurate. And so I went looking for people just like me. That's not so good for a marriage, but it works pretty well for a band you're going to tour with for six months.

"The thing is, though, there are not a whole lot of me's out there," he adds. "For a long time, that was not necessarily a good thing. But I'm happy that at this point, I've developed into a person who has a place in the world. For a long time, it did not seem like it would evolve into anything constructive."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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