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Jim White"I feel that the fictional elements in experience are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false, that one has many layers, many levels of experience going on at the same time. All these levels are, as far as I can see them, equally fictional, and it is where these levels interact that one gets the only kind of valid reality that in fact exists nowadays."
by Stav Sherez / pictures by Paul Heartfield
- J.G. Ballard.
With a biography that could have been penned by Norman Mailer (Pro-surfer, Milan catwalk model, NYU Film student, New York cab driver,) the public persona of Jim White has often, in the press, been given the limelight over his considerable talents as a songwriter and arranger. When his debut, Wrong Eyed Jesus, came out in 1997, it was something of a revelation. Though one could hear the ghosts of Tom Waits and Joe Henry lurking amongst the sepulchral tracks, the album sounded like nothing but a Jim White album. It was as if the persona of Jim White was ready-made as a context within which to place the fucked-up beats and deeply perceptive storytelling of the songs.
After a protracted delay, this year's No Such Place saw White harnessing his songs to tighter beats, helped out by an array of collaborators to produce an album whose depth and vitality outstripped most other contenders. The characters in his songs had developed too, finding a new acceptance of life's foibles and a resoluteness that was less pronounced on his debut. Speaking to him before a sold-out show at London's Dingwalls, we talked about his new album, his life and his Kant-ian view of God while, outside, the city chattered and fizzled regardless. In person, denuded of his trademark hat, Jim White comes across as a sort of laid-back Sam Shepherd figure, softly spoken and yet quietly assured of what he has to say with an edge of vulnerability around him that belies his self-belief. Needless to say he is as entertaining and verbose a raconteur as his biography and lyrics would suggest.
You have five different producers on your new album.
Six, if you count the fact that I'm two different people.
Was that a calculated thing - a way to vary the textures on the album?
It was, then it wasn't, then it was. When I first talked to the record company, I said that it would be fun to make an album employing the talents of the people I'd met since I've been riding around. So I said, let's have a bunch of different producers and we'll call the album Suitcase and I'll just go around, do this and do that and they were like no, no, no. Then Morcheeba offered to produce a couple of tracks, which the record company were very excited about, being that Morcheeba has a commercial validation that Jim White doesn't have. Morcheeba produced three tracks and then they couldn't afford to let them produce any more tracks because their time is quite valuable, I mean they gave me a great rate but my album doesn't have much of a budget. Then, Andrew Hale, from Sade's band, offered to produce some tracks, pretty much for free. Andrew did all kind of gymnastic contortions to help out, so it ended up that we had two producers, six songs done and then my manager said, well what about this guy, Sohichiro Suzuki (Yellow Magic Orchestra.) The record company said that's a great idea, we'll get him to do a remix. So me and Andrew Hale recorded one track, Corvair, and we sent it to him and he sent them back something which - seldom does the record company call me on the phone so breathless that they could hardly talk, saying that it was the most beautiful track they'd ever heard and I said, it needs some work, because I don't think he speaks much English and there were times when the soundscape eclipsed the words and they promptly told me that I was losing my mind. We went back and forth, it was me against the world, saying change this simple thing and change that simple thing. Finally I talked him into it and so that gave us two more tracks because after Corvair they said let's get him to do another one (Christmas Day.) That gave us 8 tracks and so someone had to do something else. There was a song called Static On The Radio which the record company truly thought was the best song of the bunch and they wanted Ani DeFranco to produce it because she was saying she wanted to do something. Her times never lined up with my times so they told me to start trying to make it at my house with my little Pro-tools which is like trying to build a nuclear bomb with chopsticks. I tried for about a week and then I thought, I'm not going to be able to do this - it's an epic kind of song, I need U2 to produce it or something and so I just started working on another song and they called me up on the phone and said how's it going on SOTR and I'd say, great, it's going fabulous, I need another week. After about a month of putting them off like that I sent them Hey, You Going My Way? and they were very happily surprised, they just said okay, great, we like that song. My manager was so excited she said we have to send this off to a cool re-mixer to make it more Beck-esque and that was okay by me.
Did you enjoy all this collaboration?
I like to call the first album an inward journey and the second album an outward journey. It's my habit to be an inward traveler so it was kind of a relief to walk in with my inward traveling burden on my shoulder and hand it to Morcheeba and have them do everything that I liked so it was a real relief.
Wrong Eyed Jesus came out in 1997 and you were playing songs from the new album on the subsequent tour. So, why the long delay between records?
My life completely changed. My record company changed, my personal life changed, my domicile changed, my car changed, everything changed. I got the same hat (laughs.) It's the only remnant from the WEJ days.
Are you happy with the changes?
Yeah, it's good. We had kind wonderful people working for us at Warner Brothers but there was a political current there that you had to either jump in or swim against and we're not finding that as much at Virgin. They're embracing the album a lot more, of course WEJ was more obscure. That took a year for Luaka Bop to switch from Warners and we sat on our hands for a year waiting.
Was there a certain frustration involved in all this?
No, my daughter was born at the same time and I had already reckoned that I would try and steal as many years with her as I could before I became the voice on the phone which is what I am right now. I'm on the road and I'm away from her and she is...I never felt a purpose on this planet, I never did, I always felt like I didn't belong here and when I saw her...she was born the day we finished Handcuffed To A Fence In Mississippi and I flew back from England and there she was, sitting in a room with her momma, we were separated at the time, and I looked at her and I could just hear a universal cosmic thud and the trajectory of my life was completely different from that moment on. I never coveted a perverse feeling about my loneliness, I never thought, let me love my loneliness, I always understood it as loneliness, so when I saw that I wasn't alone in the world anymore, I took great pains to make sure that it stayed that way. So I stalled as long as I could to put this album out, she's two and a half now, and every morning she gets up and asks Laura, my sweetie, is daddy coming home today, and it rips me to pieces to be on the road and when I talk to her on the phone she says, daddy, you have to come home right now.
What a killer.
Yeah. People don't think about that when they say why doesn't he tour here, why doesn't he come over here. They don't understand that a musical lifestyle rips families apart a lot of times.
The song 10 Miles To Go On A 9 Mile Road - is that somehow about coming to terms with the realities of what the first album propelled you into?
I had a stack of reviews that said I was like the best thing since Cornflakes and I had toured for 16 months and been the subject of what seemed like universal acclaim and I couldn't go into a supermarket and buy food for my family because I didn't have any money and I didn't have a notion how to make money. I never have - I felt like when the slaves were freed and someone said you're free and then you walk out and you find that freedom isn't this gossamer lovely thing. Freedom's a great terror as well. So, I had all of this positive influence but I couldn't figure out how to make a living and I told my manager, I'm gonna have to quit because I've got to find a way to feed my family and that's not a cliché - as a family man you think differently about things because if I starve my family for the sake of supporting my fans then I'm full of shit. At that point I was about $20,000 in debt to my manager and that's not including what I owed on the album which was in excess of a $100,000. Within about two months, Morcheeba came in with their publishing company and I signed on with them and then I sold a song to a feature film. My daughter was born and I was $200,000 in debt and that was very worrisome and within the course of about a month almost half of that was wiped away. I still owe the record company piles of money. Joe Henry told me, don't worry about that money, you'll never recoup - the only you're ever going to make any money is through peripheral things. The first time you go through it, I thought, oh, all these people wouldn't be doing this unless they were making a living but you find out that everyone - entry level to a certain height, which is mid-industry - they're all starving to death, they're all robbing Peter to pay Paul. So, all of my friends, they thought, oh he's signed and he's got all this praise, he must just be lying that he can't afford to buy discount frozen peas at the supermarket. There was always a little cynicism when I would try to explain to them, I don't have health insurance, I'm so in debt that I may never get out, I can't buy food for my family and I'm working, like when I was writing songs for that album, I was working 60-70 hours a week to make the second album happen. I wrote seventy, count 'em, seventy songs for this album.
Are you happy though that you're doing what you want to do?
It's led me to the place where I have a family and I get free therapy in the form of talking to journalists. There are pluses and minuses. It really hurts to have been a loner and given up all hope of ever finding a connection to the world, then finding it and having my family be at home and me be so far away from them. That's difficult. I never wanted to be a performer. I never wanted to be a public person. I don't like being a public person but ain't no one else gonna bring these songs out into the world and a lot of people tell me that they help, that they name the spooks in their mind and if I can help someone, that's great. If I can make a living helping someone, that's even better. So there's benefits to it and I always have to, each day, weigh the benefits and look at it and say, this is what I'm trading and this is what I'm getting. Right now, it seems fine. A lot of things that I wanted to do, you know I went to film school and I wanted to participate in making films that help people because films helped me a lot, like In The White City or Spirit of the Beehive, those films helped me locate myself in the world. But what happened is, I'm getting opportunities now to work in film because of the first two albums so things are going good. I want to publish a book of short stories.
Has that always been a goal of yours?
I didn't write them for nothing, those stories. Principally I wrote them to understand what was going on in my mind. At a certain point if they can help people, good, I'll send them out into the world and then I have to figure out the most expedient way to send them. Also, one of my principal goals, eventually I'd like to teach creative writing somewhere at a university. I had a couple of real good teachers at N.Y.U. which made the difference between me being a lost, confused soul - what I'd like to call a living ghost - well, the dichotomy could be simpler, the confused lost soul is a dead ghost. I was a dead ghost haunting the world for thirty five years and then I met these couple of good teachers and they gave me some clues as to how to join the world of the living - even as a ghost, which, I'm never gonna fit into the world. I don't really belong here, I don't belong anywhere. People think I'm a Southerner, when I go to the South people look at me like I'm from friggin' outer space. Those good teachers helped and I would like to return the favour, so that's one of my goals to end up at some little university somewhere.
We don't really have a culture of creative writing teaching in this country.
Really! In England?
I think that's why modern British fiction's so appalling.
Well, let's put an end to that right now. In our little article which we're going to collaborate on, we're going to say that the British education system needs to concentrate more on creative writing.
And the emphasis there is on creative.
The Wound That Never Heals from your new album and this month's CwaS CD - it sounds almost like a sequel to Stabbed In The Heart. How did that song come about?
I was making WEJ, my girlfriend at the time - I had reluctantly hooked up with her because I'd just come through an emotional Auschwitz right before that and this new girlfriend just threw herself at me. I'm weak willed when it comes to women, so she just promised me the moon and the stars and I went ahead, succumbed to her seduction. While I was making the first album, I had moved out of my perfectly beautiful apartment in the East Village and got us a place where two people could live, we moved way out into the middle of Brooklyn and no sooner had we got there, I had to start making WEJ and while I was making it she wrote me a letter saying she's leaving me and I know she'd done this to a series of men before because I knew friends who knew her and as fate would have it, I was reading an unauthorised biography of Aileen Wuornos who was a serial killer in Florida, a female serial killer, and this one statistic it jumped out and smacked me in the face - in the history of America there have only been something like 37 female serial killers while, at any given time, there's hundreds of male ones. I began to think, in a hunter-gatherer conception, the men are the hunters and the women the gatherers - the men are more interested in destroying Other, because that's what a hunter is - it finds Other and kills it while a gatherer brings it in. I started thinking about a series of girlfriends that I'd had, how they were all damaged and several of them were sexually abused and how they all conspicuously made pains to hurt the men they left and I started thinking maybe it's a metaphorical killing that they do - the serial killing - and I started thinking how can I present a metaphor of a killer and TWTNH seemed to be a good format for it. I read that book and the woman, Aileen Wuornos was sexually abused, several of my girlfriends were sexually abused and were trying to find a foothold in the world but they usually tried to find it in the form of a man and it's the Black Widow thing. So that came from both. It's a conflation of the real world and the world of literature getting all jumbled together and the Wound, of course, is a deep iconic reference. I didn't know when I was writing it that it was. It's the song where I feel like I've said something.
God Was Drunk When He Made Me presents an almost Gnostic view of God. Care to extrapolate?
There's always 2 Gods. I have to tell everybody about this. One of your writers here from England, a guy named William Shakespeare, said each man has two faces - the one they're born with and the one they make for themselves. I read that after I'd written God Was Drunk but I realised that I was writing a corollary in that each person has 2 gods - there's the God which we invent and there's the God that is. The God we invent always bears a striking resemblance to ourselves or an idealised version of ourselves and we have to invent that God to try to approach the other God as we ourselves, we'll never approach God. But the problem in the world is we confuse the God we invent with the real God and that's when all the trouble comes. In my town there's more churches per capita than any place in America. Religion is the house where the God we invent lives and it's a messy, rambling place. Once you realise that what you call God is always going to be an invention, you can't go out killing people or condemning people to hell for it because you realise it's a contrivance and I think a great sanity would descend on the world if everybody recognised this fact. Mysticism has for 5000 years tried to teach this message.
I love the line in Christmas Day: "damn, what good fiction I will mold from this terrible pain." I've often been in situations where I've thought that to myself.
The little body of the writer floats above the scene. My sister, when she heard that song, said that's the prettiest song I've ever heard but you have to change that line. It was a terrible threat to her that in the midst of this personal tragedy there was something not engaged, that there was something detached, thinking parlay rather than devoting all one's energy to thinking about this thing. Another writer asked me about it and I'm grateful that the writers are responding to that because the next time you're in that situation maybe you can just hold onto that line and say that the mechanics of that is part of this equation and part of the problem of life is not recognising hidden elements in the machine. As a writer, as any person influenced by the media, we sometimes tailor our actions towards the art we have seen which is supposed to describe our actions. In film school there was a term they taught me, Simulacrum. Are you familiar with that term?
Life imitating life rather than art imitating life. I have this one girlfriend and whenever she wanted to have her picture taken she went into a pose like the Bruce Weber era in photography where everyone looked like they were stoned and had liver disease and she had been so influenced by the media that she thought that was what a picture was supposed to look like. That's art imitating life and we're in a dangerous situation because we move further and further away from authentic action when we are imitating fiction and you look in the movies with all the murders and killing and violence and you look in culture and you see the same thing happening and it's dangerous. It makes writers suddenly culpable in a way that they were previously not culpable.
You think that artists are culpable?
I do. I want to go and find Quentin Tarantino and tell him you're culpable. I wanted to tell the director of Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer, you're culpable. Killings took place as a result of that movie and I'm very conflicted about that. There are two different levels you can perceive it as - you can say well, culturally we have to bring the demons out but on the individual level I can't say this life can be lost so that the demons can be brought out. I'm all torn apart about it, the idea of artists' culpability, censorship, all these issues. I would hate to think that I made a movie or write a song like Stabbed In The Heart or Still Waters that influenced a person to go out and commit a crime. There's the argument they were going to do it anyway. I call that pure bullshit. The arts can be a weapon and you have to be careful how you apply them. I really believe that any time you see murder in the arts you really have to scrutinise it and decide what it means. Most times it means it's an immature mind trying to reconcile a complexity in a hyper-simplified manner. Immature minds kill what they don't understand. Mature minds negotiate and integrate.
Kinky Friedman said "There's a fine line between fiction and non-fiction and I think I snorted it in 1979." Is this something you've partaken of?
I've always lived on the edge of the world and that's where you see interesting things. There's times in songs where something that happened to not just me but a friend of mine. It all depends. Song to song, line to line. It's like driving in Harlem, you know, some of the houses are good and some of them are bad and you just have to knock on every door to find out who lives there. Some of the houses in my mental Harlem are inhabited by fictitious people and some are inhabited by real people. I'm very much inspired by the ability to create a realm. That's my goal as an artist to create an alternate reality where some problems which don't get worked out in the regular world get worked out.
I'm told you're a Woody Allen fan.
Do you want the Woody Allen story? At the height of my cab driving career I was sort of a savant. I knew every light in the city and I knew the kinship of every light to every other light. I was making double what any other cab drivers were making because I'd gone into this weird Ninja-Jedi-Zen thing and it wasn't a happy Zen thing, it was a tormented Zen thing. At one point, it was the coldest night of the year and I was just furiously flying uptown with 20 empty cabs ahead of me and 20 empty cabs behind me. And there was no one out and the night looked like it was going to be a rout and I knew that if I was in the middle of the pack travelling at 35mph and I banged a hard left turn on 85th St. the light would be green on the opposite side of central park. I knew, I had the whole grid in my mind and I had all of the series of turns envisioned that would allow me to get a fare. I bust across 5th Ave. and out the corner of my eye, two blocks down, there's a doorman standing with his hand in the air. There's a median there and it wasn't my car so I went over that median at about 50mph, bouncing and skidding, fishtailing and coming around three empty cabs sitting at the lights and I knew that I have 11 blinks before it changes to the colour I can't go on. I come powersliding around and I pick up the fare. Running out of the building is a little man with a coat over his head. He pulls the coat down and it's Woody Allen and five hours earlier I was sitting on 5th Ave., staring up at a building and all of a sudden, I saw this scene in Crimes & Misdemeanors where the central character has just learned that the woman is dead and it's a moment of true moral reckoning and I think to myself, Woody Allen presented a moment of true moral reckoning, he's a comedian and I think the point in this is, all comedians want to escape themselves and God bless him, he escaped himself in that moment and I was so proud of him and I thought if I ever see Woody Allen I'll tell him, I'm proud of you for getting rid of the schtick. Five hours later he's in my cab and I'm thinking the unseen forces have guided me here and I want to tell him and I'm not sure how and he immediately shouts drive and I have a rule in the cab which is I won't go somewhere unless I get a destination. So I said sir, what's your destination and he said drive and we had a battle of wills, back and forth and I realised after the fourth time I wasn't going to get to deliver any messages to him or uplift him in any way. He was about to get out of the cab and this perverse kind of thing came up in me, once my purpose was supplanted, which is regular human thinking, I began to take this perverse pleasure in making him speak because every time he spoke I was writing the words to a Woody Allen script - so I sort of jacked him around for a while and there were no other cabs around and he was getting really mad and furious and I finally said sir, any rational human being knows their final destination, what is your final destination, do you have an ultimate destination? And I'm trying to give him a little metaphysics to see if I can trick him, make him stumble back into my purpose, but he didn't and he started opening the door to get out, so I said okay, I'll drive and I drove him down to his house, just ten blocks, away but I never got to deliver the message to him. I found out two days later, well two days later the Soo-Yi thing broke and I found out where I picked him up was his psychiatrist's office. So he wasn't really open.
Finally, given the choice now between grief and nothing, which would you take?
Oh, nothing. I was so proud of having a quote from Faulkner to give to people which described my life and I was so elated when someone relieved me of the burden of it. So when this guy who was very whimsical and very much tied in to the unseen forces, when he said that, it was like a whole vista opened up in front of me. He was right, nothing is much more interesting. In mysticism, God is sometimes described as no thing. I say that with a caveat in that I now have a person in the world that I'm responsible for so I'm not going to seek nothing at her expense. It's not a negative nothing. I want to clarify I'm not talking about nihilism when I say nothing, I'm talking about clearing the mind of methodologies of limitation. Like when I went to see Fanny &Alexander (Bergman) my perception of the world had been exploded. There were, like if it was a house, two of the walls had big holes in them and I could see the stars beyond. When I say nothing, I mean knocking down the somethings around you to see beyond.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001