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Devil in the Details

Four years after his baptism by fire, mystical troubadour Jim White returns with a batch of sacrificial “hick-hop.”

For songwriter Jim White, finding hidden blessings in times of catastrophe is nothing new. A charming backwater intellect who is as comfortable discussing Carl Jung's collective unconscious as he is Alfred Hitchcock, Hurricane Earl or Jefferson Davis ("the mad scientist who got a $60,000 grant from MIT to record information from ballerinas, orgasms and outer space," he says in a lazy drawl), White possesses many innate gifts -- especially the one for gab. At 44, his life reads like a twisted redneck version of Candide, a bittersweet roller coaster of human folly whose cracked Southern narrator maintains that, no matter how bad things get, we still live in the best of all possible worlds. Take, for example, that industrial accident circa 1984 in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida: During the first day at a job assembling chaise lounges, White absentmindedly placed his left hand (the fretting one that, as a guitarist, he'd grown rather fond of using) into the whirling blades of a table saw.

"There's been some confusion about that," he says matter-of-factly. "I didn't chop my fingers off, I chopped them up. They still work. Two of 'em are pretty mangled -- the ring finger in particular got split in half all the way from the knuckle up. It's a dado saw is what it was -- two saws with rippers in between 'em. And you know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to me as a musician. I was a facile guitarist -- what I'd call 'chord happy.' I had to start thinking in ways for my pickin' hand to make the music interesting. If you talk to good blues guitar players, they'll tell you that the music, quote, unquote, is in the pickin' hand."

Sifting through White's colorful past reveals as many silver linings as it does bruise-colored clouds. He's tasted the ambrosia -- both chemical and carnal -- that comes with a lucrative stint on the European modeling circuit, gracing glossies such as Italian and French Vogue. But he's also scrounged for food in New York City dumpsters. He's been a devout Pentecostal Christian and a back-slidden agnostic and suffered his share of chronic depression and nervous breakdowns. Born into a middle-class military family as Mike Pratt, the last of five kids, he found an even less distinctive name with which to rechristen himself in his early twenties. His checkered resumé -- if he ever bothered to draft one -- would include stretches as a professional surfer, a drug dealer, a cab driver, a student filmmaker (NYU thesis: The Beautiful World, 56 minutes), and a sound designer for Miramax's 1995 production Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers.

Now, with two critically acclaimed albums on Luaka Bop, 1997's The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! and the recently released No Such Place, White finds himself the music industry's unlikeliest "hick-hop" sensation, the details of which speak to the virtues of both serendipity and dumb luck.

"I sent a gift, a cassette, to a friend of mine who was a closet musician," White says. "And his girlfriend gave it to [producer] Daniel Lanois's manager [Melanie Ciccone, Madonna's sister], and she called me and said, 'I want to help you get a record deal,' and I thought it was a joke." At Ciccone's urging, White sent another tape to Luaka Bop -- "without a return address, phone number or anything" -- and soon found himself face to face with label head David Byrne, inking a contract. "They had to talk David into it," White says in sharp contrast to several reports that the '80s Renaissance Man, who normally reserves roster space for obscure Latin/world artists, immediately recognized White's unique, Americana-based genius. "All [Byrne] could hear was a guy with a bad tape recorder," White says, chuckling to think of his homemade efforts: fragmented, genre-mixing concoctions of jazz and bluegrass. "I didn't go to a studio and cut a demo tape. I had a hobby of recording songs for twenty years, which was intended to stay a hobby. I was signed to a major label off of a tape recording done in my room beating on pots and pans and singing into a Pepsi bottle."

At first the record execs didn't now what to make of their new acquisition -- a raw talent, then 39, who'd never once performed live. "When I made Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, it was really funny, because there's k.d. lang's bass player [David Pilch] comin' in, and I'm supposed to tell him what to do. And I've never been in a band, much less told a musician what to do. There's Ralph Carney, who plays in Tom Waits's band, and I'm supposed to tell him what to do? Bill Elm [Friends of Dean Martinez], Victoria Williams. I feel bad for all of those musicians who've been fighting like hell for ten years to get signed. And I send a tape with no return address on it. There's a little magic in that, you understand. And you can't force magic to happen. A woman in a cab once told me, 'You cannot force opportunity; you can only be prepared when it presents itself.'"

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