Trixie Whitley is a tough chick to figure. One minute she spins off spacey statements like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and the next she’s as hard-boiled as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She’ll tell you, Keaton-like, “I’m so nervous about this record.” Then, like Stanwyck, “Man, I hope it doesn’t fall into the dreaded singer-songwriter category!” Still, contradictions aside, she has made one of the great debuts of our young year. Whitley is the daughter of the late, rootsy songwriter Chris Whitley, and her disc, Fourth Corner (Strong Blood Records), is unlike anything else out now. Mostly because it’s insistently rhythmic. Yet the melodies are as subtly indelible as cigarette smoke. They swirl around you, but you can still smell them on your sweater the next day. Corner is dark, bleak, and brilliant. It’s musical film noir.
As for her problem with singer-songwriters?
“It’s kinda funny. I do write, and I do sing. But that singer-songwriter style has just become so . . . off,” she says in her husky voice before chuckling derisively.
She’s too polite to mention the names of the subpar. So I do, name-checking Jason Mraz as an example of how off the genre has become. Whitley laughs and says, “Oh, man!” like someone who has just spotted a mouse skittering through the kitchen.
Whitley has seen more than that, however. Born in Belgium in 1987, she has been in music almost since birth. She hung with her father when he recorded (including at the legendary Electric Lady Studios). At 11, she toured Europe with various dance troupes. She was the youngest resident DJ in Europe, spinning discs at raves and Belgium’s Museum of Modern Art while still a teen. Then she did the usual bohemian trip: moved to New York City at 17, waitressed in Brooklyn, gigged with everyone from Marc Ribot to Malcolm Burn. In 2008, she sang in Black Dub, a group founded by Daniel Lanois and featuring bassist Daryl Johnson. She doesn’t really elaborate on her hard times during this period. But Black Dub, though cultishly adored, didn’t make any real waves. She made EPs in 2008, 2009, and 2011, all strong, but none making her a household name. In other words, though young, Whitley has paid a due or two. She very well may see a return with Corner.
Built from the ground up, the songs on it often feature African-style grooves (“My first instrument was drums”). The tunes are quietly funky but almost unbearably bereft. Laments like “Hotel No Name” and “Pieces” are lovely but horribly sad. They sound like the last weary words of a hooker who’s down to shooting heroin between her toes. I ask Whitley if they’re autobiographical. And if she’s, well, OK. It turns out, she’s just got a great imagination.
“It happened really fast,” she says. “I wrote it when I started working with Lanois [her mentor and former Black Dub bandmate]. One morning, at his house, I was practicing the piano. He went: ‘There’s a melody there. I’m going out for coffee. I’ll be back in an hour and a half. Why don’t you write a song around that melody?’ That’s how ‘Pieces’ was born.”
I ask her if she ever hears her father, his guitar-playing, his voice coming through in these dimly lit songs.
“I’m still struggling with that. He’s why I refused to pick up the guitar until only three years ago. There were times I’d pick one up and play something that sounded so familiar to my dad. For a while, I was like, ‘Go away!’ It really did fuck with my mind.”
Another standout is “Silent Rebel Pt. 2,” which features a cool, Patti Smith–style spoken-word section.
“It’s funny,” Whitley says. “I’ve never listened to her. I remember really well why I spoke on both ‘Rebel’ and ‘Hotel.’ I wanted to say something so literal that I didn’t feel I should actually sing. I wanted to use my voice in a way that was not melodic. And also, to challenge the song form.”
Thomas Bartlett, who co-produced the album with Whitley, has an honest and intriguing take on making it.
“Trixie and I have known each other for years, so we were friends long before we made music together,” he says. “Her talent is pretty overwhelming, but I didn’t particularly think that we would work together, partly because I thought we’d probably fight too much. We’re both very opinionated. But once we actually sat down and played together, it was clear that we had a very musical connection.”
As for her debut, Whitley is excited but wary.
“I went through so much industry bullshit these last three years. So I’m doing this album independently. It may not sell shit, because it’s not in a certain category. I just want this to be a memorable experience. Something [my fans] will remember for years to come. If I can do that, I’ll really be happy.”
Trixie Whitley performs at Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday, January 31.