If you want to know what’s been going on with Matthew E. White, listen between the lines. As can be heard in his pleading on “Holy Moly” (“Holy moly, what wrong with you, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you ever give me false hope/…Let’s move on man, it brings me down”) and lamenting for the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Tranquility”), White has some heavy matters to unpack.
The soulful Philippines- and Virginia-raised singer is cruising through the Black Hills of South Dakota on the way to his next tour stop. As Mount Rushmore fades into the rearview, he relates the truth of his second album, Fresh Blood. “Everything on there is a true story, basically. The love songs are real. And the serious songs…are real serious. It’s nice to be able to do that.”
If he wears his heart on his sleeve, the 32-year-old is also sly. Take the title of his first album, said out loud: Big Inner. He’s green no more, thanks to the success of that much-lauded 2012 breakthrough and its more-than-worthy, no-sophomore-slump-here successor.
While White’s a solo artist, he’s also extremely collaborative, working with his musical family at Spacebomb Records, a collective that uses a house band to record a variety of music along the lines of the Swampers of Muscle Shoals or the Wrecking Crew. “It’s also nice [to work] in the context of a team, with guys that know all that stuff about my life,” he observes. “It feels very personal. It doesn’t feel like the grandness of it all takes away from my ability to express really personal things.”
White lived in Manila before his missionary parents settled in Richmond, Virginia, and some familial fare comes to light via Fresh Blood. The cover of the record — a blue-and-white chintz sofa in a pale-carpeted room, with the hirsute White at an upright piano in a corner of the room — was shot in his grandmother’s house. (“That’s like an Easter egg that nobody knows about.”) Then there’s the gorgeous video for the equally unforgettable and bouncy “Rock & Roll Is Cold,” with starkly beautiful snow and sand shots that lead to an opulent scene at a fancy home. “The house is actually my aunt’s house near Salt Lake City. I wanted [the video] to be very Terrence Malick, very Badlands-ish,” he says, referring to the director’s 1973 crime drama. “There’s that kind of American minimalism that I really love. I love Terrence Malick’s movies. I love how distilled they are. I think movies like that — or art pieces like Matisse cutouts — seem very relevant to what I do. At least, I’m trying to get there.
“I think it takes a lot; it’s sort of hard to do. I relate a lot to that kind of broad but very distilled strokes. That’s what was going into the video a little bit.”
Being so closely involved in every part of his album (and with Spacebomb) makes the end product even more satisfying for its creator. “When I was listening back to Fresh Blood, it was really rewarding to hear music that I felt like represents a lot of the parts of who I am,” he says. “It’s just an interesting record, because I get to exercise everything from the real boring aspects of organizing and planning and managing calendars and budgets and things like that — which I like doing — all the way down to expressing really, really, really personal stuff in a purely emotional way. It’s just nice to listen to that and feel like it’s so wholly representative of who I am as a person. Sometimes — and it might be something I do subconsciously — but the narrative about my music can be very production-oriented or process-oriented. And it really covers up the fact that that record is so incredibly bare-bones personal for me.”
To that end, he’s put out companion vinyl, Fresh Blood: No Skin, a naked version of the album’s softly orchestrated gorgeousness. Taking away the carefully wrought frills and furbelows serves both White and his fans. “It’s like, how good are these songs without all this arrangement, and what does that teach me about them? What do I learn about myself? It helps me learn and sort of excites me. I think that’s where it has to start. I hate bonus material that an artist threw away. Why am I gonna make someone pay for something or try to entice someone to pay more for something for some shit that I threw away? The No Skin version isn’t like that at all.”
Titling the record Fresh Blood, a lyric from “Take Care My Baby,” is a phrase White ascribes a lot of weight to, though he warns with a chuckle, “This is sort of reading into it quite a bit and I don’t suggest everyone do this.” The title is “real folksy and off the cuff a little bit. In that way of using it, it’s about something new and something fresh and obviously relates to a new record. It’s also really personal and really painful in a very literal way. It’s also very fun and playful and new. I actually couldn’t believe it wasn’t an album title when I Googled it!”
By any other name or in any format, the timeless, funky, soulful songs shine. There’s “Take Care My Baby,” a smooth cruise of Seventies soul that Quentin Tarantino wishes he had for Jackie Brown, while “Circle ‘Round the Sun” is a quietly contemplative number about a friend’s mother’s suicide, and one White switched up to be “a love song unrelated to that story at all.” “I had a verse and a chorus, and sort of playing through it I thought, ‘Man, what if I switched the narrative so instead of talking to your lover, you’re talking to God and you’re killing yourself?’ It sounds like a weird idea, but that was the idea….It’s kind of an unsettling way to tell that story, and it felt really good.”
Likewise, White feels really good about Fresh Blood, whereas the overwhelming experience that accompanied Big Inner — which resulted in a painful case of shingles brought on by stress — is a thing of the past. “The first album is complicated,” he explains. “It’s like everything for the first time. You have a manager for the first time, you have a booking agent for the first time, hiring a band for the first time, traveling for the first time — you’re just sort of building this huge infrastructure to make it work. At this point, the scope is a little bit bigger, but the infrastructure is completely built. So that’s really nice.
“I would say I’m far less stressed and worried this time around.”
Matthew E. White plays Baby’s All Right April 6. Tickets are sold out, but some are available on the secondary market.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2015