TFFT caught up with none other than the singer-songwriting, Grammy-Award winning musician and all round lovely guy, John Paul White, to chat about his recent release, the brand-spanking new album The Hurting Kind.
If you haven’t heard it yet, then I can tell you now you’re in for a treat! What with its lovely warm tones reminiscent of old country classics paired with meaningful, beautifully phrased lyrics and catchy hooks that will be in your head for weeks, it’s the perfect introduction to country music with a modern twist.
Discussing all things song-writing, the music industry, with nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout, John Paul White gave us the latest scoop on the new record and what’s going on over in Alabama…
I’ve read in various articles about the new album, that this record was long anticipated both by you and your fans. Why was this release so special to you?
Well, going into this one I had a strange epiphany that it was kind of the first time that I had made a record and didn’t really have to think too much about the records I had made before. It was the first time that I really had a blank page in front of me and could say anything I wanted to.
The first solo record I made, I had already been writing professionally for about ten years and I just picked my favourite songs to put on it. Then with The Civil Wars it was all collaborative, so there’s a certain amount of give and take, so that’s still not 100 percent you. Then with ‘Beulah’ it all just fell out really fast without a whole lot of thought involved. So, this is the first time in all the years I’ve been making records that I’ve felt like, ‘Alright, what do you wanna say, who are you?’ And that was fun and exciting! So I feel like I’ve cultivated a base of people now, that support what I do and they don’t expect a specific thing from me, other than sad songs! (laughs). But it’s not so big a jump from what I’ve done in the past that it’s jarring to people. There’s still that common thread throughout. So far so good! Most people have been on board with it.
I get the vibe that you have definitely found your new sound. It’s so unique to you but also very reminiscent of the past…
I don’t pretend to know where it comes from. I stopped trying to force it and say ‘This is the kind of song I’m going to write today’. For many years I used to do that, But now I’m very selfish. I just sit with my guitar and ask myself, ‘What do I feel like today?’ then I start playing and if something comes out that I like, then I follow it and a song ends up being born. I think more than anything with song writing, I follow my nose.
So what does your song-writing process look like? Do you write lyrics first then music or vice versa?
Well you see I wrote for a long time in Nashville and because of that I got used to writing in a routine way, it has become like a muscle I can still flex, I can turn the creativity on and off. I’ve noticed over time that my process is pretty similar each time I write. I like to block out a day for writing and that’s the start of the process. Then I usually just start playing and follow what feels right that day. I sing over the guitar, find different melodies and spontaneous ideas and usually then, certain phrases and titles come out of that process that I never would have dreamed up other wise.
There’s a song on the record called ‘The Hurting Kind’ the title track to the album, I don’t remember why but that title popped into my head and I thought, yeah that sounds like a country song, or even the name of a record! That’s when I knew I’d better get writing and I better make it good. In the process of writing that track, I figured out I was writing from a female perspective, I don’t know why, but that has happened before, I will write songs sometimes and they end up being from different people’s vantage points, whether it be my wife’s perspective or my Mom’s or anyone’s, but I just never chose to tell people. With this song it just seemed to be about abuse, and if I had sat down and said ‘Okay, today I’m gonna write a song about abuse’, it would never have came out that way. It would have been right on the nose and too blatant and heavy handed. So I think, going at it from that angle works best for me.
I’m a musician too and thought that I’d ask you this, as I’ve encountered this a lot lately… But from a male musician’s perspective, have you ever encountered sexism in the music industry, and if so how did you handle it?
Of course, my entire life I have been witness to sexism and harassment, especially in ways that I thought were subtle and harmless in the past.
Things that I look back on and now pay more attention to, I am as embarrassed about that as anybody. There are so many different little tiny things that we as males just think are harmless, But they’re not and they’re power plays, they always have been and we rightfully are being called out for it, we should be! I am glad that my children are watching this happen in real time and are going to be treating each other in a different way. Hopefully in a more even-handed, compassionate way. It’s going to take a long time. But I know my kids generation and their children are going to be intent on levelling this stuff out.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
Of course it’s like choosing which is your favourite kid… (laughs). The title track is the last song I wrote on the album and the last song is usually the one that is the closest to your heart, as its the last sentiment you express on it. For me, the songs that were written with my heroes like, ‘I Wish I Could Write You A Song’ and ‘You Lost Me’ were written with ‘Whisperin’’ Bill Anderson and ‘This Isn’t Gonna End Well’ was written with Bobby Braddock. Those were shining moments for me, as a songwriter especially! To write with your heroes is such a special thing.
Why did you choose ‘The Long Way Home’ to be the lead single?
It was such a strange thing, I think I always assumed that ‘I Wish I Could Write You A Song’ would be the lead single. But as we were playing it out loud, live at shows, I kept getting the consensus that ‘The Long Way Home’ is the one I should come out of the gates with, because it’s different from what I normally do, but it has a common thread with past records. It also sums up my loves and hates of being a touring musician, which I’ve talked about multiple times before too. I think for first time listeners, it bridges the gap between different era’s of country and Americana music well, so I think it’s a good accessible entry point for everybody.
Was the song ‘James’ inspired by a real person? If so, what’s the story?
It was inspired by many people that I’ve been around that have suffered from dementia and Alzheimers. But mostly it was inspired by Glen Campbell. When Glen was diagnosed, that was super hard for me to watch. I grew up being a big fan; so was my dad and to watch somebody, as talented as him in all aspects of his field suffer and deteriorate like that, it was really hard to watch. So when I felt that emotion of seeing him repeat himself on stage I knew that I had to get those feelings out of me, so I put them into a song and that song was ‘James’.
Another little fact about the song is that James is my dad’s name and the details in the song are based on my dad’s life. Although my dad is perfectly healthy and doesn’t actually suffer from dementia or Alzheimers, it felt a little more concrete to write the song based on true events.
How did it feel recording ‘The Hurting Kind’ in comparison to ‘Beulah’?
It was a completely different process in that, in the recording process of ‘Beulah’, I just walked in and played the songs, then we added things to them that felt correct at the time, and the heart of it was really just the voice and the guitar, everything was built around that. But with ‘The Hurting Kind’ it was a whole lot more purposeful. A lot more arranged, a lot more thought about. We did demos and we knew it was gonna be a more complex record so, there were certain musicians added to the mix that I knew would be able to do the complex; fiddle work or the upright bass work or the country jazz guitar stuff so, there was a lot more thought went into it. I wanted that. I wanted to create a more sophisticated record with this one. It was a totally different experience and process, but at the heart of it, its still all about the voice and the song.
What are you listening to in your house? What’s on your current playlist?
Well before making the record I was listing to old country music and I will again, but at the moment I have a sixteen year old who is a die hard music lover, all across the board. So he’s constantly like ‘Dad listen to this – Dad check this out!’ and so we have been listening to a tonne of female singer-songwriters like; Big Thief, Phoebe Bridges, Julien Baker, Courtney Barnett, things like that. Those are on heavy rotation here at the house but you know, if you ask me six months from now it could be… Metal!
Where did you get that lovely personalised guitar strap? The one that features in so many of your photographs…
That was a gift! I did a benefit out in California and they commissioned a buddy of mine to make it, unbeknown to me, his name is Johnny Fritz. He is an amazing singer-songwriter, one of the funniest people on earth, and he also does a lot of leatherwork. He custom makes them as well as belts and wallets for anyone who wants them, he’s based out in LA.
Listening to both yourself and Joy Williams’ post-Civil Wars albums, it sounds from a fan’s perspective, like a conversation through music. Would you agree?
Well no, I would not agree with that. Mostly because If I did agree with that it would run counter to everything I just told you. I never sit down with an agenda or with a purpose to what I’m going to create. I just sit down, and the things that come out, come out.
So it’s mostly just different people’s individual interpretation of the music would you say?
Well, I am at fault there, because when I write songs I try to keep songs vague. The reason I keep them vague is, if I make my songs super specific and super obvious as to what I’m talking about, then you as a listener can’t take that song and become the character in it.
I had a mentor that once told me; “Don’t ever put a wedding ring in a song”. What he meant by that was, as soon as you put a wedding ring on a character in a song, you have just alienated everyone who is not in a relationship. They no longer can see themselves as the character in the song as they can’t relate. You leave out that one item and then suddenly everyone is included in the story.
So when I write songs, I try to do that, so you can listen to it and interpret it as you wish. Now that gets me into trouble sometimes, because people will say ‘well that must mean this’ when actually, no… it doesn’t necessarily mean that. I’ve thought about it and even tried to modify songs so it
doesn’t sound as much like its implying a certain meaning, but most of the time it doesn’t sound right and it’s not as good a song. Some songs just have to be written a certain way no matter what people think it means. I promise that’s not bullshit (laughs) it’s just the way I create.
Interview conducted by Shannon Pearl Powell