The singer-songwriter and Black Dub vocalist gives in to the guitar.
TRIXIE WHITLEY shed a great deal of baggage on the journey to her debut solo album, Fourth Corner, released earlier this year on her independent Strong Blood label. Well before she went into a New York City studio to lay down tracks with producer/keyboardist Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), the 26-year-old singer and budding songwriter had generated a heavy load of anticipation. She had already recorded and toured with her father, blues-rock icon Chris Whitley, before he died in 2005, and by 2010 she was doing the same in her role as the scorching, soulful lead vocalist in the supergroup Black Dub, put together by producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois. In 2012, she appeared on Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, singing Peter Green's "Before the Beginning," produced by Joe Henry. But rather than making her musical life easier, those experiences burdened Whitley with other people's expectations.
"I had a lot of problems, industry-wise, along the road to this record," she says in a phone conversation during a tour stop in London, England. "People had tried to put me together with co-writers and big-shot producers, and they wanted me to make a retro-sounding soul or blues record. I'm just totally not interested in that. My identity is not a singular sound. My musical vision has a lot of different elements-I'm interested in developing innovative sounds, and to do that you have to be open to exploring. After going through so much turmoil with record labels, the only thing I could do was go to the absolute core of my own vision. And that's what I did. I just completely followed the music."
To that end, Fourth Corner ranges through acoustic folk, electronica, R&B, hard rock, and other sounds, with Whitley playing most of the guitars, and all of the constituent parts supporting her riveting, expressive vocals. Having grown up as something of a nomad-living with her mother in Belgium; spending time in New York; making family visits to France, Texas, and Mexico; and touring Europe with Les Ballets C de la ? dance company-Whitley now sounds as if she's finding a home in her songs.
You play guitar-acoustic and/or electric-on all 11 songs on Fourth Corner, although you started playing guitar just a few years ago.
WHITLEY It was kind of the last instrument I picked up. I had a lot of resistance toward guitar. When I was a kid, there were all these guitars lying around. I would pick them up every once in a while, but I was always very much aware that 1 did not want to follow in my dad's footsteps. I really didn't want to play the same instrument he did, and my relationship with the guitar had a lot to do with that. But I finally realized that I could not live without it. There was this beautiful little Gibson guitar that I had, and for the longest time I talked about selling it, because, you know, I was not going to play guitar. Then, one day, I came back from work and picked it up, and this song came out. I knew I either had to choose to play it professionally or make peace with making a living from doing something else. I made that conscious choice to play the guitar a couple years ago, knowing that I would never be able to deny the music.
How central has the guitar become to your music?
WHITLEY I approach it as a tool, in service of the song. I never wanted to be a shredder guitar player. It's wild, because all these years I really fought with the guitar, and now it's become a companion. It almost feels like an extension of my body. It's become part of what I do, as a form of expression, more important to my songwriting than as an instrument to approach technically. As I'm sitting here, I'm smiling just thinking about it, because I'm glad I found a companion that I fought for so many years. I guess it was just destiny telling me, "You can't deny this anymore." I feel like it's kind of the same with my voice-I've never thought of myself as a singer, and I don't think of myself as a guitar player. But my voice and the guitar are tools that help me express my identity as an artist.
When did you realize that you needed to do music and that you were in fact a songwriter?
WHITLEY Music was always there. My first instrument was drums, and I started touring in my early teens. Between the ages of 11 and 15 or 16,1 was on the road all the time with this theater and dance company. I played drums and bass and sang, as well. When I finally left the company, I wanted to craft something that was my own. When I put everything together, it was very obvious to me that there was one thing that I could not live without, and it was music. As passionate as I was about dance and acting, I could live without those things, but I felt handicapped, in a way, when I didn't have the amount of musical fuel that I needed. I didn't think of myself purely as a singer, but I had the need to express something that was my own, and that's how I ended up taking the songwriting journey more seriously. I didn't yet feel like songwriting was my natural habitat, but I did know that I had something to say. When I moved back to New York when I was 17, that's when I realized, OK, I'm going to commit the next few years to develop my craft as a writer. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight.
What steps did you take to develop songwriting as a craft?
WHITLEY Oh, I'm still so in the middle of it. I feel like there's so much that I want to learn. I'm naturally very insecure, but working with Daniel [Lanois] helped me find some sense of confidence and belief in my abilities. I try to learn from the artists I admire, but I also realize that I will never be them, and that I want to create a sound and identity entirely my own, not crafted from formulas that have been done over and over again. Writing-wise, I do go back to things that I'm inspired by-I love books, I love going to museums. But to me, it's really a matter of being aware and trying to maintain that openness of the senses at all times. Then, any moment can be a form of inspiration, whether you're sitting in a laundromat or in an airport, or you wake up from a dream in the middle of the night-all of those moments, I believe they need to be harbored and seen as precious things. Those are the tools I gravitate toward in my writing.
How do you keep track of the inspiration that arises in those moments?
WHITLEY I always try to write down anything that could be a possible seed, even if I don't always know in the moment. I like to be prepared for every moment of inspiration, from the smallest, tiniest little thing. One sentence can be enough to fuel my imagination at times, and sometimes I'll find myself in the position where I have pages and pages and I don't use any of it.
Once your imagination is sparked, do the songs spring out whole?
WHITLEY Some songs come out instantly. Others take months to finish, like a fine wine that needs to age to find its true flavor. I have all of these unfinished song ideas; some of them have been sitting on the shelf waiting. Sometimes I'll go back to my notebooks from a few years earlier, but I'm still really young, and I can't wait to see how my own journey is going to develop in ten, 20 years.
Can you identify particular songs on Fourth Corner that came from one camp or the other, arising fully formed or needing time to mature?
WHITLEY "Oh, the Joy" is an example of one that came as a spark of inspiration. It came from a conversation with a friend. It was really an ode to joy, even though the song sounds so melancholy. It was a summer day, I was sitting in my little garden, and thinking, god, life is beautiful. That was one of those moments when I knew exactly what I wanted to write about, and I was like, all right, this is it, and the song came out. "Breathe You in My Dreams" and "Fourth Corner" took longer. They were more like puzzles, starting with a melody and lyrics that I had lying around. And "Never Enough" was a song that I was going to throw out. I didn't think it was strong enough. It needed to ripen. It needed to take its time. It didn't feel like a song to me. That's what was fun in the process of making this record-I learned that songs don't have to come together in the same way. There are all these different ways to craft them. It doesn't always have to be the sitting-down-with-your-guitar kind of way. "Never Enough" was really refreshing in that sense. It really came into its own in the studio, purely based on the riff. This riff was so fun to play in the studio, and then all these other elements-hooks and these melodies-came up.
When you stepped back after finishing the album, could you see what the album was about, thematically?
WHITLEY My nomadic upbringing and the search for my roots are definitely themes that come back all the time. I always have been a deep thinker and kind of a philosopher, so I like to write about philosophical subjects-life and love and death and loss. And that's what the album title is about. The different elements in life all exist separately, but there is something continuous about them. It's the same for me, emotionally when I write. "Oh, the Joy" might have a melancholic tone, but it's actually a very, very optimistic song. And that was what I wanted to reflect in the sonic territory, as well. These different elements can be there, from a raging electric guitar to a really intimate, acoustic, I'm-sitting-right-next-to-you sound, and they can exist as a perfect unity. oc
WHAT SHE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITAR: 1950s Martin 00.
ELECTRIC GUITAR: 1957 Gibson Les Paul "IV Special.
AMPLIFICATION: "I love playing my acoustic guitar through my vintage Fender Tweed amp."
STRINGS: D'Addario or Martin phosphor-bronze, medium gauge.
DERK RICHARDSON, a former managing editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a senior editor at AFAR magazine (afar.com).
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