Saturday, January 31, 2009

Simone White interview

This was the commencement of an interview with singer Simone White for an article I wrote about Honest Jon's Chop-Up Revue last year, yet I wound up not using her quotes. What was a pleasant surprise about the night was how Ms. White commanded the crowd's attention amid that roster of folks: Candi Staton, Tony Allen, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with only her hushed songs. I wished that we could've delved a bit deeper in our correspondence, but very excited to see her tonight and see how she does alone in the spotlight.

I'm curious as to how your music came to the attention of Honest Jon's in the first place. Were you familiar with the label beforehand?

I was living in New York and I'd booked a tour on the West coast. I was doing long drives and I was listening to Bonnie Prince Billy's Master and Everyone on repeat. I love this record: it's close and tender and Will Oldham's voice is so pure. I kept saying to people, “I want to make a record like this.”

I met a woman in LA whose boyfriend was from Nashville and knew Marky Nevers, the producer. I went there three times and made a record, first spare and simple, then adding more instrumentation. Finally it was done and I knew I wanted a record label to put it out, as I'd self-released my first record and knew the business side of it, everything that is involved. I was no good at it and needed help.

Marky sent it to Mark Ainley from Honest Jon’s and he liked it and we went back to Nashville and we added some trombones and strings and recorded a few more songs. I wasn't familiar with the label but Marky Nevers had recorded two others that they had signed, Candi Staton and Lone Official. I liked Mark Ainley right away, he's weary of all the bullshit and he's only interested in good music and being authentic (and he would totally cringe and make some typically sarcastic English remark if he heard me say that). For my first record I had used my friend's label's name, The Sincere Recording Company, so I thought it very fitting to be with Honest Jon’s.

I'm afraid I wasn't very familiar with the music on Honest Jon’s. The closest I probably got was Ali Farka TourĂ©'s collaboration with Ry Cooder (Talking Timbuktu from 1994) which I loved, and of course all the old folk music my mother sang to me when I was little. I guess my music has most in common with Candi Staton as Marky Nevers produced both our records and used a lot of the same musicians. I didn't think it was strange that Mark Ainley liked my music though. I probably thought he connected with the political songs and the folk aspect.

Speaking of Will Oldham, have you heard Lie Down in the Light, the album that Mark did last year? I seriously think it's Will's greatest record so far.

No! Is there a new one? I didn't know!

Is that your mom on the cover of the album? And is she with a pet leopard? And on the packaging, is that your grandma singing in bloomers and heels on-stage?

Yes, my mom and my grandma were performers and they had a leopard. He lived on the third floor of their house and chewed all my mom's shoes and handbags. I have a million photos of them in all these great outfits, posing with the leopard and on top of their pink Thunderbird and in parks with my grandma's series of Chihuahuas and performing on stage.

Were there always such idiosyncratic and flamboyant women in the family? The pictures really help convey this dislocated feeling I have with the album where I feel it could emanate from really any era, yet it sounds sorta outside of time as well.

There were and are strange and flamboyant women in my family. My aunt on my dad's side was writing pop songs in the fifties at age 13 and my paternal grandmother founded all-women run newspaper in Michigan in 1949.

Did you feel that coming to the guitar so late (the bio says 22) and not being around pop music when you were younger helped you in some sort of way with writing your songs? Or are you now playing catch-up with music?

That's funny you say coming to guitar late at 22. ‘Cos to me 22 doesn't sound late, as in fact I didn't start playing guitar really seriously until about 30. If I only was serious about it at 22! I think the stuff I was playing at 22 wasn't from my true nature. And if I'd stuck with it then I might have worked it out faster or maybe it would have taken me the same amount of time. Because I feel like I got closer to myself and to the music I'm making now through whatever I was doing: photography, writing, acting, and that now it's coming out in music most strongly and most pure.

I think not growing up with pop culture must have influenced me, but I can't identify what's missing. And I don't really live in pop culture now, I don't watch TV which seems to be the big connector of all people. I sit in the garden and stare at the green stuff.

Wait…when you say "playing catch up with music," do you mean playing catch up to the music that's out there or playing catch up with music that I'm playing? ‘Cos there's no way I'll ever catch up to all the music that's out there. I remember when I was a teenager having a list of cool bands written in my notebook so I could rattle them off when people asked which seemed to be the first question you asked someone in high school. If you mean playing catch up with my music, I don't think there is an age for doing anything, especially not something so primary and human as music.