Interview: John Paul White
The former Civil Wars man discusses his latest album, solo writing and the thread running through all of his work
Tennessee-born, Alabama-based songwriter John Paul White has a CV which makes for impressive reading. Between 2009 and 2014 he was one half of the indie-folk phenomenon The Civil Wars. Together with Joy Williams, the group earned four Grammys and topped the US album charts with their self-titled second (and final) album. Tracks like Barton Hollow and Dust To Dust still stand up as examples of how affecting a seemingly simple composition can be.
But White’s career neither began nor ended with The Civil Wars. His formative training came as a songwriter for a major Nashville publisher and he’s subsequently written with names as respected as Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris, as well as producing albums for Dylan LeBlanc, Donnie Fritts and others. It’s hard to believe that he’d also have time for a solo career, but 2019 saw the release of The Hurting Kind, his third solo offering. With a bold and classic production that will bring to mind the likes of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, it’s an album that will appeal to anyone who still longs for the Nashville Sound of the early 1960s.
With plenty to talk about, we recently grabbed a few words with this versatile songwriter…
At the point when you’re starting a new album, do you have an overall concept in mind or will you take it on a track-by-track basis?
“Typically, I sit down to write with no preconceived notion of where I’m heading. I believe that when I have a concept in mind, it doesn’t allow me to just chase the muse wherever she leads. The songs tend to have a common thread because I’m following where my heart and head are in that current chapter.”
Is there another driving factor when it comes to picking your collaborators?
“Well, for this record, the songs kept coming out with a 50s/60s Nashville Sound kind of vibe – which made sense, because I love it and have been listening to it a lot. With that in mind, it made sense to find the folks that created that era. People like Bill Anderson, Bobby Braddock, and Whitey Shafer, to name a few.”
Similarly, what did Ben Tanner bring to the process and what are you looking for in a producer/co-producer?
“Ben and I work together with a bit of ‘twin-speak’. I don’t have to hold his hand at all when it comes to sonic decisions. If I’m playing acoustic, I know he’ll have it sounding the way I would’ve wanted it to sound without having to lean over his shoulder. We also tend to like/dislike the same things production-wise, so there’s very little head butting.”
Much has been made of The Hurting Kind’s classic sound, was it something that came naturally to you or were you researching artists like Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline in order to recreate your own version of that sound?
“My dad played those artists and songs around me my entire childhood, and my mom loved crooners as well – so it became part of my DNA. I love the sensibilities of that music, but I don’t have a classic country voice. I knew that would keep this project unique, and less derivative.”
Did your approach to songwriting change at all for this one? Is there a set way one of your songs tends to come together?
“My process on most of my work is that I sit down with my guitar and go wherever I’m led. Certain things will end up being played, depending on the mood I’m in. For whatever reason, those voicings lead to me singing some sort of melody in scat style. Sometimes words and phrases appear in there and set me off. If I’m co-writing, then I’m more liable to be having a conversation that spurs certain song ideas, and that’s a lot of fun as well.”
What effect did recording in your home studio have on the overall sound and are you someone who likes to do a lot of tinkering/editing in the studio?
“Having a 20-yard commute is pretty amazing. I also don’t have to worry so much about the clock on the wall… Studio rates at my place are flexible with the owner – me. I don’t tend to enjoy tinkering, I get bogged down in the infinite options available. I’d rather worry about the bones of it, and let Ben fill in the colours.”
Do you keep journals of lyrics or do you have another way of capturing words?
“I jot things down in my phone when I happen on a turn of phrase that intrigues me. I also sing melodies in there as well. I don’t often go back and look through them – I think the process of recording them tends to solidify it in my brain. If I can’t remember it, it’s probably not magic.”
Are you always viewing the world as a songwriter, taking snippets of conversations and observations and banking them for future songs?
“I guess I am, without realizing it. There are many times I think, ‘Ooh that sounds like a song,’ but it’s normally not because I’m searching for it. I wear many hats: dad, husband, label partner, studio owner, home owner – so I can’t have too focused a perspective on song titbits that are lying around.”
What do you think is key to coming up with a lyric that is personal to you but is relatable for the listener?
“Keeping it vague. I try to write songs that are either personal to me, someone I know, or from general knowledge of the human condition. If I make it too personal, I feel like I’m leaving everyone out, and only allowing them to enjoy the song as a bystander. I prefer to keep things a little more vague so that the listener can be the character in the song. That’s a much more powerful transaction.”
I Wish I Could Write You A Song is one of our favourites on the album, have their been times when you haven’t been able to fully commit to the emotion needed by a song?
“Never. I love to get down to the root of these things and create something that makes me feel. Sometimes I catch myself backing off because I think people will worry about me, or think it’s about me, or that I’m piling on listener that’s already having a hard time. But I go ahead and go there anyway.”
Conversely, what advice would you give people who want to give more of themselves to their songs?
“Make them anonymous. Write about moments that aren’t necessarily your own, and immerse yourself in it. You’ll learn some tools of the trade that way, and won’t feel like you’re giving too much away. But let me tell you – you’ll be in there. You won’t even know you’re doing it. And then later when you write a song that speaks more to your condition, no one will know. Dig down in there as well. You’ll feel a lot more free to say what you feel, and not worry so much about oversharing.”
Are there any lessons you learned during the writing/recording of Beulah which helped with things this time?
“Beulah fell out of me really quickly. There was very little thought involved. It opened me up to a world of creation by inspiration that I hadn’t dealt in that often. I was a craft guy, learning the trade in Nashville. This was the first record that just pushed its way out of me.”
What are you hoping to achieve every time you sit down to write a song?
“That the listener feels something.”
Does the success and legacy of The Civil Wars have any impact on you when it comes to your solo material?
“Everything I’ve ever been a part of has had an impact. The Civil Wars was a moment that happens to few, and one I’m proud of. It’s strange – it opened my eyes to the fact that before, during, and after that, I was still kinda the same guy. There are just things you’re a part of that really click with people in a more universal way, and you can’t control it. It’s fairly fascinating, and maddening. In a perfect world, you could bottle it.”
Looking back at both your solo work and the albums you made with The Civil Wars, are you able to see a thread running through it all?
“I’d like to believe it is always heartfelt and sympathetic to the human plight. We’re all dealing with a lot, and I love to think that what I create helps, or heals, or at least articulates what someone is going through that can’t.”
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The Hurting Kind is out now via Single Lock Records. All the latest news can be found at johnpaulwhite.com