“I can never half-ass anything I do,” Jack White says. “I can never do things for image sake, that don’t have meaning underneath them.” He didn’t need to tell me this; I knew it even as I prepared to see him in his Third Man Records office, the door for which evidently once belonged to a John A. White III, D.D.S. Elsewhere in the waiting room, White’s passion for taxidermy was on full display, the main piece being a water buffalo-like creature with white stripes across its back, naturally.
The chat came a day after White fully unveiled the two (yes, two) new five-piece bands, one all-female and one all-male, that will be touring with him in support of his first solo album, Blunderbuss. The meaning behind that move? Presenting himself as a solo artist is virgin territory for White, and as he has consistently demonstrated throughout his career with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, as well as notable collaborations with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson and Tom Jones, doing things in his own inimitable way is what has gotten him this far.
“What it feels like is I’ve taken a deep breath and I’m saying, ‘OK, here’s me playing by the show biz rules right now,’” White says. “When you’re in a big band and that’s over, you’re supposed to make a solo album. I resisted that for a long time, but now it’s like I’ve finally let myself do this. A solo career was never an option before because I thought it was the easy way out.”
There is no doubt that Blunderbuss sounds like a Jack White solo record should, at least to anyone who has followed his career to this point. There are the bluesy, fuzzed-out riffs, but also deft displays of the musical evolution he has undergone since relocating to Nashville from Detroit five years ago. Fiddle, pedal steel and a range of vintage keyboards are now standard in his group(s), and audiences should be prepared to hear many of their past favourites given thorough makeovers.
There is also the question of whether the reason Jack is finally stepping out on his own with Blunderbuss is a reflection of his marriage to model/singer Karen Elson ending last year, soon after the White Stripes were officially put to rest. There is nothing to indicate he’s suffering though. To the contrary, those showing their support at the Third Man showcase included not only Elson, but also Raconteurs and Dead Weather band mates, and even White’s mother. It is more accurate to say that there is 20 years of experience packed into Blunderbuss.
“Sometimes it’s easy for people to think that new songs are about what you’re going through that week, but that’s not necessarily true,” White says. “Most of the time these feelings really have to fester before they get a chance to come out of you. It’s your job as an artist to figure out a way to nurture how to have it all come out when you want it to come out. That takes years, and you sort of have to train your body and your mind to do it.”
I guess it seemed inevitable that you would make a solo record, but has it taken this long because you’ve felt secure being part of a band?
I wouldn’t say that. This album naturally happened pretty much like everything else I’ve done. The Raconteurs just happened, the Dead Weather just happened. If you would have asked me a month before, ‘Are you going to be starting a new band,’ I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? I have no time to do that.’ It was the same thing with the Dead Weather, I had newborn kids, why would I start another band? It was hard enough to do what I wanted to do with the White Stripes, but the thing is, once something starts happening naturally, I don’t get in the way of it, I let it happen. I wouldn’t say that I choose to do it, like actually tried to make myself fit into a particular situation. Even with the White Stripes, it just happened.
You’re from a large family, and seeing you last night surrounded by so many band mates and all the other people who are part of Third Man suggested to me that you’ve wanted to have your music career be like a family too. Is that fair to say?
That would be my armchair psychiatrist opinion about myself, yes. I think when you’re raised in a house where there’s 20 people running around like crazy all the time, it’s not that much of a stretch to assume that’s how I want my environment to be. I like when things are happening and when everyone has a reason to be involved. It is a real familial type thing and as you saw last night, [the Dead Weather’s] Alison Mosshart and the Raconteurs guys were here and we all went out and saw the Greenhornes afterward. This is our family of musicians, and it was like that up in Detroit too when we had that whole garage rock scene.
Would that community mindset have been influenced by your Catholic upbringing as well?
I don’t know. I think that kind of stuff gets in the back of your brain when you’re raised in a religious household, or whatever your family is into. You carry that with you for the rest of your life. It’s like your heritage, if your family members are immigrants from Europe. You carry some of those pieces with you, and sometimes you don’t even realize it. I was saying the other day at breakfast, while putting salt on my oatmeal, that that comes from the Scottish side of my family in Nova Scotia. I actually read an article about it, and I never realized it until then. I’ve never known anybody else that puts salt on their oatmeal.
I don’t like to draw direct comparisons between artists, but the more I’ve seen of this latest project and what you’re able to do here at Third Man in terms of fulfilling your artistic desires, it’s reminded me of Prince in a lot ways. I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.
No, not at all. I think Prince is brilliant. You can go as deep as you want into those kinds of comparisons and it doesn’t bother me. Some people have walked in here and said it’s like the Beatles’s Apple Records and some people have said it’s like Chess Records. Paisley Park is certainly another one of those institutions where artists wanted to have a specific location in order to facilitate their ideas, and that’s what Third Man really is, a place to facilitate ideas.
Many people will probably call Blunderbuss a break-up record, just based on what we know you’ve been through in your personal life in the past year. But to me it sounds more like you’re getting to an age where you’re pondering larger questions.
Well, for starters, it’s not a break-up record. If it were, it would be really weird to have Karen singing on three songs. To me, that disproves that idea. But people are always going to take things however they want to. If I come within 10 feet of a female on stage, people are going to make something out of that, even though I’m more likely to kiss Loretta Lynn than Alison Mosshart.
But the way you write about love on this record made me wonder if your art is fed by a need for the complications that stem from intense relationships?
We all have struggles we go through every day, no matter how “nice” we think we have it. As a songwriter/creator/producer, when I don’t have a struggle on a particular day, I will make one up. I will force a struggle to occur, and that could manifest itself through deciding to record a song with all female musicians and then getting another group of all male musicians to record the same thing just to see what happens. That suddenly raises all kinds of questions for me as a producer: how will they react to me, and what will I do differently? Will it make any difference at all? I want the musicians I play with to experience that kind of provocation, and I want the audience, both at a live show and listening to a record at home, to experience that as well.
The anger on a lot of these new songs reminded me of the great version of Dylan’s “Love Sick” that you and Meg used to do. The tension the two of you created always seemed to stem from something left unresolved in your relationship, even though that’s a huge assumption.
I see what you’re getting at. Some people might have an experience in love that might hurt their feelings for a second, but they let it roll off their back and they move on. A lot of artists, we don’t let things roll off our backs that easy. It absorbs into us and stays there forever. Sometimes when you put yourself inside a song, like when we recorded the U2 song “Love Is Blindness” during these sessions, I try to pull out anything from it that I can relate to that would make any sense for that song, just like with “Love Sick.” Lucky for me that I do hold onto these things. It’s sometimes a feeling that happened 12 years ago.
Were there moments of catharsis for you making this record?
Always, always. I feel fortunate whenever that happens, because like I’m saying, it’s not as if hitting a button just does it. I think I’ve gotten better over the years at realizing the difference between singing soulfully, and actually having it come from your soul. I also think that audiences can smell the difference.
From a purely sonic standpoint, Blunderbuss makes sense as a solo album simply because it draws from nearly every project in which you’ve been involved. Especially the last song, “Take Me With You When You Go,” seems to encapsulate a lot of it.
Yeah, there was no place else to put that song than at the end.
Have you been soaking up more sounds the longer you’ve lived in Nashville?
I would say it’s more a result of all the 45s and other records I’ve produced for Third Man. That really influenced the production style I used on this album, especially thinking about the Wanda Jackson record and having to orchestrate a 12-piece band. Had I not started Third Man and done all of those 45s, I don’t think this album would have been possible, certainly not in the way it turned out. Good or bad, it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
“I’m Shakin’” [originally done by Little Willie John] definitely sounds like it could have been on Wanda’s record.
That was the first track we did for Blunderbuss, actually. I like to start projects doing someone else’s song like that whenever I’m working with musicians who are new to me, just so everyone can a feel for what’s going on. We did with the Dead Weather too, recording [Dylan’s] “New Pony” first. Sometimes it turns out so well that it goes on the record.
Both of your current bands are fantastic, but I think people are really going to be blown away by the female band. You’ve obviously made it priority to include women in your music, and for me that’s always underscored how rock and roll always suffers when there isn’t that feminine balance. Do you agree?
Yeah, I mean, to compare the Raconteurs with the Dead Weather, just having that single female presence of Alison completely changes the whole dynamic. And obviously, the White Stripes wouldn’t have sounded like we did if there was a guy on drums. What Meg brought to the band is what made it what it is. I’ve never had any prejudice toward anybody, and I’ve probably worked with more women than guys. What I’ve noticed working with women is that a lot of bullshit goes out the window, and the focus is on accomplishing the task and getting down to something. Guys can often walk in the room with a lot of other agendas going on—egos, hang-ups—especially 20-something white hipsters. They can bring so much bullshit to the table that you have to sift through, and then they might turn around and sabotage you a week later because of all those hang-ups. I haven’t really experienced that working with females. That being said, it’s your job when you’re working with someone to bring out the best of what both of you can do together, so all of those are challenges to me. And like I said, I like the idea of shaking things up for myself, and that’s really what was behind this idea of two bands. We did rehearsals for this tour in two different locations across town and would drive back and forth between them every couple of hours. We’d rehearse the same songs with totally different rhythms, speeds, intros and outros, and it was my responsibility to remember all of it. On top of that, each band knew that there was this other band rehearsing the same songs. It wasn’t until the show here last night that they’d heard each other. I was even tempted to tell them that they weren’t allowed to watch, just to see what that would do. But that was the time when it made sense for them to finally see each other, while we were in this environment with everyone here for support. I felt it would really open things up before we go on tour. I think it was really inspiring for both bands, because it wasn’t one-sided in any way. Everyone who came out had something to say, and it was totally balanced. Half the people I talked to talked about a certain female musician and half talked about a certain male musician, whoever it was. I’m so pleased, because up until yesterday there was this lingering feeling that this might not work. Everybody could have said, well, we like the girl band but we don’t like the guy band, or so-and-so was better than so-and-so. But it was completely balanced, and I consider that a total blessing because it could have been a disaster.
So there weren’t any particular songs that you felt were better suited to a particular band?
I had to think about last night’s set a little bit because we were doing 10 songs apiece, and also, nobody knew that we were going to do White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather songs. What I knew was that coming out of the gate with a White Stripes song would change the pace of whatever expectations there were for hearing all of this new material and sort of say that this is how things are going to be. But I’m sticking with my no set list rule, which is something that none of these musicians have experience with. It’s high energy with everyone all the time.
Was it important for you and Meg to make that announcement last year that the White Stripes were officially over?
Very much so, because as much as I’d like to think that everyone is open-minded these days and less cynical, I don’t think a lot of people would know the difference between a Jack White solo record and a White Stripes record. I think a lot of people are just too close-minded in terms of believing that Meg didn’t bring a unique component to that band. I don’t even want to battle those people’s dumb misconceptions in any way. So that was one of the reasons why I wouldn’t have done a solo album while the White Stripes existed. I’m not saying that in an insulting way, but when you’re out there you realize that there’s this show biz stuff going on where people perceive things in a certain way and you can’t shake them out of it no matter how hard you try. People can say that they wish Meg was a part of it too—that’s actually flattering—just as long as they don’t say that this is the same thing as what the White Stripes were. That says to me that they think I’m mixed up for not knowing the difference.
Is it a full-time job being Jack White?
I think you have a choice to make when you call yourself an artist. To some people that means, I’m not going to have a day job, I can do whatever I want, I’m going to paint paintings and sleep in until noon. To some people that’s what the term rock star means, partying like some heavy metal guy. The other choice is to really become an artist by sacrificing yourself. Whatever your name was before, and whoever you were before, you don’t get to be that person ever again. I can only imagine that it’s like going to war and coming back a completely different person. That is what I think true artists have to do, to make that very dangerous choice to give yourself over and never go back. That means you never get to go home again, which is a scary thing to admit out loud, but I made peace with that a long time ago. I made that choice that this was not a 9-to-5 job for me, this was 24-hours a day, and that’s all it can ever be for me. I can never exploit myself for celebrity or money or anything. All I can do is create, because I have an incessant need to create. And it’s even scarier from a child’s perspective, being raised by someone who’s completely given themselves away to something they can’t come back from. I understand it, and one day they’ll understand it to.
An edited version of this piece also appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Word.