Five-and-a-half questions for singer-songwriter-producer Matthew E White

Currently on a world tour, the Richmond, Virginia native Matthew E White was in a philosophical mood when he spoke to Glass recently. His debut album Big Inner (yes, pun intended) debuted in the Top 20 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart, and made the Top 15 in Denmark; Uncut magazine described it as “one of the great albums of modern Americana”.

The sounds of  ‘70s rock – particularly Harry Nilsson, Dennis Wilson and solo Lennon – run through the veins of White’s music; it’s unsurprising that his first musical memory is of listening to the Beach Boys on his parents’ couch when he was three. Glass loves the more fleshed-out sound on his 2015 LP Fresh Blood, and hopes that for his next record, he’ll put his lovely voice to slightly louder use.

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In previous interviews you’ve mentioned Tropicália as an influence on your music. How did you come across Tropicália music?
[Thinks a while.] Good question. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Um … maybe listening to Caetano Veloso records, maybe through bossa nova and jazz stuff a little bit… those early Caetano records [were] very bossa nova. [After I discovered] the bossa nova thing, there was the samba funk thing – I was just trying to figure that world out. And then I stumbled across a Caetano record or a Tom Zé record, and really, that’s a sweet spot for me in terms of Brazilian music, y’know, where a lot of stuff’s happening. I just love that music. It’s pretty close to perfect music.

In the past you’ve insisted you’re not a jazz musician. But you have played in big bands, and you’ve done string arrangements and horn charts for other people’s music, though your records are in a ‘70s rock vein. Do you find that medium easier to work in than the jazz medium? What drew you to popular music, rather than jazz guitar, which is what you studied at VCU?
There’s a great quote by Duke Ellington in his biography, or autobiography, where he says jazz music was “his music”. He grew up in the 20s, when jazz hit its stride, and he has this great opening chapter about how that music and his coming of age were synchronised, and he felt connected to this music in a spiritual way. It’s really moving.

When I read that, I realised my relationship with jazz music. And I love it, and I have played it in the past. But it can’t be mine. I didn’t grow up with it; it wasn’t around in my happiest times or in my saddest. It wasn’t music that I ever turned to for comfort; it wasn’t playing in the clubs when I was partying; it wasn’t on the radio when I was driving around town. For me, it’s a wonderful music, but it’s not something I could own 100 per cent.

And jazz has taught me a lot about music, in the sense that there are lots of nuts and bolts in how jazz works that relate to lots of other kinds of music, which is really helpful. But it couldn’t be mine. Rock ‘n’ roll music, R&B music, music that I see as coming out of the American South in a lot of ways – that music is mine. Songs. Words. Choruses. Verses. That stuff. That’s the music I grew up with in broad terms.

And it’s the music I can hone the best. The 70s rock thing was just a starting place. I know that Big Inner and Fresh Blood to some extent are along those lines. But for me it’s the best place in recorded music history where arrangement and musicality meet in the studio… I’m someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, playing the guitar loud, getting in there and rockin’ out – and also someone who likes to write music on a piece of paper and put it in front of a string player. [70s music is] the place where that happens the best, by far. So that’s why I’m starting there. As I make more records, it’s about developing a vocabulary and songwriting that moves along from that.

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Do you do much listening to stuff when you’re writing and recording your own records?
Yeah, big-time. I listen to other things for ideas… going into [making] the record, I’ll connect [one of my songs] with a few different reference points, getting the bass feeling from this song or the drum style from that song or some piano from this other song.

I like to think I’m making music in a tradition. I think that’s important. Style and tradition. You gotta [be at] both ends of the spectrum – as avant-garde and courageous and imaginative and far-out as you can possibly be, but if you do that with no sense of tradition or style, then you kinda float off and no-one gives a shit. It’s not relevant to anybody.

I really like far-out music, but the music I like the most is part of a tradition, it’s part of a stylistic development. Ornette Coleman’s that way, or Ligeti in the classical world. That’s far-out music, but it’s grounded in something.
So in that sense, I like to listen to the stuff that’s along the lines of the tradition I feel I’m growing out of. I also think it’s important to listen to stuff to remind yourself how good “good” is.

If you’re making a record and you’re just listening to your songs all the time, you might make the mistake of thinking that you’re making something great, when in all likelihood you’re not. Listening to Marvin Gaye or the Beach Boys or Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan or the Beatles – that shit reminds you that there’s really, really great music out there. And that’s what we’re trying to do – raise the bar.

Were you listening to a different kind of music when making Fresh Blood as opposed to when you were making Big Inner? There’s a cheeky lyrical nod to Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross in Big Inner’s Will You Love Me …
Yeah, a little bit. I listened to a lot of Randy Newman before I made Big Inner. There are some things that characterise his music, and his arrangements, that I was channelling a lot more then. But I haven’t listened to Randy Newman in a couple of years. Not because I like him less, but I went through a period where he was really teaching me so much about making music, and I really feel like listening to his music enabled me to actually make a record of my own. When I figured out how to do that… I learned so much from his music that I felt I could put it down for a minute.

Going into Fresh Blood I was listening to a lot more R&B, and older music, like doo-wop and Carole King. Some of Fresh Blood is kind of … silly, almost. Like how doo-wop is almost funny. That doesn’t always come across; it’s hard to get that across. But doo-wop stuff is so… there’s just a funny point of view that lots of songwriters used. I really think it’s kind of charming. Carole King does a lot of it; she’s such a big part of the American Songbook, so I listened to a lot of [her]. Also a lot of Frank Ocean, a lot of Kendrick Lamar. A lot of modern R&B and hip-hop.

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You sang recently that “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Cold”. In 50 years, will you look back and say the same of R&B?
Yeah, I’m sure I will. It only lasts so long. Every genre of music. Like, Bach wrote the most beautiful music that a human had ever written, and that music sounds old to us, and outdated, and irrelevant. And that’s about as good as it gets. There are no Bachs kicking around on the rock ‘n’ roll and R&B scenes.

It goes. Genres are tied to our culture in ways that are difficult to understand. Music is tied to its context. Rock ‘n’ roll existed in a unique cross-section of our time, which made it particularly powerful in the ’50s and ’60s. And that’s the same for everything. Hip-hop now was particularly powerful in the ’80s and ’90s, and now. It’s got a nice thing going on. But…

I mean, just look at EDM shows. Those kids are gonna be 50 one day. And that music is alive. It’s weird for me to say, because I don’t like [EDM] at all, but it’s still alive, it’s still touching people, it’s changing lives and giving people unique experiences in really cool ways. And that music is so disconnected from rock ‘n’ roll and song-based music. [But] it’s really cool, in that way – weirdly psychedelic. It’s different.

I play guitar. Guitar is relatively old-fashioned, actually, which is weird, but it is. Things come and go. Certain music has a timeless quality, and music can be timeless in any genre. But genres in the big picture – they leave us and they join us, and at some point R&B and hip-hop and the music that’s so exciting now will fade. We need change like that, it’s kind of important to keep us fresh. I hope people in a hundred years aren’t listening to the music we made in the ’60s.

But the music of the ‘60s still provides inspiration for so many musicians!
Yeah, it’s important, but in the scheme of things – like, I’m not that far from the ‘60s. I was born in 1982. The Beatles were around 15 years earlier than that. That music is ‘removed’ for me, to some degree, but how much it’s removed is just [down to] the microscope that we put things under now. Like, in 500 years, [it’ll look like] me and the Beatles happened at the exact same time. But it’s hard for us because we’re so centred in our own time. It’d be really depressing if we thought of ourselves all the time as the tiny dot on history’s timeline that we actually are.

We’re still in the first hundred years of recorded music! Think about that. Think about the first hundred years of written-down music. That was a long, long time ago. Or the first hundred years of people drawing on a piece of paper. Artists from the 12th Century to the 13th Century – we don’t really distinguish them too much. So that’s how it’ll be for music too.

I feel privileged to be in the first hundred years [of recorded music]. That’s a really cool thing. In terms of how art develops and how culture develops, to be on the ground floor of something that’s basically brand-new for people. But it all passes.

by Arjun Sajip

Photographs: Shawn Brackbill

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