Jim White

[MUSICIAN]

“MOST PEOPLE, IF THEY BUILT A TREE, THEY WOULD START WITH THE ROOTS AND THEN A TRUNK AND THEN ADD BRANCHES AND TWIGS AND LEAVES. WHAT I DO IS I START MADLY THROWING LEAVES IN THE AIR, THEN TWIGS, THEN BRANCHES, AND SO FORTH, AND SOMEHOW HOPE THEY’LL ALL GET ATTACHED.”
Women that saved Jim White at least once:
His sister Kate
Flannery O’Connor
Madonna’s sister

Jim White is a prophet of human loss who sings about Southern misfits in a sly, haunted tenor. Saved as a Pentecostal at fifteen and lost again shortly thereafter, White did stints as a professional surfer, fashion model, taxi driver, and filmmaker before his music was discovered by David Byrne.

He’s the star of the recent documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, loosely based on his critically praised debut album, Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Luaka Bop, 1996). He has released two additional albums, No Such Place (2001) and Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See (2004), which features cameos by high-profile fans including Aimee Mann, Barenaked Ladies, and Joe Henry, who produced most of the eleven tracks.

The Jim White sound will be impossible to explain to those who haven’t heard his music. The Flannery O’Connor of alt-country is about the best I can do, in the arena of insipid rock-critic tags. His songs are spooky, languid, densely layered, and impossible to shake. He also writes the most evocative lyrics on earth. Here’s a snippet from “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes”:

Sometimes I think the sky is a prison and the earth is a grave
Sometimes I feel like Jesus in some Chinese opera
Sometimes I’m glad I built my mansion from crazy little stones
Sometimes I feel so goddamn trapped by everything that I know

I spoke to White by phone, during lunch, and then after dinner, at his home in Pensacola, Florida. He refused to disclose what he was eating for lunch. It sounded crunchy.

—Steve Almond

*

THE BELIEVER: How do you actually write songs?

JIM WHITE: I’ll pick up a musical instrument and a melody presents itself and I say, what would that melody do if I tried to build on it, until I have roughly a song. Then words start flying at me and I look through my notebooks for similar words. It’s like building a tree backwards. Most people, if they built a tree, they would start with the roots and then a trunk and then add branches and twigs and leaves. What I do is I start madly throwing leaves in the air, then twigs, then branches, and so forth, and somehow hope they’ll all get attached.

BLVR: Doesn’t sound too efficient.

JW: Nope. That’s why, when my songs are done, they don’t look like normal trees. They’re more like these weird Dr. Seuss–looking bonsai-type things. A song like “Girl from Brownsville, Texas,” that started out being about a wall in Brownsville. Then it became a girl and all of a sudden it had meaning.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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