Music interview '“ Matthew E White: '˜It's hard to convince people that records are actually made as a team'

Singer-songwriter Matthew E White is on tour, with Yorkshire dates, and keeping things simple. Duncan Seaman reports.

Matthew E. White. Picture: Shawn Brackbill
Matthew E. White. Picture: Shawn Brackbill

In this day and age of carefully scheduled music industry cycles it’s rare for an artist to book a tour without having a record to promote. But when US singer songwriter, producer and arranger Matthew E White performs in the UK next week he won’t actually be pushing any product at all.

Instead the short tour, which includes dates in Hebden Bridge and York, will offer fans a chance to hear work in progress by an artist whose output encompasses pop, rock, soul, gospel and jazz.

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“If things go according to plan I’ll play almost all new stuff,” says the 35-year-old Virginian, going on to explain how he’s been spending the last two months “staring at a piano, trying to figure out how things work, fix this lyric or make this chord cooler; it’s so inside your head, it’s so inside this room that I’m sitting in”.

He likes the writing process, he says, “but at the same time I think it will be nice to just sit down to play for people and be very loose with it”.

“These are songs that are very fresh, like this verse might not quite be finished, and see if it works. When you’re writing you really want to think that your songs are pretty good. You’re always fighting that. You’re programmed to want to believe in these things, and one of the biggest truth tellers, for me at least, is if I make a demo and I play it for somebody that I really respect, a musician or something, and immediately you’re like ‘That’s not that cool, that doesn’t work’. Then some things you’re proud of. For me this is just the next step in that [process].”

He also hopes it will give him an opportunity to be more expansive on stage. “When I’m in a regular touring cycle I never really talk about what the song is about, ‘this is what happened when I wrote this song’. For me that will be a really healthy thing to do, just be really open with it and hopefully get people’s honest reactions to it, not just from an applause standpoint or talking to people after the show, but I think you can feel it in a room when a song works or doesn’t work.

“Sometimes you get hung up on these tiny little aspects, some tiny turn of phrase or something, and then you play it live and you realise that doesn’t matter at all. It’s easy to get things out of proportion when you’ve been sitting by yourself for a few months.”

White will perform with his “buddy” Alan Parker, who plays guitar in his house band at Spacebomb Records, the label he created in Richmond, Virginia.

“He’ll keep it from being just me and a piano,” White says. “On the last record [Fresh Blood] we did a bunch of duo shows for intimate touring and it was really nice. The instrument I’m best on is guitar but I write on piano all the time.

“I was like ‘Let’s play the songs exactly how I wrote them’. I think I’ll keep that same set-up as I do at home, just have some simple drum machine and piano and then have Alan playing guitar, keep it informal and very fresh.

“I’m excited about it. I’ll probably play 15 to 20 new songs.”

House bands were a key feature of recordings by Stax, Hi Records, Muscle Shoals and Motown in the 60s and 70s, but they’re unusual today. The set-up at Spacebomb, White says, derives from his fascination with the classic records he grew up loving. “There’s really small details that you can become obsessed with or interested in, like ‘On these records he’s playing cornet instead of trumpet’.”

Realising how the labels’ infrastructure allowed them to release music in the way they did was a revelation. “At that point it was like ‘what if we did something that was really vertically integrated not only from a musical standpoint but from a business standpoint?’

“To me the house band idea goes hand in hand with the other side of the business. House bands work because the other side of the label is putting things out and promoting that and connecting the dots. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

In Richmond he found plenty of talent to join him. “It was just an incredibly deep, vibrant musicial situation.”

As well as his own, highly regarded albums Big Inner and Fresh Blood, White also produced the acclaimed self-titled album by Natalie Prass. Their connections “go back a long way”, he says. “I first heard Natalie when she was 12 or 13 and I was probably 16. I replaced her in this band – she left and I became the singer.

“We’ve always been on each other’s radar because from the town we grew up in we were the ones that stayed doing it the longest. A lot of people are in bands when they’re 16, but we were still in bands when we were 25.

“I had produced something by a mutal friend and she liked it and got in touch and asked if I would work with her. She didn’t know that we had started this label because we hadn’t actually released anything at that point. I remember her sending me a song and I was like ‘Ah man, this is perfect’. We’re so alike in a lot of ways, in terms of what we like.

“I think what made her perfect for Spacebomb, and what really works with artists that want to work with us, is a sense of understanding and wanting a team to work on your record. Natalie loves arrangements, she’s never going to put a pen to paper and write an arrangement in her life but she knows she needs someone else to do that and she wants that and she has very good taste in what is good and what’s not good. It’s the same with playing bass and drums.

“She’s a wonderful songwriter and a wonderful singer who has really good taste and knows that for her to get the most out of records she needs a team around her. That seems easy but when the rubber hits the road and you play an arrangement for somebody that they’ve never heard before a lot of times people can buck up to that or have trouble letting go of what they have heard in their minds. Letting somebody else carry the load can be hard. I think it’s particuarly hard in the music industry because there’s sort of a mythology of the artist taking care of everything, like the artist is this auteur type that does everything. That’s just not the case, it’s not how the recording industry works, it never has been. I think because artists are told that story incorrectly from the time they can watch TV or watch a movie or read a book about it it’s hard to convince people that no, actually records are made as a team. Natalie is appreciative of that and when we got to work together it was pretty fluid, it was easy. We like the same things and she trusts us and that makes a very fruitful collaboration – and she writes really good songs.”

This year White released Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, an eclectic album of duets with the English singer songwriter Flo Morrissey. It includes songs by The Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Frank Ocean and the theme track for Grease.

White puts its eclectic track list down to his millenial listening habits.

“Spotify is a big part of my life, it’s the main way I listen to music; for Flo, who’s 13 years younger than me, that is the only way she listens to music,” he says. “In terms of the playlisting we just thought what songs would be fun to produce, what songs would work well as covers, what songs work well with our voices, what songs work well with a band.”

Matthew E White plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on October 19 and The Crescent, York on October 20.