It’s been 10 years since Jack White first stepped onto a spare Detroit stage wearing nothing but red, white and black, with nothing else behind him but drummer Meg White to support his simple, blues-based garage rock songs. In the decade since, The White Stripes have become an international phenomenon, and Jack White has become many things to many people-a guitar god, an indie icon, a celebrity paramour, a legendary live performer and a prolific and consequential songwriter.
It’s been 10 years since Jack White first stepped onto a spare Detroit stage wearing nothing but red, white and black, with nothing else behind him but drummer Meg White to support his simple, blues-based garage rock songs. In the decade since, The White Stripes have become an international phenomenon, and Jack White has become many things to many people-a guitar god, an indie icon, a celebrity paramour, a legendary live performer and a prolific and consequential songwriter. Out of all his accomplishments, it’s that last bit that often gets overlooked when assessing his impact thus far.
There’s no way anyone would have predicted that Jack White would become one of the more substantial songwriters of his generation. Everything about the Stripes screamed gimmick-from the band’s color scheme, the misinformation regarding Meg (sister, wife, neither?) and their place as leaders of a once vital garage rock revival that has since slowed to a considerable crawl.
But through his uncompromising artistry and unquestioned musicianship, White has overcome such second-guessing and over the last decade has seen his songs become rock radio hits, be reworked into dance floor fodder, be covered by a pop-soul siren (Joss Stone), revive the career of a country music legend (Loretta Lynn) and reintroduce a forgotten power-pop friend (Brendan Benson of White’s “other” band, The Raconteurs).
In that time he has shown that great songs can find an audience even when there are self-imposed restrictions (his strict, duo-only edict with The White Stripes), and even if they seem to be out of step with the current musical culture (his old school blues tunes breaking through in an era dominated by hip-hop and alt-rock).
In a move that underscored his growing stature as a songwriter, White left his native Detroit and settled in the “Songwriting Capital of the World,” Nashville, Tenn., where he has since expressed an admiration and affinity for the kind of Music City songwriters who many in the indie rock realm despise. Another life change over the last 10 years is that White is now married and a father, but all this “settling down” seems only to have pushed his already prolific pace into overdrive. In the past nine months alone, White wrote and recorded the new White Stripes album, Icky Thump, as well as tracked 20 new Raconteurs tunes. Now it’s time for White to tour behind Icky Thump, but before he hit the road, he caught up with American Songwriter in Nashville to reflect on his tenure with The White Stripes and to give some insight into his songwriting process.
How do you view The White Stripes now, compared to when you started the band 10 years ago?
I’ve gotta be honest and say because of the structure of the band, in a lot of ways it’s exactly the same as it was 10 years ago. We still are doing exactly what we want to do, and nobody is really telling us to alter it, or trying to manipulate it in any way. It was the same when we were just putting out 45s and putting together posters in our living room… and recording the albums in our living room. It’s the same way as it is now. We’re still going into a record, recording it and writing it using the exact same processes we were using 10 years ago, and I really like that a lot.
I think a lot of bands, especially in the modern times…now everyone’s got this need to constantly reinvent or feel as though they should reinvent or evolve. The White Stripes are unique in the sense that it doesn’t evolve; it stays the same because of the constrictions we’ve placed on ourselves from the get-go. We’re wearing the exact same colors we were wearing 10 years ago at the very first show. We’re still contained in that box.
Even with the restrictions though, the songwriting process must have changed. You’re a dad now and have another band to deal with. Do you have to schedule writing time?
No, I’m still writing in the same way. For example, we recorded this White Stripes album in January, and [before we recorded] we had a chalkboard where we were rehearsing to write names of songs down…and it was blank in December. So that shows you how we work [laughs]. Very fast and very intense.
They don’t all get written the same way. This album: Probably half of it was written in the studio while we were recording. It’s very of the moment. The band’s always been like that-trying to capture a moment, trying to capture the intensity that rock and roll and the blues is really about. I think that it’s the way I work best.
I also work in The Raconteurs a different way. Me and Brendan [Benson] write songs together, and we structure them in a totally different way because it’s a totally different beast. When I have the pressure on me to perform and come up with something very quickly, I can. I would probably call myself a clutch hitter. I don’t like to give myself six months and a million dollars and a beautiful place to work in. That’s not my environment to write.
Where did the Mexican and Latin American music themes that crop up on Icky Thump come from?
Well, I grew up in Mexican Town, Detroit. There was Mexican music all around me 24 hours a day. I mean literally. Four o’clock in the morning there was Mexican music playing. So I was always surrounded by those melodies growing up, and I lived there until I was about 28 in the same house. But I never had a chance yet to work with a mariachi sound, and luckily we found a trumpeter here in Nashville. It’s kinda funny. I had to move away from Mexican Town to Nashville to finally work with mariachi music [laughs]. It’s always like that. It’s always the opposite of what you’d expect. That’s what happened on the song “Conquest”…which is a cover, but it was great door-opener for us to get into work with that kind of music.
The three colors you have always used as the visual theme for the band-black, white and red-pop up all over the lyrics of Icky Thump. And most of the time when one is mentioned, the other two aren’t far behind. When you mention one, do you always have to follow it up with the other two?
It sort of happens by accident. Then you find yourself doing it. I’m just compelled by that. I’m just compelled to…when you’re writing a song you’re trying to give someone a visual with your storytelling. I like to pick powerful colors. Obviously it’s more powerful to say to someone in a lyric that something is blood red, that the cherries were blood red…rather than the sand was taupe [laughs].
You’re trying to really excite [the listeners] and suck them into the story. You have to have some candy to put in front of them. Like “Icky Thump” for example-there’s candy cane. And when you say candy cane, people think red and white. Then there’s black rum. Now you’ve got two different things. You’ve got something that’s dark, mysterious…maybe on the bad side of the tracks. Black rum. Then there’s the candy cane, which is sweet and childish. You try to bring up both for people and see which one they’ll latch onto.
One of the lines that really sticks out on the record is, “It’s safe to say that someone out there’s got a problem with almost anything you’ll do,” from “300 mph Torrential Outpour Blues.” That line seems to be pointed at the Detroit scene that has both nurtured and criticized you. Have you become less concerned with what that indie/hip audience has to say?
Yeah, sort of the garage rock community where we came from…that style of music…the way that they look at music is not what you would call the most loyal [laughs] basis-the most supportive and loyal basis-to work in. It’s a very strange environment. You have to sort of hop from one foot to the next all the time to try to make sense. There are a lot of record collectors and a lot of obscurists [sic]-people who have built up in their head this punk ideal of what songwriting and performing is that’s “real.”
But as we all know, to be real sometimes you have to be completely fake to get something real across, and vice versa. So after 10 years of it, I think it was just time for us to find a little more of a safe haven for us to create, because it always seemed like we were just throwing it to the snakes. For example, every time we had an album, every time we had a tour, it was a completely different audience. Every tour, I mean nobody would stick around for more than one album. And that’s what happens in that environment. If you’re a punk rocker and you’re playing in front of a hundred kids and they love you to death…if your next album sells a million copies, those kids ain’t gonna come to your show. And that’s the same for that garage stuff too. Those hipsters are all very fickle. So it’s not the best place to create in the long run [laughs].
Do you feel like your approach, or your songwriting style, has changed over the last decade?
Y’know, sometimes you’ll hear people say, gosh, so and so has been writing songs for 30 years. You’d think they’d be better at it than they were. Or someone who has been painting for 30 years-maybe they should be better at painting. I wrote a song about this called “Little Room.” It’s about still being able to create under different conditions. This is the first time The White Stripes went into a modern studio. So the goal was, “Can we still create the way we always have, under these “nicer conditions?” We succeeded, and we’re really proud of it. We made it sound the way we wanted it to sound, despite what we were always fearful of: this easygoing, nice environment. We were able to take other struggles and make other struggles occur and attack those in a different way.
When you have an idea as a songwriter, you think it up and you imagine it, or you sing it or write it out on a piece of paper. But the next step for you is how it is going to be presented. And some people don’t know how to present it, and they need to have a producer or a manager or something like that. And that’s fine. Frank Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter. It was someone else’s job to decide where the microphone got placed and the order of the songs on the record…y’know what I mean? But I have a lot of strong ideas about the presentation. I find a lot of beauty in the presentation. I think over time, as the years have gone on, that’s what I’ve gotten better at. Maybe I haven’t gotten better at songwriting, but I’ve gotten better at presentation of the song-just from a workman’s standpoint.
Speaking of workman, you mentioned in a Raconteurs article that you have a respect for the workman-like attitude of Nashville songwriters. Has that attitude rubbed off on you at all since you’ve moved to Nashville?
Some guys go into a room, sit down, clock in and start working…start writing. That probably wouldn’t work for me. Maybe if you put me in a room and said “Ok, you’ve got an hour.” That might work for me.
Sometimes I’ll write a verse, and I won’t see a need to write any more verses at that point. It’ll linger around. There’s a song on this album called “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” which is based on this Michel Gondry video treatment. I wrote a couple of verses for it back when we were working on Get Behind Me Satan, but I didn’t have time to [finish] it. There were too many songs. So we didn’t get around to that until we started working on this album. We thought, “Hey, we should go back and revisit that song and see if we can give it life again.”
We also found a song that I wrote 10 years ago called “Bone Broke” that I wrote for another band I wasn’t even in, in Detroit. And they never got a chance to record it. So that had been sitting around and we said, “Well, why don’t we try to do that song too. That’s 10 years old…let’s take a stab at that.” That’s definitely something from that period when we started, and it sounds exactly like it fits, because of the structure of the band the song fits.
We have another song on the album called “Little Cream Soda,” which was a song that my nephew had given me a bootleg of. I sort of made it up in the middle of the set during one of our shows. I didn’t even remember playing it. He gave it to me and said, “You should check this out.” And I thought, “This is an interesting way of attacking writing a song too.” Something we’d made up during a show…now let’s try to give it life and make it an album track. We altered some of the lyrics, added some more changes-different things like that. We made a studio song out of it. We’d never done that before either, so that was fun.
You mention writing “Bone Broke” for another band. Is that something you’ve thought about doing more or been approached to do?
I have ideas for them, but I haven’t had enough time for them. I just haven’t had the right moment for them. I’ve had ideas for a certain artist…y’know, “This song would be great for that person,” but I just don’t end up having enough time because what I’d want to do is record a demo of it and send it to them, but that ends up becoming the problem. Every time I’ve been in the studio, I’ve had to do one of these other things that I’m really involved in, like The White Stripes or The Raconteurs. But hopefully I can do that more in the future…when I have some more free time [laughs].