I don’t think you have to be a musical genius to write your own songs,” says Jim White, a Southern songwriter who’s tuned into the more mythical, mystical aspects of life. “You just have to be determined and resourceful.” White’s new album, Where It Hits You, is out now. We asked the former cab driver, surfer and movie maker about his new album, his inspirations, batting a thousand in the songwriting game and more.
When did you first start writing songs?
Well the first time I wrote was at 18 and I broke my leg twice in one year. I was an athlete before that and never really thought about music, but I had a broken leg and I couldn’t walk. There was a guitar at my house. There was no cable or internet or DVD or anything like that back then. There were just three really ordinary mundane TV channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC. I was just coming out of a fundamental Christian church at that point and didn’t really have a lot of exposure to the world or worldly things. And there was that guitar that someone left at my house and I just picked it up and started playing it. I tried to get someone to teach me some songs and don’t have a real capacity for it. I learned like half of “Stairway to Heaven” and then quit.
So I started writing my own songs. It was too hard to learn other people’s songs and pretty easy to write my own. So, I guess I was 18 when I started writing and I’ve probably written several thousand songs. About 18 of them are good. Most of them are terrible. I play some of the songs I’ve written – some of the ones I’ve thrown away – to people and they just kind of stare at me and say, “how do you write those other songs that are so good?” There are snipers and there are machine gunners. Snipers carefully take a breath and aim at the target and drop it in one shot. Then there are machine gunners who just close their eyes and start firing until the target disappears. I’m more of a machine gunner. I shoot it until it’s gone.
How does one write a thousand songs? How do you get a thousand melodic ideas?
Well, I’ll tell you what Hank Williams said when he wrote “Your Cheating Heart”. He said to a friend, “I wrote a real good song. It’s called ‘Your Cheating Heart’,” and told his friend the lyrics and the friend said, “Wow, those are good lyrics. What’s the music like?” And he said, “oh, it’s a slow one.” So you don’t really have to come up with 2,000 different melodic templates. You come up with a basic template – like with me it’s verse, prechorus, chorus, verse, prechorus, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, out. That’s a standard template that I use. Then from there, it’s just little accents and chord voicings. I don’t think you have to be a musical genius to write your own songs. You just have to be determined and resourceful.
I just released a record of songs I wrote for Juliard music school. They commissioned me to score a play for them. Some of those songs that were on that record I released – it’s called Sounds of the Americans – or parts of them I wrote 20 years ago and just never found a home for them. On this new record I’ve got coming out, there’s one song called “Sundays Refrain” and the first verse is from a song I wrote when I was 24 years old. The first verse was good and the rest of the song stunk, so I just grabbed the first verse and thought, “where will it take me when I’m 50, rather than when I’m 24?”
Who were some of the artists who inspired you to start writing?
Well, my oldest sister was really interested in Bob Dylan and The Beatles so I heard a fair amount of that when I was a little kid. The first music I found independently was a guy named Jesse Winchester. People don’t know much about him. But he was a dark folk artist, back when there weren’t many folk artists singing dark stuff. Everybody was doing Pete Seeger kind of stuff. Jesse Winchester was singing dark songs. He has a song called “Black Dog” – just thoroughly genius. I can remember the chorus to it right now, and I’m not good at that. His record – I think I was 11 years old when I heard it – I just couldn’t believe it.
Then when I was about 14, my sister started playing John Prine and I heard that and just couldn’t believe that someone could paint such an achingly beautiful sad picture. Then later on, I was in a Christian church. I got saved when I was 15 so I didn’t listen to a lot of secular music. I quit the church when I was in my late teens, early twenties, moved to Holland. I had a friend over there who loved weird music. I didn’t know anything about music and it was his birthday. So I went to a record store in Amsterdam and just said, “what’s a weird record?” and the guy showed me a Tom Waits album – Swordfishtrombones – so I bought it for my friend. I took it over to his house, said happy birthday and then we put it on and he hated it. He said, “this guy sounds like a wino.” And I said, “yeah, it’s awful. I’ll take it back and get you another one.” I took it back to my apartment and wore the grooves out of that record. I never heard anything that made me so happy. But those are kind of the French artists.
I loved ZZ Top when they came out. The first record they released was just crazy. Like “Jesus Just Left Chicago”. That record was mainstream and it was weird at the same time. I just admire people that can take something strange to the general public and not get crucified. They become deified, not crucified. So I listened to whatever was on the radio. Songs that had a big effect were like “Ode To Billy Joe” and “The Israelites”. I didn’t listen to artists so much as songs, because I had a little AM radio. I was poor and couldn’t afford to buy records. So, whatever the AM radio played, that’s what I listened to. Songs like that really stuck out. Israelites just killed me. I’d never heard anything like that.
Then later on I listened to all kinds of music. When I was in New York I drove a cab for 15 years and there were like African cab drivers and Arab cab drivers. They’d give me music from their countries. I heard all kinds of music from all over the world because I was a cab driver and I’d sit and talk about music to the other drivers. Many of whom were P.H.D.s who were driving a cab because they were foreigners who couldn’t find a job anywhere. They were wonderful smart interesting people. So influences are just so diverse. There’s no description of it and there’s no organizing principle. It’s whatever was good – that’s what I listened to.
What’s the last song you wrote, whether you finished it or not?
Well I go to the flea market on Saturday and Sunday mornings and the flea market songs come to my mind. They’re different from the songs I write on my records. So a couple weeks ago, I was there and a song called “I Ought To Qualify To Be A Folk Hero” kind of came into my mind. You have to be mentally ill or at least half insane. All the verses just kind of came tumbling to me. That’d be the most recent one. I’m not one of those guys who writes constantly, because I’ve got two kids. Being a professional musician is about 90%, maybe 95%, administrative work. Like before you called this morning, I was booking hotels for an upcoming tour and I was fixing my trailer, because my cargo trailer had a leak in the roof. There’s very little time for sitting and playing music. It’s one of the ironies of being a “professional” musician, like a lower-level professional musician like I am. If you’re Steve Earle, you can get up and bang out a song on the piano and lead your life; but for me, I’ve got to do a bunch of other stuff. So I generally don’t write any songs in between records. So 3 years will go by, and then I’ll have to sort of remember how to write songs again. There’s good and bad in it.
So you kind of write songs in your head at flea markets?
Yeah. The best one I wrote was called “Reason To Cry”. It was about a guy who walked into church and heard someone crying in the woods. It’s like an old-time gospel song. He found a woman there crying and tries to get her to explain but she won’t. So he leaves her. Then he goes to church and in the middle of church, he starts crying. The people in church are trying to get him to explain why he’s crying and he can’t. Then, in the final end of the song, he’s out in the woods like the girl. The people in the church walk by and they’re all afraid of him because they think he’s crazy. And then the chorus is, “I just have a good reason to cry.” Sometimes you just have a good reason. I wrote that whole thing at the flea market, just walking up and down the aisles. The whole thing came to me.
It’s like doing math. It’s like a mathematician working on a formula. Usually those songs pop out when I’m working on pretty complicated thought songs – that take a lot of thought – like a song I wrote called “Static On The Radio”. It took me years to write. I literally worked 8-10 hours a day for months at a time for 5 years and then I quit. Then, I’d go back and I’d quit then I’d go back. I probably spent thousands of hours trying to write that damn song, because I knew what I wanted to say but I just couldn’t find the way to say it. I remember there were days where I’d just remove the word “the” from the third line or fourth line and move it back and go, “which is better?” But in the end, people tell me that’s a moving song to them. So it was worth the effort if it helps people somehow.
What’s a song of yours that has really touched people?
I wrote a song called “A Perfect Day To Chase Tornados” on my first record. I was playing it in Portland and this gay lady came up to me – I haven’t been around gays a lot in my life, particularly gay women – and she said, “I’d like to share a story with you about my partner and I.” And I thought, “okay, well here we go.” You know, everybody’s got a story to tell. I was interested in their story and wondered how it would be applicable to me, because their lifestyle is so different than mine. She said that they had adopted a child, or had a child through artificial insemination or something, a child the age of four like a year earlier. It had been hit by a car and was in a coma in the hospital. She said that the doctors told them the child was going to die. They would drive to the hospital every day and they would play that song that I wrote, “A Perfect Day To Chase Tornados”, which is all about running toward your fear and telling it that it won’t rule you, rather than running away from it. It’s about confronting your fear and saying, “I have power too here.” They just took that and claimed the power of the song and believed that their child was not going to die, even though the doctors were telling them that the child would die. And after three weeks, the child came out of the coma. By the time the story was over, I was in tears. I helped her in my own little way. That song helped her. You never think when you’re sitting in a room writing songs that, “oh, someone will use this to get through a challenge in life. This will offer someone solace or insight or enlightenment.” You just think, “how do you present the idea best?” And you hope that when you do present the idea best that it’s of use to someone. That song apparently was.
Tell us a little bit about the new album. How would you categorize it?
Well, my record label is describing it as a divorce record. My wife left me in the middle of making it. It’s not classically a divorce record, because I didn’t write the songs after the divorce. I had to sing the songs about my life with my wife after she left. So that was a strange experience. It’s like wandering through a house full of memories and knowing that in an hour or two someone’s gonna come and burn the house down. It was a pretty tough experience. Many of the songs on the record I wrote with her in mind. It was a big challenge.
There were a couple songs on there that don’t fit that category. They’re about friends of mine. One song called “The Wintered Blue Sky” was about a kid I knew, a teenager. We were both into drugs and getting into trouble. I always admired him. He would get into big trouble and did crazy stuff and I thought he was so cool. He ran away from home a lot. I thought that was cool. And then, finally one night I realized the reason he was running away from home was because he was being sexually molested from his stepdad. That was like the last time I heard from him for 20 years or more. He ran away again and didn’t get brought back this time. He just disappeared. And I wished I had told him that I loved him before he went. There’s a couple of songs like that on the record.
The song “Brother’s Keeper” is the same thing – a friend that I loved and sort of lost along the way. When you get to my age of 54, you start thinking about things other than who you want to be in love with or what makes you happy. You start thinking about people you’ve known and experiences that they had and how they’ve touched you. Hopefully, I’ll stop writing so many records about, “what the fuck am I doing here?” and more records about, “what about my friends and how do we make this world a better place?” There’s one song on this record that I wrote for my 5 year old daughter called “Here We Go!”. When you’re a parent, you’re always guiding your child through the world, literally or figuratively, and I always say in a gentle voice to my daughter, “here we go.” Then we started doing here we go and we’d stomp three times to give ourselves a little energy. That turned into that song on the record and chanted on the table, start stomping your feet. It’s a real celebratory song. I put it right in the middle of the record, because I needed a little celebration in the middle of that long ride.
What’s a lyric on the album you are proud of?
I don’t have that kind of recall. I couldn’t tell you much about that record in terms of words. No, I can’t think of any in particular. There are words that I’ve written that I thought I did a good job on, but it would probably take me 5 years. In 5 years I can tell you what words on that record made the most sense.