It Works Perfectly: A Q&A with John Paul White

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

John Paul White will release his third solo album, The Hurting Kind, on April 12 via Single Lock Records. We talked with the Florence, Alabama-based artist about the new record, what it’s like writing with legends, and his “feminine sensibility.”

Going into this album, you said it was the first time you started from scratch, with just a blank page. Was that frightening? Did it free you up creatively?

It was a fairly terrifying moment but a super-exciting moment to feel. I think some artists feel a little more beholden to their path, and feel like, “Well, my fan base will leave me if I don’t write the songs that they love.” Or they do some sort of assessment and say, “What really kills a live show? … Okay, I need to write more of that.” I can’t create like that. I don’t think anything I’ve ever created with any of those kind of parameters has ever been successful. Everything I’ve ever done that moved me and moved other people, I just left all that behind, sat down and said, “What is the best thing that you can possibly create today?”

Do the songs build off of each other, one by one? 

More often than not, when I write songs, I don’t jump from song to song. I usually get down into one song and I stay there until it’s done. If I write the last words of that song, it’s probably going to be recorded because I’ve done it long enough that I know when a song is, in my opinion, just average. Then I’ll re-work it, but by the time I get to that last note of the last verse, I must love it. I wouldn’t keep working on it if I didn’t. It must have some sort of hope to it that it needs to get out into the world if I fought it that long and wrestled it down to that last note. Then, I’m able to move onto the next one. I almost never look back and change songs. The only time I do is when I’m in the studio, and we decide maybe this should be a bar longer or maybe we need an intro here. Or I’ll be singing it and the words feel cumbersome.

You’ve spoken of having a more feminine sensibility in terms of your style, remarking that Patsy Cline was more of an influence on you than Merle Haggard.

I never was that macho of a guy. I never tended to gravitate toward the male country voice, the really twangy country voice. I guess probably because it’s not how I sang. But something about the way Patsy sang and Dolly sang, and even later, Alison Krauss and Kathy Mattea. There was something about that that was so much more endearing to me, so much more universal. It took a lot more chances and was more chameleon-like. I feel like that makes you better at interpreting material, to be able to step into those roles.

This new album features songs co-written with Bobby Braddock and Bill Anderson. Do you approach a co-write differently when you’re working with writers of that pedigree?

It’s totally different. But, once you get into the room and you start throwing around ideas, it’s not different at all. You figure that out really quickly. With Bill and Bobby and folks like that, you feel a kinship — you don’t feel like you’re below them on the totem pole. I came into the session with a boatload of ideas, thoughts, and questions. I wanted to pick their brains, and whether we wrote a song or not, I wanted to get all the stories I could. Maybe become their friend, and get to be part of their world. On top of that, I wanted to get their seal of approval that I was setting out to make a record that harkened to their glory days, and maybe they would give me the wink that said, “You’re on the right track.” I felt like I got that, and a lot more songs just exploded out of me after that.

The song “James” seems to be about a war veteran struggling to cope. What inspired it?

It’s inspired by Glen Campbell. My mom says the first song she remembers me singing other than church songs was “Rhinestone Cowboy.” I watched the westerns he was in and I just was fascinated at how good he was at everything — guitar-playing, entertaining, singing. I just thought he was like Prince and Stevie Wonder, the guy that can just do it all. There are not that many of those. When he got Alzheimer’s, it was tough to watch. The premise of the song is basically a character in a nursing home being visited by friends and family and reintroducing himself every time they walk in the door. The war-hero part, those are details of my dad’s life because I didn’t want it to be too on the nose and be just about Glen. I wanted to get a bit more universal and let other people fill in the blanks. So, I used my dad’s details. He’s perfectly healthy but everything in there is his backstory.

Lee Ann Womack sings with you on “This Isn’t Gonna End Well.” Did you have her in mind when you wrote the song?

I hadn’t thought of it. When we wrote the song, we didn’t write it as a duet. We just wrote it as a guy singing that this is a bad-idea kind of song. Which isn’t the first of those, but I enjoy writing those kind of songs.

I demoed songs before making this record. I don’t believe I had ever done that. The demos were nothing but me and the guitar. I purposely went into the studio and did really clean, really good versions of all the songs. So I could then just listen back to them without a guitar in my hand and really pick them apart, and decide what the instrumentation should be and what it shouldn’t be.

As I listened to that song, I started realizing that it was so much more powerful for there to be two perspectives, and that two people in that same relationship had the exact same viewpoint of the relationship. That was a whole lot more intriguing to me, that give and take of, “We both know this isn’t going well but here we are.”

Lee Ann and I had known each other for a while and thought we should do something together. Until that point, I would never presume to say, “Hey Lee Ann Womack, one of the greatest singers of our generation, why don’t you sing a song with me?” But for some reason, maybe because Bobby [Braddock] was the co-writer on the song, I felt embolded enough to ask.

The song “The Long Way Home” functions as a letter to your kids. Had you ever written so directly to family before?

I probably do it all the time to be honest. It may not be quite as overt as this one. I look back on songs and I realize who I wrote it to or who I wrote it about. A lot of my songs are written to my wife or they’re written from her perspective to me. There’s quite a few songs — I don’t think people quite realize it — but they’re actually her singing to me. I just leave them that way and people don’t know. That song in particular was definitely more overt. I think I was really writing it to myself like, “Why do you do this? Why do you continue to subject yourself to all the things that you don’t enjoy for this one thing that you do?” When I made Beulah, a lot of that stuff started to make a little bit more sense because I just had this overwhelming need to connect with people through these songs and the only way to do that is to get in a van and head down the road and stand in front of them. I know I’m always going to want to do that. That’s sometimes a detriment to my family and to my body and my sanity. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. They know how hard it is for me to leave. I’ve never really articulated it that way before so it was emotional for all of us. I think in a really good, cathartic, therapeutic way. I think it helped them as much as it helped me.

You recorded most of the album in your home studio? 

Yeah, I did. It’s called Sundrop Sound, which is named after a soft drink. You can usually tell when people are from this area of the country … We’re all addicted, but it’s only kind of regionally produced. Certain places make it with real sugar, and certain places do it with high-fructose corn syrup. They all have orange juice in it, so that sets it apart from Mountain Dew and Mellow Yellow stuff. The house next to my house we converted into a studio.

Is that sort of a blessing and a curse — having your work space so close to home?

It’s perfect. Honestly, just walking across my driveway to that building, it’s like I’m in a different town from my family. If I were writing in the same building as them, they can’t help themselves, “Daddy can you fix this …” “Hey, what should I do about this bill?” All that kind of stuff. But just being across the driveway, I don’t know why but we can all detach and not be quite so co-dependent in those moments. But I’m not so far away that it feels like I’m back out on the road again. So it works perfectly.

This interview was condensed and edited for length.