“We’re starting with a bang!”
Videos by American Songwriter
Jack White is referring to April 8, 2022, the opening date of his current Supply Chain Issues World Tour. In the middle of that show at Detroit’s Masonic Temple, he proposed to his girlfriend, Olivia Jean, then married her onstage on the spot.
It was an auspicious way to kick off his first tour since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but White says simply being back in front of live audiences fills him with gratitude as well. “There’s some times when I’m just standing there listening to [my band] and thinking, ‘Wow, crazy—who’d have ever thought you’d be doing this and being an artist for a living?’” he says during a call from his Nashville home.
And there are two more reasons why 2022 is shaping up to be one of the most significant years in White’s life: his fourth and fifth solo albums, the edgy rock-focused Fear of the Dawn (released in April) and the gentler, folk-leaning Entering Heaven Alive (out in July). Even for someone as prolific as White has been throughout his career, it’s unusual to put out two albums in one year, but he says he felt time was of the essence.
“I didn’t want to see Entering Heaven Alive get put on the shelf,” White says. “My worry was, if we just put out [Fear of the Dawn] this year, by the time I’m ready to release all these other songs, the touring’s done, and I think I may already be on to something else and have to go back and force myself to be re-excited and re-inspired by these songs that are a couple of years old.”
Doing things now is in keeping with White’s usual working style. “I write for what’s happening at the moment,” he says. “I try to capture that, or let that energy run through me, and hurry up and press record. If it’s not working, I quickly abandon it and move on to the next song.” His songwriting process has “always been a case of letting the song happen and not try to dictate or control it too much if I can help it at all. This is all due to the idea of me not telling myself, ‘This is the kind of music you’re going to write.’ It’s always worked best for me to just let it come out, and then I’ll worry later about how it’s going to fit in with everything else.”
This approach presented White with a unique problem as he tried to figure out the track listing with these new songs, though. “Maybe for the first time, I had songs that wouldn’t flow together in an eclectic way,” he says. “I would put the gentle songs on a playlist on my computer, and then put the heavier ones on the other playlist. Every time I took one and tried to put it on the other playlist, it just wouldn’t work. So it was quickly telling me, ‘These are two albums, whether you like it or not.’”
White relishes this kind of challenge—and, in fact, it forms a crucial part of his creative process. “I love making it harder on myself,” he says. “It’s trying to trip myself up so I’m not just going down the path that would be the easier way out. ‘Let’s fight through this and get to someplace better by taking the harder road.’ That’s what’s always been the case with me, to the point where even when things are going easily, I have to sort of throw a wrench in the works to make sure that there was a struggle, just so I feel comfortable.”
To accomplish this, he says, “I’m the king of restriction. No one can even come close to the amount of ridiculous restriction I’ve put on myself over the years.” As an example, he recalls recording two albums during the same year with different bands (Broken Boy Soldiers with The Raconteurs, and Get Behind Me Satan with The White Stripes), “and I only used one microphone for both of those albums on every instrument—bass, drums, vocals. The entirety of those two albums is only a Coles ribbon mic on every single thing you hear. I’ve never really told people that before.”
He still uses this “complicating” technique to this day: “When I work on the solo stuff, the engineer who works with me doesn’t even know the restrictions I’m putting on myself. I don’t say it out loud. I don’t inflict it on other people. I just am doing it in my own head and then forcing myself to push into these little territories where it’s difficult. ‘I’m playing a bass on this song. It’d be nice to just use this brand-new bass right there that has power pickups and has a tuner built in.’—‘No, I want to use a Jaco Pastorius fretless bass that I have no idea how to play and see what happens to me then.’ What usually happens with me is that I like the results. Or at the very least, I’m proud of the results because I know the conditions they were made under.”
He pauses, then adds, “People think when I give you that answer, ‘This is what works for me,’ is that I’m telling everybody, ‘This is what should work for you, too, when you record.’ And then they get into that whole, ‘Jack White’s a Luddite and all that stuff. But I think that’s a misconception. I think whatever works for people, works for people.”
This disregard for what musicians “should” do helped White create his distinctive esoteric garage rock sound when he was growing up in Detroit. “I never wanted to play guitar, really—I wanted to be a drummer. And so you already have a little bit of, ‘I don’t really care about this instrument in that way where I’m trying really hard.’” This yields better results, he says, “because your fear is gone. I didn’t know that I was doing something wrong on the guitar—or doing something right on the guitar. I just knew that, ‘I’m playing it. So what?’ That kind of attitude. ‘Everybody plays guitar. Big deal. There’s nothing special about this instrument to me.’”
As White continued through his teenage years, though, he realized that he needed the guitar. “It became like, ‘Well, I can’t really write songs on the drums. I have all this poetry that I wish I could do something with.’ I was going to these poetry nights at the coffeehouses in Detroit. That turned into me playing folk songs at those coffeehouses, and then eventually performing my own songs I wrote at those coffeehouses.”
During one of those gigs, White heard about auditions for a drummer for Goober & the Peas, an alternative country band that was popular in the Detroit area. “I thought, ‘Wow, I would love to know what an audition is like. That would just be so interesting to see. What do they do? Do they tell you to play a drum fill? Do they ask you to practice your paradiddles in front of them?’”
When White arrived for his audition, though, things didn’t seem promising for him: “Some heavy metal guy walked out of the room. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to be better at drums than this guy? I’m sure he probably did some amazing Neil Peart fills and all that.’” In the end, White’s turn went so well that he was offered the job. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, you pretty much blew everybody away.’ They didn’t say what I did that blew everybody away. And I still don’t know.”
As a member of Goober & the Peas, White got his first taste of being a full-time professional musician, especially when he went on the road with them for shows across the U.S. “It was a storybook thing that I didn’t realize at the time was this incredible learning experience,” he says.
Still, it didn’t feel like the right fit for White, so he quit the band after a few months. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen again. I’ll probably never be able to go on tour again. That was a one-in-a-million lottery thing.’ I honestly thought that.” And then, he says, “I went back to doing work in an upholstery shop.”
A couple of years later, White returned to music when he started attending the open mic nights at a friend’s bar called the Gold Dollar. He also began playing guitar for a few bands, including The White Stripes, a group he’d started with drummer Meg White in 1997. But, he says, it was “just all these things I thought were interesting, but nothing’s going to happen from it. There was no talk of going into a studio and recording, releasing a 7-inch, playing on tour—nothing. It just seemed to me an impossibility.”
That changed when Dave Buick, who owned a small local label named Italy Records, offered to put out a 7-inch single for The White Stripes—but initially, White didn’t believe this could lead anywhere, either.
“I said, ‘How much does it cost?’ He said, ‘Putting out a record is probably like 500 bucks.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have that kind of money—no, thanks.’ And I walked away!” White laughs at the memory. “I didn’t understand he meant he was going to spend $500 putting out our record of our song. I thought he was telling us we had to pay $500 to put out a 7-inch on his label.” A few days later, when Buick set him straight on how things actually worked, White finally accepted the offer.
This debut single was “Let’s Shake Hands” (1998)—but things didn’t go exactly as planned. “The records came back, and they were pink!” White says. “They were supposed to be red and white and black, and they were pink. It was my first taste of, ‘Things are not going to be the way you hope they’re going to be in the music world.’” Still, he recalls, “I held onto that record, reading the label and thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got to make a record once in my life.’”
White says he’s always had modest expectations for himself. “Every step along the way, if you had tapped me on the shoulder, ‘Hey, what do you think’s going to happen to you next year?’ I would have just told you, ‘Working on furniture and slugging away, paying these stupid bills.’ Up until maybe after the second White Stripes album [De Stijl, 2000]: ‘OK, wait a minute, is this starting to turn into something different where people actually like this shit?’ We were dumbfounded.”
As the buzz around them grew, The White Stripes went to England, where influential DJ John Peel was championing them. “The hype had now turned into a bit of a frenzy over there. It was bizarre,” White says. “[The single] ‘Hotel Yorba’ came out over there, and it was on the charts. This is a song we wrote in our living room and recorded for 100 bucks.”
The White Stripes went on to become one of the most acclaimed and commercially successful bands as the 2000s got underway. By the time they disbanded in 2011, they had recorded six studio albums and won four Grammy awards.
White went on to form other successful bands—The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather—and release work as a solo artist. He also founded and oversees Third Man Records, through which he has put out a vast array of his own and others’ work.
Even after achieving such success, White says he’s not done striving—and never will be. “There should always be a part of not being satisfied, in my opinion,” he says. “That is something I would apply to all artists. I think not being satisfied is a good place to be. It’s being very minimal on patting yourself on the back and stroking the ego, and being more interested in going into new territory and being in a dangerous place. Being right on the edge of something that is not comfortable and trying to fight your way out of that box is a good spot to always remain in. You never win, you never conquer, you never actually get to the top of the mountain.”
All the same, White’s current string of sold-out arena shows around the world for his Supply Chain Issues Tour suggests he’s certainly “made it.” This is not some slick, carefully orchestrated concert, however. “I don’t have a setlist, so that takes a lot of it off the table, as far as getting bored or repeating myself over and over again,” he says. “It’s very strange to walk out in front of thousands of people and the band does not know what song we are going to play. Even I don’t know. It’s a difficult thing to do. Every night feels unpredictable and dangerous, and sometimes you don’t succeed—sometimes you pick the wrong song or the wrong move. But sometimes you do succeed, and it’s triumphant because it came from that bizarre way of handling it.”
This is also yet another example of how White creates hurdles for himself in order to elevate his art and “mistakes” can lead to progress. And even after he picks a song to play, things can still go awry, because sometimes the words don’t come to him. “But I am more proud of myself when I don’t remember the lyrics to a song and I just make up new ones, and half of it is gibberish that’s not even real words,” he says. “I feel better about that than nailing it exactly like it is on the record. The easy way out is just not as interesting. That’s something that’s not pretentious or highfalutin to say to another artist. It’s just an encouragement to push harder.”
At the same time, White cautions other artists against taking the advice he (or anyone else) has to offer. “There’s no way of writing it down on paper that, ‘This is the way you can succeed at this art form’—and I think that’s what keeps it alive and keeps it energetic at all times because it’s not set in stone because there’s no one right way to do it. It’s about finding what works for you,” he says.
As for what motivates White to keep exploring what works for him and his music, even he can’t say for sure. “I can’t even answer that question,” he says. “What am I setting out to do, exactly? I can say I’m trying to share with other people. I hope to inspire people. I hope to learn something about myself. I hope to be able to get to a new place in my life creatively. I hope for all these things. Do I succeed at them? I would never know even if I did. You’d have to tell me—and I probably wouldn’t believe you.”
Photo by Jo McCaughey