John Paul White at 30A Songwriters Festival: “Everyone Seems to Be Here for the Right Reasons”

The 30A Songwriters Festival is now in its 14th year, celebrating the art of songwriting with some of its most prestigious stewards. This year’s fest (Jan. 12 – Jan. 16) sees a stacked line-up that features the likes of Steve Earl, Lyle Lovett, Morgan Wade, and the topic of our discussion below: John Paul White.

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White first rose to fame as one half of The Civil Wars. He and Joy Williams cultivated a wide following that spanned genres and generations. Their songwriting efforts earned the duo four Grammy Awards and a lasting reputation in the Americana scene.

After disbanding in 2012, White took things on solo, continuing his streak of finely crafted songwriting. His music is hard to pull to one side or the other. Is he country? Is he alternative? For White, that idea is one that entices—”As a matter of fact, it kind of thrills me,” he once said.

White resides in Florence, Alabama near the famed Muscle Shoals. There, he co-helms Single Lock Records and guides the next generation of songwriters as a visiting artist of practice at The University of North Alabama.

His latest full-length effort, The Hurting Kind, draws sonic inspiration from early ’60s Nashville while White brings things into modernity with lyrics about love and loss. The 10-track album was written alongside the likes of Country Music Hall of Famers “Whisperin'” Bill Anderson and Bobby Braddock, which no doubt made his toolkit more robust.

That toolkit is what we strived to uncover with White after his set at 30A. Find our conversation with the singer-songwriter below, as he walks us through his songwriting journey, his best advice for those just starting out, and why he will always accept the invitation to 30A fest.

American Songwriter: What is so special about this festival? What keeps you coming back?

John Paul White: I’m always looking forward to the invitation to come down here and be a part of this festival. That’s usually not the case. I have a love-hate relationship with festivals. They are usually meant for bands—people that have a lot of jokes and up-tempo songs. I’m just a sad bastard the entire time I’m up there. But I could tell from the first time I came to this event that it was different. People hang onto your every word. They give you the benefit of the doubt. Everyone seems to be here for the right reasons.

AS: Do you get any co-writing done while you’re here?

JPW: I usually wear one hat at a time. If I’m in performing mode, it’s really hard for me to switch gears and write songs. If I’m producing a record or songwriting, it’s the same thing—I’m laser focused. I think it’s probably healthier for me when that is the case.

AS: What has been your journey as a songwriter? When did you know this was your path?

JPW: I didn’t grow up wanting to write songs. I grew up wanting to sing. Honestly, I loved the way that girls looked at me when I sang. It was all surface driven. It wasn’t until college that I started figuring out who I was. All the wild and disparate types of music I listened to went into my songwriting, but it was a means to an end at that time. I knew I had a better chance of getting to sing if I wrote songs. My love for it didn’t start until my mid-20s.

AS: Was there a particular song or moment that made you fall in love with it?

JPW: I ended up with a publishing deal with EMI right out of college. I spent the next couple of years trying to learn how to write songs. I had this inferiority complex. I thought songwriting was for the gods and I was just a dude that sang songs. I got to a point where I wasn’t getting any action. I was writing what I thought people wanted to hear instead of what I really loved. I thought I might go back to school because I didn’t think it was going to happen for me, but I thought, “I’m gonna spend all their money while I’m out here and record a bunch of stuff for myself.” Immediately, I started getting cuts. So I think that was the moment —when I wrote songs that made me happy.

AS: What would be your best advice for songwriters starting out?

JPW: Don’t do it. Get a job that won’t break your heart. I have a son, who is 20 now, and he’s obsessed with music, guitar playing, and songwriting. Part of me is the proudest man on earth and part of me weeps for him, because it’s a hard life. But, I also know that he isn’t going to do anything else. We’re lifers. So I try my best to give him the best weapons that I can and show him what to do. My only advice is: if you love it dearly, if it consumes you and you’re thinking about it every day then it is the right vocation for you. Also, the more you please yourself, the better your art is going to be. I’m living proof of that. So be true to yourself and be patient.

AS: On stage you were saying that your songs are often not autobiographical. Where do you pull inspiration from?

JPW: I think I’m the most boring person in the world. I think the last thing people want to hear is my story. I get bored with that too. So I’ve lived through characters. I always loved that with John Prine and then more present-day Jason Isbell. They both do such a great job of becoming different people. It becomes limitless that way. There is tragedy and heartbreak all around the world, so I’ll never have any problem finding that material.

AS: Do you have any one moment from a writing session that stands out?

JPW: One that was very special was writing “Poison & Wine” while in The Civil Wars. That was one of the few songs we wrote with someone else. Chris Lindsey and I had a co-write one day and I asked if I could bring Joy [Williams] in. When we hit the hook of the chorus, I remember the look on his face. We had sung together a lot and knew each other really well. He became the third point of view – the objective viewer. We fed off of his excitement for what was going on. We walked out of the room and didn’t care if anyone else was going to like the song. It mattered to me. That doesn’t happen that often.

AS: What do you have planned for the future? Are any projects on the horizon?

JPW: I’m planning on producing more this year. I’m doing less songwriting than I have in the past. When COVID came along, my creativity just went out the window. Being in four walls with the same people every day, just stifled everything. I’m still struggling with it but, it’s slowly getting better. I’ve never had writer’s block in my life. There is a constant loop in my head. But, collaborating still works. My son and I have started writing some stuff together and that’s exciting. He’s a metalhead and that is my background too. His guitar playing almost sounds like I wrote it. The DNA is the same. I’m gonna write lyrics and melodies over top of it. When we play together it’s like I’m 20 years old again. We will see whatever that becomes.

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

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