Singer and songwriter Jim White, a man whose résumé is packed with more adventures than a Mark Twain novel, learned a long time ago that sharp writers owe as much to keen eyes as to creative minds.
The folks that populate his short stories and recent release, No Such Place, are drawn from what he describes as a pile of notebooks 20 feet tall.
"I started doing that when a friend of mine told me, maybe 15 years ago, he saw Tom Waits walking around in New York, and he was standing over a bum talking to him and taking notes from every single word he said," White (born Mike Pratt) said. "A good writer tries to keep very close track of the valuable things that come their way. You throw yourself into the world and then listen very carefully to what the world has to say and document it as best you can."
White released No Such Place, his second album, on David Byrne's
Luaka Bop label in February. Songs such as "Handcuffed to a Fence in
Mississippi" pair the Pensacola, Florida, native's Southern gothic storytelling with the trip-hop sounds of producers Morcheeba.
"The Wound That Never Heals" — about a woman abused as a child who goes on to kill the adult men in her life — is typical for its
rich detail: "Three days later, in a bar in southern Mississippi, she meets a man by the name of Charles Lee / She introduces herself to him as 'Lee Charles'/ 'What a coincidence,' he says ... and one week later they are married."
Such narrative deftness prompted National Public Radio to proposition White about reading his stories during the "All Things Considered" evening news program. White grabbed the opportunity. The pieces are expected to begin airing over the summer.
"That would certainly be a feather in my cap if I wanna walk up to a
university and say, 'I'd like to teach at your university,' if I had the NPR thing. I'm starting to think about career now. I've got a family and I'm 44. I led the lonely vagabond aimless drifter life for 38 or 39 years."
Jim White calling himself a vagabond is like civilian spaceman Dennis Tito calling himself a tourist. After bolting from his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, White experienced one adventure after another: a stint as a professional surfer, a gig as a fashion model, a film school education, time as a New York cabbie. He cut his first album, the twisted folk tale Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in 1997.
On the new disc, he reinterprets Roger Miller's benign 1965 hit "King of the Road" to eerie effect, moving what would normally be backing harmonies to center stage, and concentrating on the criminal mind at work in lyrics such as "I know ... every lock that ain't locked when no one's around."
"When that song came out, there was this sort of notion of the quaint
hobo," White said. "And in the interval between when that song was done and when I did it, this whole new realm of homeless people and serial killers kind of came to the fore. I haven't redefined the song — culture has redefined the song, and I'm just pointing out that your icon is really describing something other than what you thought it was."
Redemption plays a much larger role in No Such Place than on its
dark predecessor, particularly in songs such as "10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road" and "The Love That Never Fails." The theme was drawn out in part by working with collaborators this time, in part by the warm response he got from fans after Wrong-Eyed Jesus — though some fans wish he'd maintained that album's emotional starkness, White said with a laugh.
"Instead of me sitting in a room by myself, just lonely, editing tracks for months on end, in this particular case I went out into the world and I met people and I worked with them and I dialogued with them. It didn't come out purely me, it came out me and other people. There's some parties out there that are mad. They wanted me to stay fixated on my loneliness. And to them I say, 'Go to hell.' "