you first hear Simone White, what's perhaps most striking is the almost peculiarly
individual place she's coming from –– this odd jumble of musical dreams and
schemes that somehow manage to transcend mere pastiche. It's tempting to
describe it as a sound that's searingly honest, and maybe you'll excuse the
cliché (though she probably wouldn't). You just know something's afoot when
you take your first gander at the cover of White's new CD, I Am the Man, on the Honest Jon's label.
Right there, you've got three things to pull you in: the label itself,
which is Blur/Gorillaz main man Damon Albarn's
primo imprimatur and trademark of high quality; then there's the album's
(ironic?) title –– clearly, White is not a man; although neither is she the
beehived, Bardot-like figure lounging with a leopard on the front of her
disc. That's her mother.
gets curiouser when you dig into this Simone White and her semibizarre
story of an alternative upbringing in the '70s on a hippie commune, where
for a time she was only allowed to listen to classical music.
all starts in Hawaii…
my mother didn't like being associated with the hippies," she says
with a laugh. "Even though I think I grew up with hippies, she calls it
more of the beatnik era. She was a performer, folksinger and belly dancer
at a time when no one was doing that. And my grandma was a performer -
there's a picture of her on the inside of the CD. They had a sister act,
did stuff in Pittsburgh."
idiosyncratically beautiful way that White has composed and performed the
music on I Am the Man urges you to do some psychoanalyzing about how said
alternative childhood actually molded the shape of her brain. Like, when
she was three, her family joined this cult called the Fellowship of Friends
in Northern California.
teacher was inspired by [early-20th-century spiritualists] Gurdjieff and
Ouspensky," she says, "and Gurdjieff believed that classical
music, and Renaissance art, were higher –– better food, in a sense. He had
the idea that you surrounded yourself with these higher things, that they
had a higher vibration."
White's guru looked down on jazz, she discovered it in her teens, and it
was a revelation. "More so even than rock," she says. "When
I started listening to jazz, I was very excited."
background seems pertinent if you're drawn to the unusual ways White has of
constructing and arranging her songs, which may have something to do with
the fact that she didn't start playing guitar until she was 22. ("I'd
had a boyfriend that was in a band, and to me the guitar was always the
boyfriend's instrument. It's so dumb! 'Cause it was, like, you gotta be bad
before you can be good, and there was no place for me to be bad.") While
the only slightly eccentric effect of her music on I Am the Man owes majorly to the masterly
machinations of Mark Nevers –– the Nashville producer who's done such
imaginative work with Lambchop, Will Oldham, Calexico and the Silver Jews ––
White clearly has a feel, and an incentive, for doing things with a third,
very different ear.
over a longish period at Nevers' studio in an old house in Nashville, I
Am the Man is
a well varied collection of both heartbreaking personal and astutely
political folk (ostensibly) tunes written by White, plus a few covers. The
wobbly trombones and tremolo guitars of the opening "I Didn't Have Any
Summer Romance" grace a song that was originally an unreleased track
by Carole King; its languid melodic grace is no doubt cued from the '50s
pop and doowop that King took inspiration from way back in the day. Written
by her Brill Building-inspired friends Frank Bango and Ricky Vesecky,
"Worm Was Wood" makes intelligent use of leaping chord
progressions within a semifamiliar context of dreamy Lynch-like shadows, an affectionate irony where
White croons, "You made a promise/how quickly we forget" and
somehow addresses, roughly, the recycling of atoms, or the recycling of
time –– of relationships, in other words.
sort of darkly bubbly thing characterizes White's own "The Beep Beep
Song," whose chorus of "love is all we need" is, in this
case, strictly nonironic. Yet there is an ever so sardonic tinge to young
Ms. White in "Roses Are Not Red," which is lyrically very smart,
and edgy, though instrumentally it's delivered via one very lazily deadpan
waltz. When White delves in plainly topical fare like "Great
Imperialist State" or "The American War" ("Do you
remember the Americans?"), she does it with an intriguing palette of
instruments, including an agreeably large gaggle of trombones. Nevers'
recording of all this gives a warm, full, rich sound; again, for nostalgic
spaciousness, you just can't beat a heavily tremolo'd guitar, and Nevers
surely does not skimp on that.
was Nevers who took Simone's material to Albarn at Honest Jon's. White had
met Albarn while doing some photography while living in London in 2002;
Nevers had recorded the label's great Candi Staton album of 2006, His
thought that this good-taste label (also featuring Tony Allen, Afel Bocoum,
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Kokanko Sata, Lobi Traore) might find White's work
of interest. It did, and released I Am the Man in Europe last year; the
album made its American debut last month.
promote the record, the delicately pretty Simone White has been performing
a lot on tour –– mostly in Europe, just her and a guitar. Perhaps she'll
again play in her hometown, Los Angeles, too. When she does return, you'll
hear that special something that elevates White way, way above the crowded,
sensitive raft of singer-songwriters. It's called breath.
was listening to Chet Baker, and his singing and his horn playing and that
seamless way they go together, and it's all about his breath," she
says. "And then there was the jazz singer Betty Carter; I saw her in
clubs in Seattle, and it was as close as I could get to her. I felt like my
cellular makeup was changing in the room because of her voice. I felt like
I was downloading the information. I remember feeling, This is changing the
way I'm thinking about singing, and breathing, and holding a note.
being in the room with singing and breathing and vibrating, I think, is