Interview: A Q&A with Ward White

If
you’ve been recently been frequenting JOVM, you’ve most likely come across a
couple of posts on the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Ward White. White is
probably best known for his work as one of half of the chamber pop duo, McGinty
and White
, which features former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist and founder of
The Loser’s Lounge tribute series, Joe McGinty. Their debut effort together was
released to praise from the likes of The New Yorker and The New York
Press.
And yet interestingly enough, White has somewhat quietly developed a
reputation as a solo artist of note, as Bob and his latest effort Ward
White Is The Matador
have been released to praise from the likes of iTunes,
New York Magazine, Magnet Magazine and CMJ for a sound that has often been
compared to Scott Walker, one of the great and sadly under-appreciated
songwriters of the past 50 years,[*] 70s David Bowie, T. Rex
and others.

Ward White Is The Matador possesses a sound that will
sound warmly familiar but with an art school rock sense of experimentation and
strangeness. As a native New Yorker, it’s unquestionably a very New York sort
of sound, and at several points sonically, lyrically and thematically it covers
things that I’ve become increasingly conscious of as I get older – that
unfortunately loss is a part of life; that most relationships throughout one’s
life end; of the inevitable passing of time; the bitter irony of life; and of a
New York of improbable eccentrics and equally improbable situations that
actually happen slowly disappearing before all of our eyes. And although those
are naturally universal themes – for at least some of us – the material comes
from a deeply personal place, capturing the bruised psyche and aching heart of
its creator, a man who seems to revel in life’s ironies as a way of survival. But
much like Jef Barbara’s impressive sophomore effort, Soft to the touch some of the sadness and loneliness of the
material is balanced (and disguised) by a wry, winking irony that reminds me of
an old song that once said “Smile though your heart is breaking/Smile even
though your heart is aching …”

I
recently spoke to White via email about Ward
White Is The Matador
and the very personal nature of some of my favorite
songs on the album, including the 20 minute art school rock freakout “The Olde
Days;” his songwriting process; his work with Joe McGinty and The Loser’s
Lounge; and more. Check it out below.

  

[*]
Seriously, do yourself a favor and check out the haunting “It’s Raining Today.
Several years ago, I won free tickets to a Scott Walker tribute show at the
Delacorte Theater and can still remember hearing someone cover it years ago,
and being struck by the song’s opening lines: “It’s raining today/and I’m just
about to forget the train window girl/That wonderful day we met/She smiles through
the smoke from my cigarette.  .  . “

image
image

________

WRH: Name. Age. Serial Number. Where are you from? Anything interestingyou’d like to start this with? 

Ward
White: I tried to cut and paste all this from Tinder, but the font got weird…

WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know it was your calling? 

WW:
I wanted to make records before I had any concept of the mechanics involved. I
fetishized guitars before I could play. I formed my first band in the 7th or
8th grade with my best friend at the time – we were named the Puce Moment,
after a Kenneth Anger film. I had odd predilections at twelve. Still do. We
made two albums which were tracked on a Tascam Porta One, and duped on
daisy-chained dual cassette decks. There was elaborate Xeroxed artwork. It’s
been downhill from there.

WRH: Who are your influences? 

WW: My parents didn’t have too many records, but I
loved The Beatles and Elvis. We had a Ventures record I played a lot as well.
They did Telstar on it. My father bought me one of those cut-rate, Mo Levy
style repackaged albums – a three record set – of Chuck Berry, which ruined me
for life. I became obsessed with Jimi Hendrix as a kid, and a bit later David
Bowie came in to the picture- he’s still the ultimate
“sing-the-phonebook” voice for me. My friend’s father had an extensive
LP collection, which is how I was introduced to The Velvet Underground, Dylan,
Elvis Costello. Prog came later, for which I can only blame myself. It’s an
ongoing process.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now? 

WW: This is were I sheepishly admit to being a lousy
music consumer – Honestly, I find myself dwelling on records I already own,
cycling through phases of listening/bingeing. I have headphones on for 5-6
hours a day. I don’t get out much.

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

WW: Unprofitable.

WRH: It seems to be the plight of the modern musician that they’re
involved in 3 or 4 different projects simultaneously. In your case, while
writing and recording a number of solo albums, you’ve also collaborated with
Joe McGinty in McGinty and White, and are a frequent performer in The Loser’s
Lounge. How did that collaboration with McGinty come about? How did you get
involved with The Loser’s Lounge? Do these projects find a way of influencing
your solo work at all? How do these projects differ from your solo work?
And how do you manage balancing all the various obligations each project has on
your time? 

WW: Joe played on record of mine back in 2008
called Pulling Out – he asked me if I’d like to sing in the show, and
I’ve been in every one since. The McGinty & White idea started as a vehicle
for us to perform the songs of Jimmy WebbMacArthur Park being a
favorite of ours at Joe’s weekly piano karaoke – but Joe suggested we try
making a record, instead. We each had about half an album’s worth of songs on
deck, and we worked together on re-arranging and producing them in service of
the sound we had in mind. The result was McGinty & White Sing Selections
From The McGinty & White Songbook
(2009). We did eventually follow
through on the Jimmy Webb concept, and presented McGinty & White Sing
Webb
at Joe’s Pub in 2011. You have to prioritize, to a certain degree, but
every project serves the same goal. I don’t think of them as separate entities.

WRH: How did you meet the members of your backing band? 

WW: The personnel changes from record to record –
On the latest one, I sing and play guitar, co-producers Bryan Scary &
Graham Norwood play keyboards, and bass, respectively, and the drummer is
Everet Almond. I sang in a large-ensemble variation of Bryan’s band, The
Shredding Tears, a few years back, and he introduced me to his former bandmate,
Graham. They brought in Everet, who is a member of their current project, Evil
Arrows
. The band you saw at Rockwood was drummer, Paul Amorese, bassist, Bryan
Smith (who recorded and mixed the record), violinist, Claudia Chopek, and
backup vocalist, Victoria Liedtke.

WRH: Your most recent effort, Ward White Is The Matador (WWITM) was
released towards the end of last year. How does it differ from Bob?
How did you come up with the name for the album? 

WW: WWITM and Bob differ on
almost every level; Matador being a heavily-produced, writ large record
that touches on doomed love and waning youth, and Bob, an opera about
mind-controlling cockroaches, cut mostly live in the studio, which is intended
to be in black & white. What they have in common is that they’re both true
stories.

The name, which is taken from the chorus of the
song “Bikini" (and is itself a reference to Fail Safe), was
suggested by co-producer, Bryan Scary. It seemed appropriate to the cinematic
sweep of the record.

WRH: I’ve listened to WWITM a number of times — I think
15-16 — before even thinking of these interview questions. And every time
I’ve played the album, I’m struck by the fact that the album sounds as though
it owes a great debt to 1970s David Bowie (I think of Aladdin SanePin
Ups
, Diamond Dogs, Ziggy Stardust) and Scott Walker, one of the most
under-appreciated songwriters of maybe the last 50 years or so, Elton John and
others. How much have those artists influenced the album? 

WW: First off, if you made it all the way through The
Olde Days
15 to 16 times, I need to see about having a trophy engraved. The
figure might have to be a golfer or something, though.

Hugely, which I guess is pretty obvious. All
parties involved were deeply indebted to those records. Scott Walker is one of
those artists whose career suffered because he was just too good for his own
good. Being a visionary is a romantic notion on paper, but usually leads to a
life of itinerant day labor.

WRH: To me, the sign of an exceptional album is when you can’t possibly
imagine re-ordering the songs and having the exact same album. How did you go
about choosing the exact song order on WWITM

WW: In this case the songs paralleled real life
events, so the sequence just followed the chronology. The record was written
fairly quickly, in real time, rather than composed after the fact, so there
wasn’t much question as to placement. At least not in my mind. The one
exception was the deliberate choice to have "Salvaged Rose” close the
record – I wrote that at the beginning, about the end. The recording
that appears on the album is actually the scratch home demo.

It’s a good question, as most people not involved
in record making don’t realize how fraught the sequencing decision can be. It’s
responsible for an inordinate number of band/artist/producer/label blow-ups.

WRH: I caught you at Rockwood Music Hall a little while ago and during
your set, you mentioned the stories behind two songs on WWITM — “Balloon”
and “Salvaged Rose,” which is a gorgeous song. You mentioned
that “Balloon” was inspired by the mylar balloons that you can get in a
hospital gift shop, and you joked that somehow buying someone this stupid
balloon was supposed to make them feel better — but in some way, if the
person is deathly sick, it’s kind of hollow and silly. And in the case
of “Salvaged Rose,” you told this funny and sad story about how you bought
a girlfriend some flowers from the bodega, stopped at her job and somehow
missed her but your girlfriend’s coworker was happy to take the roses. How much
of the album draws from your own experiences and observations? 

WW: I was hospitalized as a kid, and that unnerving
gift shop visual sticks with me. Well-meaning attempts to enliven the pediatric
ward always made it worse. I can think of no more ridiculous gesture than
purchasing a shiny balloon for the intubated or comatose. Of course, in the
context of the song, it’s metaphor for impotence. And yeah, that thing with the
flowers definitely happened.

The writing of this record took place during, and
in direct response to, a relationship in my life, so the incidents are first
person. The process just distills those experiences to access layers you might
not immediately recognize. It’s draining, expensive, ineffective
psychoanalysis. With occasional guitar solos.

WRH: During your Rockwood set, I noticed that throughout a deal of the
material you performed live that there’s an underlying dry, bitter irony. How
do you manage to balance that sense of irony with the more serious, seemingly
sad nature of some of the songs? 

WW: I think they manage to balance themselves – the
humor is an attempt to de-fang the sadness, but at the same time, can’t exist
without it. I’m a funny, sad guy. That’s probably a better answer.

WRH: “Drive Thru” is another one of my favorite songs on the album.
What’s the story behind that one? 

Total stream of consciousness – just stacking
phrases into a pleasing pattern. The visuals are all tied together by the
chorus, but the underlying theme is anxiety. Loss of control. There are two
drum kits on the track, panned left and right. One was vari-speeded up during
recording to play back more menacing.

WRH: The album closes with “The Olde Days,” an extremely
difficult to pigeonhole 20 minute art rock freakout that sounds partially
inspired by Lou Reed, The Doors and The Talking Heads because it captures a
specific sense of neuroticism — maybe the sort of neuroticism that’s
familiar with a native New Yorker. What I love about the song is that it
accurately captures the annoyingly banal late night, drunken conversations that
usually start with someone asking you “what do you do?” before they turn
surreal and illogical. Plus, for me, it captures the old New York and the old
Lower East Side that I remember and heard stories about; I can remember hanging
out in some bar on Avenue A like Nice Guy Eddie’s or The Library and walking to
the very L train stop that a portion of the song takes place in. So what’s the story
behind the song? Did any of the events of the song actually happen? 

WW: Sadly, all of the events actually
happened. The dialogue included is verbatim. And yes, I did walk them to the
train. This piece was completely improvised at the end of two long days
tracking basics. Instruments were played round-robin by the band and engineer
while I recited the monologue. What you hear is the result of extensive
editing, as the non-bowdlerized version runs close to 45 minutes. Guitar and
synth were overdubbed after the fact by Graham and Bryan. I’m mostly proud that
this track garnered me a “Parental Advisory” warning. It’s actually
sound advice.

WRH: How do you know when you have a finished song? 

WW: When I’m writing an album, I see the songs as
architectural components. Certain songs present themselves fairly obviously as
bridges, others as foundational elements. Some are just the drapes. I feel like
the song is done when it fits like a puzzle piece, filling out the big picture.  During the recording process, it’s
easier – the song is finished when the money runs out.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for
themselves?

Just make sure it fits on the bass drum.

Advertisements