Before she was old enough to vote, Trixie Whitley was delaying parties at an art museum in Belgium, traveling around Europe in an avant-garde dance-theater troupe and singing on albums recorded in New York by her late father, guitarist Chris Whitley. At 20, she was invited by U2 producer Daniel Lanois to join his new band, Black Dub, as a vocalist.
Little wonder that things didn't work out when Whitley, now 25, was signed to Jive Records, which, she says, tried to turn her into something slightly more conventional.
"I was signed to a major pop label, and they would have loved to have 15 co-writers and producers involved in making my album," she says. "I love collaborating, but I don't love it when I work with people who don't get you, who don't share in your interests or vision. Just imagine coming out of working three to four years with Lanois, and then having these label people put you with all these other producers. They wanted a pop queen, but my standards for music were different."
When Jive imploded in 2011, Whitley's record was shelved, and she teamed up with producer Thomas Bartlett. The two began working on Whitley's songs, playing most of the instruments themselves and framing her intensely earthy vocals in spooky, sparse electro-blues arrangements. The singer's debut album, "Fourth Corner" (Strong Blood Music), is less designed as a major look-at-me statement than the start of what Whitley sees as a "long, creative journey," the first step in defining who she really is.
It starts from the bottom up in many ways, because Whitley began her musical life as a drummer before picking up piano and guitar. A number of songs were written using a primitive drum machine, a Rhythm Ace, which Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis used on some of their recordings.
"Rhythm is my first love, drums are my first love, and it totally resonates in my writing and how I play the guitar," she says. "I'm so not a 'muso' person, I'm so uninterested in the geeky parts of instruments. I'm not interested in playing guitar in the conventional way, or 'shredding.' I play the keyboards and guitar in a very percussive way. And I key off the rhythm when I sing too. In a song like 'Need Your Love,' I basically play and sing over it in a very rhythmic way — basically making a drum kit out my voice and guitar."
Her voice first was widely noticed in Black Dub. When Lanois called her in 2010 to start working together, based on a demo she handed him six months earlier, she jumped at the opportunity.
"Elliot Roberts was our manager and he was telling me, 'You are the lead singer for this band, and you are going to have to devote your entire life to this,' but it was Daniel's band," Whitley says. "Creatively, he was so respectful of everyone in the band (which also included drummer Brian Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson). He needed our input in some ways. But basically we were a tool for him to execute this vision that he had wanted to do for years."
Whitley says Lanois encouraged her, but "there was a lot of anxiety and insecurity at first. I learned my own strength along the way. All this information started to soak in once I was away from it — and I still am soaking in all I learned with Daniel. If there is something that Daniel and I share, it's a deep desire to innovate, not to do the conventional or expected thing."
Her unpleasant ride with Jive only deepened her convictions. "I'm just at the beginning of my career, but I've already seen how the industry works, how it's trying to figure out what young kids want to listen to and turn that into a formula. I don't think in formulas. I'm going to be making records for most of my life, and I have a lot of growing to do and a lot more to learn. My goal with every project is to feel inspired. Otherwise, I will be a very unhappy human being."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ-FM (91.5).