A weathered Chris Whitley looks severely out of place in the sterile new offices of Sony Music in Santa Monica. His crumpled bag of tobacco and stray rolling papers make a mess of the shiny Formica desktop, while his beat-to-hell boots sully the smooth plastic base of the office chair he occupies.
But the 34-year-old musician, who has been called everything from a Ry Cooder-inspired folkie to the second coming of Hendrix, has always clashed with his surroundings.
The sinewy figure was out of place back in 1977 playing slide guitar to punk rockers on the streets of New York’s East Village, and now he hardly fits the mold of ‘90s bluesman that’s been foisted on him by fans and record company.
“I remember doing a showcase back in 1990 for a club packed full of record people,” Whitley recalls of a night that would prove an epiphany in a 15-year career of trying to fit in.
“The PA blew up and all this stuff started going wrong, but I was so past worrying about how I should present myself that it just didn’t matter. I wasn’t obstinate or anything but more like: ‘There just isn’t anything else I can do. I can’t impress them with a gold lame suit, cute comments between songs or anything else particularly ambitious.’ It wasn’t so much my pride but rather my desperation that wouldn’t let me do it.”
When the true Chris Whitley finally emerged in the early ‘90s, so did the praise. Live performances exposed his jagged, visceral sound, and his 1991 major-label debut, “Living With the Law,” captured Whitley’s emotional, atmospheric guitar work and vivid imagery on record. The album finished No. 9 in the Village Voice’s annual poll of U.S. pop critics, and one of its tracks, “Kicking the Stones,” became a cornerstone of the “Thelma & Louise” soundtrack.
“Around 1990, all of a sudden loads of singer-songwriters started popping up, and there was this newfound interest in the blues,” Whitley says. “I knew the way I sounded would fit in, although I don’t relate much to the singer-songwriter thing. But I had been playing, writing and recording for 15 years before that, so I did feel I knew what I was about and what my limitations were. If people liked what I was doing, it was because of what I was doing.”
Where his debut album reflected his rootless childhood in craggy but smoothly produced songs about trailer parks and wide-open spaces, his new album, “Din of Ecstasy,” reflects more recent inner struggles in a rawer context. ( See review, Page 64 ).
More sonically wild, the album (on the Columbia Records subsidiary Work Group) reels with distorted guitar and introspective lines about drug addiction and failed expectations. It reflects the events in Whitley’s life since his last album--from kicking an alcohol addiction to going through a divorce.
There’s a good chance that the change from quiet folk appeal to sonic melee will alienate Whitley’s first round of fans.
“I didn’t realize the albums would be so different,” says Whitley, whose thoughtful manner sometimes borders on spaciness.
While he may project a laid-back, vagabond image--from his worn, earth-colored clothing to the small knapsack he carries--his alert eyes betray a certain nervous edge.
“I don’t want to disappoint somebody, but if it happens, it’s like they didn’t really get the first one,” he says of the potentially alienated fans. “It’s like they just picked up on the superficial aesthetic. That’s not invalid, but for me, it’s more than just the sound. It’s the spirit--the value.”
The new album removes Whitley from one more category--blues player. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Whitley has always insisted that he has been influenced more by acid rockers than the legendary bluesmen.
“I don’t fit into the blues the way most people perceive the blues to be,” says Whitley, taking a drag from a cigarette (the office is designated nonsmoking). “It’s not just Robert Johnson. To me, Thelonious Monk is the blues, Zeppelin is the blues. I think of Nirvana and the most urgent of music as the blues. It’s the principle of the music. It’s made for a different purpose--not so much for entertainment as for need. Early rap was the same. It’s like: ‘I gotta say it!’ ”
Whitley was born in Houston, but by the time he was 11 his family had already moved to Dallas, Oklahoma and Connecticut. His father, an advertising art director, was a blues guitarist on the weekends and turned young Chris on to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Whi tley’s mother, a sculptor, exposed him to Hendrix, Dylan and Cream.
In 1971 Whitley’s parents separated, and his mother moved him, his brother and his sister to Mexico in search of a more affordable lifestyle while pursuing her artistic career. They stayed for five years, during which time Whitley became a dirt bike enthusiast. Next stop: a log cabin in Vermont. Whitley, then 16, began playing dobro and harmonica just before dropping out of high school and moving to New York City.
There he played on the street for money until meeting a fellow musician and accepting an offer to go to Belgium to tour with the Belgian synth-pop band Noh Rodeo.
“When I moved to New York everything was new wave or punk, and I was playing slide guitar,” he says.
“I felt really out of place. I was not hip. I then went through a phase of not doing things naturally. I did dance music in Europe, like electro-pop and post-Kraftwerk-type stuff. That was me just looking to fit in--'I’m 26. I’m getting old. What’s popular?’ ”
He remained for six years in Belgium, where he married the sister of one of his bandmates. He returned to the United States with his wife and daughter in 1988. Disenchanted with rock, he picked up a factory job in Brooklyn, finishing and staining picture frames while dabbling in music. It was the final effort at conforming before he succumbed to his guitar roots.
“I finally realized I had been doing a lot of schlock,” Whitley says of his synth-pop career, running his fingers through his straight sandy-blond hair. “There wasn’t anything in (that music) from me that was honest. Some people can do accessible stuff really honestly, and I admire them for it, but I can’t. It comes off contrived.”
Whitley didn’t need to orchestrate a more palatable sound, though. His break came quite accidentally when he agreed to do a photo shoot with a photographer friend.
“I was sort of pretending to be working on my career,” he says. “But it was through her I was introduced to Daniel Lanois.”
Lanois, the recording artist and record producer best known for his work with U2, offered Whitley a job painting his home studio in New Orleans. There, Whitley eventually met music publisher Kathleen Carey.
Carey recalls discovering Whitley at a party held by Lanois.
“I asked (Lanois), ‘Do you know any great songwriters in New Orleans?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Chris Whitley, he’ll be here later.’ I figured anyone Daniel would mention was worth listening to.”
Carey got a tape from a surprised and flattered Whitley that night. She flew back to L.A. and played it in her car on the way to work the next morning.
“I pulled off the freeway, tracked him down on the telephone and told him I wanted to sign him,” says Carey, who is now vice president of creative affairs at Columbia Records. “A label bidding war then accidentally started just by me playing tapes for people and them freaking out. In retrospect, I wasn’t surprised.”
Two shows at the Ludlow Cafe in New York boosted the frenzy, prompting nine labels to make offers before Whitley signed with Columbia in 1990.
If Whitley began in his debut album to finally home in on the music closest to him, “Din of Ecstasy” represents even greater strides in that search.
“This record is a little more like me reverting,” he says. “It’s more vulnerable than obvious, more complicated. Some things this time around were more urgent for me to say. It’s more clumsy and less precious in ways. It’s also probably less accessible.
“The things that inspire me, that I can write about honestly, are more complicated than just a romantic notion of love or how (expletive) the world is. To me, most pop notions in songs are romanticizations of reality, a cartoon of what the truth is. It’s like ‘Everything is black,’ or there’s the fluffy ‘Everything-is-white, I’ll-love-you-forever’ stuff. It’s not real. It’s a cliche instead of getting at the truth.”
But when Whitley is asked whether he’s still trying to fit in, the answer is far from immediate. He pauses, lights a cigarette and replies slowly.
“On a certain neurotic level I think, ‘I hope they like me.’ But it stifles me if I think about it too much. . . . You become your own marketing person. Sure, I would like it if younger people would respond to my music, ‘cause you need music so bad when you’re younger, but I can’t make that happen. I can only do what I can do.”