With ‘Blunderbuss,’ Jack White aims for new beginning
A blunderbuss is an early shotgun. You could put anything inside its horn-like muzzle — broken glass, nails, rocks, metal scraps — though a lead ball was preferred. The makeshift ammo would spray a short but lethal distance. American revolutionaries and explorers favored blunderbusses, as did buccaneers.
“A romantic bust/ A blunder turned/ Explosive blunderbuss,” Jack White sings on “Blunderbuss,” the haunting title track from his stunning first solo album. “Blunderbuss” premiered at No. 1 upon its April release.
The antique weapon provides a useful metaphor for recurring themes of White’s decade-plus career: his predilection for pre-modern technology, his digger interest in folk history, his scrappy inventiveness, his tendency to blow up. The lyric captures one of the several gifts — deft poetic wordplay — that have made White probably the most important musician of the last decade to tap into roots music traditions while simultaneously exploding conventions. White is the 21st century incarnation of an American archetype: the restless spirit.
“I can’t help myself; I have to work on music and art,” White said recently during a 45-minute interview from a casino in Delaware, a stop on the tour that brings him to the Grammy Museum and the Shrine Auditorium on Friday and Aug. 11. “I don’t have any choice. I don’t get up in the morning and pick and choose. It’s natural, it’s unstoppable. If I wander around the house, I will find myself in front of a piano.”
Restlessness has fueled a prolific, genre-spanning career as well as a peripatetic personal life. As the guitar-playing half of Detroit garage-rock duo the White Stripes, his indie-rock song “Seven Nation Army” broke through at commercial rock radio, thanks mostly to his feedback-laden, eustachian-clearing lead riff. Inspired by Delta blues as funneled by North Carolina act Flat Duo Jets, the Stripes were willfully contrarian and devilishly quirky: They played and recorded only on analog equipment and, inspired by peppermint candy, dressed in red and white.
“When the White Stripes came out we just did a lot of things that weren’t very popular,” White said. “I’m not saying we were better than other people, I’m just saying we weren’t doing things that were very popular. It wasn’t popular to record on tape, it was popular to record on Pro Tools by then.”
The White Stripes split in 2011. By then, White had begun pursuing other projects. He formed indie-rock super group the Raconteurs with Brendan Benson and members of the Greenhornes; with Alison Mosshart of the Kills on vocals, the group becomes the Dead Weather. He recorded songs for and appeared in the Civil War film “Cold Mountain.” He produced comeback albums of brave new work by two female country legends, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. For the latter records, he refused to go the usual aging-legend route of interpreting classics or dueting with younger stars.
“With great respect for their talent, I was not trying to manipulate them but to get them into zones where they were uncomfortable and something new can happen,” White says. “They responded pretty well; it’s human nature, artists want to be challenged. That’s the mark of a good artist: When a challenge is put in front of them, they rise to it.”
Finally recording a solo album was the natural next step for White and a way for him to challenge himself. He recorded “Blunderbuss” at his own Third Man Studios, anchor of the budding music empire he has created in Nashville, where he relocated after finding he had outgrown — and perhaps burned bridges with — the Detroit scene. He produced himself, hiring session musicians and old friends to add breadth and breath to the sometimes intensely emotional songs — to “shake up a room.”
“When you go into a room with nothing but hired guns, it’s a completely different attitude,” White says. “You become not just a songwriter but a songwriter, producer, bandleader, arranger, instructor, director. That doesn’t happen in the Dead Weather, I don’t tell those guys how to play.”
On “Blunderbuss” White has left the garage and taken up residence in Music City. While punk’s vehemence still powers his guitar, more often, he’s plumbing Memphis soul or Nashville honky tonk with songs sculpted as much by pianos as by electric six-strings. He lays down a blistering Rhodes solo on “Missing Pieces.” The passionate gospel of “Love Interruption” cops a lick from Dusty Springfield. “Blunderbuss” is an artistic breakthrough on the level of her “Dusty in Memphis” album, the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” and Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” all discs in which pop artists reinvented themselves through immersion in the expansive vocabulary of American vernacular musics.
The hard part of making a solo record was not having bandmates to hide behind lyrically. “There’s that one pitfall to putting just your name on something in modern times, which is that people think all songs written by a person are about that person,” he says.
After all, White’s private life has been a subject of interest. Although they professed to be brother and sister, Jack was married to White Stripes bandmate Meg White. (In a flip that’s indicative of his unusual approach to gender roles, he took her last name). They divorced. In 2005, White married auburn model and singer Karen Elson on a boat on the Amazon. They had two children then divorced in summer 2011; they threw a party to celebrate the end of their marriage and beginning of their co-parenting friendship adventure.
White has admitted that monogamy is not his calling. But he’s still a die-hard Romantic, with a capital R. Many of “Blunderbuss’” songs are about the struggle of the individual to express himself against the oppressive force of society. Sometimes, as on the title track, the stance is “me and you against the world”: “Doing what two people need is never on the menu.” Sometimes it’s “me against you and the world”: “And you’ll be watching me girl/ Taking over the world/ Let the stripes unfurl,” he sings on “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” a gloriously bitter country rocker that seems to be about the breakup of the White Stripes — but then, that’s taking pronouns literally.
White dedicated the album to his oldest brother, who passed away. Death and love: the two great romantic themes. “A lot of things died for me in the last couple years, a lot of things people don’t even know about, and I don’t say out loud,” White says. “I had a lot of loss. I wouldn’t call much of it negative, even any of it negative. I learned years ago, around 2005 or so, about death being a romantic thing. …. Death and life can become the same thing, they can both become romantic, you can love both of them equally. You can have something die in your life, whether it’s a person or a notion or a relationship, and it can be a beautiful thing at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s something that can keep me propelled to keep thinking.”
White may have trouble loving women singly, but he loves women. He has worked with many female artists, including Elson and Carla Azar, of Los Angeles band Autolux, on “Blunderbuss.” He has two bands on the road with him: The Buzzards are all male, the Peacocks all female. He decides every morning which one will perform that night. The coin flip is another example of his effort to demolish his own comfort zone.
“I do know that I tend to prefer females because a lot of stuff just goes right out the window, you don’t have to worry about half of the things you have to worry about,” he says. “When I think about what it’s like to produce or play with twentysomething white hipsters, that is the worst place that I do not tend to gravitate toward. I used to when I was younger. There’s all this baggage involved in it that’s not interesting to me; it’s being cynical and egotistical and contrarian. Those are just not good for music or art, they get in the way of it.”
So how does a 37-year-old who has already been featured in a Davis Guggenheim documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” in which he is held up as a preeminent guitarist alongside Jimmy Page and the Edge — who has already toured with and befriended Bob Dylan — next challenge himself? He has been talking for several years with the Rolling Stones about producing their next record; “I’ll do it if it’s a dirty blues record and we can get down to something really raw.” Ditto the Stooges.
One artist White would like to work with is country star George Jones. “He’s still alive; he still plays and still records. That’s almost like saying Hank Williams is still alive…. It makes you think a lot about American history and American folk culture and music and how the modern era relates to it. Is it building on it or not building on it?”
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