“I became a pretty serious guitar player,” he says via phone as he drives to a L.A. tour stop. “I was mainly interested in doing my own thing and writing stuff. I know very few other people’s songs. I never learned them. I constantly wrote.”
He went to music school “to get better at all things music.” When he got out of music school, he formed his own label, Spacebomb Records, with the hopes that it would become something along the lines of Stax or Motown, labels that featured a house band and full roster of acts that record with that band.
[jump] “I needed an artist to come in and debut the process and I had a lot of ideas about a record I might want to make,” he says. “It’s been on from there.”
“The success of my first record took us by surprise but we were built for that,” he says. “We were built to have records do well. That was the goal. We started the label to succeed. The surprise is more in how quickly people were recognizing what we did as something unique. It’s a complicated thing. I don’t think I saw it any particular way. I just wanted to create energy. I wanted to spin the wheel as fast as I could spin it. The solo career hasn’t been the most expected thing but it makes sense for the skill sets that I have and what I have to share as an artist. It’s been an exciting thing. It doesn’t feel like a fork in the road.”
After releasing that first solo album, 2012’s Big Inner, the accolades started to accumulate. Rolling Stone magazine anointed him an “artist to watch” and other music magazines heaped equal amounts of praise on the disc. His soulful voice and expansive arrangements distinguish him from other neo-soul acts who try to evoke the sounds of a bygone era.
“For me, it was about making records that were centered on arrangements and utilizing that process,” he says when asked about his approach on Big Inner. “You record a rhythm section and then the horn arrangements and you’re done. Tons of Motown records were made in this way. It’s complicated in the process and it takes a lot of accomplished musicians so it takes administrative efforts. Once you get that on the table, it’s pretty simple. There’s a lot of trust in your collaborators. There’s purity to the process I was going for. I wanted the songs to be good songs and good arrangements and good playing and see where that ended up.”
With Fresh Blood, he set out to “improve upon” the template he created with Big Inner.
“There was one thing I didn’t want to do,” he says. “Beck has his country album or his funky album or his dark album or that kind of thing. I didn’t want to get into that. I wanted to take the vocabulary I had started and add to it and continue to develop my own voice and dig deeper into those ideas. I was wary of not going down that path. I didn’t want to do make an acoustic guitar and make this other record. That’s not who I am. The process is owed more respect than that. It’s not just the things that are going into that. I was committing to people and getting the most musical stuff out of that relationship as you can and digging into the skill sets. That’s so much bigger than the genre. That’s mainly what I wanted to get at.”
In the song “Rock & Roll is Cold” he expresses his philosophy about the future of rock ’n’ roll. “Rock ’n’ roll don’t have no soul,” he croons over cooing backing vocals and a brisk piano melody.
“I think first and foremost, it’s a little tongue in cheek,” he says of the song. “As writers and musicians we all like to talk about what we love and don’t love in music. Generally, people I meet in this field have strong opinions and like to share them. It’s fun. For me, rock as a cultural movement is finished. It doesn’t mean that really great music can’t be made. Just as a cultural movement, it’s over. To me, rock ’n’ roll has become a caricature of itself. That started early on with Elvis and the Stones. Rock comes from the black American experience. As the music has floated away from that, the colder it’s become. I look at music like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean or Beyonce. They’re tied to the black American experience. R&B, which is as old as rock n roll, hasn’t aged as ungracefully as R&B, which is still vibrant.”
Though it might sound as if White is a throwback who would prefer to be recording and touring in another era, White says that's not the case.
“I know that a lot of the things I do are [a throwback] to some extent because the process is that way,” he says. “I think some of that is me figuring out how to do it still. You only get to do it once every two years. You don’t get a lot of practice. You don’t get the chance to make improvements. For me, I’m still learning so much. There’s absolute truth in getting musicians together in a room. I think that’s what music is about. It’s about community. I believe in that. I also believe in making things as a team.”
He cites Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as the type of album he aspires to make. And he says it took a team to make it.
“No one could have made that but him,” he says. “He led a team of people and engineers made music he couldn’t make on his own. That’s a powerful thing. I wanna do that. Believing in a team and believing in musicians playing together has nothing to do with genre. Big Inner is me figuring out how to put the pen to paper and make something.”
He says his music will continue to become more adventurous with each album.
“It takes such a big, heavy, unwieldy operation to make a record like that,” he says. “It takes the learning curve and pushing ahead, which I’m really dedicated to. You can’t move at the same speed as if you were doing laptop shit in your room. I don’t say that in a derogatory way at all. Not at all. It’s just harder to push forward as fast as I might like to. I would make records every three months if someone would let me, but they won’t.”
Matthew E. White, Wilsen, 8:30 p.m., Friday, April 3, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.