When Jim White was picked up by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, White estimates, only about 30 people had ever heard his music. At the time, White, a native of Pensacola, Fla., was working as a New York City cab driver. He wasn't in a band. He wasn't even actively looking to get signed. His ramshackle demo just happened to end up in the right hands.
"If you were to conduct a survey of musicians on major labels, you would not find many people like me," White says. "It was just weird luck." And, he adds, when you have weird luck, you usually have it in both good and bad categories.
It was weird bad luck that started White writing songs. When he was 18, he broke his leg twice in the same summer; having only bad TV for distraction, he picked up a guitar that someone had left at his house. "I tried learning other people's songs, but I just had no skill for it," he says. "I've written thousands of songs of my own, but I've never learned anyone else's, which I'm not happy about."
White grew up listening to music on the local AM station, with his ear to the transistor radio for two or three hours just to hear a song he liked. "To listen to Desmond Dekker sing 'The Israelites,' I had to listen to Bobbie Gentry sing 'Ode to Billy Joe' and the Strawberry Alarm Clock sing 'Red Rubber Ball' and bad psychedelia and shlock pop," he says. "To this day I still hear parts of the music that I thought I hated sneaking into my songs."
From his 1997 debut, Wrong-Eyed Jesus (filled with murder ballads and gospel freak-outs), to last year's Transnormal Skiperoo (a collection of mournful country songs, sing-alongs and even a sort-of kid's song), the wide range of music he absorbed from sitting by the radio surfaces. White brings to mind Jeff Tweedy one minute and Dr. John the next. And once in awhile he gets junkyard-weird, Tom Waits style. On his second record, 2001's No Such Place, he even dabbles in trip-hop -- with varying success -- enlisting the help of electro-trio Morcheeba.
When White talks about his life, he sounds like a character out of one of his own ghostly Southern Gothic songs. "I know, it sounds invented," he says of his strange career path, which has included stints as, among other things, a surfer in California and a fashion model in Italy. "In fact, I just didn't have much of an identity."
Much of White's identity had been lost in the storm of what he refers to as a "hallelujah breakdown." As a teen-ager, he had been an active member of a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. "You build a house of cards and call it your faith and a little wind comes along and you see the house start to shudder. And some people get out the Super Glue, whereas I just stood there and thought, 'What will happen when the wind blows harder?' I didn't protect it. Deep in my heart, I wanted the wind to blow it down."
In the midst of that crisis of faith, White got a call from his sister in New York, inviting him to come be a fashion model, a prospect he found hysterically funny. Still, he thought, "If I'm running away from Jesus, that's the perfect place."
While working as a model first in New York, then in Milan, White had time to sort out his head. "While other models where dancing in the discothèques and using cocaine, I was in my hotel room reading Dostoyevsky," he recalls with a laugh. He was reading everything from The Idiot to Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, but was most influenced by Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor.
"I had not read any books that had portrayed the area I was from in a way that made sense to me. O'Connor was little vignettes from the world that I knew. I was astonished that I recognized everything in it, but there were alternative ways of thinking about it."
Unsurprisingly, White's songwriting developed an O'Connor-esque quality: bone-stark, simple, sometimes bloody stories, where the moral rarely rises to the top. White mixes reality with imagination, and warns that the stories that seem made-up probably happened, and vice versa. "I'm not real shy about mixing the two together," he says. "I think it's important for people to cast a wary eye on anybody who claims to be telling the whole truth about anything."
Jim White WYEP Live Broadcast. 8 p.m. Fri., May 16 (doors at 6:30 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $15. 21 and over. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com
- Transnormal: Jim White