Southern soul missionary on an unexpected journey

Brimming with nostalgic sentiment and overt evangelical ideologies, MATTHEW E. WHITE’s debut LP Big Inner re-imagined contemporary Americana with such boundless expanse and ethereal, gospel leanings, it belied the traditional singer/songwriter format and positioned him as one of 2013’s most unexpectedly acclaimed newcomers. Positioning Motown models in a grandiose context was the modus operandi, something White, along with his in-house label band Spacebomb, pulled off with consummate ease. Now touring the UK following the release of his country-gospel-soul debut on Domino Records, Joshua Potts talked to the bespectacled Virginian ahead of his performance at Leaf on Monday 1st July.

Bido Lito!: The jazz, soul and blues influences on Big Inner are unmistakably brought into a modern context by your refusal to let the listener feel comfortable in rigid genre territories. Do you approach writing music with a wilful abandon, or do you have a set idea that changes over time?

Matthew E. White: Music comes in many ways and from many places for me. Sometimes I’m working from a more abstract place and sometimes I’m working from within strict parameters. I think any refusal to let the listener feel comfortable within a genre comes from me not wanting to feel squarely placed in a genre. I write what I want to hear, what I want to listen to and that’s the only true rule.

BL!: What do you think religious imagery adds to your work? 

MEW: Well, mostly it probably adds a little bit of context to my life as that’s something I’ve grown up around and is a language I’m comfortable using. That’s an interesting question; I’ve never really had anyone put it like that. When I made the record I didn’t think too much about it, I knew it was there but it’s not “imagery” to me – I think that implies that your pulling it from somewhere. I grew up in that place, it was everywhere and it just comes out, that’s the community I came from.

BL!: Gone Away in particular has a striking lyrical juxtaposition of clinging to the cross with “trembling and fear” whilst feeling “burdened with care”. Can acceptance always overcome a tragic event like the one described in the song?

MEW: Always? Probably not. For some people it seems to be able to, I don’t know if for me it has. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what “overcoming” is? What does that mean on a day to day basis, it’s easier said than done.

BL!: How is the Patchwork Collective (an arts group dedicated to cultivating local music) getting along? Any new discoveries you’d care to share? 

MEW: Patchwork has turned into Spacebomb. That’s a simplistic way of putting it, but without getting into a lot of local Richmond history, that’s what more or less has happened and Spacebomb is getting along quite well.

BL!: Have you considered extending the Collective’s tendrils to more far flung places?

MEW: I think that’s a primary reason why Patchwork became Spacebomb. Patchwork was inward facing and Spacebomb is outward facing. Spacebomb would like to go to the farthest flung places.

BL!: Has the success of Big Inner surprised you, considering you’ve played with bands like Fight The Big Bull and The Great White Jenkins for years?

MEW: Yes and no. As an artist, I make something because I think I have something worthwhile to say, so in that sense you’re hoping that people respond, and depending on how good you’re feeling about yourself on a certain day, you’re never certain, and on the bad days, you think you’ve made a pile of dogshit. I did the same with TGWJ and FTBB and got less of a reaction, so you never know. I think I’m better than I was then and I’m certainly making music that’s a little more palatable to the average listener than say, Fight the Big Bull.

BL!: Is it safe to say Cameron Ralston and Pinson Chanselle (bass and drums respectively in White’s backing band) are sticking with you for the long haul?

MEW: If I can help it, yes. They are inspiring and amazing musicians

BL!: Spacebomb Records has this great collaborative aesthetic where fresh musicians can produce material very quickly. But is this ultimately relevant in the modern performance focused landscape? Can an old-school approach be sustainable? 

MEW: We are not focused on producing things quickly although that can be a bi-product of what we do, we are focused on making great music, and great music is always relevant.

BL!: What do you hold most dear about the opportunities Big Inner has opened up?

MEW: Getting the chance to make the next record.

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