Jim White describes himself as a “singer/songwriter, author, fine art photographer, crackpot philosopher, folk artist, record producer, film maker, dad”. But the multi-hyphenate, who’s just released his sixth solo album Waffles, Triangles & Jesus, could also add fashion model, cab driver, and pro surfer to his CV. Nils van der Linden had a conversation with Jim during his recent UK tour.
“You can take a circuitous route to get where you’re going, just so long as you always keep your destination in mind,” he offers. “I always knew what the destination was, it wasn’t to be famous, it wasn’t to be cool. It wasn’t to be normal, it was to be me. And every time I found a moment where i got a little closer to being me I grabbed it by the throat and thought: ‘What can I get out of this?’”
Take surfing. White was a short boarder, surfing for free boards, wetsuits, and prize money of “like 250 bucks”, during the very early days of the professional circuit.
“Surfing is a really intuitive realm,” he explains. “I could communicate with the ocean much better than I could communicate with people. I knew when I saw a lump in the distant horizon, I knew what kind of wave it was going to be, where it was going to be, and how fast it was going to be travelling.
“They say that the good surfers, the waves kind of find them. I was like that, the waves found me. And, whether it be with music, or any kind of art form, or athletics, when you’re struggling and you find this way to become part of this integral pattern, it’s a lifeline.
“So surfing was a lifeline for me, until it wasn’t.”
Partly disillusioned by the transformation he saw in a surfer friend (“I did not want to become like him because he seemed to be driven by something that would not deliver you to redemption”), one day he just quit.
“I went to Europe and did the weirdest thing I could think of, which was to become a model. And most people think: ‘That’s the dumbest job in the world’, but that was the birthplace of the songs,” White reveals.
“I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t do lines of coke, I didn’t partake in that lifestyle, I sat in rooms in various cities and wrote song after song after song after song, and played them for people.”
Not everybody was impressed, though. A “beautiful Scandinavian lady” he met on a cruise ship described one of his songs as “three shortwave radios playing all at once”, he laughs.
But he wasn’t perturbed.
“I tried to write a song a week, every week for those four years I was a model. I read a book a week, and I’d never read a book before I became a model. Good things happened.
“When I first started cab driving, it felt that way too. ‘Alright, this makes sense, let me do it until it doesn’t.’”
Initially taking the job to pay for his film studies at NYU, White ultimately spent 13 years driving a New York City taxi.
“The best education I got was from driving a cab, it beat NYU hands down,” he says of the time that forms the basis of his forthcoming memoir Incidental Contact.
“I have social phobias which are quite extreme,” he begins, “and every night I had to talk to 60, 80 people, I had to navigate social situations with people who were in various stages of existence, anything from ecstasy to extreme duress. I had people dying in my cab, I was racing people to hospital who were about to give birth, I heard stories of tragedies.
“As a cab driver you’re right in the middle of the river of life. So it really helped me develop a facility for dealing with my social phobia.”
Later, that facility would help him perform live. When David Byrne signed him to his record label Luaka Bop in the late ‘90s, White had never played a show or even with other musicians.
“I’d played alone by myself in a room for 25 years. When I got on stage, I didn’t even really know how to tune a guitar properly, and all of a sudden there’s a band behind me, and I had to be in tune with them.
“I’d get real flustered and I wouldn’t know what to do, and my guitar would be out of tune because it was cheap, and so I’d start talking to people and use my storytelling skills I learnt in my cab listening to people and distracting them from their troubles,” he elaborates.
“I also learnt not to be afraid of anybody, because the scariest time I ever had in a cab was a lot scarier than being on a stage in front of 2000 people. If I get up on stage in front of 2000 people and I have a social phobia, I think: ‘None of them have a gun to my head, I’m OK’, whereas in my cab, I had people who wanted to kill me.
“So it did a lot of good. It helped break me out of some very introverted patterns that were strangling me. If you have bad reflexes, which i did, left to your own resources you die a slow, self-encouraged death. I was on that path until cab driving just blew it up, and the aftermath of the explosion, the cab driving years, was the music.”
White credits Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, with making the music a long-term possibility.
“He always believed in me,” acknowledges White. “I’ll be grateful for that until the end of my life. My life is a very different proposition due to him believing in me. I was a mentally ill cab driver with maybe a slim chance of getting work in the film business, but nobody really wanted to hire me because I was struggling psychologically so much. And all of a sudden I’m opening to 2000 people a night in front of him,” he exclaims.
“When we were touring together, every time that we went to a new place, the first thing he did was put on his little equestrian helmet and his buckskin jacket, and he’d get on this little folding bicycle and go riding all over these towns to weird record stores and saying: ‘What’s some weird local music that I will never hear unless I walk into this store?’
“Who does that? And then he’d come back to the bus and listen to every single CD. He really loves music and he really respects everybody who’s a musician.”
That respect extended to non-musicians as well.
“He has so much integrity – I never saw him be false, ever. At one point he’s wildly famous David Byrne, and then the next minute he’s incredibly humble and completely unaware of his celebrity,” says White, remembering how he and Byrne once helped a stranger carry suitcases from a taxi to her fifth floor New York apartment “because that was what the situation required”.
Like Byrne, White himself is a singular individual and a singular musical talent who takes this music thing very seriously.
“After shows people will come up and they’ll tell stories that rip your heart out, because I’m up there on stage telling stories about my struggles as well, and so it feels really good.
“Two nights ago a guy came up and said: ‘I’m going through a really rough time right now and i feel like I was meant to be here tonight, thank you. You really helped me.’ That makes you go: ‘OK, this isn’t for nothing. This isn’t about coming and making some money and getting people to say I’m great or anything like that, this is about helping people and people helping me.’
“If you’re doing your work and nobody values it, life’s pretty lonely. I did that for about 25 years of songwriting, it makes life feel pretty lonely. If someone comes up and says: ‘You did a good job on that song’, it validates all of that suffering and work that I put into making something happen.”
Like the song Static On The Radio that took “seven years of constant work, sometimes 15 hours a day just listening to the song, trying to figure out what the story was and what the meaning was”.
“I’m stubborn and if I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon something that has value I just won’t give up, I’ll just keep fighting to make it real. But I can tell when it’s realised and when it’s half-made,” he elaborates.
“I have to drive it way down into some deep reservoir, far far inside of me where things get sorted out. It’s not an easy place to get to but I think it’s a good song, so it’s worth the trouble.
“It means a lot to people, people come up and talk to me about it a lot. To them it describes something they’ve never been able to lay hands on before. And if you think about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, it was probably a lot more terrifying the proposition of a tiger before they had a name for it. It was just ‘that big orange thing with the long teeth and hair that will rip us limb from limb’. ‘Tiger’ is a lot more comforting term if it’s going to kill you.”
But, to be clear, White doesn’t always take seven years to finish a song. More recently he’s begun writing while walking between the stalls at the local fleamarket.
“It’s a very different style for me than my previous years of kind of crawling on my hands and knees, inch by inch, to get a song done and I’m trying to let a free-er happier person crawl out of the mire of self,” he reveals.
“So this album is a lot more free and people are commenting on how it feels a little more relaxed than the previous records, which is good. I’m 60, I need to relax before I move on to the next realm of existence,” White chuckles.
The “singer/songwriter, author, fine art photographer, crackpot philosopher, folk artist, record producer, film maker, dad” may have taken a circuitous route to get where he is now, but he clearly still has his destination in mind.
“Eventually, the whole point of doing anything in your life is to become yourself as well as you can, so that you start being able to be of service to others. Like when people come up to me after the shows and say thank you. And I just want to cry out of gratitude.”
Interview by Nils van der Linden and Portraits by Simon Jay Price November 2017,
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus by Jim White is out now on Loose and is available on double LP and CD.
catch you live review of Jim at Dingwalls & St Mary’s here: https://rockshot.co.uk/205363/jim-white-plays-guitars-talks-jesus-at-dingwalls-st-marys-guildford/