ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 29, 1997
By Steve Newton
Chris Whitley sure gets around. Born in Texas 37 years ago, the singer-songwriter-guitarist has so far taken up residence in such disparate locales as Mexico, Belgium, Vermont, and New York, to name a few.
When his harried road manager calls the Georgia Straight from Chicago, Whitley has just shown up for sound check at a Windy City bar—where he’ll play a sold-out show that night—but it takes a couple of minutes to get the receiver placed in the roaming rocker’s grip, and a little while longer for him to get his mental bearings set for an interview. He sounds flustered, like he wants to get moving again, but his nomadic tendencies will have to wait while I toss a few questions in his path. First off, I want to know how his transient lifestyle has affected his creative outlook.
“I think that just moving a lot itself—like not growing up knowing the same people—has affected my kinda rootlessness,” he relates. “And I think that places like New York and Europe—and the southern influence, the desert—have affected me in some spiritual way, or informed some of my imagery and my taste in music.”
Whitley first proved himself a keen commentator on the world around him with his acoustic-based ’91 debut, Living with the Law, which saw him deftly handling a National steel guitar on such odes to the wide-open spaces as “Big Sky Country” and “Bordertown”. The latter track, which closed off the record, confirmed the vagabond tone of Whitley’s work: “The bordertown shook my hand, it was the gateway to some other land…I got to get across.” Whitley’s skill at working the world his wandering spirit encounters into his music was nurtured by the creative mind-set of his artist mother, who raised him alone after splitting up with Whitley’s art-director dad when Chris was 11.
“I think I get a lot of visual references from my parents being visual artists,” he says. “My dad’s a graphic artist in advertising, and my mom’s a sculptor, so there’s kind of a weird conflict of art and commerce there. I grew up mostly with my mom, and we didn’t have any money, really—we basically lived below poverty level most of my teen years—but my dad had money, so… I think that growing up in between those two lifestyles has influenced me a lot.”
Apart from his parents’ art-oriented careers and Whitley’s travelling experiences, there was always the influence of music itself, which had a profound effect on him early on. He still recalls the first albums he ever bought, at age 11, with money he got from a generous grandma.
“It was 1971, and I bought Creedence’s Bayou Country, and Smash Hits from Hendrix, and Stand from Sly & the Family Stone. But my parents had listened to Dylan and the Beatles when I was a kid, and my dad was into a lot of Cream, Mountain, and Derek and the Dominos—all of that stuff that’s now classic rock was around when I was a little kid. And then when I was in high school through the ’70s I listened to Aerosmith and Zeppelin.”
Although he grew up appreciating the top rock guitarists of the day, Whitley managed to develop a playing style that wasn’t patterned after any of them. He’s come by his rootsy feel more through songwriter instinct than note-for-note study.
“I learned to play guitar from writing songs,” he points out. “My playing has been influenced by the things that I heard growing up, but I make up all my own chords, and there’s rarely solos on my stuff—I’m not like a blues guitarist who’ll play a solo like Clapton or Stevie Ray or B. B. King. I never do that. If there’s an open break in a song, it’s not a clean solo—it’s almost more like a texture, or a simple slide thing, or a bunch of noise. I think as a kid that Jimmy Page influence was very strong‚ because he was so textural with guitar-playing. It was much more about how the guitar sounded than where the solos were and stuff.”
To give his new Terra Incognita CD the sound he wanted, Whitley and his coproducers Dougie Bowne, Toby Wright (Alice in Chains), and Mark Howard (the Tragically Hip) set up shop in the Boulevard Teatro, a onetime movie house located in the quiet farming community of Oxnard, California. The songs on the CD—which Whitley will showcase on Sunday (June 1) at Richard’s on Richards—are more upbeat and melodic than those on Living with the Law, but were laid down with the same type of open-road spirit. The intro instrumental, “As Flat as the Earth (exp)”, was recorded at a Best Western hotel in Oregon, while “Immortal Blues” came to fruition at a Holiday Inn in Atlanta. Whitley’s songs come to him anywhere and anytime, and he has his own proven method for weeding out a newborn tune’s weaker aspects.
“When I can’t get behind a lyric as it’s coming out of my mouth,” he says, “then I throw it away and try to come up with something else. And sometimes I end up throwing the whole song away, because I find that overworking things doesn’t get me anywhere. Often I try to trust stuff that doesn’t even make sense, because if it feels like I have an intent, that’s the whole point, too. But it can’t just be abstract, top-of-your-head words that happen to rhyme or something, because I don’t believe in that either.
“I think that a lot of inspiration comes from your subconscious if you allow it,” he adds, “and that’s why a lot of my songs aren’t particularly about something—I only realize what they’re about after I’ve written them, almost. I go through an editing process of what feels right to sing, and what rhythmically feels right, but what informs my best songs is stuff that’s a bit below my conscious level. And that can happen anywhere, you know.”