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The irony of Matthew E. White is that he never intended becoming a mainstream artist. It wasn’t until he started working on his acclaimed first album, Big Inner, that he tried his hand at songwriting. Big Inner was always intended primarily as a musical “calling card” to promote White’s musical philosophy and Spacebomb, the production company cum house band he had formed a year earlier out of his attic studio in Richmond, Virginia. The idea of Spacebomb was to make albums cheaply, principally by recording all the musicians together whenever possible, with minimal overdubbing, utilising a regular pool of talented collaborators. White described the ethos in 2013: “You are hearing a group of people, in a community together, doing something you cannot do any other way. You cannot copy it.”
White drew inspiration from the great in-house studios – and in-house bands – of places such as Motown’s Hitsville USA studio in Detroit, where The Funk Brothers plied their trade under the direction of celebrated writers and producers such as Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Memphis’s Stax Records was another example: Booker T. & The M.G.s played on virtually everything ever produced at the studio, working with celebrated writer/producers such as Isaac Hayes and David Porter. These studios and musicians had a sound and an instinctive way of communicating musically that cannot be replicated artificially. White’s albums have a similar feeling of authenticity and unforced charm. There is always a timeless quality when music is captured in a natural space with a minimum of fuss.
With his talents as a writer, artist and producer having grown in leaps and bounds since his debut, White has now delivered his second record, Fresh Blood. The opening track is the seductive “Take Care My Baby”. It’s an intimate, sexy love song that begins with White musing aloud over a few simple piano chords before slowly building to a lush Philly Soul-inflected groove. His vocals are as understated as always, as are most of the arrangements on the album, but rather than feeling offhand they carry a sense of quiet conviction, much like White himself.
“Rock & Roll Is Cold” follows hard on the heels of “Take Care My Baby” but, then again, every track on this album comes on like this: White hates leaving any gap between album tracks. He told me simply, “It drives me nuts.” “Rock & Roll Is Cold” is a lighthearted put-down of the moribund state of rock, something White believes is not true of R&B and gospel. “Rock’n’roll is 65 years old, it’s become … codified in universities and books, and it’s just sort of floated away from its source,” he told me by phone. “I think it’s not ageing particularly gracefully, that’s the truth… It’s pretty much done as a movement. Genres move on; that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. But there’s great music that can still come out of them … I think that it’s fun to talk about that and to challenge ourselves to make things that are worthwhile … [not] just fill up the record bins.”
There is a disarming, loping rhythm about the song that puts me in mind of J. J. Cale, though White tells me another Cale, John, was a strong influence on the album. There is something ineffably Southern about the music that comes out of Spacebomb. That’s probably due to the strong streak of soul throughout and the hints of jazz that frequently crop up. Happily, there is little evidence of that tired genre alternative rock to be found, though there are plenty of “alternative” influences at play here.
The enormous success of Big Inner took its creators by surprise and White and his Spacebomb collective spent the better part of two years touring the world, using the opportunity to spread the Spacebomb gospel along the way. And it truly is a collective. Like the old saying about raising children, White believes it takes a village to make a record. Every part of the Spacebomb process is a genuine collaboration, including the songwriting. White brings his song ideas to Andy C. Jenkins, his one-time bandmate and lifetime friend, and together they flesh them out. Both contribute lyrics and music as required. These are then presented to the Spacebomb house band: Pinson Chanselle on drums and Cameron Ralston on bass, with White usually playing guitar himself.
White is also responsible for the impressive horn arrangements on the record, while Trey Pollard scores the strings. Although they may discuss specific musical reference points beforehand, White trusts Pollard completely and he is right to do so: Pollard’s striking orchestrations have been a standout feature of both albums. In particular, the string arrangement for Fresh Blood’s “Tranquility” is simply remarkable. The song is White’s sombre rumination upon the life and death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though White never met Hoffman, his respect for the late actor inspired him to post this tribute with “Tranquility” on Soundcloud: “To a man that showed me, over and over, what excellence and craft is, here is a song for you.”
His almost evangelical approach to music may be a product of his background. Literally the son of a preacher man, White spent a number of years growing up in the Philippines, where his parents ran a Christian mission. Later, they relocated to Virginia Beach and there White enjoyed a more conventional upbringing, though his parents still did mission work and the family was embraced by the local faith-based community. White’s Christian background has been unpalatable to some listeners and “Brazos”, the final song on Big Inner, certainly raised a few non-Christian eyebrows with the insistent refrain of “Jesus Christ is our Lord, Jesus Christ he is your friend” during its final four minutes. Misunderstood by many, “Brazos” was written from the point of view of a runaway slave couple clinging to the faith of their Christian slave masters. Their former owners’ religion continued to subjugate them despite their hard-won freedom. Hardly the ringing endorsement of Christianity some took it to be.
On Fresh Blood there are more songs that examine Christian behaviour with a critical eye, exploring some very dark subtexts. “Circle ’Round the Sun” features another “dishonest narrator”; that is, the lyrics don’t represent White’s own beliefs and instead express the perspective of the song’s protagonist. In other words, they are written from a specific character’s point of view. Popular music is one of the few art forms where people find this notion problematic. No one ever believes an actor is “really” that person they are playing on screen, nor do readers worry that novelists are serial killers or aliens when they write about them in their books. But for some peculiar reason, music lovers always want to closely identify singers with the sentiments they sing.
At first listen, “Circle ’Round the Sun” appears to be a paean to simple Christian faith – that we should trust in the Lord no matter what. Not apparent in the lyric sheet is that this song was written about an acquaintance of White’s and the song’s lyrics are the gist of a message she left for her family in her suicide note. This woman’s children had grown up and moved away and, feeling useless, her strong religious convictions deluded her into thinking that her death would solve her problems and deliver her to paradise. If the author himself truly has any belief in the redemptive power of faith, it is not apparent here. That said, the song is strangely beautiful despite its troubling subject.
The song that precedes it, “Holy Moly”, on the other hand, pulls no punches. It is the harrowing account of the sexual abuse of a friend of White’s by a trusted pastor when they were in their teens. As White explained to me: “It’s about sexual abuse in the church. It did happen in my home town to people I was close with, and I had the unfortunate circumstance of seeing that very up close, and seeing the pain and the trauma that causes within all those different systems, you know – family systems and religious systems and faith-based communities…” The song is a musical highlight of the album, constructed over a simple descending chord sequence, summoning a maelstrom of swirling emotions with mounting horror. It’s a scathing, angry song of betrayal and bitter recriminations, but remarkably White concludes it on a note of defiance, even hope:
Fuck ’em all, love is home.
Home is love – love is all.
I will not fear anymore.
“Holy Moly” would make a good climax for the album but White has wisely chosen to place it earlier in the sequence. The songs on Fresh Blood are chiefly concerned with truth, love and beauty and White rightly closes the album on an optimistic note with “Love Is Deep”, a sweet soul song that name-checks a number of his greatest musical inspirations: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Judee Sill, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sam Cooke. “Love Is Deep” is musical holy water to cleanse the spirit, and this listener wishes the song could go on forever. A gorgeous finish to a gorgeous album.
• MULTIMEDIA Tasmanian International Arts Festival
Various venues, Tasmania, until March 29
• BALLET La Sylphide
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, until March 31
• VISUAL ART Silent Poetry: Chinese Contemporary Art
Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 29
• THEATRE Uncle Vanya in Avoca
Watford House, Avoca, Victoria, March 21-22
• VISUAL ART Mystic Renegade: The Promise of Return – New works by Christian Thompson
Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, until March 22
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2015 as "Gospel of Matthew".
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