When you first hear Simone White, what’s perhaps most striking is the almost peculiarly individual place she’s coming from — this odd jumble of musical dreams and schemes that somehow manage to transcend mere pastiche. It’s tempting, in fact, to describe it as a sound that’s searingly honest, and maybe you’ll excuse the cliché (though she probably wouldn’t). You just know something’s afoot when you take your first gander at the cover of Ms. White’s new CD, I Am the Man, on the Honest Jon’s label. Right there, you’ve got three things to pull you in: the label itself, which is Blur/Gorillaz main man Damon Albarn’s primo imprimatur and trademark of high quality; then there’s the album’s (ironic?) title — clearly, White is not a man; although neither is she the beehived, Bardot-like figure lounging with a leopard on the front of her disc. That’s her mother.
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White: A born performer — but not a hippie
It gets curiouser when you dig into this Simone White and her semibizarre story of an alternative upbringing in the ’70s on a hippie commune, where for a time she was only allowed to listen to classical music.
It all starts in Hawaii …
“Well, my mother didn’t like being associated with the hippies,” she says with a laugh. “Even though I think I grew up with hippies, she calls it more of the beatnik era. She was a performer, folksinger and belly dancer at a time when no one was doing that. And my grandma was a performer — there’s a picture of her on the inside of the CD. They had a sister act, did stuff in Pittsburgh.”
The idiosyncratically beautiful way that White has composed and performed the music on I Am the Man urges you to do some psychoanalyzing about how said alternative childhood actually molded the shape of her brain. Like, when she was three, her family joined this cult called the Fellowship of Friends in Northern California.
“The teacher was inspired by [early-20th-century spiritualists] Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,” she says, “and [Gurdjieff] believed that classical music, and Renaissance art, were higher — better food, in a sense. He had the idea that you surrounded yourself with these higher things, that they had a higher vibration.”
Though White’s guru looked down on jazz, she discovered it in her teens, and it was a revelation. “More so even than rock,” she says. “When I started listening to jazz, I was very excited.”
This background seems pertinent if you’re drawn to the unusual ways White has of constructing and arranging her songs, which may have something to do with the fact that she didn’t start playing guitar until she was 22. (“I’d had a boyfriend that was in a band, and to me the guitar was always the boyfriend’s instrument. It’s so dumb! ’Cause it was, like, you gotta be bad before you can be good, and there was no place for me to be bad.”) While the only slightly eccentric effect of her music on I Am the Man owes majorly to the masterly machinations of Mark Nevers — the Nashville producer who’s done such imaginative work with Lambchop, Will Oldham, Calexico and the Silver Jews — White clearly has a feel, and an incentive, for doing things with a third, very different ear.
Recorded over a longish period at Nevers’ studio in an old house in Nashville, I Am the Man is a hugely varied collection of both heartbreaking personal and astutely political folk (ostensibly) tunes written by White, plus a few covers. The wobbly trombones and tremolo guitars of the opening “I Didn’t Have Any Summer Romance” grace a song that was originally an unreleased track by Carole King; its languid melodic grace is no doubt cued from the ’50s pop and doowop that King took inspiration from way back in the day. Written by her Brill Building–inspired friends Frank Bango and Ricky Vesecky, “Worm Was Wood” makes intelligent use of leaping chord progressions within a semifamiliar context of dreamy Lynch-like shadows, an affectionate irony where White croons, “You made a promise/how quickly we forget” and somehow addresses, roughly, the recycling of atoms, or the recycling of time — of relationships, in other words.
That sort of darkly bubbly thing characterizes White’s own “The Beep Beep Song,” whose chorus of “love is all we need” is, in this case, strictly nonironic. Yet there is an ever so sardonic tinge to young Ms. White in “Roses Are Not Red,” which is lyrically very smart, and edgy, though instrumentally it’s delivered via one very lazily deadpan waltz.
When White delves in plainly topical fare like “Great Imperialist State” or “The American War” (“Do you remember the Americans?”), she does it with an intriguing palette of instruments. (Can one ever really have too many trombones? No!) Nevers’ recording of all this gives a warm, full, rich sound; again, for nostalgic spaciousness, you just can’t beat a heavily tremolo’d guitar, and Nevers surely does not skimp on that.
It was Nevers who took Simone’s material to Albarn at Honest Jon’s. White had met Albarn while doing some photography while living in London in 2002; Nevers had recorded the label’s great Candi Staton album of 2006, His Hands, and thought that this good-taste label (also featuring Tony Allen, Afel Bocoum, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Kokanko Sata, Lobi Traore) might find White’s work of interest. It did, and released I Am the Man in Europe last year; the album made its American debut last month.
To promote the record, the delicately pretty Simone White has been performing a lot on tour — mostly in Europe, just her and a guitar; in July she’ll be joining the aforementioned Honest Jon’s artists in a revue series playing at the Barbican in London, at a festival in Lyon and at Lincoln Center in NYC.
Perhaps she’ll again play in her hometown, Los Angeles, too. A few weeks ago she snuck onto a Sunday night, 8 p.m., bill at the Hotel Café, but that’s certainly not Lincoln Center. When she does return, you’ll hear that special something that elevates White way, way above the crowded, sensitive raft of singer-songwriters. It’s called breath.
“I was listening to Chet Baker, and his singing and his horn playing and that seamless way they go together, and it’s all about his breath,” she says. “And then there was the jazz singer Betty Carter; I saw her in clubs in Seattle, and it was as close as I could get to her. I felt like my cellular makeup was changing in the room because of her voice. I felt like I was downloading the information. I remember feeling, This is changing the way I’m thinking about singing, and breathing, and holding a note.
“Just being in the room with singing and breathing and vibrating, I think, is very inspiring.”