Music Interviews
4:01 pm
Sun June 3, 2012

Jack White On His Own, Tells Other People's Stories

Originally published on Sun June 3, 2012 5:25 pm

Blunderbuss, Jack White's first solo album, is not just about him. It's about characters, he says.

"The 'hes' and 'shes' and 'Is' are sort of all arbitrary," White tellsGuy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "Some of them fall in the blues context of just 'man versus the world' or 'man versus woman,' or something like that, but they don't really have anything to do with male or female."

White says the stories in his songs come to him partially formed. When he started writing "I Guess I Should Go to Sleep," from Blunderbuss, he played a chord and that sentence was the first line that popped into his head.

"It becomes my problem," he says. "Now I have to find a reason why this person should go to sleep. What's wrong?"

White would rather, he says, invent.

"I get to become a director. I get to become a playwright. I get to become a producer, and an actor. All at the same time."

When White is done writing, he asks for another perspective on his work.

"When it's finished I have to listen to it a few times, and it's best to listen to it with someone else in the room or in the car," he says. "Usually a girl, for me. It always feels like there's some kind of honesty that comes out."

Listening then, he knows he can be proud if he hears something different.

"Even if it was only for a few seconds in each song," he says, "I got someplace new that I haven't been before."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

RAZ: It's time now for music and someone who took an unlikely road to rock stardom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

THE WHITE STRIPES BAND: (Singing) I'm going to fight 'em off. A seven nation army couldn't hold me back.

RAZ: Jack White grew up the youngest of 10 children in a working class home in Detroit. He climbed his way up to the ranks of the upholstery business until he decided to give rock and roll a try. He formed a two-piece band with his ex-wife, Meg, and they passed themselves off as brother and sister.

Wearing only red, white and black, The White Stripes played blues music with punk ferocity, and somehow, The White Stripes became a huge hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

BAND: (Singing) And the message coming from my eyes say leave it alone.

RAZ: Jack White dissolved The White Stripes last year. Now, he's just released his first solo album, and it immediately shot to number one. It's called "Blunderbuss."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE INTERRUPTION")

JACK WHITE: (Singing) I won't let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me. Yeah, I won't let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me.

RAZ: Jack White's fans have been pouring over the album's lyrics looking for insights into his psyche. He says don't bother. The songs are not autobiographical. They're just characters. So when we spoke a few days ago, I asked Jack White about another Detroit native who speaks through characters.

The novelist Jeffrey Eugenides has written as a man that has written from a woman's perspective. Have you ever done that?

WHITE: All the time. Oh, yeah. All the time. The he's and she's and I's are sort of all arbitrary. You know, some of them fall into a blues context of just man versus the world or man versus woman or something like that. But they don't really have anything to do with male or female. I mean, you should always think of it as yourself when you're a listener to a song. You can try to get into the song and relate to it in some way.

RAZ: When you sit down to write a song, have you already kind of sketched out a character in your mind? I mean, do you walk around with a notepad and think, this could be a good character, somebody to think about when I'm writing a song, or does that character kind of just form as you're writing the song?

WHITE: It usually forms for me because that's - it becomes my problem. Like, what do I do now with this person? You take a song, like on the record "I Guess I Should Go To Sleep." You know, I just play the chords and said - the first line I said was...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GUESS I SHOULD GO TO SLEEP")

WHITE: (Singing) I guess I should go to sleep...

And now I have to find a reason why this person should go to sleep.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: What's wrong? You know, is this a positive thing or a negative thing? And try to look at it from different angles and what this character could possibly go through to get to the point where he would say this out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GUESS I SHOULD GO TO SLEEP")

WHITE: (Singing) Well, I guess I'll take off my shoes. Head upstairs and then watch some news. That's another way to lose these walking blues. I guess I'll take off my shoes.

RAZ: When you finish this record, do you listen to it and say, I just made a great record. I mean, are you really proud of this?

WHITE: It's very tough. I always wanted to, when I was younger, ask somebody who was an artist or a songwriter, a musician, about pride. I wanted to ask when pride was appropriate. You know, I didn't - it always felt wrong, you know, trying to avoid any kind of ego trips or getting a buzz for the wrong reasons.

I try not to listen to any other music when I'm writing. And when it's finished, I have to listen to it a few times. It's best to listen to it with someone else in the room or in the car, usually a girl for me. It always feels like there's some kind of honesty that comes out. That's when I start to know that I got somewhere. I connected.

Even if it was only for a few seconds in each song, I got someplace new that I haven't been before. And when you - feeling also that you - you have to let yourself feel some tiny bit of pride or something. I don't know. It's very, very confusing. Probably be my first question to God if we ever meet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIP POOR BOY")

WHITE: (Singing) But don't get out of your chair, put a bow in your hair. You might be making them stare. So leave the care to the poor boy, the poor boy. And that's the name of the game. Keep on staying the same, ain't nobody to blame, nobody but the poor boy, the poor boy.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Jack White, formerly of The White Stripes. His new record is called "Blunderbuss." Jack, I want to ask you about your upbringing. For people who don't know, you were the youngest of 10 kids in a very obviously large Catholic family in a working class part of Detroit. Both your folks worked for the diocese.

WHITE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: When you were a kid, what did you think you would become?

WHITE: I didn't know. For a long time, I thought about the Air Force or the Marines. And then when I got to be, you know, 12, 13, I started thinking about being a priest. And I got accepted at a seminary for a minute, and that was an idea in my head. But then I just decided at the last second to go to a public school in Detroit.

It definitely took me down a different road. And I started working in an upholstery shop and eventually opened my own place and was turned on to all different kinds of music through all that experience.

RAZ: Do you get a chance to go back to Detroit? I know you don't live in Detroit. You now live in Nashville.

WHITE: Yeah.

RAZ: But you're connected, deeply connected to that city.

WHITE: True.

RAZ: Do you get to go back?

WHITE: Yeah. I was just there last week. We played across the street from where I went to high school. We played at Masonic Temple.

RAZ: Do you get to go back and be a regular person there?

WHITE: No. No. I don't think so. I think that's something I gave up or was taken away or I gave it away. I don't know what, but it doesn't - it's - I'm just a visitor.

RAZ: How do you feel about celebrity?

WHITE: I don't know. It's too much, and it's not fun. It's not interesting. It's distracting because it's not truth anymore. If someone comes up to you and says on the street, I love that movie you were in or that record you did, you don't know if it's true or if they just recognized you and they wouldn't even like you before they saw you two seconds ago.

They just recognize you and they get a buzz or something, you know? So you can't take it as truth. You can only take it as, oh, thank you, and you move on. Like, I get jealous of Broadway performers and Vegas performers. Like, sometimes I think they have a clear understanding of what people like and why they like it and what hits and what doesn't, what gets a laugh, what gets a standing ovation.

RAZ: It sounds like you're saying people are not honest with you.

WHITE: Well, who was it? Marlon Brando said, you know, once you become famous, you never meet anybody ever again. And that might be true. You know, Dylan says that, you know, he can look through a window in a restaurant and everything's great. And once he walks into the restaurant, it's all destroyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON AND ON")

WHITE: (Singing) I lift up my head and I wonder just who is it calling, calling my name now. I trip on my way and I blunder, my head hiding under a blanket of shame.

RAZ: On the track "On and On and On," you sing that people around me won't let me become what I need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON AND ON")

WHITE: (Singing) ...become what I need to. They want me the same. I look at myself and I want to just cover my eyes and give myself a new name.

RAZ: Is this something that you feel about your music, that people want Jack White to make the last Jack White record again?

WHITE: You're always in it. Once people recognize you for anything, you're in a bind. Do you recreate what they like, or do you push forward and do something new? I was reading - somebody sent me this hilarious thing from an old English newspaper about "Sergeant Pepper's" - the week "Sergeant Pepper" came out, and it was different people's reviews of it.

And, you know, people were just, other artists saying, I won't listen to it. I refuse to buy it. And I didn't realize people didn't dig that record when it came out, and that's really funny. I mean, what did they want The Beatles to do, for goodness sakes, you know? They wanted them to rewrite "Hard Day's Night" or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON AND ON")

WHITE: (Singing) ...on and on, on and on, on and on, on and on. Ooh.

RAZ: Jack White, I want to talk about authenticity...

WHITE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...because you've talked a lot about it in the past. And in ways, that seem to suggest that you still feel you have something to prove.

WHITE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And I wonder why part of you feels that way.

WHITE: Because I think that we're obsessed with it. I think especially white culture in America, and England too, are obsessed with it. Because you understand, like, when we had The White Stripes, we came out, and The White Stripes were playing blues music in our opinion, in our minds.

And there's this whole contingent of sort of Stratocaster, white boy blues world out there that think if you didn't wear jeans and a T-shirt on stage, you weren't real, you know? So it was an obvious thing to where we're only going to wear red, white and black and give the biggest finger to anybody who think that is just the most ridiculous thing in the world. You know, Howlin' Wolf didn't do that and Robert Johnson didn't do that.

RAZ: Do you feel like when it comes to the idea of authenticity you have spent a lot of time thinking about it because the music you're inspired by is music that comes from black America?

WHITE: Yeah. Oh, I'm already playing music that's not mine. I'm a white kid from the '70s from Detroit, from the North, and I'm obsessed with the music of the South that usually had been invented and designed by African-Americans. So I'm already in a zone that is not what you consider natural. Because we're not playing house music with synthesizers and drum machines. It would've been off the map. Nobody would even mention it.

RAZ: People would have said, he's from Detroit. Of course, he plays that.

WHITE: Of course. Yeah. Detroit. They invented techno. He should be playing techno. That makes perfect sense. It's almost like, now, they say, like, oh, you live in Nashville so you must be making country records now. Like - it's like, no, if I move to Seattle, it doesn't mean I'm going to join a grunge band. It's - there's a lot of funny notions. And I've always had fun making fun of them and also living inside of them at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTEEN SALTINES")

WHITE: (Singing) Who's jealous? Who's jealous? Who's jealous? Who's jealous of who? If I get busy then I couldn't care less what you do. But when I'm by myself I think of nothing else than if a boy just might be getting through and touching you.

RAZ: Well, Jack White, thank you so much.

WHITE: Thank you. Appreciate it.

RAZ: Jack White's latest solo album is called "Blunderbuss." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTEEN SALTINES")

WHITE: (Singing) Driftin' away when I'm talking and laughing as we float. I hear a whistle, that's how I know she's home. Lipstick, eyelash, broke mirror, broken home. Force fed, forced meds till I drop dead.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcasts. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, stories, music and more. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.