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Five questions with: musician John Paul White

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John Paul White w/ Caleb Elliott

The Mill — Friday, July 26 at 8 p.m.

John Paul White returns to Iowa City as a solo musician after playing as part of his Grammy award-winning duo the Civil Wars in 2011, playing the Mill on May 26 at 8 p.m. and featuring Caleb Elliott as an opening act. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door.

White tours in support of his new album, The Hurting Kind, which diverges somewhat from the whisper-pretty sounds of his former band to embrace what could potentially be a greatest hits album from an alternative Nashville AM radio station: The songwriting sacrifices a bit of his former subtleties for the vibrant colors of a different era; some of the songs hit harder, some of them wave softer and many of them manage to remain anchored in an audio aesthetic that distinctively and intentionally hearkens back to a day when folk, country and blues had more n common than what they do today. Rather than a mere gimmick, the songs confirm the universal appeal of certain generic conventions to depict the human condition.

I spoke with White by phone a few weeks before the show, a day between experiencing the Great Smoky Mountains with his family and starting the next leg of his tour. His speaking voice is slow, deep, resonant and thoughtful:

John Paul White of the Civil Wars plays The Mill on Saturday, July 26. — video still, “The Long Way Home”

As the title indicates, the album wears its (broken) heart on its sleeve. You’ve mentioned that you allowed yourself to be more open and emotionally spacious on this album, rather than holding back. Can you talk about your understanding of how music and lyrics converge to provide emotional catharsis, both to you and to audiences? Does this change when you perform it live? In your experience, why does music work that way?

I think the moment I really understood the way the two married, converged and became more powerful than [each] thing on its own is when I started listening to Elliott Smith. Before that, my dad played me a lot of Hank, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson. There was a format to what I listened to — they were all sad songs, tear-jerkers that made you feel something. But Elliott, it was the first time I heard a juxtaposition — with Elliott, he took a more beautiful, delicate approach to the music that almost seemed hopeful, buoyant, full of life when the lyrics were fairly bleak.

I realized there was a lot more power to that. The lyrics on the page felt morose and heavy handed — but put to music it was a lot more powerful and moved me more than if either/or had been changed.

Why? I wish I could open that knot and dissect it and figure out the reason why that is true. I don’t know that it is true for everyone, but I know that for me there’s no more powerful medium on earth than that. What I tend to do with the way I create is to blur the edges and allow people to step into the world I’m creating and be that person in that space. In visual media, you get what you get — in words in a page. There’s something to immersing people in having their heart broken, rather than my personal struggle. That’s a lot more powerful and visceral.

To follow up: How do torch songs about heartbreak become something desirable in a world that’s filled with turmoil, anguish and despair? What is it that you think draws people to this kind of music? What is it that compels you to make it?

I think two things can happen when people are seeking music or when they turn the dial up when this song comes on the radio or [when they] are on a long drive. They either want to escape everything they’re dealing with in life or want someone to relate, to feel like they’re not alone. I’m not here to help people escape, but to pile on.

I talk to people a lot after shows, and they talk about what these songs mean to them and how they helped in specific situations with a parent, a child or finding their place. That’s what the songs do for me. I realized, early on, that I’m not alone or unique in the things that bothered me, hurt me or helped me and made me stronger.

What I’m meant to do is to dig down deep and lay bare those nerves. I know there are people there who can’t, won’t or just can’t articulate what they need to say. That’s why those songs stand the test of time — people will always feel those emotions.

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The title track for your new album, “The Hurting Kind,” is a story of abuse. What’s the relationship between music and relationships? Can one have an abusive relationship with music, itself?

I hope this answers the question, about the abusive relationship with music. I’ve tried to quit doing this most of my adult life. It feels like self-abuse, more often than not, because of the things that I want to write about — the things that are most powerful. There’s only so many times you can do that.

I don’t tend to write everything autobiographical. There are things that pertain to my life, and things that pertain to others, but I feel every damn one of them. When I play live … I see people’s eyes when I say and feel these things.

I got advice early on: Don’t forget what it was to write the song in the first place. Don’t rely on muscle memory. Always remember why it was important enough to put that song into the world. I’m exhausted every night I go on stage. It’s emotionally pretty sapping. That’s the only way that I can do it, and I can’t stop doing it.

In a lot of ways, it’d be good for your mental health to get off the couch and quit letting people see my therapy, but I can’t find a way out. The more I talk about it with other musicians, I know I’m not a lone ranger. One out of five would never do anything else, but more often than not we’re a begrudging bunch, especially those who dig below the surface.

You were able to work alongside several of your heroes in the construction of this album. Can you describe how this kind of co-writing compares to the more in-depth duo form that you shared in the Civil Wars? In what way does each approach provide you with a different sense of depth?

They’re really not different. The songs that Joy and I wrote — she and I had both written songs for ourselves and others for quite awhile. I had co-written for about 10 years before the Civil Wars. We both came into it from a craft perspective, which is the same way that I’d sit down with Bill Anderson or Bobby Braddock.

The difference: With the same person, there’s a synergy, a bit of twin speak that goes on. You don’t have to say everything. You will also dare to suck, say dumber things — you’ll walk on the tightrope a bit farther. With a stranger, you don’t want to act stupid. Especially with heavyweights, you want to impress them. You’re riding the wave of wanting to write a great song, but not wanting to look like a fool in front of your hero.

With co-writing, you have to do it a lot, you kiss a lot of frogs, but then find the right person and clear your calendar and spend most of your time with them.

It’s funny — I think that each case is different, every single time you’re in the room with someone. When you’re with someone that has a deeper knowledge of the craft, it’s harder — they don’t let go when the muse enters the room … even if it doesn’t rhyme, or you don’t know what it means but it fits. With what we were doing, we had enough of the craft to form a foundation but enough autonomy to not care what anyone else thought about the songs.

All I care about is walking out of the room with a song I’m really proud of. The only criterion that I can have any control over is whether I like it, and hope that other people do too. I can’t guess what others want. The guys who have been doing it forever have a sense of what everyone wants — they have more strategy going on. Everyone’s different, but there’s not a right or wrong way to go about it.

It seems like a lot of groups mine earlier musical sounds and anchor themselves in different temporal perspectives without wanting to be derivative. Now that you’ve made an album that you feel successfully recreates the sound of ’60s Nashville without being retro, can you describe the logic of that sort of tonality, and/or that approach to musicmaking? How does this relate to nostalgia?

I was nervous going into this that it would end up a retro record, but I also didn’t want to force it not to be. The only thing worse than fitting in a box is refusing to. The basic bones of these felt like basic country songs. I went into a room with people who had that knowledge, but I told them to play what their guts told them to play. I wanted it to be heartfelt, to do what serves the lyric, but with no other purpose.

The things that I wanted to pull from their era: I wanted it to be sophisticated, arranged, thought about, meticulous. It didn’t need everything, but I wanted it to be spatially deep. Frequency wise, I wanted to hit top and bottom, left and right. I didn’t want it to be a raw, organic record — I wanted it to be adult, “slick,” which made it feel like something 50 years ago.

Those guys were working on major label budgets with big companies breathing down their neck. They couldn’t goof around. I wanted to have everything on this record to have that weight, to be thought about, but not overwhelming or overwrought. I wanted it to still be musical and heartfelt, but a bit more articulate.


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