Video for John Paul White's "What's So" off of 2016's "Beulah."

Rivers Deeper Than Mountains: Coffee With John Paul White

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John Paul White is a veteran musician, formerly a part of award-winning country duo The Civil Wars, one of the founders of Single Lock Records (alongside Alabama Shakes member Ben Tanner and Will Trapp,) and, above all, as he puts it “a boy from Alabama.” Last year he released the critically lauded “Beulah,” an album that made it’s way onto many Best Of 2016 lists. 

April 14 White was a part of a special Ohio University visiting artist event, which featured NPR’s Bob Boilen, ever-charming Scandinavian duo My Bubba, and OU alumni Adam Torres. During the short period that White was on the OU campus, he agreed to sit down to coffee with WOUB’s Emily Votaw to chat about opening for Ziggy Marley, the virtues of Edgar Allan Poe, and the odd upbeat nature of Elliot Smith

WOUB: I was curious if your relationship with music changed during the 12 years you worked in Nashville writing songs?

John Paul White: It did, for better and for worse. I saw how the sausage is made. I saw how people strategically write songs in a certain way that is easier to pitch to artists. You’d be in the middle of writing a song, and then you’d have to completely change it because it didn’t feel like something that any artist would sing. It was strange, but I went along with it because I wanted to keep the job, I wanted to pay my bills, and I wanted someone to cut one of my songs. But little by little I realized that it was kind of a soul-killing job, because the songs that I would write would have no strength, no soul. I started to say, “Well, maybe no artist will sing this song this way, but this is actually the way that it needs to be sung,” – I started listening to my little inner voice, and that’s when I started writing better songs.

WOUB: I’m not too familiar with songwriting lingo, does getting your song “cut” mean having an artist pick up your song and you being paid for it?

JPW: No, and a lot of people think that you’re paid for your songs getting recorded. You don’t get a penny unless someone records your song, it is released and it sells – and then you get paid about a year later. I lot of people say that they wish they could sell one of their songs – but they don’t understand that you don’t get paid when an artist records your song, you get royalties much later. If your song gets played on the radio, you are paid from a completely different stream, and if it is sold on CD or vinyl, you’re paid from a completely different stream – a stream that gets smaller and smaller every year because people are buying less and less records.

WOUB: What did ‘seeing the sausage made’ do for you in terms of deciding how to run Single Lock Records?

JPW: One thing that I really learned from working in Nashville is that you can’t even begin to guess what somebody else wants. So, you just have to write songs for yourself, and that’s when those songs resonate with others, that’s when you can connect with others because they like the same things. With the label, we do very much the same thing, down to marketing and ads. We want to make records that we love and promote them in a way that we can get behind. Even if it’s just a Facebook ad – is it tacky? Is it something that you’d click on? With album art, too – is that an album that I would see in a record bin and pull out because I wanted to give it a chance? Through learning about how music is made, I was clued into how you really should take every gig you’re presented with – because sometimes it’s those unruly crowds who teach you the most, teach you how you should do things and maybe some things that you should never do again.

WOUB: Could you tell me about one of your experiences where you learned that you really shouldn’t try something again with a crowd?

JPW: One thing that I learned really early on is that you need to know your audience. You shouldn’t go on stage and try to make the audience bend to your will – unless you really just enjoy the abuse. I did a tour with Ziggy Marley years ago, opening for him – just me and a guitar. The first show that we did was outdoors in Colorado, and it was beautiful, right next to these rapids. Everyone who was there was stoned and there for a good time – something that I didn’t really think about until after I had played my first song, which was a very sad, woe-is-me kind of song, which is just the kind of music that I make. I realized very quickly that the crowd did not come there to get bummed out, and that everyone was there for a good time and to escape. I had to finish the set because I didn’t have any other material prepared, and after that I went straight back to my hotel room and re-wrote my entire set – for the better. I learned that you can’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

One thing that I learned really early on is that you need to know your audience. You shouldn’t go on stage and try to make the audience bend to your will – unless you really just enjoy the abuse. – John Paul White

WOUB: How did you change your set?

JPW: I did a lot of covers, and I didn’t make the mistake of trying to do any reggae covers. I’m a kid from Alabama, so I did things that were still very much me, but that were more positive and more fun. There’s a great reggae version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” that I did, and I’m drawing a blank on what else. It really opened my eyes to the fact that there are country songs out there that can bridge the gap between what I do and what Ziggy does. I covered a Citizen Cope song, a Police song; I did things that were approximations, rather than trying to appropriate someone else’s culture and music, because that would have just fell flat.

WOUB: Like you mentioned, a lot of your music is somber in tone. Is that a facet of your personality, or a part of your musical persona?

JPW: It’s a little bit of both. I grew up gravitating to sad songs, just like my parents. My dad listened to a lot of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard – and they had a lot of sad songs. I loved sad story songs, like “Long Black Veil”; these songs with these really dark twists in them. I also loved authors who wrote that way – I was really interested in Edgar Allen Poe from an early age. I don’t know why that kind of art draws me in, maybe it’s because I see the river as being a lot deeper than the mountains are high. When I have a good day, or a good moment, I just don’t feel like it marks me the way that a bad moment does. The bad moments seem to be able to change who I am as a person, and I can mark time in low moments. I think that is how it is for many people, not that you should live in that dark place, or that you should be cynical; but dark moments overall are often also pivotal moments in your life.

WOUB: Could you tell me more about the place that your music comes from? It seems very sincere to me, devoid of cynicism.

JPW: I’m glad to hear that – because the flip side of that is that I don’t care for music that is overly maudlin. One of my favorite artists is Elliot Smith nobody who was more willing to get darker than Elliot – but at the same time all of his melodies are gorgeous. It’s like he has it figured out – he knew how to deal with all the stuff that we go through every day and articulate it. I would never listen to his music and feel depressed – I just felt like I made more sense. My music isn’t about how everything is horrible and it’s not getting better – and I think that people know that. I am in a very good place in my life right now, and I feel like hope comes out in my music – I see hope everywhere. My music isn’t about how the sky is falling, it’s just about the way things are and how I cope with them.