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Letting the Faucet Flow: An Interview with John Paul White

By Audrey Baran

October 5, 2016

We recently had the honor of chatting with John Paul White, half of the former folk duo, The Civil Wars. We talked about his new album Beulah and upcoming show at the Neighborhood Theater. Here’s what the Alabama native had to say about collaborating with other artists, his own creative process, roller derbies, and more. 

CLTure: Hi Mr. White! Can I call you John Paul, or John?

JPW: Of course. I can tell how long people have known me by what they call me. If they’ve known me all my life they call me John. If they know me by my music they call me John Paul. But either is perfectly correct.

CLTure: I know this is not first time you’ve played in Charlotte. You were at the Evening Muse a few years ago, right?

JPW: Yeah, with the Civil Wars we played in Charlotte quite a few times at a number of places. We always tried to come through while on tour.

CLTure: I’m really looking forward to the show and love your new album. On a personal note, I am a dancer and choreographer and have used some of your work in class. The emotion and melodies are so great to work with. I hope that’s ok!

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John Paul White’s latest album ‘Beulah’

JPW: Yeah, of course it is! It’s extremely flattering. One of the highlights of my career with the Civil Wars was when we played for the Nashville Ballet. We played in the corner and they choreographed a whole dance suite around our music, so it was real-time dancing and playing. It was beautiful and really amazing talking to them about how happy they were dancing with live music as opposed to something that’s canned. It was a lot of fun, so thank YOU for doing that!

CLTure: I’ve noticed that a lot of your lyrics are dark and cryptic, disguised as a romantic love ballad. How does that juxtaposition reflect your life and personal experiences?

JPW: That’s funny, most people see either the dark or light side, dark more often than light. I’ve always been affected the most by sad songs. Even growing up, I was drawn to the darker, heavier stuff. I think that type of music marks you as a person more than a happy song. And when you knock it out of the park, it’s really it’s really something.

CLTure: In your music there are some references to life and death, heaven and earth. I’m curious if you consider yourself a spiritual person and how does that side of yourself come into play when writing?

JPW: Anything I’ve ever touched or heard or seen comes into play. If I’m really truly being laser focused, I just allow whatever comes out to come out and not get in it’s way. That’s usually the case with most creators, I would think. The only time I get in trouble is when I try to get in the way of it or overthink it.. then I’ll alter it, and then it’s just not as good anymore. It’s not as powerful, it doesn’t have that same tug when I play it back for myself. I have to have that. I tend to write as universal as possible because I want my songs to affect the most amount of people as possible. I don’t want to pigeonhole them or paint them into a corner where only a certain fraction of the world can say, “Hey, that’s my life. That’s my story, that’s what happened to me.” I want those kind of reactions where people like they’re standing in the middle of the song and they’re actually the character. I tend to deal more in universal things, but I definitely reserve the right to write a song about roller derbies… I just haven’t gotten there yet.

CLTure: Well, that brings me to my next question.

JPW: What, roller derbies?

CLTure: Haha, no. About from where you draw inspiration. You’ve talked about melodies popping into your head and lyrics pouring like a faucet. As a creator myself, I can empathize but it’s hard to put into words. I’m curious about your experience with that sensation of overflow.

JPW: Well, I have never had any luck chasing inspiration, looking for inspiration. What works for me is to just educate myself as much as possible, live life as much as possible. Just try observant as I can, take in all the data that I possibly can. Then, be really really quiet [and] see what pops in front of my brain. If I’m playing guitar, I don’t know why, but I’ll play something in particular and it will make me feel something in particular. There will be some sort of thematic thing that will pop into my head and I’ll follow it. I’ll makeup strange sounds as I go, because I might know the melody before I know the words and vise versa. That happens sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t and you just come back to it when it is flowing. When I’m really being quiet, not thinking too much, is when those things start bubbling to the surface.

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Photo by Allister Ann

CLTure: I’m guessing you are writing most of your material on your own now. Do you find that it’s easier or more challenging to write solo as opposed to with a partner?

JPW: (Laughing) Yes, to both. You know, it is liberating. There are paths that you’ll go down when it’s just YOU with the pen and with the guitar. If someone else is in the room, they’ll start steering, they’ll start suggesting things, as they should. That’s what a collaboration is, and sometimes you end up with something that’s way better than you would have come up with on your own. And so I’m I’m a BIG fan of collaboration when it comes to songwriting. It’s been really good for me in the past and probably will be again in the future. But at this moment, when these songs started popping into my head, I didn’t really want to write them. So, when they did I just put them on the page, one thing led to another and a song was finished. I just kept following my nose and thought, I’m just not ready to be in a room with someone else… for this to become something it wouldn’t normally be if it was just me. So, as long as it’s flowing and I feel really proud of what I write, I’ll continue doing it this way.

CLTure: Sounds like a good plan.

JPW: Never change a winning plan, always change a losing plan. That’s what my old mentor used to tell me. I don’t know if this plan is winning, but I am definitely enjoying myself.

CLTure: I know you recently collaborated with Emmy Lou Harris, which is incredible. Do you have any future plans of working other artists, or a “dream team”?

JPW: Mmmm… I don’t know how much I should talk about this. I will say this… I don’t think it’s a secret, but I just did some stuff with Rodney Crowell. I’m a big fan of his, always have been.  I sang on his new record, and we’ve written a song or two together and done some recording. Who knows when or if that stuff sees the light of day, but it’s definitely a dream come true. To be honest, I have a lot more interest in doing a lot of collaborative stuff than I used to. I used to be a whole lot more of a control freak and want to be the one doing all the steering, but the collaborating I’ve been doing with people like Rosanne Cash, those sorts of things, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s made me go places I wouldn’t normally go and taught me things about different processes to get from A to B. Everybody goes about it a different way. As educated as I can get, it’s going make me a better artist, writer, and producer.

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CLTure: This is off topic and may be out of bounds, but I live in  Charlotte and we’ve been on the news a lot lately. I’m wondering, as a man from the South, if you have any feelings or responses to what’s been going on here and around the country.

JPW: Well, I don’t normally have super specific detailed opinions and point of views that I give in these situations. In order for somebody to talk about these issues they need to be incredibly educated as to what both sides of the coin are. I feel like way too many people have way too many opinions about things they don’t really know anything about. I will say, as being a Southern man, there’s always been a lot of stereotypes about us as well, what we believe and what we don’t believe, and the prejudices we have and we don’t have. I think we could all do a heck of alot better job just listening, a lot more acceptance, and not assume we’re the only one in the room who’s bright in the conversation. I think if all of us could do a whole lot more of that, try to put ourselves in other people’s positions, and be a little bit more tolerant, I think this world would be a whole lot better place. Again, in my opinion, and everyone’s got one.

CLTure: For sure. Thanks so much for that. So, back to the show, will you have the same opening band you’ve had previously, the Secret Sisters?

JPW: No, the Sisters are not going to be with me this time. I love them dearly, but they are making their own record and have a lot of stuff going  on with that. I have a band called the Kernal and they’re from Jackson, Tennessee, and they are actually signed to our record label, Single Lock Records. We recently finished their record and I LOVE it. They just recently opened a show for me here in town (Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and they just blew me away, so I pretty much asked them on the spot, “Hey what are you doing the next month of your life?” I think you’ll love it.

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