Matthew E. White | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Matthew E. White

Greater Expectations

Sep 15, 2015 Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

When Matthew E. White was writing the songs that would become his 2012 debut, Big Inner, he had modest goals. “I want to write a song. I’d like for it not to be a bad song,” he says, recalling his thoughts when he began sketching out ideas for his very first songs. In those days, White didn’t even know if he wanted to be a songwriter at allhe was more interested in the performing and production side of album-making. But he had formed Spacebomb Records with a group of close friends in Richmond, Virginia, with the intention of creating their very own Motown or Stax, and they needed a human test case to go through the album-making process with their collective of seasoned backing musicians. Three years later, Big Inner is recognized as a modern Americana classic, and White isn’t worrying about writing bad songs anymore. For Fresh Blood, his second full-length release, his goals were much less modest.

“For me, the record was about expanding the palette a little bit and making the whole spectrum broader,” he says. “Making it lighter and darker and louder and softer, then taking each element and making it better. There were a lot of different references floating around. The big ones that I thought about a lot were The White Album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, What’s Going On, and Carole King is someone that came up a lot. I wanted the album to be groovy and sort of dark, and all of those records have a little bit of shadow in them. But Carole King is full of hope and joy and songcraft. That was a big thing: when we started writing this record, it was all about the song.”

When White talks about these songs, the word that turns up most often is “purposeful,” and he started the songwriting process for Fresh Blood by sketching out a clear set of goals. If the arrangements on Big Inner could be a bit too restrained, he wanted Fresh Blood to be wilder and louder, with the rhythm section leading the way. If the mix of R&B, gospel, and soul music that defined his debut could be overly complicated at times, this time he would distill that mix into its purest elements. And if his previous lyrics could often be a bit off-the-cuff, he wanted these new songs to dig a little deeper. No song on Flesh Blood accomplishes all three of these goals better than “Tranquility,” White’s tribute to the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

“He was someone I looked up to, and he represented everything I could want to be as an artist,” White says, explaining how the phrase “goodbye, old friend” served as his entry point for a meditation on death, mourning, and restlessness. White would push himself even further as a lyricist with “Holy Moly,” an examination on sexual abuse within the Church, a situation he says he “had the unfortunate circumstance of being around a little bit” when he was younger. There are songs about the death of a friend’s mother (“Circle ‘Round the Sun”) and a critique of condescending musical purists (“Rock & Roll is Cold”). Through it all, the focus remains on the songs.

“There has never been a bad record with 10 good songs on it, no matter what the other variables are, how shitty things are recorded or who sings them,” White says with a laugh. “If there are 10 good songs, it works every time.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s April/May/June 2015 print issue. This is its debut online.]


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