Chris Whitley is a fascinating man with an intriguing career arc. After quitting high school in the late seventies and traveling to New York with a National Steel Dobro in hand, he spent the next few years working odd jobs and performing on street corners. Then with the assistance of an admirer who owned a travel agency, Whitley moved to Europe, settling in Belgium. There he put down the dobro and recorded with a number of electronic groups for a few years before returning to the United States. A chance encounter with producer Daniel Lanois led Whitley to Lanois’ New Orleans recording studio, resulting in Whitley’s spare, powerful Living With The Law. After some solo touring Whitley decided to front an electric band, eventually releasing Din of Ecstasy, a dazzling expression of white-noise and clamor. This musical direction did not ingratiate him with Sony, his record label, which dropped him after his follow-up Terra Incognita. From here he returned to his earlier approach, recording Dirt Floor solo with acoustic instrumentation.
The most recent project for Whitley, a performer of eclectic interests and passions, is Perfect day, an album consisting of covers songs. The estimable rhythm section of Billy Martin and Chris Wood joined Whitley for these recording sessions, which focused on love themed-compositions from the likes of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Willie Dixon. The following interview took place one morning while Whitley sipped tea in his New York apartment and some toast caught fire. And yes, for those of you who have heard him on record but have not yet seen him perform live, that indeed is his natural voice. He is currently on the road for a number of shows with Yuval Gabay and Sebastian Steinberg, formerly of Soul Coughing, including the Jimi Hendrix tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 20 and 21. For additional information visit his web site, www.chriswhitley.com.
DB- I’m curious, you’re such a strong, distinctive songwriter- what led you to record other performers’ material?
CW- It just fell together and it was fun to do. I never did covers before, and I never really learned other people’s stuff aside from here or there. I’ve done a Kraftwerk tune and a Prince song once in a while. It just came together. It was sort of fortuitous, where the producer approached me and brought in Billy and Chris. We’ve known each other for a while and we just did it for the hell of it. I learned the songs in a week and we rehearsed for one day. It was educational for me to learn other people’s stuff because straight songwriting is written on standard tuning and I don’t play very much standard tuning. It was kind of by accident, organic.
DB- To what extent do you think this experience will impact your own songwriting?
CW- One thing I came to appreciate was the simplicity of some songs and how they stand up. Like “A Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. It’s kind of a classic form in terms of the structure and the progression. The music craft aspect was a learning experience for me, just to wrap my head around somebody else’s stuff. Actually not the blues tunes so much because those were very improvised in the studio. A couple of them we didn’t even know we were going to do until we started doing them. I mean I knew what key I was going to do them in but that’s about all.
DB- How did you strike a balance between consciously emulating the original performers versions versus defining these songs on your own terms?
CW- That’s why I avoided covers for years. At first I was trying to do them like they were done. I love the way Dylan phrases stuff but I got up one night and decided to practice singing “Spanish Harlem Incident,” r&b-ish and it just felt cool. Then I went through this process of finding myself in this stuff which I had to do because they were all such great tunes. I realized the only way I could do them was not to emulate anyone or else they would sound too deliberated and I couldn’t feel them at all. I’ve never wanted to emulate people, I’ve just wanted to be inspired, influenced by them. If somebody really inspires you then it should be inspiring to do your own thing. That’s the most honest kind of nod or tribute.
DB- In that context, I can remember reading somewhere that you inspired by Hendrix but that you didn’t necessarily care for his guitar tone.
CW- I may be more inspired now, although I don’t listen to him as much anymore. Hendrix to me was like Bob Marley. I’m not a big reggae-head but I love Bob Marley. I think there’s something in the guy’s spirit or why he’s making music that comes through that’s more than technique. They were both revolutionaries of their forms. I don’t feel I’ve heard that much electric guitar that was that valuable since Hendrix that wasn’t affected by him.
DB- Moving back to Perfect Day, when did you first meet Billy Martin and Chris Wood, and what do you feel they contributed to the sessions?
CW-I met them some years ago when they were just getting known in New York. They were pretty much unknown anywhere else. I met them through Dougie [Bowne] who played drums with me because he did a solo piano record with John Medeski. On some level I was intimated by Billy and Chris, who are great musicians. They were backing me up sort of, and I found myself slightly distracted by that. I play solo a lot so I’m used to improvising within a real structured way, like in little areas although I’m not into lead guitar very much anymore. I ‘m not into soloing, I feel more textural. I was worried they might make the sound too busy with too many notes. Obviously, though, we benefited from their skills at improving. I am very structured as a songwriter, and they are improvising jazz guys so they brought that to the session. They also brought their character, their feel and stuff like that. They are great players who learn stuff really fast. They have the feel, it’s kind of vital. So we did it totally live like the way old jazz records were done.