It’s a word that comes up numerous times during my conversation with Trixie Whitley. It’s an approach that allows her to come to terms with her past and present — growing up in New York and Belgium and soaking up the sounds from each country, entering the arts at a young age, getting older, motherhood, the influence and inspiration of mentors and collaborators – and allow that history to affect her latest creative endeavors.
Listeners hear the results on her latest album, Lacuna, and viewers see that in the trio of choreographed dance videos promoting the release.
“Every day I live and I die a little/ I rise and I fall, evolve and dissolve,” she sings on “The Hotter I Burn,” the album’s closing number that encapsulates her artistic approach.
From a pre-teen drummer to teenage DJ and dancer to a solo musician who released three EPs and three albums, Whitley acknowledges the importance of collaborating on Lacuna and her previous work. The growing list includes her participation in Black Dub with Daniel Lanois as well as performing and recording with Robert Plant, Marianne Faithful, Meshell Ndegeocello, Emmylou Harris, Marc Ribot, Joe Henry, Bill Frisell, Antibalas, Nels Cline and Laurie Anderson among others.
Last year, she provided vocals on a Kid Koala collaboration, “Music To Draw To: Io,” a 70-minute-piece that tells the story of Io, an unwilling lover to Zeus and contributed to the soundtrack and appeared in the film of the mixed media performance “TrapTown.”
Created with Run The Jewels producer Little Shalimar, Lacuna finds Whitley incorporating electronic rhythms among minimalist arrangements that are grounded by her mesmerizing, soulful voice. Over its 11 tracks, she displays the influences of her father’s roots rock (the late singer-songwriter Chris Whitley), trip hop, breakcore, ambient instrumentals and hip-hop.
The work is of its time and beyond it, showing that Whitley’s commitment to the creative process succeeds as a hypnotic artistic mix of melody, rhythm and movement.
JPG: Were you in any rabbit holes for Lacuna or did this come together a little easier?
TW: You know what? It’s funny. I was just thinking about how I’m going to take on the next record, comparing my different recording experiences so far. Lacuna was really liberating in many ways because if there was anything that was really clear it was that my intention was that I didn’t have much material going into the studio. I really wanted to use the studio as a writing tool, which isn’t something that I hadn’t experienced yet to that capacity previously. I had taken on a more traditional route in my songwriting where the craft of songwriting was the main intention.
But for this record, I really wanted to embrace all the possibilities of the studio and use it as an instrument to write the songs. I do self-produce quite a bulk of my material to a certain extent but then there’s the amazing gift of having a producer to work with that can be a guiding force in terms of when to…
TW: Yeah! Where the finish line is. Because that’s the thing, for an artist, for myself, I’m someone that I really live for the process. When you live for the process, the process is just ongoing. It can be this never-ending thing, and I tend to look at it in a pretty philosophical way. I’m going to be a student of life and music and art for the rest of my life. In that sense, everything’s a process. The gratification really comes from the process and far less from the outcome of that process.
JPG: As far as for lack of a better term, traditional song or traditional song-sounding, something like “Bleak,” “Fishing for Stars” and “Dare to Imagine” off the album, where there’s guitar and it’s fleshed out…and even to a degree with “May Cannan.” In comparison to those songs, the other numbers are minimalistic, where it’s rhythm and a little texture and your voice. Some of it reminded me how it almost could have been a take of Todd Rundgren’s “A Cappella,” where his voice was used to replicate other instruments. So, was it a conscious decision for some of the those numbers to be, again, for lack of a better term, a bit more traditional and others were not?
TW: Yeah, yeah, it’s funny that you named those songs because those are literally the only ones pretty much that I had written prior to going into the studio. Those are all written on guitar and more similar to my previous work. The rest was much more collaborative. It’s funny even back in the days when [Daniel] Lanois and I would be philosophizing over the kitchen table, we’d often talk about the interesting aspect of hip-hop production. Spending the bulk of my life in the city, in New York, in many ways, I definitely have a deep affinity for street culture.
I’m like a city kid and, as a kid, I’ve always just schlepped around the street. So, within that, I’ve always had this deep, deep admiration for instance for freestylers, especially when what they were saying was something meaningful. I remember, as a kid, blown away by the art of freestyling. With Little Shalimar being the producer of choice for this record, and also his openness and his background in instrumentalism, his deep knowledge of music history but also having all these skills that he acquired in the last 15 years working with rappers, hip-hop artists, that was the perfect spark for my imagination that I was searching for to break out of my own comfort zone, of my own writing.
I’d say the things that Lanois and I used to talk about, what was interesting about hip-hop production, this minimalist…where the bass lines are incorporated in the groove instead of it being more of a rock setup of bass and drums…that stuff from a musical perspective was intriguing and then, of course, my own interests in terms of my own experiences in those cultures with a great combo with Little Shalimar. That was my intention, too. Okay, I’m going to have one leg in my previous work, one leg stepping into something completely unknown. And that was possible with the relationship that we built over time, Little Shalimar and I, in the studio and getting to know each other and really connecting on a lot of levels.
JPG: Your voice is what drew me in but it took some time for my ears to digest the songs. And I’m still digesting them. I hear elements of that modern production. Thank you. You’re soulful voice rises above all of it and then at times like “Dandy,” with that whole section where as you were saying, freestyle hip-hop.
TW: “Dandy” was totally written in…again, going back to the process, right? At this time in my life, I became a mom recently. So, it was my first endeavor in the studio since becoming a mom and redefining. Also, with new parenthood a lot of things of my own childhood were resurfacing, like my influences.
I feel like with my last record, the trip that I was on was rejecting influence. I didn’t want to be influenced by any references or anything. I just wanted to be as present as I could and just let whatever came out in the moment be what it was and respect it, blah, blah. This record, when I started it, it was very, very intentional in the sense of my influences and my identity as a young woman. I turned 30 as I was making the record. I was 29 when I started. That thing, that shift of, “Okay, entering your 30,s” but also thinking “Where do I come from?” in terms of the sonic references and the production.
I am a kid of the ’90s. I started defining my own taste and my influences in the ’90s, in the early 2000s. Then, I had this cross-continental upbringing where I was exposed to New York urban street culture at a very early age but equally exposed to this really avant-garde electronica scene in Europe. When I went back to my memories of my own childhood, in my development, in my identity, there was never a question that I was going to have a life in the arts. That was very, very clear and very obvious from a very young age. When I was about 14, I’d say, was when I started — at that time I was living in Europe — exploring a lot of crazy electronic music, but also the sense of defining my own place and also defining my vision of what I wanted my song to possibly be. It was so clear to me that I needed, I wanted to develop a language where both these primitive, primal sounds formed as expression coexist with these very futuristic sounds; that kind of fascination, that drive, to find a marriage of both worlds. How can I incorporate the past and the future into this present language that is authentic to my own development, my identity and my influences?
And so, I feel like this is the first record where I was really very intentional about that. Electronic music is something that I grew up with. I have a DJ past and I was obsessed with stuff like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher as a teenager, and I was a rave kid. So, that influences my musical language. Then, there’s also on a spirit level, this side of me that’s also a total punk, also very street in that way.
Over the last years, I‘m so attracted to these punk movements, also people that have a punk attitude. With that, I mostly mean a progressive anarchy that is driven by change and by progressive change, too. Punk, the more traditional style of punk music, I often missed a sense of sensuality. I was like, “Uh, I can’t really groove in the same way that I can with urban music.” But then, making those connections, a lot of these rappers and hip-hop artists, they’re punks as well. They’re driven by similar messages, at least the ones that I’m appealed to.
And so, going back to the process, my intention on this record, my third record, turning 30, being a new mom, an observation of who I’ve become and what my past references have been and my influences.
Also, it’s funny, I was just writing about it today. I was recently introduced to this term called Third Culture Kid and it’s been a whole revelation for me. I’ve struggled within my cultural identity quite a lot up until now because I grew up ping-ponging between these different cultures, between different continents. Whereas now that I’ve matured a bit, I’m finally coming to this point in my life, I need to embrace this wild upbringing and the fact that it’s not easy to digest. It has different layers to it. It’s funny because, theoretically, I can say I’m a Belgian/Texan/New Yorker.
JPG: That makes sense.
TW: That’s a pretty odd combination. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to explore in this process of if I marry all these sounds…I love the fact that this record has all of the different aspects of my being. It has a song like “Fishing for Stars,” which is a very intimate song. It’s very much a one take, and that’s on there. And it co-exists to something like “Dandy,” something completely new for me, but also tapping into the stream-of-consciousness writing, which is also as much as it might sound new to a listener it also comes from an aspect of my being, which has always been there.