John Paul White has driven more than 12,000 miles this year, shuttling himself and a small group of touring musicians – including the Secret Sisters, who’ve been stacking their harmonies onto new songs like “I’ve Been Over This Before” – across the country in an Econoline van. It’s a big deal for White: for nearly half a decade, he didn’t do much touring, let alone singing in public. Now, however, he’s anxious to get the word out about Beulah, his first solo album in eight years, and is bringing his elastic, electrifying voice back to the stage.
“I was in a unique place where I could fully center all of my focus on my family and the small radius around me,” White says of the quiet years that followed his final show with Joy Williams, the other half of his career-making duo, the Civil Wars. The band stopped touring in November 2012, released an album the following year and promptly called it quits. While fans speculated about the reasons behind the duo’s split, White headed home to Alabama, where life moved at a welcomingly slower pace. There, he focused on being a dad, a husband and a champion for other bands in the Muscle Shoals area. Being a road warrior was simply not a priority.
That changed in 2015 when a rested, rebooted White began dreaming up the melodies that would eventually become the 10 tracks of Beulah, a record stacked with gothic folk songs and acoustic ballads. He made rough demos of the songs on his phone, then recorded a proper album on either side of the Tennessee River, splitting the sessions between the FAME building in Muscle Shoals and his own Single Lock Records studio in Florence. By the end of the year, he was hitting the highway once again, rebuilding a career not as someone’s duet partner, but as captain of his ship.
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Rolling Stone Country talked with John Paul White just before Beulah‘s August 19th release to talk about Hemingway, Mother Love Bone and why you’ll never hear a guitar solo on any of his records.
Beulah marks the end of a very private period for you. The world didn’t see a lot of John Paul White after the Civil Wars’ breakup.
I was been perfectly fine with that, to be honest. It’s been pretty amazing to be home and listen to my kids tell me abut their days at school, and not be thinking, “I need to pack my suitcase. I need to change the strings on my guitar. I need to call so-and-so for an interview.” No offense. It just cleared so many things out of my mind and allowed me to be 100 percent present. I’d never been able to do that before. I didn’t know if I’d ever do it again, to be honest, so I wanted to enjoy it. Once I wrote these songs, though, I basically felt forced out the door to play them for people. I would’ve never guessed that would happen. I never really looked at what I do as something spiritual. I just always enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the craft of it. But I think it took me being completely quiet to figure out what it is I really want to do, and that’s play these songs.
You’re touring again, but at a far more manageable pace. When you were with the Civil Wars, the band rarely left the road.
I was in it to win it. I’d already been fighting to get up the ladder for so long. If a venue wanted us to play, we’d do it. It was all for taking that next step up the ladder. I think one of those years, we were home for 40 days out of the entire year, and I’ve got a pretty good feeling that some of those days were spent in Nashville, and not at home. And I wanted to be that busy. But I could never do that again. I have a completely different kind of bucket list now.
Is it easier to hear the muse these days, without the clutter of a 300-day tour getting in the way?
It’s a different process. You’re not pushing. You’re not searching. You’re not reaching for lines. You don’t have the context of, “OK, we have one off-day, and we need to get something done, so let’s write.” Now, when [inspiration] happens, you grab it and go write it down. The crazy thing is, though, I spent 10 or 15 years writing songs for the Nashville market before the Civil Wars. I grew accustomed to sitting down and writing from 9 to 5. I got really adept at crafting songs without necessarily having to wait for the inspiration. I still have a little bit of that in the back of my head still. I’m in a good place where I’m inspired, and I know how to push that into place.
You seem very content. Some of these song titles paint a grim picture, though: “Hope I Die,” “Hate the Way You Love Me,” “Make You Cry.” What gives?
[Laughs] I have two answers to that. First – and I wish I knew which person said this – but you write about the sun when it’s raining. I really agree with that! It’s so strange; whenever I’m in a better place in my life, I write the darkest songs. A part of me feels like I can totally go there, because I can pull out of that place whenever I need to. It gives you a real perspective. If I tried to write a positive, up-tempo song right now, it’d be saccharine, I think. It would miss the mark. But the other answer is, if you dig into the lyrics on this record, they’re not as dark as they might seem. To me, “Hope I Die,” is actually a love song. It basically stems from an Ernest Hemingway quote that my wife gave me. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “If I could do anything over, I wish I’d died after loving her, and never known any other love, because no other love came close.” I heard that and thought, “Oh man, that’s a song. What a heavy thought.” And he’s the one who screwed that relationship up! So the regret and the romanticism of that statement, I had to capture that.
The string arrangement in that song is very cinematic. During the quieter moments, though, the guitar tones seem to nod to Nineties rock. Accurate?
I ate that stuff up. I loved Mother Love Bone, Smashing Pumpkins, that whole world. Production-wise, “Hope I Die” probably harkens back to my first solo record more so than anything else. It’s just what came out. I think I had that guitar riff first, and married the song idea with it after the fact. It’s just me following my nose, and letting the chips fall where they may.
When you were with the Civil Wars, your guitar was often the only instrument in the mix. You had to carry a lot of weight there. Now that you’re playing with a full band, you no longer have to be so percussive with your strumming. You no longer have to worry about working a walking bass line into a chord progression. Was that transition musically freeing?
In some ways, it was hard. When you’re the whole band, you can speed up, slow down, cut an intro in half. . . You have all the control. That is a very powerful, liberating kind of thing. Some of these new songs would not deny having a rhythm section, though. I’m from the Shoals, and it’s a big part of who I am. It’s a big part of the records I’ve been making, like Dylan LeBlanc’s record and the Donnie Fritts record, both of which have got some real groove to them. I was tracking the Dylan record and thinking, “Man, these guys have to play on my record, too.” That got into my head when I was writing these songs. I’ll say [the transition] was hard for me as a guitar player, though, because now I have to accompany. I have to follow. I have to lock in with a drummer and a band. There was a learning curve there. I’ve enjoyed doing it. I still play a fair amount of songs just me and a guitar, but I really like having some other weapons in the arsenal.
Beulah is still very much a songwriter’s record, though.
That’s the only reason to do anything when you’re making a record: you have to make sure it’s all about the song. You’ll never hear a guitar solo on any of my records. I mean, I can’t play them. But also, unless it’s a live thing, it just feels like a distraction. It’s like, “OK, let me step away from the song for a minute and show you what I can do.” There are moments in musical history, obviously, where an instrumental section can get across an idea that lyrics cannot. And now that I’m thinking about it, I reserve the right to do that. But more often than not, I fall back on my old country standards that I grew up with, and make the song mostly about the lyric.
After touring in big buses, does it feel like you’re roughing it now in a van?
It’s a very luxurious, 15-passenger Econoline. [Laughs] For forever, I would just tour in a car, because my guitar was all the gear we had. The Secret Sisters are opening and singing with me now, so they travel with us. We pull a trailer. We don’t have a lot of merch at the moment, because it felt dirty to me to get to these cities and try to sell a bunch of shit. I want to earn it. I want to meet people after the shows and make sure they’re engaging with the record, and then I can come back to town with the record to sell. I don’t want to walk into the room for the first time in years and say, “I know I’ve been gone for awhile, but buy this T-shirt.” So we’re playing smaller crowds and we’re putting in the work. I have a whole new appreciation for the size of this country. I’d never driven from Alabama to L.A. before, and then up to Vancouver and all the way back. Or all the way up to Boston and all the way back. It’s been good for me. Cathartic. I’m talking to the crowds in these different cities and feeling like I’m getting the same feedback – that people are engaging.