Next month, Jack White will release his second solo album, Lazaretto, and Rolling Stone is marking the occasion with White’s first solo appearance on the cover. For that story, contributing editor Jonah Weiner visited White in Nashville, where he’s lived since 2005, and where he recorded the new album’s 11 songs. Here’s what you need to know about the project.
It took him about a year and a half to finish the album – roughly 75 times as long as it took the White Stripes to make White Blood Cells.
The initial sessions for the album happened in 2012 during gaps in the touring for White’s solo debut, Blunderbuss; he holed up at his home studio with members of both his backing bands, the all-male Buzzards and the all-female Peacocks. “I wanted to catch stuff while we were still on tour, while we were still electric,” he says. “‘We’re a band right now, let’s record right now.’ I didn’t wanna come back and reintroduce ourselves to each other.” His creative methods were, as always, in flux. “I did a lot of things we hadn’t done before, like, we’d record three live versions of a song and move on — ‘I’ll figure it out later.'” After these sessions, White spent the subsequent months refining, overdubbing, and editing: “I thought, ‘How about the challenge of working on something for a long time?”
White, famous proponent of analog technologies, had to use ProTools to make some of the songs work.
The lead single, “High Ball Stepper,” he says, was the result of “three different live” performances that White edited together after the fact. “Some of it I could edit on tape, but some of it, I had to print it to computer, edit it in ProTools, and print it back to tape, to make the edits work. I’ve done that in the past.” He’s quick to point out, “I’ve still never mixed and recorded an album in ProTools. I can’t bring myself to live in that world.”
The songs were inspired, in part, by short stories and plays that White wrote at 19 years old, recently rediscovered in his attic, and incorporated into new lyrics.
“Some of it’s garbage, and I sort of laughed while I was reading it,” he says. “I was going to throw away a bunch of it, but I was just coming up with new styles of attacking songwriting for the album. I try to do that as much as I can — trying not to do it the same way I did it last time. So that was a way of stimulating me: What if I talk to my younger self and work together with him? What if you write songs with your younger self’s ideas? It wasn’t, ‘Let me take this page and set it straight to music.’ That would be too easy. But rather, what if I pull from here and take it somewhere totally new, so I’m actually collaborating with myself from the past on a song.”
The sound is more elaborate than the White Stripes’ ever was, but the album still features White’s unlikely minimalist impulses.
“High Ball Stepper” features no vocals beyond a catchy, wordless cry tethered to a violin. “That‘s the vocal,” he says, connecting this less-is-more decision to “a big lesson I learned in the White Stripes: Meg’s kick drum was the bass guitar. Take a song like ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads. Bum bum bum bum bum bum buh-buh-bum… that could just as easily be a drum beat. When I realized that was going on in the White Stripes, that relieved a lot of structural worry for me as a songwriter.”
He got back into guitar experimentation in a major way while making it.
“I really love the guitar sounds and the solos that happened on this record,” he says. “I didn’t spent that much time on that on Blunderbuss. I was looking at songwriting in a different way. With this record, I got to new places. I never played in drop-D tuning before, for one thing, and the solos were recorded live, in the room, at the time, the first thought out of my head. That’s different from mapping it out — ‘This is the solo, then blah-blah-blah is here.’ The guitar was in control of the song.”
In directing his session players, he liked being at the top of a clear creative hierarchy — but he sometimes struggled to communicate his ideas.
“In a band, you root for everybody else to come up with something cool, and if it doesn’t support what you’re doing, you work it out,” he says. “But when it’s hired guns, it’s a different thing.” Still, he wasn’t always sure how best to articulate his precise desires for how a part should be played. “Explaining art to the people who are making it? I’m not good at it. It feels to me that I sound like I’m full of shit. So I do it, rather than talking out loud. If I’m with session musicians in Nashville and I say, ‘Guys, this character is dying, on his deathbed, and you need to play the bass like you’re the sister of this dying person…,’ those people are gonna say OK and walk off and tell funny, shitty stories about me. But if I’m in a Hollywood table read, and we say, ‘This is a bus driver, he lost his job, his rent is due, the kids are sick with polio,’ everyone will say, ‘Yeah, and his brother could be in jail!’ You can’t give musicians notes like that. Sometimes I’m in those rooms and I say, this is where I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be directing this movie.”