Interview: Matthew E. White: “There’s a lot of personal stuff on the record, and there’s some true stories”

Matthew E. White: “There’s a lot of personal stuff on the record, and there’s some true stories”

Virginia songwriter digs into the next chapters that define new album ‘Fresh Blood’, speaking to Andrew Backhouse.

Matthew E. White made his introduction to the world in 2012 with his debut album, ‘Big Inner’. With it, Virginia beach music maestro uncorked the finest jazz pop available – a frothing, foaming bottle of vintage analog psychedelia coupled with horns and strings a-splendour.

White dazzled the world with ‘Big Inner’, and the response was just as much as a shock from his end. “They were the first songs I’d ever written. For me, writing the songs on ‘Big Inner’ was about not writing bad songs. I think, looking back at ‘Big Inner’ and having some distance from it, but also having the time to get deeper in to songwriting… For me, ‘Fresh Blood’ is about the songs, and it’s a lot more about the songwriting on the second album than the first album.”

Matthew E. White isn’t a man ashamed of his pop DNA, and yet won’t bend, compromise or remould his career to suit it. He writes songs how he thinks they should sound, but all while playing by the rules. “That’s easy to understand in terms of how things are organised. I look at the first album, and in some ways it’s in really classic forms, and I did that because I knew they would work. I did that ‘cos I was writing for the first time, so I needed to stick with something that has worked historically. For me, I did a lot with how things are organised, on this second record.

“We were trying to make something with a vibe going on – part Burt Bacharach, part White album, and part what’s going on now. It’s part harsh, and part lush; it can be really stripped back at times and really dark, but also really full and deep. The biggest thing was that I wanted to expand on the palette of what I was doing. I wanted to make it louder, softer, darker and lighter, and just show a larger swathe of what I like to listen to.”

‘Fresh Blood’’s opening track, ‘Take Care My Baby’, is a fine example of White fully exploring the infinite potential of the conventional rules of the pop song. “There’s a minute and a half at the front that’s very different from the rest of the song. The first couplet never happens again. And I think there’s something really cool about it. It’s called ‘Fresh Blood’. For me, form is such a big deal; it’s what you build everything on: you build the lyrics on it - you build the rhythm section on it - you build the production on it; all of that stuff’s sitting on top of a form of some kind. That was something I really wanted to experiment with, and I think you can get to some pretty cool places if you can be creative really early on when you’re organising songs, in that sense.”

Even though he’s happy to reflect back on his debut outing, White will never get complacent. It’s like he’s reborn again. You get the impression from the album – not that it’s improvised by White, or that’s it’s made up as it goes along in a self-indulgent ego parade; all White’s showpieces are carved, chiselled and sanded down with the same amount of affection.

“We were trying to make something with a vibe going on.”

— Matthew E. White

Matthew’s music sounds imitable, hence why he’s so widely adored, and yet, in the style of a collage, he claims to have been influenced by the history of twentieth century American pop music. “Everyone’s taking what they’re attracted to, or what they like – what jumps to the front of your mind when you sit down in front of a piano, and you make it using your own voice: little bits of your personal life, or from school, or little bits from another song or a production idea. You’re taking all these thoughts, all these traditions, and melding them into something coherent.”

From ‘Big Inner’ to ‘Fresh Blood’, the beating heart at the centre of Matthew. E. White’s music has remained unchanged. “You’re always writing a collection of past experiences, present experiences, and just trying to tell a good story. There’s a lot of personal stuff on the record, and there’s some true stories. There’s love stories on there, and that’s from being in love, and out of love; dealing with the last two years of touring and being in a relationship. It’s really challenging. And then you’re just combining those things with the writing of a song – the song-craft.”

Throughout our chat, Matthew is beaming the gushing rhapsodies for his love for music which pulses through into ‘Fresh Blood’. This may be his second album, but the wonder hasn’t worn off; we’re going on the musical journey along with him. “It is something new for me.” Hence the title - ‘Fresh Blood’. “It’s a very colloquial kind of saying for something that’s fresh and new, which is what you’re trying to do when you’re making a new record. It also has a very personal undercurrent to it, if you take it extremely literally, in the sense of ‘fresh blood’; there’s nothing more personal and tactile than our blood. When came up with the phrase in recording, I was really surprised nobody had named a record that.” As it happens, we’re not. Pop music doesn’t have to be dull, or dumbed down, or repetitive. ‘Fresh Blood’ may be repetitive, but that’s only because we can’t stop playing it.

Matthew E. White headlines London’s Village Underground tonight, 21st April. ‘Fresh Blood’ is out now on Domino.

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