On his recently released second album, "No Such Place," Jim White takes his clangy, backwoods swamp-billy pop and launches it into an otherworldly mist, courtesy of moody-dance-music producers such as Morcheeba and Q-Burns Abstract Message. The resulting banjo-plus-downtempo hybrid CD has caused a hip-factor buzz to swirl around this Pensacola native.
Unfazed, White says that he can boil down his success to two secrets. First, get talented people to work with you -- "What we call the indie validation factor," he explains. His second tip? "On at least one song on every album, put a chorus which includes the phrase sha-na-na-na-na," he offers, with conviction. "I'm going to do that on every album."
Hm. White's laughing, of course, as he says this, but in his world, which is not everybody else's world, a rule such as this one could indeed be true. Look at the evidence. His first album, 1997's "Wrong-Eyed Jesus," included "Heaven of My Heart," a song that had a sha-na-na and was sold for a good chunk of change to a feature film. "No Such Place's" "Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi" also has the magic chorus ("It's sort of an evil sha-na-na," White notes), and it, too, was sold to a film.
White then launches into an explanation of how he learned this tip from the advice of someone he calls "my friend the hermetic genius." After White got signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop record label, the hermetic genius called to say that this development wasn't a particularly good turn of events. "I asked why," relates White. "He said, ‘You don't know how to write a single.' I agreed with him. So he said, ‘Let me work on it.'" Two weeks passed, and then the hermetic genius called back. "He said to me, ‘Get a pen and write this down.'" So White readied himself. "And he said, ‘Sha-na-na-na-na.'" Apparently the genius noticed that this phrase "makes the girls get up and dance. Which is his dream in life," White says of the friend: "to be the man who makes the girls get up and dance."
In White's world, sinister preachers spin seductive tales, back-porch acoustic guitars find their way onto the sleek club floor, and brilliant friends want to unlock the secret to happy, catchy choruses that make the girls go crazy. White has been a surfer, a cab driver, a fashion model, a filmmaker and a musician, first an obscure one, now less so. (When he rolls into a town for a show, "There are people waiting to talk to me who know more about my life than I do," he says.)
"The guiding principle of my life is whenever a new opportunity presents itself, the more unlikely it is, the more fun it will be," he explains. "When my sister called on the phone and said, ‘Why don't you come to New York and be a fashion model?' I thought that was the funniest thing I ever heard. And I went up there thinking, ‘This is so wrong that I'm bound to learn something here.'"
White is a definite original, and he seems to have no choice in the matter. When learning how to play the guitar he tried to copy other people's styles, but he couldn't. "I literally have learned half of two songs by other people," he explains, "and I've written thousands and thousands of my own."
White's creative process follows a strange alchemy, and the way this works is a little mysterious. As he explains it, "A lot of times I think, ‘Oh, this sounds like a good grunge song,' and it ends up being 'Ghost-town of My Brain.'" Which is, needless to say, not a grunge song. For this cut on "No Such Place," one of two produced by Orlando's Q-Burns, the plan was to rely on a heavy-metal guitar sound. As Q-Burns was setting up the equipment, something, well, happened. On the CD, "Ghost-town of My Brain" centers on a banjo.
White doesn't make a big deal out of his current critics-darling phase. Music, he declares, is 10 percent talent and 90 percent fashion. "It just so happens that what I'm doing now, someone decided it was fashionable. And probably five years from now it won't be fashionable anymore, and I'll go do something else." He pauses for a beat, and then adds with a laugh, "My record company loves it when I say stuff like that."