Richmond, Virginia's Matthew E. White wowed critics and crowds alike in 2012 with the release of his solo debut, Big Inner. The record harkened to the classic sound of golden age R&B, gospel, and soul influenced rock; but thanks to innovative song-structure and White's infectious energy, Big Inner never sounds like a retread. The LP landed on all of 2012's "Best of" lists, and earned White both Paste Magazine's "Best New Act" and Consequence of Sound's "Rookie of the Year." Since 2012, White relentlessly toured, and further developed his own Richmond-based studio and label, Spacebomb. No longer under the radar, White followed up Big Inner with this year's phenomenal Fresh Blood. With more strings, piano, and brass, the new record presents a fuller, gushingly diverse sound. Fresh Blood both nods to the 1960s and 70s greats that inspire White, while marching forward to solidify his unique musical vision.
This August, Matt stopped in Pittsburgh to play an intimate, guitars only, two-man set at Lawrenceville's Thunderbird before heading out on a full-band trek. We caught him by phone the morning after returning home from London. Far from being tired or annoyed, even post-trans Atlantic flight, the garrulous White's charm knew no end. His obvious love not just for his music, but all music, is contagious and pairs perfectly with the energy displayed on his records.
Regarding the response to Fresh Blood, White acknowledged, "I'm pleased with the initial reaction. The basic idea of me putting out records, and there being an audience there that pays attention to it, and then pay to see me play live when I go around the world - that basic thing is working. And I'm really thankful for that. I feel good about the record. Feel good about how people are talking about it. I think it's generally been [talked about] in the right context."
Context comes up often with the proud White - he obviously puts everything he has into his work, and wants it to be heard in a way he intended. He clarified, "I don't say that to be difficult, and my music isn't particularly difficult for an audience to listen to, it's not particularly avant garde or anything, and it's not that I want to keep the music to myself for any reason like that. It's more that you want to be making something with your own voice, and you want to be working with your own vocabulary, and developing your own vocabulary musically. To do that I think you need to be out ahead of the cycle a little bit. You can't be making decisions based on a Pitchfork review or something like that. That's not actually going to get you your own artistic voice. It might get you something else, but it won't get you your own artistic voice - and that's more what I'm interested in."
White has a knack for seeing and hearing everything within the "big picture." He explained, "I kinda subscribe to thatWoody Allen theory of trying to be down the road with the next project by the time the reviews for the last project come out. I don't want a career in the music industry playing music that I don't love, but I happen to be getting paid for. That's not why I'm here. I sort of view this as a season. I made music for ten years before this and I'm very thankful for this opportunity. But at some point critics and writers and fans might turn to the next thing, because that's how it goes. When that happens, I'd like to continue making music, and continue this one narrative of growing and continuing to find my own voice. I don't want the time that writers are writing about me and fans are buying records and I got to tour to be a mis-step in that wider narrative."
Matt politely brushed off the idea that having what people interpret as a "classic sound" might insulate him from cyclical changes in tastes. "I mean people say that, and people ask me that. As a music audience we're sort of sitting in the hayday of the re-issue culture, and the nostalgia culture, and that kind of thing. So as an artist - even though I don't view my records as that at all, and hopefully they'll increasingly be developing a voice that sits apart from that - the big picture of how people talk about it is, 'Oh, it's like a 70s soul thing, but it's got its own voice.' That kind of take does fit the time that we're in. It might not always be the case. But I do think that the music has some timeless qualities. But I don't want to think about that too much. That kind of resting on your laurels can be quite dangerous."
Though armed with what may be the quintessential American sound, White's popularity is greatest in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. He credits a variety of factors for the growing European love affair with his work. "There is a sense that European culture sort of fetishizes Americana a little bit. They just love it. They eat it up. When Big Inner came out the press was - 'big, bearded, long haired dude from Virginia makes album in his own studio' - that narrative just lights them up in a way it doesn't to people here. Also the general kind of understanding of where I'm coming from musically is a little bit better from an audience and writer's point of view. Their listening habits are slightly more alighted to where I'm coming from. It relates to the first thing a little bit - they spent the last 60 years fetishizing these things: Muscle Shoals, Motown, Phil Spector. It's just an interesting thing that I'm learning. I have to explain the background of things here that I don't have to there. It's also a practical thing. When I release things I'm a little behind here. When I released the first record in the U.S. I'm putting it out on my own small label. And by small label, I mean running the whole thing from my laptop in my bedroom. When I released it in Europe it was on Domino. That's a big label, with a big machine behind it. So it's just been a difference with how much face time I've had in different areas of the world. Here, because this is such a huge country and this is basically my first record being pushed by a real label - the face time just isn't the same as when I go to England and the record's been pushed by the biggest indie rock label in the country, and it's much smaller so it's easier to hit every town. In the States I play to 200 or 250 people, and in London I play to 2,500 to 3,000. It's just a very different thing, but it's really helped me musically and personally. It's a nice reminder that every situation is one to be thankful for."
Matt appreciates every kind word said about him and his music, but he's not taking anything for granted. Realizing nothing is guaranteed in this industry, he has the perspective and wherewithal to enjoy those "I made it" moments without losing focus. He describes two versions: "Number one. Holy shit, I made it in the sense that this is my job. That's great and there were some surreal moments there - playing Letterman was pretty surreal. You find yourself in crazy places doing some crazy things. But I think theres sort of a different moment, that's like holy shit I'm to the point where I'm always going to be doing this. And that isn't the case for me yet. I'm still fighting. There's a very real world in which I could release an other record and nobody likes it, and I get dropped from my record label and I have to get a job. That's a thing that happens to people in my situation. I feel like my next five years are guaranteed. I'll be working at music for the next five years. But after that who knows. I'm not at the level that if I had a record that was complete shit, then I had another record that was complete shit, that for some reason people would still pay to see me."
On top of promoting Fresh Blood, White's presence in the music scene as a producer and the founder of Spacebomb Records and Studio continues to grow. When asked about his production techniques and influences, Matt interestingly references only hip-hop players. "Look at someone like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar - they have a shit ton of people working with them. I don't say that in a bad way at all. They're incredibly gifted deligators and people that can lay out a vision for the people working along side them. And that's basically what I do. There's a talented group of people that I'm around and that I like to work with, and it's my job to say these are the things I'm going to take care of and that I'm going to do. You make the plans but you need other people to help you build it along side yourself. That's the kind of music I love. And I love Kendrick and Kanye's music for the same reasons. Those guys are making records that they are incredibly 'themselves' on, but they wouldn't work without their team."
He explained his hip-hop love in the words of both an unapologetic fanboy, and of in the intellectual manner of a music historian. "I think it's the most exciting music being made right now. It's the most fresh music being made. I think Kendrick is making the best music beign made right now. For me, it's important that my records become more individualistic and develop an singular voice and vocabulary, but also more and more adventurous and modern and more a part of the times. I think there's a lot to learn from those guys. I feel such a connection to how they're actually working. Someone like Kanye is doing exactly what the Wrecking Crew was doing, he's just seeing through a different lens. The whole thing about starting Spacebomb was I think that this process of making records with a consistent group of musicians with high level deligation - that process is flexible over genre lines and ways of making music. So to me it's about taking that process, and taking that sort of musicianship and the sense of real arranging and real orchestration and finding a place where that can grow. I look at the hip-hop producers and artists of the world, and I feel like that's kind of a version of how that can be modern."
Matthew E. White's future as a record producer and studio owner is as bright as his own musical vision. His Spacebomb Records released the Natalie Prass's wondrous self-titled debut LP earlier this year. That record - which White both produced and provided the horn arrangements - became an immediate critical darling and will certainly place on most of those vaunted year-end lists. White added, "I think getting Natalie's record out and riding that wave, and supporting it the best we can, that was the priority and still is. We needed to see how it was actually working - was this something we could keep doing. All that's becoming clearer with Nat's record. That's kind of the main priority still - supporting her, and getting her through her album cycle. We haven't signed anyone else. There's people im interested in making records with. SB is a unique thing because we can release records on our own - which we like to do and we're looking at what's next. We're also being approached about becoming a production company for other people's records, and other people are coming to us. So lots of that's on our calendar. We didn't mean for my record and Natalie's record to come out 6 weeks apart, that's just how it worked out, which is hilarious because we were ready for Nat's record to come out a long time ago. And it's just been funny, but it's been a really great look for Spacebomb."
With lots of projects on his horizon, White's career can take many different turns from this point. What's clear is White's dedication to his craft. What's clear is the unifying excellence of Fresh Blood. Matthew E. White returns to the U.K. and Ireland for a ten-date tour in January 2016.