Change is something singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Paul White—whose career has been marked by a series of new beginnings—knows all too well.
When White founded The Civil Wars with Joy Williams, the critical kudos came quickly, reaping multiple awards and a wave of recognition from the press. Indeed, in its brief five-year run, the duo’s haunting gothic sound became a template for modern folk finesse. Nevertheless, after the pair announced that they were parting ways in 2014, White found himself struggling to rekindle his creative fire. Although he had previously released a solo album—2008's The Long Goodbye—for a time he lost the inspiration to make music on his own.
"It's funny," he says in retrospect. "I had nothing musical going on in my head for the next two years. I didn't even sing in the shower. I was that burnt. I didn't tell myself I'd never make another record, but I didn't see it happening."
When he did return to making music, the result was the 2016 album Beulah, filled with poignancy, passion, and a hushed, introspective ambience. It is, in short, the work of a master musician who was obviously recharged.
To mark his January 24 performance as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook, White shared some thoughts on the ups and downs of his career so far, and how he’s approaching new projects.
Lee Zimmerman: You live in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where you were born. Was there ever a point where you considered relocating to a place like Nashville or Austin, where the music business seems to be centered?
John Paul White: I moved up to Nashville for three months. I told myself, "You know what? I'm going to give it a go and try to make a name for myself in the music business. Maybe get a gig as a songwriter. Who knows?" So I moved up there and I proceeded to work two or three jobs just to pay my bills, and never got any closer to my dream whatsoever. Every door was closed. The open mic nights always had a couple of hundred people waiting to play. It was pretty daunting, and I realized pretty quickly I was just going backwards. Plus, I missed my wife-to-be. She was still down here in the Shoals and I didn't want to be away from her. So I came back home and I haven't left since.
LZ: You eventually landed a songwriting deal, did you not?
JPW: Yes, with EMI. I didn't really want to write songs. I just wanted to sing. I just wanted to get the girl. [chuckles] Songwriting seemed like the long way around for me. I learned to love it, but it took a while.
LZ: What led to your first album, The Long Goodbye? And what did it teach you about becoming a singer as well as a songwriter?
JPW: I became miserable writing songs for other people. At first I thought, "What a great gig. This beats being out in a hayfield," even if I wasn't writing the kinds of songs I wanted to. But after a while, there was no heart or soul to it. So I decided I would go back to school and study computers. I'm still only a semester away from having a major in computer programming. Then I decided, "I'm going to write some songs that make me happy and demo them really well. I can put them in my pocket and show them to my kids and grandkids, and tell them that I did it and it was fun." Then, I started getting some of my songs cut, which just blew my mind. So I just started going further and further in the direction I wanted to go until EMI got wind of it. They started shopping me around and connected me with Capitol Records.
LZ: That must have felt like your big break.
JPW: When I got to make the record, I got to do it all on my own terms. It was a very artist-friendly place at the time. The producer, Mike Hedges, had done The Cure and Travis and some U2 stuff, but he was chomping at the bit to come to Muscle Shoals and do some stuff here. So we did the record at Fame Studios and the strings at Abbey Road, and I got to pick my mixer. It was perfect.
LZ: But then the bottom dropped out...
JPW: While we were mixing the record, everyone on the A&R staff at Capitol got fired. They merged Capitol and Virgin together. I was on the outside looking in. They let me know they weren't going to release my record, but they'd let me have it. They really didn't base the decision on the music. They made it based on the numbers, on the consolidation. I could sleep at night knowing that I made the record I wanted to make and they didn't hate it. Still, I was bitter about the whole thing, and by the time I was able to free myself and get the record back, I wasn't that guy anymore. I shopped it for about a week and then I called my management and said, "Man, I don't want to do this. Sitting in offices playing this record for people, it's just not me anymore. I can't sell it." So I just walked away and went back to writing songs.
LZ: It seems like you went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
JPW: I certainly did. It was good and bad. I felt good about the process. I felt good that I had stuck to my guns and said, "Here's what I really want." It worked out. They gave me the reins. So I didn't have any regrets in that area. As a kid growing up, singing into your hairbrush, you always dream of the major label deal. So I can say I've done it. There were pros and cons to it, but I'm good. I know how to make a record and I know who I am.
"There are a lot of people out there who don't know I'm still creating, and you know what? That's exciting. I will find them in my own way."
LZ: How did the break up of The Civil Wars affect your subsequent projects?
JPW: When I did finally start creating again, it was really out of necessity. There was no thought about going forward. There was no strategy. It never entered my mind. I never thought about whether the new music sounded too much like The Civil Wars or if it would alienate people or endear itself to people. I never spent a second thinking about that. I had done nothing for so long, so I felt the music was fresh. I didn't really have a choice about the stuff coming out of my head. I was half of that band, The Civil Wars, so of course my music is going to sound like that. Why would I have any issues with that? I'm not going to deny myself and my history. It's who I am and who I was and who I will always be.
LZ: So what was the public reaction like?
JPW: People were thankfully genuinely interested in what I was creating when I finally decided to create. I'm genuinely thankful about that and I'm still blown away by it. I have yet to encounter anyone saying "I wish it was more like this, or a little less like this." I didn't have expectations one way or the other. I had expectations that I would be starting from scratch. And in a lot of ways, it is a whole new world. There are a lot of people out there who don't know I'm still creating, and you know what? That's exciting. I will find them in my own way. And they may come along for the ride or they may not, but in my own way, I'll get to them.
LZ: Nevertheless, your name has become well known. That lends a certain anticipation to what you may do next.
JPW: I don't feel like that at all, and I'm not trying to be humble. There's a song on Beulah called "What's So" that touches on the whole mentality of being from the South. It's also a blue-collar kind of thing. You just put your head down and do your work as well as you can. You're not any better than anyone else and you're not any less than anyone else. We're all linking arms and trying to get through all this together. I was kind of raised that way. It's a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I allow myself to revel in the successes in my career. But I don't get too down either when things aren't clicking the way I want them to. It all kind of balances out.
For the past 20 years, Lee Zimmerman has interviewed and written about many of his rock heroes for Paste, Relix, Goldmine, Blurt, No Depression, and more. Prior to working as a writer, he was a promotion representative for Capitol Records.