Record company executives simply don’t come any more unassuming than John Paul White. Today, for instance—backstage at a San Francisco venue he’ll be playing in a couple of hours to preview his stark new solo album, Beulah—the ex-Civil Wars member is sporting jeans, a chambray work shirt and scuffed brown oxfords that don’t even remotely hint at his position as co-owner of Single Lock Records, which he formed three years ago with Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner and financial adviser Will Trapp. The imprint already has a respectable roster of artists, including Tanner’s side project The Bear, Dylan LeBlanc, Belle Adair, Donnie Fritts, Penny and Sparrow, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Beulah is being released on Single Lock, as well.
But White is remarkably humble about his burgeoning company. He doesn’t have any business cards printed, he apologizes, nor does he maintain an office in his hometown of Florence, Alabama, where the indie is based. “But I have a studio in my backyard, a little ranch-house recording studio,” he says, casually. “So that’s my office, really—my home. And that’s kind of how everybody works now, I guess. And luckily, we’ve been very fortunate that there’s a lot of talent nearby, so we haven’t gone out and looked for artists or projects to work on. They’ve just been organic, like, ‘Hey, I dig what you do. You dig what I do. Let’s see what happens.’”
It’s an old-school—and decidedly Southern—approach that harkens back to the band-friendly days of Capricorn Records and local Muscle Shoals studios like Rick Hall’s historic FAME Studios, where soul greats such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett once recorded. Like Jack White’s popular Third Man facility in Nashville, Single Lock—named for Florence’s Wilson Dam, which, at the time of its construction, was the largest single-lock dam in the world—also boasts its own venue for events, 116 E. Mobile. “We’re probably not the smartest when it comes to our business model,” White cedes with a chuckle. “It really is 100 percent ‘Do we really like the music? Do we enjoy being around these people? Can we be a part of this and help it get out into the world?’ It’s a heavier transaction than I’ve ever had before, because I feel really accountable, and really responsible.”
White is an affable, soft-spoken fellow—quick-witted and gallows droll. How on Earth did he ever get roped in to becoming a CEO? “In the most wonderful way possible,” he replies. “Ben and Will were talking about a label, and wanting to help lots of local artists that needed a foothold. And the thing that was holding them back, in their opinion, was capital—artists having the money to make a good substantial record, so that you could stick them in a van, putt them out there on the road, and work their butts off. So that was the impetus of the entire thing, and they reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested. They played me about five seconds of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and I said, ‘Yeah. I’m in—I’ll do it.’”
As White tells it, he wasn’t even planning on making a new album. Let alone the Wise Blood-grim Southern Gothic into which Beulah gradually morphed. He was happy to disappear into the corporate world for a while, after everything he’d endured with The Civil Wars, his alt-country duo with California girl Joy Williams that issued two records, won four Grammys, then abruptly disbanded in 2014. Both musicians had started out as solo singers, but decided to team up after sparking creatively at a songwriting workshop in Nashville, where they had moved to pursue separate publishing house careers. The chemistry was undeniable, and 2011’s Barton Hollow was a surprise hit, winning them Best Folk Album and Best Country/Duo Performance awards at the 2012 Grammys.They were even nominated for a 2013 Golden Globe for “Safe & Sound,” a track they penned with Taylor Swift and T Bone Burnett for The Hunger Games: District 12 and Beyond soundtrack (it won another Grammy instead), leading to their collaboration with Burnett on another film score, for the documentary about widespread American hunger, A Place at the Table. After an eponymous sophomore set in 2013—which won a fourth Grammy, for the song “From the Valley”—White and Williams announced the split. It seemed to send her reeling, and she entered therapy afterwards, while the more stoic White returned to his childhood home of Florence, with his wife and three of his four children. Beulah, in fact, might be his own personal therapy, because it’s nothing if not fiercely cathartic.
Before White discusses the disc, he addresses the elephant in the room: Why would two performers at the apparent height of their award-winning powers simply walk away from the brand—and sound—that they’d created? He knows that it sounds crazy, he says, sighing, taking a gentlemanly attitude on the oft-discussed showbiz topic. “But these things happen,” he says. “At some point, you have to go your separate ways.” Initially, the two weren’t even speaking to each other. “But we have definitely corresponded,” he adds. “She’s doing her thing now, and I made a conscious decision to focus every bit of my energy on being a good dad, a good husband, and that segued into becoming a label partner and a studio owner. So everything has kind of been me, following my nose, but me paying close attention to what was within 20 yards of me, me pulling in the reins and staying connected to what’s within arm’s length. And that was the problem when these songs started popping into my head, because I felt like the moment I wrote them, it was going to pull me away from this amazing, insular world that I’d created.”
White says that he had extensive, in-depth conversations with his wife Jenny about what to do with the Beulah material. They finally agreed that poetic honesty and family privacy could peacefully coexist on one recording. While Williams has already released her own post-CW album Venus last year, it took White longer to find his stylistic footing. Given all the rumor and speculation swirling around their schism, he was simultaneously pleased that fans cared enough to wonder and worried about the dark nature of his latest cuts. “There were moments where things would happen in the songs, and I’d look at the page and say, ‘What are people going to think that means?’” he recalls. “And I’d take that part out. And then I’d look back at the song and say, ‘Well, the song’s not as good anymore. That [lyric] is meant to be there. For whatever reason, it’s meant to be there.’”
Beulah—a longtime term of endearment in the White household—opens on the gentle tambourine-underscored guitar notes of “Black Leaf,” and the vocalist’s delicate but vague phrasing: “So bitter, in my heart and in my mouth/ She’s a quitter, but I guess we’re both quitting now.” It’s followed by the snarling slide blues of “What’s So,” inspired by the wisdom his father instilled in him as a kid—“Don’t get above your raising”—and the lullaby-basic “The Once and Future Queen,” penned for his daughter. The minor-key lament “Make You Cry” follows, with the unusual declaration “I want to make you cry/ I want to make you hurt/ I want to look in your eyes/ And watch the pain start to work.” A miasma of mea culpa hangs ominously over the rest of the proceedings. In the rocking “Fight For You,” he promises to defend his significant other, gunslinger style; “The Martyr” slowly reveals itself to be about the composer, nobody else; the wispy ballad “I’ll Get Even” isn’t a threat, but a promise to make amends some day; and a jangling processional “I’ve Been Over This Before” with the slightly sinister couplet “You will weave your wicked web, dear/ And I know I’ll get suckered in/ I know I’ve been over this before, I won’t get over it again.” And in the folksy “Hate the Way You Love Me,” the guilt wreathes every last words like a shroud: “I hate the way you see me/ Like a man who can’t be fixed…I hate the way you hold me/ Nervous as a cat/ Like I might get the big idea you’d forgive me just like that.”
White has a patented line he tosses out at concerts. Often, he really doesn’t know what his songs are about, lyrically. But what listeners think they concern is nowhere as interesting—or juicy—as the truth, he will add. He writes vaguely, not extremely personally, he swears. Because it always bothered him when a singer would openly detail what they were writing about. “And when I talk to people about the songs I’ve written, they’ll say, ‘What the song means to me is this, and I was in a situation exactly like where you were,’” he elaborates. “And it will have nothing to do with the real meaning of the song. And that’s a beautiful thing. I had a mentor back in my early days of writing songs, and he used to say, ‘Never put a wedding ring on a song.’ And what he meant by that was, the moment you write that a character has a ring on, you’ve just alienated everyone that is not married, you’ve left them out to where they can’t see into the story anymore. But these songs—in one big fell swoop— just came piling out, after me trying my best to keep them down. I’m not sure where they came from. I just tried not to think about it too much, and to just capture them on the page.”
There’s only one thing, apparently, that White knows for sure about Beulah. “I was definitely inspired by my children and my wife,” the 43-year-old states, adamantly. “They’re the No. 1 focal point for me. I feel like I’m finally figuring out what’s important and what’s not important. In my 30s and my 20s, I was chasing lots of different dreams, and definitely through trial and error, I’ve figured out this matters, and this really doesn’t. This is worth going through the blood, sweat and tears, and this is really not.” For example, he continues, “I am less connected, or less personally involved, with people that are into the music and want to dialogue and want to have a personal relationship with you. Letting people in and being personally involved and giving and giving? It sells records. But I just don’t want to do that anymore—I am a lot more selfish with my time and energy.”
Well, make that two things, White tacks on, hastily. He actually enjoys staring deep into the murky abyss for inspiration. And he understands that—as Nietzsche once said—the abyss stares also. And there’s a dirge that he plays in his current set, “Simple Song,” featured on producer Dave Cobb’s recent Southern Family collection, that exemplifies this mindset. “Growing up, I found out really quickly—by listening to Hank Williams, Sr. and Lefty Frizzell and all that—that the songs that always moved me the most were the sad songs,” he says. “I noticed early on that the valleys were a lot deeper and longer and wider than the mountains were tall, and those moments marked me so much more than anything else ever did. That doesn’t mean I’m not a happy person, but those were the things that really scarred you, and you would mark time by them, and typically, those would not be happy moments. And if I would try to write anything outside of that? It would feel contrived and fake and bullshit. So I write what I love, and hope that other people do, too.”
And now, the guitarist has the added privilege of being able to sign what he loves, too, courtesy of his Single Lock undertaking. But he will never wear a business suit, he declares, scratching his ankle through seemingly itchy argyle socks. “This is dressed up for me!” he concludes with a good-natured guffaw. “The suit is actually for onstage—I always wear a suit onstage. I have a job where I can wear anything I want, and I wear a damn suit when I’m playing live. I mean, what am I thinking? I’m an idiot!”