Jim White: Beware the Bluebirds

Music Features Jim White
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For Southern-fried folk singer Jim White, it all revolves around the bluebirds. Five of the brightly plumed harbingers of happiness that he noticed on a telephone wire outside his new home, on the first warm day of a recent spring. With his daughter Sadie and new wife, he’d left his native Pensacola, Fla., after Hurricane Ivan hit for the calmer climes of Athens, Ga. “And there I was, with the woman that I loved, living in this beautiful house, and everything seemed to be in line,” he recalls. “So I sort of relaxed and assumed that I’d made it to safety, you know?” But then he began studying his feathered friends more closely.

“The bluebirds had a nest in the back yard, and my wife became obsessed with how the cats were going to kill the babies,” sighs the Renaissance man, who’s dabbled in prose writing, acting, photography, modeling, folk art, even film scoring in his adventurous career. “And sure enough, the cats did kill the babies, so it quickly became this nightmare. And then the bluebirds started attacking the windows of my car, and it was like a Hitchcock movie.” Then his wife suddenly announced she was leaving him for another man, midway through the recording of his cathartic new Where It Hits You, his first solo album in five years. “And after she left, I’d stare out that window and look at those bluebirds, and it was like a message from the universe, that you can never, ever say you’re safe. All you can do is keep your eyes open and listen and pay attention—you can never just shut your brain off and say ‘I’ve made it.’”

And here’s the added irony: All of the foggy, forlorn dirges on Where It Hits You—like “Sunday’s Refrain,” “The Way Of Alone” and “State Of Grace”—were penned before White had any inkling of marriage trouble. There was only one he even remotely tinkered with—the ominous-toned duet with Caroline Herring, “Epilogue To A Marriage,” which had a slightly friendlier title, pre-breakup. More irony, White sighs. “The day my wife told me she was leaving me was the day that Caroline came over to sing with me, and we’re out there in my home studio, singing, while my wife was outside making plans to move out of our house. Caroline was singing her heart out on that song, and it was, umm, real hard to keep my shit together. So that day is certainly seared in my psyche.”

In fact, two Hits You compositions—the gently jazzy “Infinite Mind” and the ghostly piano-cobwebbed “Chase The Dark Away”—were penned expressly for his unfaithful missus, White adds. “Because she was afraid of a lot of crazy shit, and you can’t let fear rule your life—you have to look into the eyes of the people that love you and remember that this is your anchor in the world. And it was weird, because my wife left before I had sung any of these songs, because I record vocals last. So I was in tears for two solid weeks while I did the vocals. I was an emotional wreck, because I had to sing these songs, but there was no one to sing them to anymore.”

But finding the bluebird of happiness dead on your doorstep doesn’t always end badly. White had countless well-wishers drop by his album sessions (for which he played guitar, keyboards, flute, whistle and harmonica), like various members of The Heap, Shak Nasti and Ollabelle, among two dozen other guests. Since he was no longer tied to Luaka Bop Records, who’d released his whimsical Wrong-Eyed Jesus debut back in 1997, he financed the recordings via an online KickStarter campaign, offering his quirky outsider art in exchange for donations. Realizing he was entering his Blue Period, White “made a lot of happy things to counteract the Blue, like these little things I called Foot Soldiers, made out of bit parts and pie tins.

“When my wife left, it was like ‘Well, this house is empty and there’s just a sense of desolation here—I’d better do something really manic for a month,’” continues the quirky craftsman, whose work was recently exhibited at the posh Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin. “So I made art for a month, and when I was done the house was full of all these little people that I’d made, and it was strangely comforting. And then it was an extra comfort, because I was about to lose this house—I was right on the verge of bankruptcy. So I did the KickStarter thing and offered my art, and people from all over the world wrote in and bought these things from me. So when that money came in? I had $400 in the bank and $3,000 worth of bills coming up in a week.”

The Irish exhibit—dubbed “Deep-Fried Ephemera”—was undertaken at the personal request of the gallery owner, who buttonholed White on a Celtic tour. “The guy had this little room that he reserves for weird projects, and he said ‘Show me your art, ’cause I know that you make it,’” he chuckles, impishly. “My more conventional stuff he was bored to tears with, but finally I sent him this little bulletin board that I had made, full of weird clippings of strange events, and he said ‘That’s great! Give me 10 of those!’ And it was incredibly rewarding, to take a huge amount of stuff that I found in Georgia garbage cans, ship it to Ireland, put it up on bulletin boards, and have fancy art people consider it aesthetically. That is most definitely a paradigm for redemption.”

White’s trees might be spattered with bluebird shit. But he’s beginning to see radiant beams of sunlight peeking through. With Dan Nettles, he just co-scored Juilliard’s updating of Sam Shepherd’s work in The Americans (which he then fine-tuned into an album, Sounds Of The Americans), and he’s now branching off into keen-eared production, having overseen records from Dare Dukes, Haroula Rose and the Belgian group Stanton. And he’s started dating again, an amateur Athens vocalist with three children who eschews the limelight.

“Like me, she’s been down a rocky road herself,” says White, 54, sounding—if not happy—at least fairly content. “When I met her, she was shell-shocked and adamant that she wasn’t going to get involved with anyone for a year. So we became friends, and our kids would get together and play while we’d just sit and talk. And after six months of getting to know each other, we’re seeing each other now, and she’s going to go with me to South By Southwest to sing with me this year.”

Which should shut those pesky bluebirds up, once and for all. Maybe even drive them to darken someone else’s door.

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