How Jack White Keeps Moving The Needle
Jack White is on stage at the brand-new Moody Center in Austin, Texas. Decked out in a cowboy shirt -- which he sweats through in no time -- he's loose but not loquacious, cracking a joke about Johnny Depp (The Raconteurs' "You Don't Understand Me'' gets dedicated to the actor) and wryly noting how Austin hasn't changed since he was here at the end of the 1990s. It's a cornball quip that nevertheless lands precisely where White intended. It also won’t leave the room in the form of a video clip, to be circulated and dissected on Twitter, because as of 2018, White's live show has benefited from his insistence on banning the use of cell phones.
When White first unveiled the policy (which excludes headlining festival sets), most of the press coverage treated the development with skepticism, if not outright scorn, painting the rocker as a scold who doesn't care whether a parent needs to hear about a sick kid or not. Several years later, after the policy has been in place for a while -- and the COVID-19 pandemic makes audiences eager to reconnect with live performance -- it's become clear that the whole process is indeed about focusing attention: Without the distraction of a pocket computer, it's easier to step into Jack White's world.
White knows he "ended up being a poster boy for analog," as he puts it. Over the years, that perception has calcified into a caricature, suggesting that the former garage rocker is the kind of guy who fervently believes the old ways are the best ways. It could be argued this reputation is partially earned. In David Guggenheim’s 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Guggenheim cast Jimmy Page as the old sage and the Edge as the visionary prophet, whereas Jack White was positioned as the guitarist who carried the torch -- the young gun who knew his history and revitalized rock for a new generation. White had some fun with this designation. The first time he appears in the film, he's seen building a guitar out of a wood plank, glass bottle, and wire, an act of invention that also emphasizes how such old-timey ideas have always been at the core of his aesthetic, including during the peak of The White Stripes' fame.
Nearly a decade and a half later, such artisanal affectations are no longer at the forefront of Jack White's public persona. At the point It Might Get Loud hit theaters, The White Stripes -- the Detroit-based garage rock duo that also featured Jack's ex-wife, Meg -- had already released Icky Thump, the 2007 album that turned out to be their last. Some 10 years after The White Stripes officially called it a day, White has become a rock institution; a musician who is known for his prodigious output and advocacy of vinyl records. Where most institutions tend to get slow and staid, Jack White has entered a renaissance period, breaking conventions in ways both subtle and drastic.
Blame some of this spurt of creative vitality on the pent-up energy that was a byproduct of the pandemic. As with most of his fellow artists, COVID-19 kept White at home for a good part of 2020, which is when he conceived much of his twin 2022 albums, April’s Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive (arriving Friday, July 22nd). Admitting that "it's really difficult to hit people with a double album," while also recognizing the constraints of the physical release schedule, White still decided to release the two albums in succession.
"I thought it was going to be one very eclectic record," White says. "I never set out to do a one-mood record before. The first White Stripes record is a raw Detroit record -- even that record has some left turns." But as he continued to work on the material, the tunes started to divide themselves into separate camps. This isn't unusual for White. "You get into the zone on every record and the songs are telling you the way it should be,” he says. “You stupidly have to start sculpting things around that."
Fear of the Dawn arrived in a gale of thunder earlier this year, backed by one of the greatest publicity campaigns in recent memory. Returning to his hometown of Detroit (White long ago decamped to Nashville), he ruled the Motor City during a frenetic 24 hours. Over the course of one day, White played the national anthem at a Detroit Tigers home game, then gave a blistering performance at Detroit's Masonic Temple wherein he proposed and then married his longtime girlfriend Olivia Jean, an accomplished garage rocker in her own right.
White realizes releasing two albums of such different tone so close together comes with the threat of one paling in comparison. "It was the first thing I did that was really gentle," he says of Entering Heaven Alive. "Then, it became a worry that this other album would just die away." There’s always the question of reeling audiences -- particularly fairweather fans -- back in for a double hit of music, in addition to getting the media to pay attention again, too.
The good news is that Entering Heaven Alive -- drastically different from the cacophonic, claustrophobic Fear of the Dawn -- is deserving of equal attention. Not quite acoustic, yet certainly introspective, Entering Heaven Alive is subtle and reflective, emphasizing pop melodies and flirting with a variety of musical styles. Parts of the set have clear antecedents in White's catalog, such as the spare acoustic number "Love is Selfish" and the sunbleached country of "Please God, Don't Tell Anyone."
Then there are the notable departures: "All Along the Way" flowers from subdued fingerpicking to a reggae sway, while "I've Got You Surrounded (With My Love)" is a place where White demonstrates how thoroughly he's absorbed Prince's quirky funk, and "Help Me Along" has a nearly baroque lilt in its stateliness.
Individually, Entering Heaven Alive showcases White's range in a way no other single White record has. Then there’s Fear of the Dawn, a record as reliant on digital effects as The White Stripes’ Elephant was on analog. (White points out that the heavier version of “Taking Me Back,” a song which is shared between both Dawn and Heaven, “is almost completely digital.”) Taken in conjunction, it becomes clear that Jack White is no longer playing by the rule book he wrote back in the heyday of The White Stripes.
So why is Jack White stretching out at this point in his career? Some of it’s driven by the artistic restlessness he's displayed since the beginning, a hunger that was present even before he teamed up with Meg White. A lot of it is due to the fact that after nearly a quarter-century in the business -- and 20 years of running his Third Man empire -- he can afford to tinker in the lab. He knows he has an audience that will follow him as he wanders and explores.
Indeed, White often thinks about the relationship between the artist and audience these days. He's grateful that he's in the position to be able to try new things, ever the rockstar scientist, yet conscious that whatever he releases is art that's meant to be shared, a common bond between the artist and fan. White may be flexing new muscles on Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive, but there’s not a sense of self-indulgence on either record.
“I LEARNED REALLY
YOUNG TO ABANDON
SOMETHING THAT WASN’T
“I LEARNED REALLY
YOUNG TO ABANDON
SOMETHING THAT WASN’T
White maintains that when it comes to ideas that aren’t working, “I quickly abandon them. I learned really young to abandon something that wasn’t impressing myself.” Such rigorous quality control is a key to White’s creative process. “To be able to self-editorialize, self-censor... we don’t teach that,” he says. “When independent music arose, what should’ve come along with that is a pamphlet teaching how to edit yourself.”
The entire “Supply Chain Issues Tour,” with its very name serving as proof that White is tuned into the times, finds him channeling his eccentricities into the clean, anonymous settings of modern arenas. The Moody Center has only been open for little more than a month when White rolls into town supported by Chicano Batman, one of a rotating cast of tour partners in 2022. That venue targets the wealthier Austin residents (one of the city's staple beers, the Pinthouse Electric Jellyfish IPA, is a whopping $18 on tap), so its environs are clean, bordering on sterile.
Enter Jack White. His stage show isn't flashy, but it's purposeful, trading on the blue color theme he's adopted since the end of The White Stripes. And of course, it has the crowd abandoning their beloved devices for a few hours. Alison Mosshart, the lead singer of The Kills and White's longtime friend and bandmate in The Dead Weather, notes the difference that’s made by putting phones away. "The Kills just opened for Jack in San Francisco, and the crowd was absolutely incredible," she says when reached by email. "It felt like the old days, pre-pandemic, exciting -- loud. Very, very fun."
In his live show’s current iteration, White is judicious in rolling out the material from Entering Heaven Alive, relying heavily on Fear of the Dawn and a songbook whose depth becomes apparent only in a setting like this, where the old tunes mingle with the new as if they're in a constant, delighted conversation. “I’ve always played to the room the best I can,” explains White, conscious of the fact that he’s changed his approach now that he's headlining venues that are much larger than the little rooms he played at the beginning of his career.
On stage in Austin, White digs up some obscurities while avoiding a few favorites, and winds up emphasizing the muscular reach of his current band as much as his sonic diversity. Songs that sounded pent-up and confrontational on Fear of the Dawn breathe here, benefitting from being played by a band which is in the process of figuring out the composition's final form.
White thrives in this process. He's a firm believer in the traditional album cycle: Write and record the album in a flush of inspiration, then take it out on the road. While this wasn't possible with Dodge and Burn, the third album from The Dead Weather, one of two bands White has kept active concurrent to his solo career (the other being the Raconteurs, which features Brendan Benson), he's mostly kept to this philosophy.
The Dead Weather's conception practically provides a textbook example of how White can be blindsided by a burst of creative inspiration. "We walked into Jack’s new recording studio at the time to test out the room and the gear… and walked out with a whole record in the blink of an eye,” Mosshart recalls of the process of recording the band's debut, Horehound, over a mere three weeks in 2009. “It was a real, ‘Holy shit, what have we just done?’ moment. Very magical, I think, to go from, ‘Let’s see if this mic works,' to a whole album."
Things didn't happen as smoothly with Dodge and Burn, a perfectly fine album that swiftly fell off the cultural radar after its release in 2015. White chalks up the situation to bad timing: "We recorded it, and none of us could tour -- if you don’t tour a record, it doesn’t exist." Mosshart concurs. "I think that was the moment when everyone was getting too busy to hold it all down together,” she says. “We all had our other bands and other responsibilities. It takes tons of time and commitment, and we were just spread too thin."
The Dodge and Burn experience was a catalyst for the separate but conjoined release of Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive. White didn't want to shelve either record -- he wanted to strike while the iron was hot, but ran into those infamous supply chain issues. Due to a glut of backlogged projects, it proved to be impossible to get both albums pressed on vinyl simultaneously.
Many artists have faced a similar crunch at the pressing plant, but they're not all Jack White, who happens to own his own pressing plant. "I could halt all the presses and put my record out tomorrow," White admits. But he wanted to play fair to the other artists who also were anxious to get their music out to the public. If he had done that, it would've tarnished the hard-earned reputation he's built with Third Man over the years.
Many rockers have established labels before, but they’re often vanity projects, issuing nothing more than the latest record from an artist and nothing else. White and his co-founder (and nephew) Ben Blackwell were adamant that such a fate would not befall Third Man Records. They wanted it to be a label with its own distinct identity, something along the lines of Sub Pop or Matador Records; when somebody bought a Third Man record, they'd know its vibe, if not quite its sound, immediately.
Third Man did achieve this goal, but almost in a circuitous fashion. Founded at the nadir of vinyl sales in 2001, it took a long time before the label found its stride -- or for an audience to form around what the label offered. "I started off with baby steps, then it started to snowball," remembers White. During the height of The White Stripes' fame, Jack White acted as vinyl's defacto ambassador -- Elephant was only available as vinyl promos in 2003 -- helping set the stage for the industry's own embrace of physical product in the form of Record Store Day, which was formed in 2007.
Blackwell can’t think of a more prominent public face of the vinyl revival than Jack White. “There's probably people that have bigger pressing plants or press more titles or bigger quantities on their labels,” Blackwell says, “but those are all people that no one would recognize on the street." White's acting as an evangelist for vinyl did benefit Third Man, but it took a while for the label to not be seen through his eyes. An in-depth review of Third Man’s 2019 Ann Arbor Blues Festival archival release “didn't mention Jack or Third Man at all,” Blackwell remembers, “And that was like a great tiny victory.”
“THIRD MAN HAS
ALWAYS BEEN A
MIXTURE OF ART
“THIRD MAN HAS
ALWAYS BEEN A
MIXTURE OF ART
Third Man Records expanded from a label into a store in 2009, setting up shop in Nashville. A Detroit location opened in 2015, and another in London in 2021. Third Man Records doesn’t quite fit any conventional pattern; White notes that "we only sell the records we produce," while Blackwell calls Third Man Records "kind of this weird destination specialty shop." The London location is the first time Third Man has been established in a major metropolitan center, and if White’s “grand experiment” across the pond works out, he has his sights on Tokyo and Los Angeles next.
These days, Jack White is on another crusade, this time trying to push the record labels to invest in their own pressing plants. As an owner of a plant himself, he knows what an expensive and daunting task this is, along with just how necessary it is; without more plants, there's only so far the vinyl explosion can go. White estimates that "each major label would probably have to open a plant of 30 presses each" to meet demand. After White called on Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group to launch their own plants in a March 2022 statement, he says he’s since heard some rumblings about forward motion. "We've heard questions. There’s been talk at major labels,” he says. “My guess is it's a very quick corporate meeting, as the first year would be at a loss."
No one understands the financial constraints better than White. "Third Man has always been a mixture of art and business. Breaking even is my goal!" he laughs. Make no mistake, there's an artistic goal to Third Man, too. "We are trying to turn people on with things we have access to," White says. And while Third Man definitely cultivates a cool vibe, White says they make sure all the employees are welcoming: "We are always preaching to them, 'Don’t make people feel like they’re uncool to be in the room.'"
That inviting spirit could be seen earlier this year when popstar Olivia Rodrigo stopped by the Nashville branch for a tour and meet and greet. Maybe it's unexpected to discover that Rodrigo considers White her "hero of all heroes," but the artistic embrace of Rodrigo from White is what's notable. Where most White Men of a Certain Age tend to get huffy about pop stars and young women gravitating toward vinyl records, White is celebrating Rodrigo's efforts in cultivating another generation of listeners who are disciples to the wonders of vinyl.
So is there a Rodrigo/White collaboration in the cards? "I’m coming of the age where I’m not that interested in producing other people any more,” White answers. “That's especially true with younger artists." Maybe Dolly Parton, who has announced plans to record a rock album, could sway him? “One half of me loves Dolly so much I’d do whatever she wants,” he admits. But any collaboration with Parton also runs a specific risk: "It’d be too compared to Loretta [Lynn] and Wanda [Jackson].”
White even turned down a request from Lynn to produce a sequel to their acclaimed collaboration, 2004's Van Lear Rose. "Loretta wanted to do another album, but it was so good, what we did, I couldn’t imagine going in and topping that. Loretta said, ‘We can’t top it but we can go under it!’”
White's retreat from production doesn't mean he's backing away from collaboration, necessarily, nor is it a sign that he's withdrawing from contemporary musical currents. Rather, he's fostering a community that extends to such unexpected disciples as Rodrigo through the collection of rockers, singer/songwriters, funksters, and indie artists he's taking out on tour.
Take one look at the supporting acts on the “Supply Chain Issues Tour,” and you get a sense of where White's sensibilities currently lie. He's surrounded by old friends like The Kills and his new wife Olivia Jean, but there's also Nashville indie veterans Be Your Own Pet, retro-rocker JD McPherson, the psychedelic funk of Chicano Batman, the evocatively ethereal songwriter Natalie Bergman, and the jazz of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Put these acts together on their own bill and they might not make sense, but they all feel at home sharing a stage with Jack White, where he serves as the grandmaster of a circus that celebrates a weird, vibrant and welcoming America.
That inclusiveness is a sign of how Jack White has mellowed appealingly as he's easing into middle age, discovering excitement in creative contraction, a kinetic energy that is palpable even within the quieter confines of Entering Heaven Alive.
Studio photos by Paige Sara and Olivia Jean
Live photos by David James Swanson and Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images
Illustration by Steven Fiche