Chris Whitley recorded his most recent CD (the stark, craggily brilliant Dirt Floor) in an old barn in Vermont using a lone two-track tape machine and a single microphone, and accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar and the steady tap of his boot on the weathered floor. That’s quite a contradiction for a guy who, not that long ago, made his living playing highly synthesized, techno dance music in Belgium.
But then again, Whitley’s no stranger to musical contradictions.
A chance meeting in a New York City park with renowned producer Daniel Lanois (whose credits include Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball and Willie Nelson’s Teatro) led to a deal with Columbia Records and the release, in 1991, of Whitley’s first CD, Living With the Law. (In just example of the kind of weird connections and coincidences that Whitley says mark his life, the disc was recorded at Lanois’ New Orleans studio using a sound board that Whitley had used to record some demo work at age 18 in New York City; Lanois had subsequently purchased the board — the same one, in fact, that Jimi Hendrix used to record Electric Ladyland.)
“I’d been playing and writing songs for 15 years before I got signed, playing on New York street corners and that kind of thing, and I was working in a factory and [was] in a marriage that was flying apart and living in a basement apartment with my daughter, making $300 a week,” Whitley recounted in a recent phone interview from a club in Memphis. “So you could definitely say Living With the Law changed my life, and I bought the illusion for a while” — the “illusion” being that major-label status inherently goes hand-in-hand with producing artistically satisfying music.
“Part of my frustration with that first record was [that] I, of course, didn’t have anything to do with the arrangements of the songs,” he says. “I just went into the studio, and they put a band behind me, and there it was. … It was frustrating because, to me, I have more of a natural edge than that record sounded like.”
Whitley may have been disappointed, but industry insiders and the public alike were not. A single from the critically acclaimed, heavily atmospheric disc, “Kick the Stones,” graced the Thelma and Louise soundtrack, and Whitley acquired the precarious status of music-world darling (modestly, he describes it as “going from really obscure to not so obscure.)
“Whitley’s a visionary, a bona fide poet,” was how Rolling Stone greeted Whitley’s first effort.
He didn’t record another CD for three years.
And when he finally released Din of Ecstasy (Sony, 1994), it was a new Chris Whitley who stood before the world: Gone were the ambling, melodic tunes that marked Living With the Law. In their place was an electric, turbocharged blitz of distortion which a Guitar Player magazine reviewer described as “violent squalls that suggest Son House jamming with Sonic Youth.” During that time, Whitley himself described his music as “just psychosexual, socio-spiritual love songs that hope to f••k with … stereotypes.”
With Din of Ecstasy, Whitley picked up a new cadre of fans. He went on to record Terra Incognita (Sony, 1996) — yet another departure, filled with edgy love ballads and marked by a stunning lyricism. Terra Incognita was to be Whitley’s final Sony release.
“I hadn’t written anything for the last year I was on Sony … before they dropped me,” he remembers.
Enter tiny, grassroots Messenger Records, originally begun by Brandon Kessler in from his Columbia University dorm room. With Messenger, Whitley was finally able to do exactly what he wanted: Write a small batch (nine, to be exact) of laid-bare songs and record them quickly, using only the sparsest of instrumentation and equipment. Dirt Floor (Messenger Records, 1998) was recorded in a single, 12-hour spurt (taking one break for pizza) in Whitley’s father’s isolated barn.
But don’t read too much meaning into Whitley’s choice of location — this was no poignant, sentimental journey. “It wasn’t this big return to something,” he explains. “I just loved the room. I’d recorded [some other music] in there before, and plus, it was free. That’s all, really — no big emotional thing. My dad doesn’t live [around] there. Nobody lives there. It was just a cool, isolated place and a good-sounding room and it just seemed consequent with the spirit of the record.”
Considering the pretty-much unanimous critical praise for Dirt Floor, Whitley’s impetus for composing its songs might come as a surprise.
“I started writing [many of the songs for Dirt Floor] out fear and insecurity, really out of desperation,” he remembers. “And the record sounds desperate to me.”
Desperate, maybe. But it’s a dirtily beautiful desperation. On this collection of gritty, whittled-down country-blues tunes — rawly strummed to life by Whitley on his bottleneck-slide National steel guitar — Whitley’s approach has little to do with wallowing in the near-orgasmic emotional release of traditional blues. Instead, the music here becomes more like the taut sexual tension that keens between doomed would-be lovers — acute desire stripped down to one raw nerve (“Give me love or electrocution,” he sings at one point).
Whitley lays bare the demons of sloppily bruised love, meaningless sex and the search for grace in an emotionally bankrupt world with a beautifully timbered, yet somehow ruined, voice that conjures up aural images of blues-legend Robert Johnson’s scratchy ’78s.
‘It’s so hard to keep warm where it’s so easy to get burned,” he wails on Dirt Floor’s “Indian Summer.” Music writers have tagged this music “postmodern blues” — a moniker Whitley despises. “Well, they’re always trying to put you in a box,” he notes gruffly. “But I especially hate the term ‘postmodern.’ It’s asinine. I mean, to me, Andy Warhol was postmodern. It’s like his Campbell’s soup cans — making a joke out of what people actually consume. To me, the term ‘postmodern’ means, ‘It sucks and we all love it.'”
Whitley’s also uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons to Robert Johnson and other blues masters, since the release of Dirt Floor. “Even blues has connotations that I don’t feel,” he notes. “It’s totally semantic, and people today think of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton when they think of blues. I don’t respond to their music. Spiritually, I’m from the blues via Zeppelin and Hendrix as much or more so than the old blues guys.
“I heard Robert Johnson years [after] Zeppelin and Bowie and Dylan and Hendrix and Bob Marley and the Beatles and the Doors. Mostly, I just respond to [Johnson] lyrically because he’s weird. He’s like nobody else from that era, and his writing is very wacked out.”
Ironically, it’s the in-your-face British rapper Tricky — famous for unleashing heavily ambient records that blend hip-hop, blues and mutant dubs with a hell of an attitude — whom Whitley credits with awakening his blues consciousness as much as anyone else. “That, to me, is more like blues today than slide-guitar solos and s••t like that — which is a style of blues but not the impetus.” In fact, the whole solo guitar renaissance that’s happening today rings a little false to Whitley. “When I was a kid, a guitar was a form of rebellion,” he remembers. “Now, it’s like a golf club. A drum machine is much more rebellious: it’s loud and fast. Poetry slams are much more rebellious than any music.”
Hmm — an interesting statement coming from a pretty damn rebellious guy who just released a blues record marked by slide-guitar solos.
But Dirt Floor’s European version did include a few tunes that redefined the notion of what blues can and can’t be — including a banjo version of German techno-band Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” “I was originally going to put that one on the American version, but then I figured everyone would think it was ironic, a joke,” he notes.
Speaking of techno bands, just how did the Houston-born roots musician — raised all-across-America by parents who were artistic, wandering souls themselves — end up playing synthesized dance music in Belgium? Well, it was another one of those strange, chance connections that seem to color Whitley’s life.
He’d dropped out of high school to try and make it in New York City, and he wound up playing his National steel dobro on street corners while shuffling between odd factory jobs and occasional nightclub gigs to play the bills. One day, the owner of a travel agency who’d long loved Whitley’s sound offered him a free ticket to Belgium. Always a fan of hip-hop and dance music, he soon found himself a minor celebrity on the Belgian club circuit.
What’s next for this musical chameleon? Definitely not a stripped-down solo release recorded in a remote barn, he reveals. Whitley’s tentatively lined up a stellar crew which includes — along with a classically trained symphonic composer — Grammy-winning engineer Trina Schumaner (who’s worked on Sheryl Crow’s last two Cds) and drummer Tony Manchurian (of Luscious Jackson fame, who most recently appeared on Willie Nelson’s Teatro) to begin recording in a New Orleans studio in the near future. “We might even hire a string section,” muses Whitley.