Like many a bluesman of yore, Chris Whitley has faced his share of demons — and stared at least most of them down. Since his still-revered Columbia debut of 10 years ago, “Living With the Law,” the Texas-born singer/guitar slinger has trod an utterly artful, individual path, sometimes troubled but never betraying the rare talent and authentic spirit that has won him friends and fans far and wide — among them names from Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards to Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews.
Whitley could have been lost in the wilderness after parting ways with Sony in 1997 after three albums. Instead, the artist continued to tour the world solo, and he forged links with various indie enthusiasts, producing a lauded trio of back-to-basics releases that solidified his fervent fan base as well as boosted his confidence and bolstered his catalog. Now — in league with Dave Matthews and his ATO Records label — Whitley has embarked upon the second stage of his career renaissance with “Rocket House.” Issued in early June, the album stands as both artistic epiphany and audience entreaty, as the age-old gutbucket poetics of his solo shows shine in settings colored by contemporary studio sounds.
As wary of corny traditionalism as he is of trendy futurism, Whitley has always followed the spirit rather than the letter of his heroic exemplars from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan. Yet the digital beats and electronic atmospherics of “Rocket House” still take on a sepia tone, so that the new single, “To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents),” seems simultaneously down-home and downtown — much like the man himself.
As someone who has felt both the embrace and the backhand of fickle fate, the soon-to-be-41 Whitley appreciates his current position. A lesser figure might still blame a failure of faith or of nerve on the corporation’s part, but Whitley says of his break with Sony, “Any failure to get across — or succeed — in the past was just as much due to my own mixture of insecurity and vanity, which I’ve dealt with in recent years.”
After the relative commercial disappointment of his edgy, ambitious Work/Sony follow-ups to “Living With the Law” — 1995’s “Din of Ecstasy” and ’96’s “Terra Incognita” — Whitley regained his footing by linking with New York boutique label Messenger Records and German indie UlfTone for the rough-hewn “Dirt Floor,” a solo set recorded in a single day, and the subsequent “Live at Martyrs’.”
Last year, Whitley also released “Perfect Day” (via Valley Entertainment in the U.S. and UlfTone in Europe), which saw him set down sublime interpretations of influences from Howlin’ Wolf to Jimi Hendrix. And the roots of the forward-minded rattle-and-hum on “Rocket House” — and the initial fruits of Whitley’s fondness for European electro-pioneers, cultivated during years living in Belgium — can be heard in two home-grown recordings: drum-machine-fueled covers of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” (heard on the European edition of “Dirt Floor”) and of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself” (from a Brown tribute disc on Zero Hour).
The studio credo for “Rocket House” was to “make a soul record with studio technology as part of the writing process,” Whitley explains. “I wanted to use technology in an organic way, without irony or post-modernism. And I wanted to write lyrics in response to these new sounds we were getting.”
The alchemical result retained Whitley’s characteristic blue hues and bent notes alongside the new beats and bleats. The graceful keening of Whitley’s voice and the gutsy rasp of his slide guitar are still prime attractions, although the disc’s sonic palette draws from Whitley’s guitar-synth and substantial rhythmic/textural contributions from producer/drummer Tony Mangurian, DJ Logic, and keyboardist/arranger Stephen Barber.
In seeking to balance his usual shadows with more sanguine tones, Whitley found an ideal partner in Mangurian (who produced or co-produced and engineered all of Luscious Jackson’s albums). After the hip-grinding single “To Joy,” sure-fire follow-ups will come with the widescreen pop songs “Radar” and “Say Goodbye,” which Whitley co-wrote with Mangurian.
“No one sees me as pop — but I feel that way sometimes,” Whitley says. “Even though Tony loves Led Zeppelin, he’s a real pop-head. We pulled each other in each other’s direction — me trying to break him out of the straight pop mind-set and him trying to get me to be vulnerable enough to sing a big, unabashed pop tune.”
Mangurian — who first met Whitley when both were teenagers on New York’s Bleecker Street, with the former living above it and the latter busking on it — says he hoped to change the general perception of his partner with “Rocket House.” “A lot of people know Chris as this incredible guitarist, but I wanted to help show that he is also just as good a singer and songwriter.”
In a compliment to Mangurian, Whitley says, “I’m proud of a lot of individual moments on my other records, but the new album is really the first one where I can say that I’m totally proud of it. The process was challenging but sane, and the values are there — honesty, namely. It really doesn’t sound like it was made on computers, even though it was.”
“Rocket House” — which goes beyond the emotive pop of “Radar” and “Say Goodbye” to include the off-kilter rock of the title track and the new-millennium blues of “From a Photograph” — also benefits from several guest spots, particularly the pervasive harmonies and vamps of former Beach Boy and longtime Rolling Stones backing vocalist Blondie Chaplin. Dave Matthews contributes guitar and vocals to “Radar,” to which Bruce Hornsby also adds a keyboard touch. And keeping a tradition that goes back several albums, Whitley’s 14-year-old daughter, Trixie, sings on two tracks.
Whitley launched “Rocket House” live in mid-July via a 17-date major-market U.S. tour. The second leg of his stateside tour follows Sept. 10-Oct. 13, with a trek scheduled for Oct. 25-Nov.17 in Europe (where “Rocket House” has been licensed to UlfTone, run by the Berlin-based promoter Ulf Zick). As evidenced by a sold-out gig at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, the road band — with Mangurian on drums, plus DJ Logic, bassist Heiko Schramm, and keyboardist Etienne Lytle — has transformed the studio-bred songs ideally, adding grit to the grooves onstage.
The New York-based ATO was founded two years ago by Matthews, the Dave Matthews Band’s manager Coran Capshaw, and associates Michael McDonald and Chris Tetzeli. Tetzeli also co-manages Whitley for the U.S., via the Charlottesville, Va.-based Red Light Management. (From New York, co-manager Pati Devries represents Whitley for Europe.)
ATO possesses indie A&R spirit but major-label support, with manufacturing and distribution by BMG. (BMG label RCA is the Dave Matthews Band’s longtime home.) The combination has proved potent so far: ATO’s first artist achieved platinum-plus success — David Gray, with his ATO/RCA disc “White Ladder” (the follow-up being “Lost Songs 95-98”). Success with Gray has not only earned ATO trust from BMG but respect at radio and retail.
As for ATO’s raison d’etre, Matthews says, “We want to sign people that we feel obligated to, not that we can get something out of or exploit. We just want to help bring the music into existence and help others hear it. Doing that for Chris excites me like a kid. “Living With the Law” was a special favorite of mine, and we met at a club in New York way back then and eventually hit it off. So when we started ATO and heard he was looking for a label, it was just a matter of time.”
“Chris is an example of one of those things that appalls me about the record industry — and, unfortunately, it is an industry,” Matthews adds. “That is, how could a talent like his go relatively unnoticed? So few singers have their own personality, and Chris is his own man to the bone. Honestly, I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. My music I’m critical of. But I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris makes.”
According to Tetzeli, “Rocket House” shipped 25,000 copies for its June 5 release, an encouraging number given that Whitley’s best-selling albums after “Living With the Law” (which has sold nearly 160,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan) are “Din of Ecstasy” and “Dirt Floor,” at just under 30,000.
Looking back on his catalog, Whitley muses on the different circumstances surrounding the records: “The songs on ‘Living With the Law’ were fatalistic, hopeless — my marriage was breaking up, I was working in a factory in my late 20s. But desperation can make for a good impetus for writing songs.
“Around ‘Din of Ecstasy,’ too, was a hard time — drinking too much, too many people around me who were afraid to tell me what they really thought. I wanted the album to sound like Hendrix or Cream or Led Zeppelin, but no jamming. Some of that worked, like ‘Narcotic Prayer’ maybe, but it wasn’t as acid rock as I had hoped for. By the time of ‘Terra Incognita,’ the label had no faith in me. Some of the songs were good, I guess, but the recording process was way too protracted. The demos were sometimes better.”
Cassandra Wilson producer Craig Street helmed fan favorite ‘Dirt Floor,’ and he “proved to be a great editor,” Whitley says. “And the treatment went beyond traditionalist to primitive.” And with ‘Live at Martyrs’,’ Whitley’s favorite moment is the banjo-inflected cover of “The Model.” He says, “The coldness of the original was almost sensual, and the banjo can be almost as cold as a synth.”
Regarding the covers set ‘Perfect Day,’ Whitley the inveterate Dylanologist singles out “4th Time Around” and “Spanish Harlem Incident,” as well as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” as favorites. But there are also his atypical treatments of Delta blues, of which he notes, “The blues really isn’t a form of music — it’s a state of mind, a trip.”
Although fully aware of his capabilities as a musician, Whitley is a deeply humble man, always cognizant of the standards set by his peers and predecessors. As he sat with this writer outside at a side-street cafe in a corner of Manhattan’s West Village that has been Whitley’s neighborhood for more than a decade, it was apparent that he considers each admirer and well-wisher who comes up, known or new, something of a gift.
“What I came to terms with by making some small indie records and meeting other people who work in that way is that, hey, if a record doesn’t do blockbuster numbers, then that’s OK,” Whitley says. “Even if ATO doesn’t want me anymore, I could move to Santa Fe, make little records, advertise them on a Web site. I could even get a job and give the records away. I feel more comfortable with my place in the culture now and the fact that I don’t have to fear the cool police or this cult of youth.”