One thing's starkly apparent when listening to Matthew E. White's debut album, Big Inner: It's not the work of a beginner. While White is a grad of Virginia Commonwealth's music program, his orchestral pop flourishes mingle easily with freak folk expansiveness and languid Southern soul, creating a sophisticated yet earthy sound.
"Some of this record is all lo-fi, weird and crazy, and part of it is hyper-produced with these big string and horn arrangements," said White from his Richmond, Va. home. "I tell people, the first artists I listened to were Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys over and over and over again. That's over-simplistic, but to bring it back to its roots, that's some lo-fi gritty shit and then more developed pop, L.A.-world stuff. That's where Big Inner kind of falls: somewhere in that weird realm."
White, the son of missionaries, grew up attending American missionary schools in the Philippines and Japan before coming back to Virginia Beach, Va. It was there that a teenage White decided playing guitar sounded like a fun job. While the idea might seem a tad idealistic, just like his music, White's life is driven by a blend of practicality and fanciful flights. He saw music school as laying the foundation for a career, and approached it thus.
"People think they'll come out of music school with a career, but being able to play music only gets you to the starting line, and then it's up to you to finish the race--or really to start the race," he said. "They're not management companies. They're not equipping you with business skills, nor do I think they should. They're there to teach you how to play music and that's it."
After graduating, White played in avant-jazz crew Fight the Big Bull, and there are free jazz seasonings sprinkled across the album. Yet in truth, Big Inner was driven by an urge to go in the other direction.
"That's fun, but at some point, I also listen to songs and arrangements that are really clean and easy to listen to. With this album, I said, 'Let me make something that's more along those lines," White said. "It's a reaction to the previous seven years of playing avant-garde stuff, which is a little taxing on your nerves."
The song "Big Love" almost encompasses that feeling, starting with skronk horn bleats and feedback that are pushed aside as a groovy melody takes the stage in front of a jazz-soul, Big Easy-tinged piano line. The fluid, funky jam explodes with female background vocals as White declares his mistrust for his former partner and intention to move on, adding ironic shading to the titular, gospel-flavored refrain.
Similarly, "Hot Toddies" opens with a mournful violin and solemn vocal that balances the cold wind against the warm hearth inside, declaring "Hot toddies, you know we'll have a good time." The sweeping strings are nearly enough to bring Bing Cosby back for one last "White Christmas."
By the song's midpoint, horns are on hand, bringing out a subtle Dixieland feel before segueing into a slinky late-night Bohemian groove, led by White's sotto voce appeal, "Who likes winter?" There's a loose adventurous imagination to the album that never lets it settle in one place too long.
"There's a certain energy that a first album has that none of your other records are going to have, and you can't recreate it. There's a certain amount of wildness," White said.
He recorded the album as sort of a test case for his new label/studio, Spacebomb. The idea was to return to something like the old studio system, in which a producer, like Phil Spector, would have a house band of crack session players. White wants to produce, arrange and facilitate when not making records. In fact, Big Inner was originally intended to be a demonstration project, not an album.
"There is an incredibly special community here in Richmond that I sort of saw and have been a part of, and I thought, 'We can make something long-lasting here," he said. "The record was sort of a second thought. I wanted to start this label and to have a career as a producer and an arranger. So let me do a lot of records on this label and try to establish the community in sort of a long game. To do that, let me go first and sort of demonstrate how this process could work."
It worked better than he could have imagined. The August release of Big Inner received an 8.1 from picky Pitchfork, and opportunities have rolled in, including an opening slot on the recent Mountain Goats tour and a United Kingdom tour in January.
"I didn't think of myself as having a solo career or being a recording artist in that way. It's certainly taken a turn to where it's at, which is fine; I am thankful for it. It's great and things keep coming down the pipeline," he said. "It's crazy. I thought of it going an entirely different way."
While the gigs and accolades are nice, they aren't White's real goal. The true joy comes in the craft of taking something from his imagination and bringing it to life--creating a pure, unmediated expression.
"Watching kids make art is really special because it's just them. There's nothing in between their brain and what they're putting on a piece of paper. It's like it's so true to them," he said. "That's what I think true artists or visual artists or movie directors look for--when they can get to this simplistic but really pure nature of who they are and put that alongside just being good at making their shit. Then you get some cool stuff. That's what I'm working at. I haven't gone very far yet but I'm working to get there."