At Least Now Chris Whitley Is On The Road For His Own Reasons.
By Dave Irwin
AS AN ARTIST, Chris Whitley thinks happiness is overrated. Asked about his statement that people aren't supposed to be happy, the singer/songwriter, says, "It's a neurotic culture that makes one think you're supposed to be happy. They asked Dylan, 'Are you happy?' And he said, 'I don't think that's the point.' "
"If we were supposed to be happy all the time," Whitley continues, "it would be spring all the time, everyone would be female or male, it would be daylight all the time. But with the natural laws, it's both."
Whitley says the journey itself is more important than happiness.
This "journey as meaning" metaphor would seem to suit him well, since he's been on the road for whole years of his life, including some 200 days and nights in the past 11 months. But he also has an apartment in New York City he never sees and a daughter in Belgium that he's aching to be with. It's hard to tell if his philosophical stance is a clear and selfless vision or a pragmatic adaptation to the hand he's been dealt.
It's been a long odyssey for Whitley. Most only know it from his stunning 1992 debut, Living With The Law, a slinky, street-smart collection of guitar-etched soundscapes and haunting vocals on songs like "Big Sky Country" and "Poison Girl." He followed that universally acclaimed album three years later with Din of Ecstacy, a distortion-filled album that seemed to repudiate his roots-oriented earlier work.
However, Whitley, now 38, notes, "When I got signed, I had been playing and writing for 15 years. I've performed all my life. I moved to New York when I was 17 and played on the street. I opened for Willie Dixon in the '70s when I was a teenager. (In the '80s) I went to Belgium and made techno records."
His influences include the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix, Bowie and Prince. But he also looks to jazz greats Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.
Neither his fans nor his then-label, Columbia, (now Sony), knew what to make of him. Sales were disappointing for Din and the subsequent release, Terra Incognita.
"I can't completely be classified as a typical singer/songwriter because I play too much guitar," he concedes. "I write too many songs to be a guitar player. I'm blues in spirit, but not in style. If you want to say it's folk blues, I can argue that structurally there are chords that are harmonically too complicated for folk and structurally closer to pop."
Sony tried to pass him off him as a guitar-playing demigod. But Whitley's unique style was created in service to the songs he wrote, rather than true guitar gods who build their songs around a catchy riff or flashy technique.
"It's kind of a lame way to market an artist," he says. "I guess my style is homemade, so it's original compared to other things. I learned to play guitar by writing songs, so I don't even consider myself that. I don't really know how to play guitar. I just make up songs. I've been doing it for 25 years."
He adds, "The guitar has become less a symbol of rebellion. It's like a tennis racket now. In the '60s and '70s, it was something more. Hendrix was more than a guitar player, he was this crazy liberated artist. I find it a limiting thing creatively if you're supposed to be about an instrument."
He toured, opening for folks like Tom Petty. Being on the road has always come natural to him. He says he grew up traveling. Born in Houston, he moved to Mexico at 11 with his mother when his parents divorced. He also lived in Vermont, where his father was an art director, before heading out on his own.
"It's a lifestyle that I'm slightly equipped for," he admits. "But the older you get and if you have a child...I don't really have a sense of home."
After Sony released him, he returned to Vermont and recorded a stripped-down solo album, Dirt Floor, one stereo mike and no overdubs in a single afternoon in the barn his father still owns. Released last year on indie Messenger Records, the minimal approach puts his quirky, insightful songs back in the forefront, no longer obscured by layers of production or the expectations of others.
"I had just gotten dropped," he remembers. "I was insecure about everything and then I remembered, I've still got the songs. I spent the last two records on Sony completely doubting myself. Everything I did wasn't sounding enough like someone else. Everyone wants to sound like Everlast right now. Last year they wanted to sound like the Wallflowers. The word of the day is not nonconformity."
So now Whitley is on the road for his own reasons, finally making money after years of indentured servitude.
"I don't know if I'm searching anymore," he says. "I struggle with my own discipline with things, but I'm trying to give up on searching and struggling. I made more money in the first pay period of selling Dirt Floor than I will ever make from records on Sony because of the royalty structure. I never made money off of touring before and now I am. I don't just live on advances."
As for his own artistic goals, he states, "I hope that I'm articulating something that will be valuable to other people, that I'm resonating something that says how somebody feels. You relate to this and don't really know why, or it articulates something but it's not literal, things that speak to your subconscious, your instincts, something underneath, even underneath an emotional level. There are things that are frustrating and there are things that are glorious and amazing. Love, death, sex, all the basic things, are going to motivate us forever."
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