When it came to creating his debut album Big Inner, Virginia-based singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Matthew E White did it all the wrong way round.
“My dream job doesn’t exist any more – to be a producer/arranger/player for a label, making amazing music every day from nine to five,” he says while on tour in Los Angeles.
“I saw a place in the industry where a record label would work well. And I had an opportunity – which I couldn’t pull off anywhere else – to create a house band like the A Team in Nashville, or the ones at Stax or Motown, using the talented people in Richmond.
“Then I decided the first thing I would do on it was this record, so I started to write some songs.
“It’s the opposite way a new artist would normally work – going from the broadest infrastructure to singing your song, rather than a singer looking for a label and a place in the industry where they can release their songs.”
The album, released on his own Spacebomb label, has already caused waves across the blogosphere and in his US home, earning plaudits from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
With the album being released by Domino next week, that interest is making landfall here – with Mojo naming him one to watch this month.
“I try not to pay too much attention and let that excitement distract me,” he admits. “That stuff comes and goes in someone’s career and I’m lucky that it’s coming now. It doesn’t for everyone. I’m also aware it can go away just as fast.”
Listening to Big Inner it is easy to see why people are getting excited. There is a definite retro edge to the sound – undoubtedly the result of a big room full of musicians playing together in the sort of orchestrated way that hasn’t been heard since the excesses of the 1970s.
The songs themselves combine influences from country, soul, jazz, funk and gospel, embellished with horns, strings and a choir.
And they vary between the epic – with the seventh and final track Braxos clocking in at just under nine minutes – to the funky and accessible in the case of stand-out track Big Love.
Throughout, White’s raw, half-spoken vocals sit gently over the arrangements.
“I never really sang in my whole life, apart from back-up for some people,” he admits. “I don’t have a lot to give in that capacity, so I knew I had to make the most out of what I had.
“It was a lesson in being yourself and saying what you can. It is a very natural style for me. What is nice about the way I sing is that it allows a lot of room for orchestration – it doesn’t take up a lot of space in the mix.
“Really, someone like me wouldn’t ever have been able to have an opportunity to sing over these beautiful arrangements but since it’s my record, I can make it happen!”
The biggest challenge now is recreating that sound onstage with a six-piece band, something which White admits he’s not even attempting to do.
“I like to think of live performance and the album as two separate works,” he says. “A lot of people try to recreate their albums onstage and it doesn’t quite work. “An album lasts for ever; a live performance goes by in a second and it’s gone. The live show is a little bit rowdier and stepped up for an audience so it is more of a show.”
He thinks part of the positive reaction comes from the very fact it is based around six guys playing their instruments rather than rocking up with a laptop, samplers and drum machines.
It all hails back to the music he sees as his touchstones, stretching back from New Orleans jazz to the period when the record industry was willing to put money into ambitious projects and audiences wanted to hear them.
“I love James Brown, Parliament and Randy Newman,” he says. “I have spent a heck of a lot of time with them at some time or another.
“The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period in the industry where really creative people sort of got in line with some of the resources the industry offered. People got the green light to do some crazy stuff that people were supporting – both audiences and record labels.
“You can’t make a record like the later Beatles records today – they would be too expensive.”
He has kept faith with some of that period’s key beliefs and concepts.
“An album is a complete musical statement,” he says. “It’s better if you treat it that way. If you’re going to make songs and singles then go ahead and make singles. “Music is something that doesn’t go away, it doesn’t stop making you happy. It’s a strange sort of spiritual thing. “It doesn’t make sense if you look at it in a scientific, evolutionary way. It gives people joy, makes people emotional, it has this amazing power to it. I’m thankful to be good enough to make a career out of it.”
Support from Interlocutor (Alex White from Electric Soft Parade).
- The Hope, Queen’s Road, Brighton, Tuesday, January 22. Starts 8pm, tickets £6. Call Resident on 01273 606312