It’s rare that we can’t offer a little reprieve for our friends in the deep, deep south.
But, with the way things are — knock wood — it’s difficult to offer the welcome that John Paul White seems to want, need.
In fact, we can sort of empathize with him, when we ask how his summer is going and his simple reply, with a chuckle, is: “It’s hot.”
“I live in Alabama and this is the time of year that we all look at each other and try to remember why in the world that we live in this state. You see all these things on National Geographic and you say, ‘Just move, just get out of there.’ And then every summer we look at each other the same way.
“It’s an existence that’s mostly spent indoors.”
Well, there are no complaints here and undoubtedly Calgarians will be basking in the sunshine when White takes the Calgary Folk Music Festival Mainstage Thursday night on Prince’s Island Park.
The one-half of now defunct Grammy-winning, critically-acclaimed, artistically-adored alt-country duo The Civil Wars will be doing so with Beulah, his second solo album and first since the acrimonious demise of that act in 2014.
Released in August of last year, White — a more charming, genuine and thoughtful human being you’d be hard pressed to converse with — is still happily promoting it, happy to share it with audiences despite being more than a year removed from its recording.
“There’s days when it feels like it was just yesterday that I put the record out and more days than than that it feels like a lifetime,” he says.
“Because we’ve pretty much, more often than not, we’ve been gone touring this record the past year. We’ve done it the slow but sure way — I’ve been adamant that I not be gone for as long amounts of time that I used to be. So I’ve got like a two-week maximum rule that I’ll be gone so that makes for lots of little spurts of touring so it’s taken quite a while to get all the same amount of area covered as I would in probably six months, but it’s been well worth it.”
The reason for his slow dip into the pond is, in large part, to the fact that he’s a family man of four children — one older child whose life he’s still very much involved with and “really close” to, as well as three younger children with his current wife, aged 14, 10 and 7.
After years of “chasing the brass ring” in the music world and having that success with The Civil Wars — a pairing with fellow songwriter Joy Williams, which released two albums, earned a quartet of Grammys — he now wants to be part of their lives and enjoy the life he neglected.
White acknowledges he doesn’t regret “jump(ing) in with both feet” but that with hindsight, he’s also aware that while doing that for a number of years, “the next thing I know it’s years down the road and I barely know my family,” he says
“They, for the longest time, they knew me through pictures more than they knew me from being there in person because I toured for most of the past 10 years pretty solid.
“It’s an existence that, you know, I’m not the Lone Ranger there. There are a lot of folks that live that way whether they’re musicians or not. But I have a good friend, Donnie Fritts, he told me that after all these years on the road he noticed that there was always a point, a tipping point where you’re just going to watch your kids grow up in pictures or you’re going to be involved. And it’s not a right or a wrong, or a good person versus a bad person. I definitely have different priorities than I used to and it’s definitely made for a healthier me.”
In fact, White admits that he was all but done with music when his former act came to an end. He was more than content to step entirely out of the spotlight, return to Florence, Alabama and raise that family, live a life that was about the small things and not about meeting deadlines, producing hits or anything for that matter.
What brought him back?
“I came at it kicking and screaming wanting to not do it, to be honest,” he says.
“I was really happy in my new little idyllic small-town life with sleeping in my own bed, going to my daughter’s dance recitals and watching my kids’ baseball games. It was a beautiful thing. And for a couple of years I didn’t really have anything musical stirring in my brain. I was that burnt out. And that was fine with me, I was perfectly fine with it, but eventually those things started growing back and coming back.
“I really tried to shove ’em out because I knew as soon as I let the little bird out I was going to look back,” he laughs, “pacing up and down a Home Depot aisle talking to somebody from Calgary about my record. I knew where this thing would lead. And I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but I knew this thing would snowball, and I didn’t really want that.
“So once it got to a fever pitch in my head, ‘OK, I’m going to write these songs, I’m gonna get ’em out of my head and see where I’m at,’ and all signs pointed to I really wanted people to hear the songs. I really wanted to connect with people in that way and wanted them to connect with me.”
He continues. “I’ve said this before but I can’t explain it, because I didn’t care what anybody thought about me for the past two years before that, and as soon as the songs came out, I wanted to share them.”
And, apparently, he wanted to bum people out.
Beulah is an extremely downbeat, yet somehow life-affirming roots record, with White singing up from down songs with titles such as Hope I Die, Make You Cry, I’ll Get Even, The Martyr and Hate the Way You Love Me.
One review described it, perhaps reservedly, as “spectacularly gloomy and bitter.”
White laughs. “You know it’s funny, in my head I’m thinking, ‘God this is going to be so — this is morbid, this is going to drag people down.’
“And two things happened: I fell in love with Elliott Smith a long time ago and Elliott had a great knack for getting those things off his chest but doing it in a really melodic, beautiful, hopeful sounding way. And I thought, ‘This guy’s figured it out, he’s cracked the code, he can sing, he can get these things off his chest, he can open the vein, but he doesn’t do it in a super maudlin, morbid, woe-is-me, kind of way — so that’s how I choose to tackle things. And the second thing is I meet people after shows all the time that tell me how much songs of this nature help them and how it helps them cope with situations they’re in that they can’t really articulate or they don’t want to articulate. And that’s a beautiful thing. I’m more than happy to fill that need if that’s a thing, because it really helps me and other people’s songs have really helped me in that same way.
“So I am happy to bum people out.”
But he’ll only do it on his own terms. He admits that after all of the “tribulations” of his career pre- and during The Civil Wars, he’s now in a place, thanks to that success, where he has “leverage,” where he can have a life in the music business and balance that with exactly as much time with his family, the small town he lives in, that he needs.
“I’m just living by the mantra of: If it makes me happy then I’ll do it. And if it doesn’t, if it’s something that I’m going to sit around and dread until the moment of, then, you know what? I’m gonna go home, and I’m going to be perfectly happy.”
John Paul White performs Thursday night as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Prince’s Island Park.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.