Americana act Jim White talks new album Misfit's Jubilee, novel Incidental Contact and beauty in ephemera ahead of gig at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

Musician, writer, artist, film-maker, ex-pro surfer, denizen of flea markets, dumpster-diver, and blue-collar scholar of the human condition – Jim White is an intriguing kind of renaissance man.

Saturday, 18th June 2022, 9:11 am

Over the course of seven solo albums, plus numerous collaborations, Jim’s take on Southern-fried gothic and Americana has taken him from being ‘discovered’ by Talking Heads legend David Byrne, who signed him to his Luaka Bop label, to enduring cult act status.

And he is currently on the UK leg of a European tour, which calls in at The Wedgewood Rooms next week, for his latest album Misfit’s Jubilee.

Jim’s worldview is encapsulated in his relationship with one of his favourite haunts – J&J Flea Market – a vast 182 acre site on the outskirts of his hometown, Athens, Georgia.

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‘There's a commercial realm to it,’ he tells The Guide over a Zoom call, ‘but there's also a beautiful anthropological realm – the flea market is the tidal zone between objects existing and not existing.

‘If they don't sell at the flea market, after that they go to landfill. The things I've found – even in dumpsters – I did a series [of posts on Facebook] on a diary I found in the dumpster. If I had come a day later it would have been lost forever...

‘This guy in Dublin has this really fancy art gallery, he asked me to bring a show of whatever I wanted to bring, so I just brought garbage and we called it Deep-Fried Ephemera and talked about the transience of the value of objects.

‘Our culture is so anxious to turnover, turnover, turnover. We are so busy throwing things away, we throw away so much of the stuff which is most meaningful.

Jim White is coming to The Wedgewood Rooms on June 21, 2022

‘That's end-times capitalism, where newness is the only paradigm and we don't hold on to that which is valuable. In America it's in a hyper-state – when I come to Europe I always feel like there's an anchor on the boat – the boat is not drifting, there's thousands of years of culture holding things together.

‘In America there's only 200 years, so there's no anchor, the boat just drifts whichever way the capitalist winds blow 'em. Here culture and tradition seem to ground people a little bit more.’

He goes on to tell a story about his greatest find, in ‘literal garbage’ at the back of a recent house clearance sale.

‘I just thought I'm going to dig through here and see what I find because I'm an anthropologist, not necessarily a commercial entity. At the bottom of the pile I found a stoneware butter-thing. I didn't have my glasses on, so I thought, oh, I like stoneware.

Jim White - far friendlier than the sign suggests

‘I took it up to the lady, she said "$10”, I said, “Ok”.’

As he goes to leave, a guy comes rushing up to Jim, immediately trying to hustle him: ‘He's totally trying to con me: “Oh, look at the crack on it, that's too bad... Y'know this is your lucky day,”’ first offering him $50, then $100, then all of the cash he has on him, but Jim declines.

‘Two days later, I sold it to a collector who had the other one – there were only two in the world – for $1,200. It's the best score I've ever had and I found it in literal garbage.

‘There's a corollary to my music. When I'm walking around finding those things, I'm also ears wide open listening to what people tell me, or what I hear.

Jim White's latest album is called Misfit's Jubilee

‘On my last record, [2017’s] Waffles, Triangles and Jesus, I was at the flea market walking down the aisle, and next to me there was a punk-rock lady there and she had blue hair, and there's this guy. He's real “country”. I don't know him per se, but we know each other enough to give a tip of the hat. I don't stick out as a weirdo because I dress like him and talk like him, so he didn't know I'd take his words and put them in a song!

‘He looked at that girl and looked at me and said: “I don't hold with that blue hair thing”. I was walking down the aisles and started with “I don't hold with this, and I don't hold with that..”. and by the time I got home I had tied it into Ernest T Bass, a character from The Andy Griffith Show [the hugely popular 1960s American sitcom] – he was always trying to find a wife, and I thought if Ernest T bass saw that blue-haired woman, he wouldn't hold with that blue-eyed girl. "Blue-haired” didn't work, so I changed it.

‘Then the singer I brought in to sing it with me, Andrea Demarcus, she's got dark eyes, so we made it into this beautiful love story about two people who don't trust anybody, which is paranoia level 10 – which is all of the south right now!

‘I turned that dark observation into a funny song, and it felt real good to do it.

‘Ernest T Bass at last finds the woman of his dreams. And that came after a flea market. The treasures I get on the slow days when there's nothing there to buy, my ears are wide open, or I'm looking for a newspaper from 1972 that has a headline I forgot about, I just bring all this stuff home and dialogue with it and it turns into songs.’

Misfit’s Jubilee was recorded pre-pandemic by Jim with his regular drummer Marlon Patton, plus a pair of Belgian musicians, Geert Hellings (guitar/banjo) and Nicolas Rombouts (electric and stand-up bass/keys).

Jim White's latest album is Misfit's Jubilee

Jim first met when Geert when the latter pressed a copy of his band’s demo CD into the American’s hands after a 2009 gig in Brussels.

Jim was impressed by the songwriting and musicianship, and the two struck up a friendship which saw Jim producing the band’s self-titled debut album, Stanton.

‘We had such a good time making the record, him and the bass player, Nicolas, I seldom felt as connected to people as I do to them – they're smart, they're well informed, well read and they're incredibly calm and patient and humble. And they're as good as any musicians I've ever worked – and I've worked with Grammy winners and all kinds of people.

‘I did a couple of tours with them and it was always so wonderful. Then at the end of the last tour, Nicolas said: “I'm setting up a home studio why don't you come and make an album here?”’

‘I have my ways of making records, and it doesn't usually involve going and collaborating with two people in a foreign country.’

Jim sifted through his unused songs and found a handful in a rockier vein than his usual material, but were nonetheless ‘beautiful children’. He wrote a few more in the same style and sent them to Geert and Nicolas who responded: ‘Hell yeah, let's do it!’

Marlon laid down the drums stateside before Jim travelled to Belgium, ‘then in the course of a week we recorded pretty much most of the record.’

Back home, Jim began his meticulous process of producing the album.

‘It usually takes me a long time. Once I get the core tracks, I take it home and just sit with it, and I'll listen to it like 1,000 times, and if I get bored I start adding things, or move them around. I'm a remixer – not like the hip-hop guys or anything – a remixer of a different variety. All of the tracks were isolated really beautifully, so I could do whatever I wanted.’

The finished album was released in autumn 2020, and now Geert and Nicolas form Jim’s band for this tour.

On this tour Jim will also be selling copies of his debut novel, Incidental Contact, billed as ‘Part memoir, part urban fable.’

The book has its roots in a short story he wrote called Superwhite for a then-new music magazine, about how he met David Byrne. The story went on to win the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2014.

Still seemingly baffled as to how he won this hugely competitive prize, Jim recalls: ‘I have friends who are writers and it's their dream to win this prize!

‘I went up and did the presentation with Pulitzer Prize winners and all that – a couple of them come up and said they really enjoyed the story, and when was I going to put out my first novel?

‘I had a couple of other stories like this which I'd written. I thought they were all part of an epoch – this era of magic surrealism descended on me, about 10 years where this crazy stuff kept happening to me, totally beyond any reasonable explanation.

‘I realised they were all part of this continuum of miracles in my life, not in a religious sense, just miraculous, inexplicable things. I thought I should try to figure out how to present those as a whole because they are all part and parcel of some energy force, basically.’

With the arrival of the pandemic lockdowns, Jim says: ‘When Covid hit, I thought this is my chance...

‘I got to write this bucketlist book I never would have done otherwise. The silver-lining on the cloud of Covid is that a lot of people learned to take a year reset and do something else, which is actually good.

‘I'm talking to a lot of artists who are saying: “This has been the most productive time of my life!”

‘There's some really important life lesson hidden in this great tragedy, which is that maybe instead of just forging ahead constantly, people need to take a year off. They call it a sabbatical in academia – maybe we need to think more about that, and not just feeding the monster constantly. But that's also anti-commercial and anti-capitalist...

‘In countries where they support the arts that's a lot more possible. Like here in Belgium, that Misfit’s Jubilee album, when Geert and Nicolas found out it was going to happen, they sent a grant proposal to the Flemish government and they gave us the money to cover the recording costs.

‘And they're smart – because every interview I've done about that record, I've said: “Thank you Flemish government!”’

Jim White, plus Fast Trains and Olly Hite are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Tuesday, June 21. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.