John Paul White, the gifted singer-songwriter from America's deep south, is currently winding his way around North America touring in support of his new album, Beulah, a dreamy and beautiful collection of songs released on Single Lock Records. When he arrived at the alleyway entrance of b.b gun leather workshop in East Vancouver to play some of these new songs for his CBC Music session, he seemed right at home despite the less than glamourous surroundings.
"I'm from Alabama. We can deal with just about anything," he said with a smile, as he looked around the space. "All of my uncles are German carpenters, so it feels a bit like my childhood to be in here."
Surrounded by leather and wood-working tools, old instruments, trendy satchels and thrift shop-chic lighting fixtures, White told us about growing up in Muscle Shoals, the unlikely working-class hotbed of music tucked away in the northeast corner of Alabama.
"When I grew up in the Shoals, and it's still this way, one of the things that you could do to really alienate everyone is to think that you're better than they are," he explained. "The only people that got bullied where I grew up were the kids that had things because we all had a chip on our shoulder about our stature. So we all linked arms and revelled in our barely middle-class status. I've always had an 'aw shucks' demeanor about anything that's happened to me instead of just owning it. And that's what my song 'What's So' alludes to [when it says] 'Don't get above your raisin.'"
As modest as White is, he has had to fess up to some spectacular successes in the music industry. He is best known for his musical partnership with Joy Williams on the multi-Grammy Award-winning duo the Civil Wars. They toured extensively, including a European leg opening for Adele, who became a friend and fan of the band. The Civil Wars also worked with Taylor Swift and T Bone Burnett on a track for Songs From District 12 and Beyond a companion album to the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster The Hunger Games.
These are simpler times now for White. He runs an indie record label with two friends, Will Trapp and Ben Tanner (Mississippi Shakes). There's a recording studio in the backyard of the Florence, Ala. home where White lives with his wife and four kids. Just when it seemed that he'd take time to pause from the grind of touring and releasing albums, the muse struck him hard.
"I kept trying to shove these songs down, and when they came to the surface it was just like a faucet and I had to capture it as fast as I could," said White. "It felt pretty cathartic to let it flow straight to the page."
When asked about his choice of a Canadian cover song for the session, he was quick to show his admiration for k.d.lang and her most famous song, "Constant Craving."
"I'm definitely a fan of k.d. lang. I remember her first single. I remember her sound and her look. And I remember the way that her sound pissed off some of the country fans that I grew up around. I remember thinking I don't care what it is. It's beautiful. I loved the melodies and I loved the tension of the melodies and I loved how passionate she was when she sang and how I believed every word that came out of her mouth. So ['Constant Craving']'s a song that's always stayed with me."
Click on the songs below for a look and listen.
'Once and Future Queen'
'Constant Craving' (k.d. lang cover)
John Paul White plays Théâtre Fairmount in Montreal on Oct. 14, and Adelaide Hall in Toronto on Oct. 15.