Why Jack White wants to trade voices with C.W. Stoneking
For all the wild mix of flourishes and genres featured on the fourth solo album from the mercurial Jack White, you wouldn’t guess how quietly Boarding House Reach started out.
White rented a little apartment in Nashville where he started to write songs without any instrumentation.
“I didn’t really know what would happen, I just thought it would be interesting to write without making too much noise for the neighbours to hear,” he told Double J’s Zan Rowe.
“I thought that would be a nice constriction to sit and do that quietly. I also thought I would love to write songs without playing an instrument and just write them from my head. Think of melodies and work them out in my head and see what they would be like, sort of whistling while you work kind of songs, that’s where a lot of them came from.”
The only accompaniment he had was a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder and mixing console he’d had since he was a teenager.
“I remember when I first got those, I was 15 or something like that, and I couldn’t do anything else, that was my main thing set up in my bedroom. Everything was centred around recording and a tape recorder. So, it was nice to become friends with it again and get my hands dirty again. Just me and that in a room by myself”.
One song on Boarding House Reach, ‘Over and Over and Over’, has been doing the rounds for nearly as long as his old equipment. It has had many incarnations over the years, but never got off the ground.
“It’s so funny. I don’t know why, it’s very, very strange, it’s something I’ve recorded so many times,” White explained.
“I have musician friends that have been annoyed by this song and I keep bringing it up. I just believed in it, but I could never find the right thing. It sort of became a joke with myself. It was something you’d put in a movie for a songwriter, ‘Oh, he’s got this one song and he can never figure it out and finish it’.
“It’s really been happening for a long time. At least back to Get Behind Me Satan with The White Stripes, through the Raconteurs and Dead Weather and my solo records. And Jay-Z, when I worked with him, we tried it. So it was funny to finally finish it.”
The panacea the song needed came in the form of a guitar pedal, of all things.
“I think it was really the guitar tone using this Bumble Buzz pedal that Third Man records sells, I tried it thinking this won’t work but it did, I thought maybe that’s what it’s been waiting for this whole time, that guitar tone, I don’t know.
“I am very relieved, it was one of those things that was always in the back of my head, it’s great for it to finally be gone and out there in the world.”
That’s not to say the other versions won’t ever see the light of day.
“I think I would like to put out a record in the Third Man subscription vault of all the versions of that song over the years,” White says. “That would be pretty funny to listen to.”
He just sounds like he’s from a ghost ship in the middle of monster island to me. It’s just beautiful.Jack White — Double J, 2018
When he came to record the album, White filled his band with strangers who are more used to backing hip hop artists at their live shows.
This helped bring a new element of spontaneity to the sessions, something White thrives on and actively seeks out in his various projects.
“It was exciting for me, because it was strangers,” he said.
“Getting in a room together with no real songs for us to actually play, [just] a lot of loose ideas… I would direct them in certain ways and say, ‘Here’s something I’m thinking of, what can you add to this?’ It’s beautiful, I’m very lucky it worked out this way.
“I’ve done a lot of dangerous things like this before, but you just have to prepare yourself to say, ’Well, ladies and gents, it’s not working out. We tried and it didn’t work, so I’m ok with that’.
“I think it’s always worth the exploration, but you’d be surprised how often things do work out when you do them very quickly without preparation.”
It’s an approach that has always served White well.
“I learned early on, when we were trying to play free shows with The White Stripes in the daytime before playing at night, that, if you just made it up at breakfast and said, 'You know, I want to play at a bus station today,’ it would work out fine. But if you tried to plan it a week ahead of time and call the place and set it up and make sure everything was there perfectly, it would never work out and be a mistake.
“But, if you just did it, then it would work out. It’s strange.”
There is an Australian connection to the album too, with beloved Australian blues artist C.W. Stoneking lending his voice to the spoken word piece ‘Abulia and Akrasia’.
“I just love his speaking voice so much,” White said. “If I could ever trade my speaking voice with a person, it would be C.W Stoneking. He just sounds like he’s from a ghost ship in the middle of monster island to me. It’s just beautiful.
“I wrote this poem for him to recite, so I was trying to think of words that would sound good with his voice, that I wanted to hear him say. I really loved listening to it and I hope people like listening to it.”
Boarding House Reach is out now