Chris Whitley finds his musical heart
by Ted Drozdowski
Chris Whitley has called his latest CD Terra Incognita (WORK), but it's
more like terra firma. After ricocheting from his
acoustic-guitar-and-ballad-dominated 1991 debut, Living with the Law, to
his second album, the raging electric Din of Ecstasy, the New York
City-based singer/songwriter has found a middle ground where he can comfortably
plant his feet.
Taken together, those three albums diagram an internal odyssey that has
Whitley defining himself as an artist. He explained that process recently
during a break from rehearsing the new band he'll take on a tour that brings
him to Boston and Northampton this week.
"The art-versus-commerce conflict is always a question for me," he relates.
"Ultimately, it's about my identity as an artist . . . what kind
of music I want to make, and how to stay true to that. The first two records, I
was trying to get a grip on being signed and making records and what that meant
in terms of my expectations and other people's
expectations . . . just the industry cycle of regularly making a
"I feel I'm finally acclimated to that. Now, I try to accommodate my different
complicated tendencies artistically, and be comfortable experimenting with song
forms, exploring my tastes. I liked doing some groove things on this album. If
a song needed a strong guitar thing, I did it; and there's the use of acoustic
instruments, but not as a crusade."
Indeed, the up-front presentation of deftly finger-picked acoustic guitars and
slide dobro in the firmament of Living with the Law, teamed with
Whitley's relaxed arrangements and poetic lyrics, made him seem like a new
folk-blues hero early in the decade. And when "Kick the Stones," his hit from
the Thelma & Louise soundtrack, brought that sound to the
mainstream, he was pegged. So when he came on like Led Zeppelin with '95's
Din of Ecstasy, it didn't go down so well with radio programmers and
fans who were expecting Living with the Law II.
Whitley -- for whom Din was a chain-shattering reaction to his
potential acoustic shackling -- took the lukewarm reception in stride, toured
in the US and abroad with a band and as a solo performer, and gathered his
thoughts about how he ultimately wanted to present his music.
"I was dissatisfied a bit with my first record," he offers. "I didn't really
know how to approach much of the songs, which I'd performed as a solo guy. I
thought, `Everybody seems to like them as they are. Well, let's put a band
around them.' So the first album didn't really satisfy me musically.
"I found out the full illustration of a song is more than the production: it's
the arrangements, what other sounds you're hearing. Terra Incognita
feels more like my own illustration. I produced it myself. So though the songs
come from different periods, there's a consistent production through the whole
record that kept the sound pretty organic and rough.
"I clarified what I wanted to myself. It's more my style of music than the
previous records. Not that I have schizophrenic tastes, but I don't want to
have to stick to just one approach. I can't articulate all the emotions I want
to in one setting. In a sense, this time my songs aren't betrayed by the
Which means that Terra Incognita finds Whitley shuffling his electric
and acoustic guitars as he sees fit, giving equal weight to ballads and
rave-ups, making the overall sound of the disc change cut-to-cut while
maintaining an edgy warmth. And his poetic instincts are intact, combining
nature imagery with emotional terrain in numbers like "Weightless" and "Cool
Wooden Crosses." It's a quality that marked him as a colorful and intelligent
lyricist -- with maybe a streak of Walt Whitman in his soul -- on Living
with the Law.
"I just can't start off with words in my head and feel like I'm writing a
song," he observes. "I like playing as much as singing, and I need to
springboard off a chord or melody to write lyrics. There's no separation in the
singer/songwriter thing for me. When it comes to lyrics, the chords are
functional. On this album, the sounds of the words -- how they mesh with the
chords -- grew more important, and the inflections of how I sing them gives
them more feeling than they might literally have. I guess that's where the
poetic element comes into this. I've always felt that I have to believe words
to sing them, but if they get too literal or too clever, I mistrust them."
Live, Whitley plans to mix things up . . . play a few acoustic
numbers, lay into some rockers, and work that comfortable middle ground. His
new road line-up features Bostonians Matt Gruenberg (the Dark, the Atom Said,
Reeves Gabrels's band) on bass and Greg McMullen (Fire Pig, Tip) on steel
guitar and dobro. "We'll be doing stuff from all three albums, and I'll get to
play a lot of electric and acoustic guitar, which is great, because in a lot of
these songs there are so many inflections for the guitar. It's really a chance
to reflect something that's personal."
Chris Whitley plays the Iron Horse (call 413-584-0610) in Northampton
tonight, May 1, and the Paradise (call 562-8800) in Boston this Monday, May