Jim White: Southern discomfort

Jim White's life has been stranger than fiction, Fiona Sturges hears - and his unsettling songs are even weirder
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The Independent Culture

Jim White, a man with Burt Reynolds sideburns and the laid-back charm of a true Southern gentleman, has many a story to tell. Were a film to be made about his life, you'd struggle to believe it was anything other than the product of an over-imaginative screenwriter. In his 47 years, White has changed jobs with almost the same regularity as the rest of us change our clothes. He has been a professional surfer, skateboarder, carpenter, chef, taxi-driver, catwalk model, photographer, film-maker and Pentecostal snake-handler; in that time, he has lived in New York, California, Alabama, Hawaii, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and London. Now a resident of Pensacola, Florida, the bible-belt town where he spent his formative years, White has settled on music as his main occupation, though he laughs ruefully at the notion that he will ever make a proper living from it: "Are you kidding? When I made my first record I was pretty much destitute. Now I'm only just about getting by. I've been around long enough to know that

Jim White, a man with Burt Reynolds sideburns and the laid-back charm of a true Southern gentleman, has many a story to tell. Were a film to be made about his life, you'd struggle to believe it was anything other than the product of an over-imaginative screenwriter. In his 47 years, White has changed jobs with almost the same regularity as the rest of us change our clothes. He has been a professional surfer, skateboarder, carpenter, chef, taxi-driver, catwalk model, photographer, film-maker and Pentecostal snake-handler; in that time, he has lived in New York, California, Alabama, Hawaii, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and London. Now a resident of Pensacola, Florida, the bible-belt town where he spent his formative years, White has settled on music as his main occupation, though he laughs ruefully at the notion that he will ever make a proper living from it: "Are you kidding? When I made my first record I was pretty much destitute. Now I'm only just about getting by. I've been around long enough to know that this is just the hand I've been dealt."

White has been writing songs for 30 years. His first two albums, on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, 1997's Wrong-Eyed Jesus! and 2001's No Such Place, were an idiosyncratic blend of Southern gothic, blues, country and electronic grooves, and came steeped in White's spiritual and cultural heritage.

White revealed himself as a consummate songwriter, a distinctive anatomist of white-trash America. Like the work of his hero, the author Flannery O'Connor, his songs are a potent mix of the macabre and mundane, populated by religious prophets, criminals, crackpots and misfits from the Southern states. His mesmerising new album Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See, includes the track "If Jesus Drove a Motorhome", in which White imagines Christ behind the wheel of a Winnebago, listening to Bob Dylan. White's intention, he tells me at his record company offices in west London, is "to bypass the banality of American culture, and to get to the heart of the human condition.

"The fact is that the interesting part of American culture, the sub-culture, is being constantly diminished. When you have people trying to appreciate the offbeat in America, they're almost always cast as outsiders. The US navy's marching band receives more funding than the National Endowment for the Arts."

White was born in southern California, the youngest of five children. His father's career in the navy meant the family moved five times before he was five. Eventually, they settled in the muggy backwaters of Pensacola, a town with more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the United States. "It was a tough family life, not real happy," he recalls. "I used to hang out with messed-up kids whose parents were alcoholics. I felt kind of at home with them."

After a period of drug use in his early teens, he found himself drawn to the ultra- fundamentalist Pentecostal Church. "I thought I might be helped in some way, but they didn't know what to make of me," he explains. "At first I tried to do everything as it was prescribed. I would go to church twice a week and attend Bible study every Thursday. I tried to speak in tongues, handle snakes, prophesise and perform healings; I would go out on Saturday and 'witness to' people. But after a while that all seemed wrong."

White moved out of the family home when he was 16 and, after his final year at high school, "climbed in my car and drove as far away from my family as I could". He ended up in California, where he took up competitive surfing. "I wanted everyone to do their best but I didn't care much about winning. My sponsors didn't like that so much."

Prior to entering the US championships, White broke his leg so badly that he couldn't walk for a year. It was the first of a series of misfortunes that drove him "near crazy with sorrow". Two weeks after getting the cast removed, he broke the same leg again playing softball. Then, his girlfriend left him for a man who sat behind them in church, his cats died mysteriously, and his business partner embezzled all their funds before going on a cocaine binge and attempting suicide. Over the next 18 months, White had what he now recognises as a nervous breakdown. Eventually, one of his sisters intervened and found him a job at a fashion agency. He travelled around Europe for three years, at one point stopping off in London to shoot a beer advert. "I'd never drunk beer in my life, as I was still a fundament-alist Christian," he chuckles.

Next, he moved to New York, where he stayed for 12 years, driving a cab and studying at film school. The resulting one-hour feature earned him critical garlands at the 1994 NYU festival.

Since signing a record deal he's been back in Pensacola, writing music and bringing up his five-year-old daughter, Willow. "I learned what I needed to learn in the faraway lands," he says. "I wanted to come home and see if the things which scared me as a child still scared me, and they didn't. I could see the beauty in Pensacola and it was uplifting. It has simple people with stories to tell and gives you the opportunity to escape the cultural programming that makes America such a banal place. There's a richness that you can feel. I'm not sure I really want to raise my daughter in such a Jesus-happy town though."

It's this love-hate relationship with the South that sustains White's creative impulse and gives his music a time and place. "I think I can get what's important through Southern iconography," he ponders. "I can't seem to get to it through other forms. Could I write songs like this if I lived anywhere else? Now I think that would be impossible."

'Drill a Hole in the Substrate and Tell Me What You See' is out on Monday on V2

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