Arts & Events » Music

The Lion in Midsummer

Matthew E. White’s sprawling “K Bay” gets to breathe at the final Friday Cheers of the summer.


This year’s Friday Cheers closes out with a rare appearance from Matthew E. White, whose idiosyncratic synthesis of sleek pop, jazz, old time religion, and a gumbo of other ingredients became a breakout international success a decade ago.

At the time, White was more known as a foundation than a front man. He put great bands together and then buried himself in the mix. Others took the solos. His band, Fight the Big Bull, had gotten a bit of attention. Its first full album, “All is Gladness in the Kingdom,” gained positive reviews and an NPR “Best of 2010” pick. The New York Times covered a club performance with singer David Karsten Daniels. Tall, with long hair and a flowing beard, White was a quietly impressive presence, a 20-something Moses leading his extended tribe into new territory. That he would reach the Promised Land as a singer-songwriter was something of a surprise.

Three solo albums and multiple collaborations later, with his makeshift attic studio expanded into a spacious, beautifully finished recording destination, what seemed unlikely now seems inevitable. Then again, predicting the past is easy. The future is a challenge.

This interview takes place at Montrose, a charming, 15-acre, late-18th century estate hidden down a dirt road reached through a Northside subdivision. White’s studio is in one of the outbuildings, a structure old enough to have its ceiling joists secured by pegs. It is immediately recognizable as an artist’s retreat, the roomy, comfortably informal interior containing a kitchen, upright piano, various speakers, a mixing board, and a large couch perfect for comfortable reflection.

“It’s been 10 years since the summer ‘Big Inner’ came out,” White says. “In some ways, the story is really simple. To many people, I am just a recording artist who releases records and writes songs and things. And there are certainly people who know about the main things that I do for Spacebomb, and the thing that I have done and continue to still be involved in.”

White admits that he never really set out to be a singer-songwriter and now he sort of is, ten years into this accidental career. “There is a duality of being somewhere that you did not really mean to be, with market forces sort of keeping you in there. But it is also incredibly rewarding to be put in that sphere and do well enough to make a version of a living off of it. And some of it is really exciting.”

For a mostly quiet and reflective album, “Big Inner” made a big noise, followed by tours and festival appearances in the U.S. and Europe. His second album, 2015’s “Fresh Blood” (Domino), continued the momentum, with an appearance fronting his Richmond band on “Late Show with David Letterman.” His songs started showing up in TV shows and movies, most recently his cover of “Look at What the Light Did Now” from his 2017 “Gentlewoman, Ruby Man” collaboration with Flo Morrissey in a current ad for the Native American dramedy, “Reservation Dogs.”

White’s huge sonic palette, with an army of longtime RVA players and Trey Pollard’s string arrangements, became even more cinematic with Natalie Prass’s self-titled debut. National artists started coming to Richmond to record as Spacebomb merged with Pollard’s tiny, but polished Songwire Studios. The collaboration with Morrissey led to a commercial partnership with her label, Glassnote Entertainment Group. That investment resulted in the vastly expanded studio space on South Robinson Street.

“It’s proven to be a very buoyant idea,” White says. “It should have failed several times at this point, but it just keeps going. It is great to have the outside investment, but the main majority ownership group is friends who started playing music in college together. We are not all businesspeople, and we don't all think about music and business in the same way. But we are all still friends and in business together, and that in and of itself is miraculous.”

Over time, the principals in the company have grown on their own paths. White became a pop star. Trey Pollard an in-demand arranger and composer. Dean Christensen handles artist management. Ben Baldwin and Brooks Daughtrey manage the business nuts and bolts. But surviving the pandemic wasn’t easy.

“Exactly what happened is always going to be clouded by the fact that we just had our legs cut off at the knees for two-and-a-half years,” White says. “We’ve just had the goal to stay in business. And that's been just been focusing on the things that we're good at.” This is a challenge for a company whose products range from making branded albums for an unpredictable market to providing hired gun production for others, managing tours and careers, and publishing services. “Spacebomb, in its largest vision, is pretty all encompassing. That’s really nice because there's a lot of irons in the fire, and lot of ways to get paid for our work. But sometimes there are diminishing returns.”

A classic 2009 image of Matthew E. White dealing with RPD when he tried to organize a free-range marching band in the city. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • A classic 2009 image of Matthew E. White dealing with RPD when he tried to organize a free-range marching band in the city.

Staying Different Musically

It's not just the label that has grown older. White was just turning 30 when “Big Inner” came out. He turns 40 the day before his Friday Cheers appearance. New generations keep coming up, and in popular culture the journey from fresh voice to old school gangster is heartlessly brief. And in the music business, success seems completely random. White’s latest album, 2021’s “K Bay” is his most musically adventurous. It gotten good-to-great reviews but never caught fire commercially like the earlier records.

The relative lack of success was a blow to an introspective artist like White. But when he played it for longtime mentor Steven Bernstein, who White calls “his target audience,” the great slide trumpeter and bandleader laughed. “He was so unbelievably complimentary,” White recalls. “But he said he couldn’t believe that I thought a lot of people would like this. It’s really beautiful, but it’s too much music.”

Reached by phone in New York, Bernstein comments further. “Matt’s new music is so different from the old. The only thing that is the same is that it is amazing. The sound is different, the rhythms are different, maybe the lyrics are similar,” he explains. “He has a real gift for creating original music, just diving into new worlds. There are very clear roots in older styles, but he’s not aping them. He is taking elements and combining them, like a collage. There is a lot of information in it, but the more music the better.”

“There is no middle ground for musicians,” Bernstein continues. “In jazz, you are either a machine –a Wynton Marsalis or Christian McBride –or you are playing in bars. A friend of mine says they would ‘like to meet the person who convinced the world that music is free, and coffee is five dollars.’”

Artistic growth has risks. People don’t know what they like, but they like what they know. The sonic breadth of “K Bay,” the brief bursts of cinematic orchestrations alternating with funky beats, mixed in with a sample of a Bulgarian women’s’ choir, is less of a surprise to people who’ve followed White since his free jazz days than it is to people who think of him as an alt-rock, roots gospel guru.

The multiplexity of styles is even more pronounced on “Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection,” White’s collaboration with outsider artist Lonnie Holley. The instrumentals are sister tracks to “K Bay” songs. (In his studio, White does virtual needle drops on his phone to illustrate the parallels.) The session features a dream Richmond septet: keyboardist Devonne Harris and Daniel Clarke, bassist Cameron Ralston, guitarist Alan Parker, and percussion from Pinson Chanselle, Brian Jones, and Giustino Riccio. The approach was very much Miles Davis “On the Corner” with tracks cut apart, rearranged, and on rare occasions looped. They had been in the can for months when White approached Holley to add idiosyncratic, socio-politically-charged vocals.

The result is both stand-alone and of a piece with “K Bay.” And with two more EPs coming out in the coming months, one from White, one from Holley, that means one set of session work will result in four separate records. “It’s four hours of music. I wish I could have released this like Kamasi Washington’s [three CD] “The Epic [Brainfeeder],” White says.

It would have been a bold move. But it is hard to say what would happen to such an ambitious piece of unified work when sliced and diced into cuts and playlists in the modern, Spotify era. White has watched deeply felt tracks bloom and disappear while others that seemed secondary somehow survive with solid streaming numbers month after month. There are no rules.

“The music business is the wild west,” he says.

A Producer's Record

While he is proud of his hard-won skills as a lyricist and has worked hard enough on vocals to “almost take himself a little bit seriously,” White is most at home as a producer.

“Creative organizing is very natural for me,” he says. “I could do it all day long and I wouldn't break a sweat, you know? Like it's easy, it’s my skill set. I feel very much in control and where writing a song is like physically wrestling, I get energy out of producing.”

“K Bay,” with its sprawling palette and hip-hop mix-and-match sensibilities, is very much a producer’s record. Written with the experience of years of onstage performance, it is also an album designed for live performance. There has been no chance to do that during COVID. White is looking forward to having it be the backbone of the Friday Cheers performance.

Beyond that lies the uncertain future of the music business.

“It is always up in the air. It’s always a question mark whether the label will renew your next record. I have a lot of stuff in the can,” White says. “There is a sick instrumental, sort-of psychedelic club guitar record I made with Alan Parker, and a beat tape-type record. But this is kind of a period where I am thinking about where I go from here. How do I make this stuff? How do I frame it as it comes out to the to the public view? What do I want people to know about me? How do I tell my story so that it’s broader than just a singer songwriter?

The deeper he gets into his career, the easier that narrative is becoming, he says.

“It's not weird to anyone from Richmond that I would make a free jazz record or an instrumental record,” he notes. But some listeners fell in love with the quiet soul with the whispery vocals they heard on “Big Inner.” They want him, not electric-era Miles Davis.

That is the gamble: “You need to keep rolling the dice,” White says. “You only need to hit every once in a while.”

Finally, he reflects on how his musical journey has generated distant echoes.

“[My wife] Mary and I were in Southern Portugal on this island off the coast where there are no roads. Just a beach with a boardwalk and this tiny little fishing village,” he explains. “And, this is so cliché, there is an old man planting flowers in the front yard with his wife. They are in their eighties and they had the radio on as we were walking by. And that old dude was just rocking out to the [“Gentlewoman, Ruby Man”] version of ‘Grease.’ I tried to tell him, in the little Spanish I know, that’s me. He was so confused. So I started singing along and pointing at myself. ‘That’s me.’ And he was still confused.”

For White, the encounter struck a deep chord.

“It’s like a weird insight into how things work. You never know. Sometimes, something you think will work, will not. And sometimes it is a real big surprise. Success comes in the strangest places.”

Matthew E. White, Benet, and The Last Circus play Friday Cheers at Brown’s Island on July 15. Tickets are $10 advance / $15 door. Doors open at 5:50.