John Paul White discusses solo career ahead of Birmingham show


Story published in Birmingham Magazine

The road never really felt like home for singer-songwriter John Paul White, best known as half of the soulful duo The Civil Wars. Home, White says, has always been the Shoals. It's the same place where a couple of guys known as The Swampers churned out hit after hit a couple decades ago. Now, it's where White is resuming his solo career.

"It sounds cool to say that there's something in the water. It sounds very romantic," White says of the area's rich music history. "But I think we all owe a debt to all those guys who came before us."

In many ways, White--along with friends Will Trapp and Ben Tanner--is carrying on the proverbial musical torch of the region with Single Lock Records, the independent recording label the threesome started a few years ago. The label has since expanded to include musicians outside the area.

"There was so much talent in our backyard that it was impossible to ignore," White says while pouring a cup of decaf at Single Lock's headquarters, which is nothing more than a small white house near downtown Florence. Albums from several Single Lock artists, including St. Paul and the Broken Bones, adorn the walls. White says the space sometimes doubles as a place for out-of-town musicians to crash after playing a show at 116 East Mobile, a hole-in-the-wall music venue managed by Single Lock in Florence's historic downtown.

Since releasing his latest album and starting Single Lock with Tanner and Trapp, White says he feels like his own creative reservoir has begun to flow freely again. After a short hiatus from the limelight, it wasn't hard for him to get back in the groove and put some lyrics down on paper.

"The stars all just kind of aligned at the same time when I decided I was going to spend less time on the road," he says.

White says that, in a way, recording his latest album "Beulah" felt a lot like picking up where he left off when he recorded his original solo album, "The Long Goodbye." White was dropped from the record label he was working with at the time, giving literal meaning to the inaugural album's name.

"Not long after that, The Civil Wars started happening, so I never really looked back at that record," White says.

When he finally revisited a solo career, however, it didn't take long for the lyrics to come pouring out.

"When it all started coming back, it came back really fast," White says of the creative process that led to "Beulah," a 10-song album that addresses some weightier subjects that have been on White's mind. A lot of the album's meaning, White says, can be found in its name. William Blake, a favorite poet of White's, interpreted the word "Beulah" to mean a realm of subconscious where poetic inspiration could prosper.

"For [Blake], Beulah was a place where you could go and meditate and escape your life," White says. "But you couldn't stay there. You had to come back to Earth and live your life. It was a place of calm and a place where you could heal. And that's exactly where I've been."

After tearing up the road for several years as one half of a duo, White says touring on his own has been an adjustment,and admittedly awkward at times. With each show, however, White says he's beginning to find his place in it all.

"It was awkward and clumsy at first, but the weird thing was how quickly I felt like I was connecting with people," White says. "Every night I'd go out and play songs no one had ever heard. It's a lot for a crowd to take in, when every note is brand new."

The album is layered with a pure sound that strikes an interesting balance of honesty and tale-telling. It's hard to tell what or who White is singing about--but that's part of the beauty of the whole writing process, White says.

"There's a little fact and a little fiction, and most of the time I don't know which one is which," White says of his lyrics.

Some songs off Beulah, like "The Once and Future Queen," evoke unapologetic feelings of impassivity, while others, like "Hate the Way You Love Me," showcase a Southern folk sound layered with lamentations of confused love. It's a sound White says he might explore further in his next album, which could be penned any day. He's just waiting for the right time to sit down and let the words flow, he says.

"All the songs are waiting," White says, shifting his coffee mug in his hand. "I can feel it."