John Paul White, previously a member of the band The Civil Wars, just released his first solo album in almost a decade — "Beulah" — in August. He will be performing Oct. 8 at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh. White spoke to staff writer Paige Connelly about his music, influences and journey from being in a duo to being a solo artist.
The Daily Tar Heel: What’s it been like, going from being in a duo to being back on your own?
John Paul White: I didn’t focus on anything to do with me for quite a while. It wasn’t really a transition from one to the other as much as just kind of a reprioritization of my life and of my focus where I could actually, you know — when my kids or my wife would tell me about their day, I’d actually be listening. Because for about 10 years, I’ve been touring, and I was always thinking of, ‘Is my bag packed, do I need to call somebody for an interview,’ and those sorts of things — it was always something in the back of my head. And so I could finally laser focus on what was right around me, which was a really good thing for me.
So when these songs started popping up in the back of my head — which I really tried not to write, I was so very happy doing what I was doing — these songs started popping up, and I heard them, and the only way I could move on is to get them out of my head, because they were on loop, over and over. And so once I put them on a page, I could totally hear the way they should sound recorded. I have a studio, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this,’ I have to record it. And just one thing kept leading to another.
The strangest part of it was me realizing how much I wanted other people to hear the songs, and I couldn’t make sense of that. Because I didn’t care what anybody thought about anything I was doing, for a while, and as soon as I wrote these songs, all I could think of is, ‘What will people’s opinions be, what will make them react, will there be a connection? Will people be able to stand inside these songs and look at themselves as characters in the song?’
So, eventually, I got to this point so once all of that metamorphosis happened, I don’t know. I didn’t really think twice about it. It just made sense to play it in front of people, me and a guitar.
DTH: Do you think having a break helped you grow as a solo artist?
JPW: It was the first time I had done it, so I’m not sure if everyone should do it, or needs to do it, or if it would always work for everyone else. But I would greatly advise giving it a show, because I had no idea how so fried I was until all this stuff started growing back. All the stuff in my head that had been cauterized because when I was first here, I wasn’t hearing any music in my head at all, and I was perfectly fine with that. So, when it all started coming back, it was a really strange sensation because I’ve been writing songs for about 15 years for a living before that, so I’d always been able to just kind of turn it on and turn it off when I needed to. This is the first time I can remember that I was just writing purely from inspiration.
To be in my early 40s, for that to be the first time it happened is a strange — it’s a strange experience that I hope other writers don’t go about it the same way I do.
DTH: What genre do you consider yourself? Because I know a lot of artists have started to stray away from defining themselves. I have this theory that genre just doesn’t exist anymore, everything is becoming too interdependent and intertwined. Do you want to define yourself by a genre?
JPW: I have no idea where I would put me and my record. What’s funny is when we started working on the record the first song, we started tracking. Then (Ben) Tanner — who plays with the Alabama Shakes, he’s my label partner and studio partner and co-producer — he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Well, I already don’t know what genre this is.’ My opinion is that it’s a horrible idea to create anything and try to make it fit into a genre, but also to try not to make it fit. I think that you just need to create, and whatever your heart tells you, whatever your gut tells you, that’s what it should be.
DTH: What influenced this album the most?
JPW: As you talk to other musicians you might find this out, and I may be completely weird, but I don’t tend to write personally. I don’t tend to write about my life and about me and about what I’m going through. I’ve always, you know how it is — you feel like other people's songs are better, you feel like other people’s stories are better.
So like, because outside, anything that you come, up with, you came up with, so it’s not novel, it’s not unique to you. You hear somebody else say something it’s like, 'Now that’s fresh, I would’ve never thought of that, that’s inspiring.' You don’t necessarily tend to inspire yourself — I don’t necessarily — but the way I tend to write is usually there’s some conversations I’ve had with other people, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen — but I won’t deny that things are pulled from my past and my present. I just don’t know when it’s happened and how much of it’s fact and how much of it’s fiction.
DTH: So why did you choose "Beulah" as the album title?
JPW: It’s a term that I heard around me. My dad, his family were all Southern Baptists and there were churches named Beulah, there were aunts named Beulah, songs about Beulah, so it was a term I always heard.
It’s also a kind of term of endearment around my house. My dad called my little sister Beulah, I call my wife and my daughter Beulah. I don’t even think about it, it’s just for whatever reason, it’s just one of those, like "boo," it’s "Beulah."
So, on the flip side of that, there’s a philosopher, his name’s William Blake, and I’m not going to pretend I read a lot of philosophy, but I do know some, and from my high school and college professors, there’s certain things that have stuck with me and I really enjoyed. I always enjoyed his writing and I always enjoyed the kind of mythology of his Christianity, his spiritual beliefs, he kind of had his own way of looking at things. So his phrase — he felt like there was a place you could go, whether through meditation or what, though prayer, a place you could go to heal, to escape the world and just re-center, let the stars align, just get your stuff back together, you have to come back to earth. It wasn’t like heaven, it was just a momentary place you’d go to recenter, and he called that place Beulah. And I thought, there’s no better time for where I’ve been, so I think I’ll take that.
DTH: What do you like about North Carolina? What are you looking forward to about being here?
JPW: I dearly love that state; it’s one of the most beautiful states by far. It parallels Tennessee and Alabama in the — the geography — but I spent most of my formative years, every winter and summer, going over to the Appalachians to see North Carolina, to the western side of North Carolina. I have many, many great friends from the Raleigh area. There has to be a reason that so many people I really respect and love are from that geographical location.
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