A conversation with Trixie Whitley. Prologue.
Trixie Whitley is already on stage doing the soundcheck for her solo-show in Vienna’s Porgy&Bess as I enter the venue. Switching back and forth between Grand Piano, acoustic, and electric guitar, the process of fine-tuning the intimate and atmospheric sound for what will later turn out to be an excellent, captivating, and emotionally intense show, seems to proceed effortlessly. “If you got any sound ideas, feel free”, Whitley tells the technicians in an amicable tone, “tonight the only people making sound are you and me”. After the soundcheck is done, she asks if there’s still some time left–she would like to try out some things on the piano. “Is it okay if we start a little bit later with the interview?”, Hendrik, Whitley’s tour manager asks me, I tell him that it is a pleasure to listen to her play, and that we’ll just start whenever she’s ready. “Yeah, it’s like a private concert for you guys”, he smiles, and for another fifteen minutes, I am allowed to listen to ab exceptional artist rehearsing. Then I meet her backstage.
It is not her first time in Vienna. Just a few months ago, she performed together with Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub project, though it is her first time playing solo in Vienna this time around, performing her own music. At 8:30 she goes on stage, takes a seat at the Grand Piano, and plays a beautiful extended intro leading into the first song–and from the first note on, she captivates her audience. Her voice is a little sore, she tells us, the tour is taking its toll. It’s nothing anyone would notice though: her vocal performance is still phenomenal, ranging between urgent and quiet, fragile and raw, powerful and tender, without sounding artificial for even just a second. She performs some old songs she hadn’t played in a while and also plays a few new ones she says she’d like to try out. From “Breathe You In My Dreams” to “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Oh The Joy”: it couldn’t have been more beautiful and personal. As soon as she starts playing “Strong Blood”, dedicating it to her father, I finally have to wipe my eyes.
Later, I meet her again at the merchandise stand. She tips her glass to me, smiles, and I ask her to sign her new EP. Then we say goodbye and I am left with fond memories to last more than just that night of reminiscing over beer and good company. Trixie and her crew leave Vienna for Budapest, where she plays her last but one show of this European tour, before she returns home to New York. A breathtaking concert by a breathtakingly talented artist.
Trixie Whitley. (c) Jörg Steinmetz, trixiewhitley.com
A conversation with Trixie Whitley.
Last year you played an amazing show with Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub in Vienna. Now you’re back here playing a solo show. How are things going solo?
Whitley: It’s going great. Before Black Dub started, two or three years ago, I was playing mainly by myself. It’s nice to go back and focus on my own songs again. I feel that playing shows for different audiences is where you really discover your own thing. Black Dub has been an amazing experience, but it was not my own music, I was just the singer. It’s nice to have both worlds going on, to be able to balance it out with different kinds of scenarios, so… I enjoy both.
The tour is quite successful as I have heard.
Yeah, the tour is going great, almost everything has been sold out. It is my first time in Vienna by myself, and I don’t even have a record out yet, so that’s kind of wild that I’m able to tour without a record. I am just grateful for being able to do that, to continue working on my own craftsmanship without too much pressure. Being able to do that is a luxury these days.
Talking about pressure: Is playing solo more pressure than performing with a full band like Black Dub?
Ah… not really. I guess in the very beginning of Black Dub I probably felt more pressure from within myself than from the outside world. In the very beginning I felt that I needed to prove something, but that luckily disappeared with time. You know, playing with those heavy weights (laughs), twice my age. But that was only my own pressure; it was not at all coming from Daniel or Brian. That was kind of my own psychological shit I had to go through. But yeah, there are different pressures with every scenario, both with Black Dub and playing my own stuff, I also have my own band. Tonight is going to be completely stripped down and totally by myself, which in a way gives me a lot of freedom. On the other hand, playing with musician can also give you a lot of freedom, because you don’t have to carry it all by yourself entirely – but then again there’s the pressure in the band of keeping it all together. So there is always some sort of pressure-related situation, it’s just a matter of how you deal with it yourself. I love these different kinds of setups, and I like to be able to go back and forth. It keeps it interesting and inspiring for me. You know, I can discover things when I am playing solo that I probably couldn’t discover if I was playing with other musicians all the time, and there are things I can discover while playing with other musicians that I wouldn’t find if I was only playing solo all the time. It’s nice to go back and forth.
You recently released your first live EP, “Live at Rockwood Music Hall 2011”.
Yes, a couple days ago, as we’re still in the first days of January (smiles). It’s not online yet, we got it printed in the first week of December and now we’re actually working on the online store. I’m excited about it, and I am excited to get my own record out.
Besides the solo-EP, there’s also a vinyl of “I’d rather go blind” – when is a full-length album coming out?
It is definitely going to come out this year. I wish I could say spring, but that is realistically not going to happen, so it is most likely to come out in the fall. September, October this year.
Will you be recording it with your own band?
Yes, and I am actually also producing it. I am excited about that, to record it with my family and friends (and I don’t mean my blood related family, but my musical family) in New York. It was wonderful having this experience – as I am only 24 – recording that record with Daniel Lanois and Brian Blade. It taught me so much, and it has been a great learning experience. But now, taking that experience and bringing it to my own family in New York – kind of going back to where I am from, but with the luggage of the last couple of years: that’s an exciting process.
What is it like to work with Daniel Lanois?
I have learnt so much from him. He’s really an intense guy (laughs), I can say that. A part of me is slightly relieved that I can back off again, but another part of me also misses it. Since the tour ended in September, I have my moments where I’m like „fuck, I really miss those guys“. You know, they are also my family, but more like my old-guy family, my mentors. And then I also have my family in New York, my people over there who are all really talented as well. But yes, Lanois: he’s amazing and so is Brian. I can’t really put in words the amount of things I have learnt from them. It was definitely quite a ride on a lot of different levels. I learnt much musically, but also psychologically: how to deal with people (laughs), being on the road with a bunch of guys all the time. It’s a process I also had to go through and I am thankful for all of it.
I just watched your video to „Oh The Joy“, which I find absolutely brilliant…
I did it with an iPhone (laughs). I thought that everyone would know, it was kind of a joke and I found it kind of humorous because everyone has all that fancy equipment to make something super raw, and there’s nothing fancy about it. Anyway, sorry what was your question?
I have to say the rawness and intimacy reminded me of your father… recording on a four-track, somewhere in a barn.
Yeah, like Dirt Floor. That’s cool.
If it’s alright to ask a question about your father, Chris Whitley?
How big of an influence was he?
Well… he was my father, so obviously I grew up listening to his music. This song „Oh The Joy“ is a good example. I literally didn’t pick up a guitar until two and a half years ago – because I didn’t want to be compared to him. For the longest time I rebelled, not wanting to do the same thing as my Dad. But once I picked up a guitar it was so obvious – that I also had a way of expressing myself, and of course I realize it: whether I want it or not, I grew up in the studio with him, I grew up being on the road with him. Whoever your father is, when he is playing you lullabies of his own music that soaks into you, into your soul. As much as I say I don’t want to be compared to him, I realize it’s inevitable. We are one family, we have the same bloodlines through our veins. Of course I am influenced by him, and it would be really strange if I wasn’t as I was soaked into his music. It would be bizarre if there was no track of that. To answer your question: I am not aware of, I actually try everything not to sound like him but I have the same genes, so of course it’s a part of my history.
Besides Lanois, you have also worked with Meshell Ndegeocello. Are any other collaborations planned?
Absolutely. Meshell is still part of my family in New York. She helped me with setting up my band. My bass player in New York, Mark Kelley, is also the bass player for The Roots. I like playing with a lot of different people. I worked together with producer Jaquire King on some recordings, he did a lot of records with Tom Waits. He is a kind of sound-architect. Those recordings turned out great, he’s a lovely guy. I am more and more getting strongly involved with the New York Downtown scene of musicians. I played with Marc Ribot, an amazing guitar player. One of my closest friends I am doing my record with is Thomas Barlett, he is an amazing pianist. He plays with people from Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson to Grizzlie Bear. From super indie to old school stuff like John Lurie, Yoko Ono Band… it’s cool that those worlds meet together in New York, and I find myself surrounded by those people and I love it. It is a nice thing to be part of, being around both young cats and much older cats who find each other and collaborate. But again: with all that, it’s nice to come back and strip it all down, asking yourself “alright, what do I want to do”. If you can’t stand strong by yourself… it (playing solo) is like finding a way to translate all this in a very direct language.
What’s next for you? Probably heading home to New York?
Yeah, going home and continuing the recordings for the first solo album. I also might have some shows in Japan, and then probably just be on the road again. Some shows in Canada, North America… but the main priority is getting the record finished, and then move forward. And then do the whole thing all over again.
Really looking forward to your album. Thank you for your time!
Yeah, me too (laughs). Thanks a lot!
Author’s note: A big thank you to Hendrik De Rycker and Ashley Capps for making this interview possible. And obviously to Trixie Whitley, who – besides from being an exceptional musician – is also a lovely and interesting person to talk to.
Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive.