At the beginning of this summer, Desmond White took a personal leap that took the form of a guest post on Ethan Iverson’s blog. The post, in which White discusses his personal relationship with depression and anxiety, found huge resonance in the jazz community, particularly in New York. White will be returning to The Jazz Gallery this week to celebrate the release of a new series of songs, which follow up on his records “Short Stories” and “Glace” (Biophilia Records) with an experimental foray into electronics and mixed media, all while continuing at some level to explore the subject matter of music, mental health, and personal growth
Originally from Perth in Western Australia, White performs regularly with New York-based artists including Gilad Hekselman, Nir Felder, Camila Meza, Shai Maestro, Ari Hoenig, and numerous others. White is well regarded as a writer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer across multiple genres. Our discussion with White via phone covered his new music, his continued thoughts on mental health in the New York jazz scene, and his composition process.
The Jazz Gallery: In your description of the upcoming show on The Jazz Gallery website, you mention “electronics and mixed media.” What’s going on there?
Desmond White: The music for the upcoming record has more electronic elements and programming than the previous one, which was more traditional “jazz-singer-songwriter.” On this one, some of the music will be played along to tracks, and there will be components of effects on the vocals, more synthesizers and keyboards. I’m also trying to incorporate footage I’ve been shooting. It’s definitely an experiment, but we’re trying it out.
TJG: Could you tell me a little about the footage?
DW: The footage is on the abstract side, but I try to capture stuff that’s in the neighborhood, things that resonate with me. I’m a massive David Lynch fan, and am awed by his marriage of sound and visuals. I know that he is very hands-on with his music. He sits down to work with the composer, and will write about how the music relates to the image. I’m a little bit the other way around, in the sense that the music is the focus and I’m trying to find an abstract image that connects to the theme of the song or the set.
TJG: It seems like what you’re doing could be described as “live film scoring” or a “live music video” or something. Do you think in those terms, or do you try to resist those labels?
DW: I don’t mind the labels so much. Mostly, I’m trying to move away from the look of “four or five men and women under spotlights on stage wearing nice shirts.” I’m trying to find a way to augment the visual component, giving a bit broader of an experience to the audience. It’s a total experiment.
TJG: Speaking about the audience experience, you write that your music examines “the human condition and our apparent need for a balance of order and entropy.” I wonder if that might have something to do with it, contrasting the ‘ordered’ appearance of the musicians on stage with more ‘abstract’ visuals?
DW: That idea relates more to the themes of the songs, some of which have to do with my direct personal experience with depression and anxiety, all very common things that many musicians have to deal with. In dealing with that, I’ve read many books and listened to many interviews with people, and a theme stuck with me: The research is currently saying that the entropic brain is more healthy than the ordered brain, and that depression and anxiety come from too much order, too much rigid thinking. It may seem counter-intuitive, but with this music, without being too explicit about it, I’m trying to find that balance between the ‘right’ chords and the ‘right’ groove, and then whatever happens on stage… I’m excited to have these musicians, because I know they have no fear of abandoning the material or the moment in order to explore whatever they want to do.
TJG: I recently read your post in Ethan Iverson’s blog. You posted that in June, right?
DW: Yes, but it had probably been written and finished for about a year. I just hadn’t had the nerve or the right platform to put it out until I was in touch with Ethan.
TJG: Had you been writing the music concurrently? Did it coincide with you deciding to release this about yourself? Is there any link between the two?
DW: I think it was all written around the same time, and maybe drawn from the same experiences. I definitely didn’t time it so they would be released at the same time, it just happened that the music was about ready that the article was ready to come out, at least in my mind. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the songs are about depression and anxiety, it’s more that they draw from the associated moods and experiences.
TJG: You’d mentioned that you’ve been reading a lot. Anything that’s stuck with you or that you refer back to from your explorations?
DW: Glenn Zaleski put Michael Pollan’s book on my radar, “How to Change Your Mind,” which explores the use of psychedelics in treating all kinds of mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD, and end-of-life anxiety. The research shows a lot of promise. Without even getting into the psychedelics themselves, the “rigid brain” concept resonated a lot with me. I’d found myself in a number of rigid ways of thinking, and maybe writing that music or that article was a way for me to cede control of some things. That was a big thing in my experience, wanting to control everything. With the last few records, I was worrying too much about “Is this singer songwriter? Is it jazz? Can I legitimately use these components from other music?” With the new music on this upcoming record, I’m trying to abandon my concerns about whether things “work” or whether I was appropriating things from other genres.
TJG: Tell me about one of the new songs that you’re excited about.
DW: There’s one song called “Gone,” which I just recorded the drums on Friday with Mark Whitfield Jr. and he really brought the song to life for me. That song is about the American dream that so many of us came here to pursue. It has a bit of the ‘both sides of the coin’ thing, in terms of what you can musically and artistically achieve here, versus where I come from in Western Australia – not to be disparaging, but that’s the way it is. On the other side of the coin, the pressure and stress of living in New York City can be both fulfilling and damaging to your psyche over time. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I came for the American dream
All the shiny people in the magazines
Drink up the town til you overflow
Another pill and on with the show
Round this time of year it just gets hard
so for you this once I’ll try to let my guard, down
Half the ones you loved are gone
Half the sun has come and shone
I’ll wake, from a dream of you
(verse one from “Gone” by Desmond White)
With this song, the lyrics are fairly explicit, which is a little new for me. I do find it more fulfilling to write a lyric that has a little more mystery, but with this one, I tried not to be too oblique or mysterious. Lyrics always come last for me, but even when I’m just working on the guitar part, I already have an idea of what theme the song is. I’ll have phrases or lyrical ideas waiting, but the full lyrics are written last, and take the longest.
TJG: Have you been writing your own songs and singing them since you began your career in Australia, or is it more a product of your life in New York?
DW: It’s a more recent thing, I’d probably say it’s within the last six or seven years that I’ve been releasing these albums.
TJG: Were you surprised at the urge to start singing? I feel like it’s something that happens to a lot of jazz bassists–I’m a bassist myself–where you spend so much time supporting others from the back of the stage, and at a certain point you say “Hey, I’ve got something to say too.”
DW: Absolutely. I think for bass players it’s important to step out of that role, or at least try to figure out if and what you want to express that might bring you more to the forefront, just so you know what it’s like. I know a few bass players that have made exceptional careers out of being sidemen and being in the background, but only felt satisfied when they began making their own records, playing their own music, and stepping forward from that supporting role. If you’re a decent bass player in New York, you have a lot of potential to work in other people’s bands, which is great. But always fulfilling someone else’s vision and not thinking about what your own might be might not be healthy [laughs].
TJG: It’s so important to find people who can support your voice and with whom you have a good hookup. Tell me a little about how the combination of Eden Ladin, Charles Altura, and Kush Abadey.
DW: This group has never played together before, but I’ve played individually with Kush and Eden. I’ve played less with Charles, and I’ve been stuck by his humility, humanity, sincerity. He was an easy choice for me. I’ve been playing with Eden since I moved to New York years ago, Kush maybe a little less often but definitely for the past seven or eight years. He has a very warm, organic way of drumming, it always feels natural when I play with him. They’re as much people I like being around as people I like being on stage with, which becomes more and more important as you get older.
TJG: Last question—when you’re beginning new music, what do you tend to reach for? Bass? Piano?
DW: I have a Takamine acoustic guitar which has probably been the starting point for 99% of the songs. It sits around the house and everything usually starts with it. I have a synthesizer which is monophonic, very clumsy to play, so I force myself to write a few of the songs on it, just to be forced into a different corner. I’ve always been attracted to chords on a guitar. It sounds trite, but it resonates with me more than bass notes. The sound of two notes rubbing against each other on guitar has always been a mysterious, magical thing for me, and a lot of my songs start with one or two strange chords on the guitar to get things going.
Desmond White plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 12, 2019. The group features Mr. White on bass & vocals, Charles Altura on guitar, Eden Ladin on piano, Kush Abadey on drums, plus special guests. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.