Interview: Matthew E. White on the very big sound of his debut album ‘Big Inner’

Matthew E. White dropped into the music world this year with a big beard, big hair, a single called “Big Love,” and a big sound. His timeless, soulful songs are ornamented with every manner of horns, strings and back-up vocals, but are still spacious enough to sound expansive. His debut album “Big Inner” popped out fully-formed with what sounds like decades-old wizened Americana, as if it could have been released anytime between 1974 and now and been equally well-received at any point along the way.

Hailing from Richmond, VA, White makes his NYC debut at Mercury Lounge tonight at 8pm before “Big Inner” officially drops tomorrow. (Grab tickets here.)

White talked to us about his big sound, his previous experience collaborating with Justin Vernon and more on the Sounds of the South project, and his love for Randy Newman:

I think part of what’s got people excited about this record is that it’s fairly epic in scope and also sounds pretty timeless. In trying to explain the sound, I’ve seen comparisons drawn to everyone from Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen to Spiritualized and Lamb Chop. How do you describe your sound and how did you arrive at it?
From a conceptual angle I think it compares closest to Tropicalia, a Brazilian genre that drew as much from Brazilian folk music as it did from 20th century classical composers. There is a very unique balance of “low” and “high” culture in the production of those records that is really special – the idea that Blind Willie Johnson, Beethoven’s String Quartets and Toots and the Maytals have a common ground that we can find together and try to walk on.

Also, many times style is found in process. We base what we do at Spacebomb on some older record label models. We have a house band and spend a lot of time making sure we have as many things as we can scored out or at least conceptualized before we hit the studio. I like to feel like it takes a village to make a record and the process of organizing and preparing that village to sing together certainly comes across in the final sound – not to mention actually performing the music together. The record is basically acoustic, the only “electric” sound is my guitar and Cameron’s bass and neither of those are affected in anyway, just amplified. When you make music with 35 people playing acoustically together each person matters so much! Every person is bringing their craft, their sound, to the studio and the final product is a collage of those 35 musicians. For better or for worse, only we could make a record that sounds like this. It’s regional music, a sound only Richmond could make. Its American music, a gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.

How was your experience collaborating with Justin Vernon, Megafaun and Sharon Van Etten at Sounds of the South?
It was wonderful, a dream really. Megafaun are old, dear friends and the opportunity to work with them was a treasure. I had never met Justin or Sharon before but they are amazing folks, really special people that I loved working with. Most importantly the music we made together was amazing, totally amazing. There were a lot of moving parts coming together in a way that can be dangerous but it ended up being pretty close to perfect.

I read somewhere along the way that you tracked down Randy Newman’s house in LA in dropped off some CDs out front. Randy Newman is an unusual touchstone for contemporary artists—can you talk a little about what his work means to you?
It took me a while to find a voice that I was comfortable writing in and he was very influential, for me, in connecting the worlds of “literary” songwriting, the word-economy of folk, blues and in turn soul music and the classic American songbook. He synthesizes those traditions in a special way, a way that gave me courage to try something along those lines on my own.

He also is in a unique position as both a true singer/songwriter and the arranger and orchestrator on most of his records. He uses each of those crafts to compliment the other, creating works of art that are exceedingly deep and wide. if you listen to a song like “In Germany Before the War,” the arrangement is completing the narrative in a extraordinary way. It’s incredibly three-dimensional.

Speaking of LA, the song “One Of These Days” sounds like pure Los Angeles to me. Have you spent much time there? What’s your relationship with that city like?
I have spent very little time there but I imagine it as the the destination of idyllic mid-century westward expansion, refuge for 20th century composers exiled from European totalitarianism, filled with inspiring modernist architecture and inhabited by great studio musicians—so in that sense it seems heavenly to me.

I know you have a jazz background—I know there is a super vital contemporary jazz scene but it doesn’t get written about much on sites like ours. Who are some of your favorite new artists from that world?
I’m not as plugged into that scene as I used to be but it has been very influential to me. I can’t overstate how important Steven Bernstein has been and how tremendous I think his music is. I tracked him down right after I graduated college and have spent the last 9 years learning as much I can from him. He is a remarkable arranger, trumpet player, band leader and an important American original.

Stream “Big Love,” from White’s debut “Big Inner”: