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Matthew E. White: Jazzbo Matriculator Unfurls Boldly Personal Sound On Epic Debut

Matthew E. White / Photo by Sara Padgett

Who: Matthew E. White had some funny expectations about the world of higher learning — expectations that a lot of musicians are never idealistic enough to entertain. “I thought that what you learn in college is what you go on to do professionally,” says the former Virginia Commonwealth music major. “So before I went to school, I asked myself, ‘What’s the most fun job you can have?’ I was a hippie guitar kid, so I pursued music.” “Hippie guitar” wasn’t in the course catalog, though, and White, now 29, opted for the jazz program. It took a while, but Big Inner (Spacebomb/Hometapes), his expansive, lushly arranged solo debut, bears the marks of his academic decision. “It’s got the feel of a rock or pop album,” says White, “but the horn arrangements are interesting, too. It’s a mix of the personal and the polished.”

Elegant Gypsy: A student of sophisticated ’70s singer-songwriters and production genies, White, formerly of rowdy folk-pop group the Great White Jenkins and avant-jazz crew Fight the Big Bull, sets searching lyrics amidst rich string-and-horn textures on meditative Big Inner stunners like “Brazos” and “Gone Away.” “There are things you can say with your arrangements that you can’t say with your lyrics,” says White. “I try and use the music to finish my lyrical sentences. That’s something I learned from the Curtis Mayfields and Randy Newmans.”

Keepin’ The Faith: His paradox-resolving penchant for widescreen confessionalism isn’t all that sets White apart from his indie-rock peers. The soft-spoken Southerner was raised in Virginia and the Philippines by his missionary parents. “Faith is tough to talk about because it’s divisive,” he says, “but I think the music speaks for itself. The last five minutes of the record are saying, ‘Jesus Christ is our Lord; Jesus Christ is our friend.'”

Gather The Congregation: Big Inner was concocted at Spacebomb studios in Richmond, Virginia, which White runs with a handful of close friends, who record and play on each other’s music. “Even the busiest artists have a lot of down time,” he says. “Running a studio means I’m never not working on something.” Sounds like his education paid off.