Jack White Doesn’t Fear the Unknown

After four years away, the maverick returns with his finest solo work to date

Jack White Doesn’t Fear the Unknown

After four years away, the maverick returns with his finest solo work to date

A panel is inscribed on the door of Jack White’s office. It reads: “John A. White III, D.D.S. Family Dentistry” with the hours of “9:00 am-3:00 pm.”

“You know why?” the rock legend asks with a sly grin. “Because being in the music business is like pulling teeth!”

 

 

Located in a back room at Third Man Records’ Nashville headquarters, White’s office is exactly what you’d expect from a music company boss. There are lots of records (of course), books, and a neatly organized desk. A tri-colored vinyl of his single “Love Is Selfish” sits on a circular wooden table across from a giant stuffed giraffe.

The dimly lit room also pays tribute to White’s many passions and creative endeavors. Adjacent to a mock dentistry diploma above a framed letter from Albert Einstein, there’s a photo of the Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway Park honoring his 2014 concert at the venue.

A 1960s vintage Velvet Underground concert bill and several pieces of Detroit Tigers memorabilia hang on the wall behind White’s desk, including a framed photo signed by famed right fielder Al Kaline. A portrait of legendary Delta blues musician Charley Patton and a framed Hank Williams concert poster hang nearby.

White sits on a seat that he crafted with his own two hands at the height of the pandemic. Wearing glasses, a three-button mustard-colored argyle shirt, black pants and with his sky blue-dyed hair styled similarly to his famous character in Walk Hard, White seems relaxed. He remains unbothered, despite travel plans to Detroit scheduled for the next morning to film “content” at his vinyl pressing plant, followed by a trip to listen to his albums in higher-definition audio.

Photo Credit: Paige Sara

Over the past two decades, White has built a mini-empire of his unique vision. Inside Third Man HQ, there’s a store that sells Third Man albums, clothing and books, along with a recording booth and a live venue — not many musicians have that on their résumés. He’s taken an equally single-minded approach across all facets of his career. Following 2018’s Boarding House Reach — which earned a lukewarm critical response yet became his third No. 1 solo album — White zigged when others zagged, reuniting in 2019 for another album and lengthy tour run with The Raconteurs, the band he formed in 2005 with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler.

But everything ground to a sudden halt when COVID hit mere months later, causing the guitar god to put music on hold for the first time in years.

“I was completely disinterested in writing music,” White says. “I don't know how I would release an album without ever touring behind it. I've never done that, and it scared me to think about not doing one without the other. It’s hard to get excited about."

“I was completely disinterested in writing music. I don't know how I would release an album without ever touring behind it. I've never done that, and it scared me to think about not doing one without the other. It’s hard to get excited about."
Jack White

“I'm not really too excited about writing songs that might not come out for two years,” he continues. “I mean, by the time they come out, I'm going to have to get re-inspired by them and go back. It’s almost like, right now, trying to be inspired about [2012’s] Blunderbuss or something. I can get into it, but it's not like when it first happens —  when you're really excited. So I thought it better to just leave that energy off the table and move my creativity to something else.”

The silver lining is that he enjoyed the break from music. White spent his downtime designing the headquarters for Warstic (the baseball bat company he co-owns with retired four-time MLB All-Star Ian Kinsler) and Third Man Records’ London store, which opened in late 2021. He also sunk more time into sculpting and making custom furniture. (White says crafting a quality piece takes almost a full work week to do properly — and given his relentless touring schedule, he's never been able to make more than one or two a year before the pandemic.) All in all, it was a good substitute for keeping White's hands busy while away from the guitar.

"That's my own personal way of looking at songwriting. It’s a good accomplishment that people even care to listen. But it's even better if you get people to say different things from it."

“I’ve always had this — and my friends know this about me — dark fantasy about breaking my leg and having to be in the hospital where I'm not allowed to move,” White says. “I fantasized about some outside influence forcing my hand to do something I would not normally do.”

White became so immersed in the furniture world, he even took time to check out his “competitors,” including Target and Walmart. (“They have interesting lamps and chairs — stuff they didn’t have when I was a kid.”) When he drove with his girlfriend from Nashville to Detroit in late 2020, White went somewhere he’d never been before: IKEA. Intrigued by a billboard off the freeway, they went to see what the fuss was about.

“It’s got interesting stuff going on!” he says adamantly, gesticulating with his arms for emphasis. “The way they direct you [through the store is interesting], how you have to walk this path through. And I gotta say, for the price range, there’s some pretty cool stuff.”

 

But home decor couldn’t fully scratch White’s itch: White’s decision to step away from songwriting barely lasted eight months.

When he arrived in Michigan, White immediately hunkered down at his Kalamazoo hideout, writing music for the first time in over a year. He was now in a new mental space, partly due to a severely restricted diet. With the exception of coffee and water, White adhered to strict long-term fasting, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1911 book The Fasting Cure. The text opened his eyes to fasting “being a cure for lots of things.” He’d go five days at a time without eating, which inspired some of the best work of his career.

“I thought I hadn't written a song in a year and a half because I’d been on tour with the Raconteurs [before that],” he says of his time in Michigan. “It was getting to be like, ‘Now this is a good time to go and spend by myself alone.’ And I thought, ‘If I'm going to do that, maybe I should write a couple songs while I'm there.’”

Photo Credit: Paige Sara
"With vinyl’s demand and sales at its highest point in 30 years, major labels should immediately put their money where their profits are and invest in pressing plants."

That week was “exhilarating,” and White was “on fire with energy.” He would wake up at 5 a.m. for a bike ride (“I’m an energetic guy, but I’d never do something like that normally”) and as his body got acclimated, he’d sit down at his piano or with his acoustic guitar. Tender ballads and folky numbers poured out.

White estimates he knocked out 10-12 songs, some that would end up on the second of his two albums out in 2022, Entering Heaven Alive — a project he describes as the “gentle Sunday morning album” that he’s always wanted in his catalog. (“I don't know if I'll ever actually make a gentle album as a whole because I never tell myself, ‘This is the album I'm making.’”)

Following a holiday break, White and his usual collaborators (along with some guest contributors) began working in Nashville while navigating the delicate nature of COVID protocols. “It was almost kind of a rude thing to ask people to come over at the beginning of it,” he notes.

As the studio sessions continued, everything seemed to be taking a different shape than anticipated. Unlike White's signature loud-quiet balance on previous albums, there was something distinctly different about the sessions that stretched into 2021.

The electric songs that would comprise Fear of the Dawn, his Beefheartian thunderbolt of an album, spilled out. Initially, White envisioned these tracks, dominated by roaring guitars, on one eclectic album with those he penned in Michigan. But they “started slowly getting into their own world.”

“It was obvious,” White explains. “The playlists on my computer were all the heavy ones and all the soft ones. I would try to take a soft one, put it in and juxtapose, but it wasn’t working like it usually did. They were too different. In a way, the harder ones stayed together and the softer ones stayed together. Not just that they're quieter and softer, but they actually worked together. They had a nice flow to them.”

Photo Credit: Paige Sara
“You have to have trust in a lot of people that you think have amazing ability, amazing taste, and bring a lot of cool energy to the table...”

It wasn’t long before his collaborators noticed as well.

“It didn't seem apparent to me at the beginning that he was making two different albums," says bassist Dominic John Davis. "I don't think he knew that either. But it seemed like he was destined and determined to take advantage of his downtime. Once we had 14-15 songs, then I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is two different things.’ I think once he knew there were two albums, he started filling in the gaps a little bit, like ‘We don't have this kind of song’ or ‘We already did that.’”

Collaborating in person with some old pals helped establish that flow for each record.

“Jack is the same in the studio and out,” says Pokey LaFarge, who plays acoustic guitar on Entering Heaven Alive. “He’s focused but kind-hearted. Diligent in his tasks but also generous with respect to people’s needs. He has a great sense of humor and seemingly innate creativity, almost like a sixth sense. Art pours out of him.”

“He didn't play anything for me before the session,” says Third Man co-founder Ben Swank, sitting in his office down the hall from the dentist’s quarters. As drummer on Entering Heaven Alive’s “A Tip From You to Me” and “Please God, Don’t Tell Anyone,” he can outline the recording process better than most. At first, he figured he was just jamming with White on some demos, but he later learned that wasn’t the case.

“It was unique for me because I'm not really in recording sessions,” Swank continues. “I just tried to do what I do, play really straightforward. I think it's some of his best songwriting.”

The beauty of having two records is that White can showcase his range while giving fans a choice between his loud and delicate sides.

Third Man’s Ben Blackwell says he “instantly fell in love” with Fear of the Dawn, out April 8.

“It’s a record that feels wild and expressive and perfect and destined to be a fan favorite,” Blackwell enthuses. “I first got to listen to it while in a 10-day isolation lockdown with a COVID diagnosis, and it was just what I needed at the exact moment I needed it.”

“I think [about] how much the word ‘rock'n'roll’ has morphed and changed over the years. Is it just music across the board at this point and a rebellious attitude? How do you rebel when everybody's rebelling? We’re in a different zone now.”

While the two LPs diverge sonically, both reflect the anxious times we live in and share thematic threads, like holding your loved ones close. But White leaves his lyrics open to interpretation.

“If everybody said the same thing [about the meaning of songs], then maybe I'm not doing a good job,” White says. “That's my own personal way of looking at songwriting. It’s a good accomplishment that people even care to listen. But it's even better if you get people to say different things from it. You know you've cracked the code when you get different answers from different people.”

Together, Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive present White’s full range. But White says his friends prefer one record more than the other.

”They think that the Fear of the Dawn will get a lot of attention because it's big and it's electric — it's powerful,” White says. “But at the end of the day, people are going to come away liking Entering Heaven Alive three times as much, and it won't get received that well and won't be as big of a deal because [it’s the] second of two.”

“Every time Jack releases a new record, it becomes my favorite Jack record,” Blackwell adds. “And both Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive keep in that tradition.”

Speaking of those friends and fans, a sprawling supporting cast was crucial to his new albums. In addition to Swank, Davis and LaFarge, longtime pals like Olivia Jean, The Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip (who added a nimble verse to “Hi-De-Ho”) contributed to Fear of the Dawn.

Although seemingly an unlikely pairing, White and Q-Tip have known each other for nearly a decade and a half. They first connected at a White Stripes show in New York City during the Cold Mountain era, and later at Adam Yauch’s funeral. Their working friendship, though, goes back to White’s laying down a number of instrumental tracks for A Tribe Called Quest’s final album We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.

“He's inventive,” Q-Tip says of White’s music. “He's never married to an idea, always searching and willing to make something impactful. As a person, I relate to him, and for his music, he executes it well.”

Reflecting on their musical chemistry, White recalls an instance of cold feet from years ago, when he didn’t recruit a major artist for a guest appearance — that moment showed him, he jests, to never let an opportunity slip by.

“I hadn't remembered this in a while, but when [the White Stripes] were recording Icky Thump — I don’t remember what song it was — but Mariah Carey was in the next studio over,” White recalls. “I walked over to ask her if she would come and sing backup on one of the songs. I got over to the door and just said, ‘She’ll never do it.’ And I turned around and figured I was going to have to deal with some manager yelling at me or whatever.”

Midway through our chat, White decides to take a water break. We head into the yellow and black common area where there are several record crates. I glance down. White notices and asks what music I listen to. I glimpse Beyoncé’s Lemonade before locking in on a Stooges album. We’re on the same page.

After an affirming head nod, White asks if I want to see any other records. We head into the Third Man Vault — an actual vault — where he opens up a locked cabinet surrounded by tapes of all of Third Man’s recording sessions and displays his impressive collection. It includes extremely rare and impossible-to-find vinyl from Velvet Underground (he jokes that he’s one of the foremost collectors of rare VU vinyl), The Beatles and Bob Dylan, with whom he performed 18 years ago in a career-affirming move that still has White marveling.

“They could have killed me right then and there, and everything would have been fine!” he laughs, recalling when Dylan brought White onstage in his hometown of Detroit to play The White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit” in 2004.

Walking back to White’s office, we discuss Blonde on Blonde (he says “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” “is one of Dylan’s best”), how the vault records were acquired, and why the vinyl revival is pivotal for the format’s survival.

His passion for the format has been well-documented, whether through the Third Man Vault — which has issued rare collections from his and the White Stripes’ archive — Third Man artists, or friends of the label.

“I got no cynicism about any of it,” he says of newbies discovering vinyl today. “I think it's all good for everybody.”

White jokes that he wanted to have 10 vinyl variants for Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive. But on a more serious note, he says that with vinyl’s demand and sales at its highest point in 30 years, major labels should immediately put their money where their profits are and invest in pressing plants.

“Enough is enough,” he says firmly, previewing the statement he’d release earlier in early March. “We can’t just keep relying on people like me to satisfy the demand. This is a drop in the bucket for them. They could spend $5 million and open a pressing plant in Cleveland. It would take five years to catch up to [the demand for] their own stuff, let alone pressing for other people. Demand is so high right now!”

Though it seems counterintuitive to solicit competitors into the pressing game, White has no qualms as long as it's for the greater good.

“I want them to be on the team too,” he says. “And they could be the biggest players in the team.”

While it’s easy to assume that a record label owned by a rock star is a mere vanity, Third Man Records has become very successful. In addition to White’s material, it puts out reissues (which, despite some reporting, doesn’t yet include Prince’s famously shelved 1986 album, Camille) and develops its own artists, live albums, magazines, clothing and books. The trio of White, Swank and Blackwell have guided the company’s vision, but it takes a village.

“You have to have trust in a lot of people that you think have amazing ability, amazing taste, and bring a lot of cool energy to the table,” White says of his team.

Last October, Third Man launched its first store internationally in London. Just like its sister stores in Nashville and Detroit, it has a booth where you can record your own five-inch single — all three of which White purchased after attending coin-operating conventions. If things continue to go as planned — as a business owner, he’s optimistic — there could be a Third Man Tokyo sooner than later.

(Curiously, the White Stripes never broke through in Japan as they did elsewhere, unlike White’s other musical endeavors. “The Raconteurs and Dead Weather have always done well in Japan,” White says. “So I love that about Japan. It's a beautiful mystery!”)

On April 23, White’s solo debut, Blunderbuss, turns 10. It’s an obvious moment for reflection. White says that, following the White Stripes’ dissolution at the turn of the 2010s, he wouldn’t have had the infrastructure in place for that career shift without Third Man. By gaining a foothold in Nashville with the label’s 2009 formation, White learned quickly which session musicians in town were “the cream of the crop.” Getting to know the landscape of the city’s players allowed the record to take shape quickly.

“It’s crazy!” he marvels when the anniversary is mentioned. “It only feels like a year ago!”

Blunderbuss’s timing worked to his advantage, as White knew skeptics would come for him had he released it prior to the White Stripes’ split.

“Maybe the one wise thing was telling people that the White Stripes were done before I started to play solo records because I think people might come up and say, ‘What’s the difference? Why are you bothering?’ It would be like asking David Lee Roth, ‘Why don’t you just make a Van Halen record?’ if he was still in Van Halen. I don't know if I would have been able to answer that question at that time.”

In true Jack White form, he went outside the box and enlisted two different backing bands, one male and