Looking at Life Through an Old Postcard with Amelia White
Old postcards carry us back into worlds that we sometimes dimly recall or into a world that we wished we might have inhabited. Those collections of unadorned streets and neighborhoods represent a world often so far from our own present experience that it’s difficult to imagine that a place or a person ever looked like that. Yet, postcards are more than just the glossy, or grainy, photograph on the front side of the card. They also contain the scribblings of relatives or friends who “wish we were there” in a certain place with them; with very little room on the cards, the messages from the sender often skim the surface, revealing little about the sender’s real feelings, or telling just enough to pique the curiosity of a reader, whose wonder, fear, pity, despair, or love the message might awaken. Postcards reveal as much about place and time as they uncover about the folks who’ve left us their thoughts on these postcards.
Amelia White explores forcefully the depths of this nostalgia, this faux sentimentality, this failure of the image frozen in time, and the tangled roots of love, fear, and hope that such images convey on her powerful new album, Old Postcard. The songs range over various meanings of home, from its inadequacies and its failures to offer cohesion and love to its possibilities for warmth and community and love. On the album’s brilliant opening track, “Big Blue Sun,” a homeless person dreads the coming of the day when the sidewalk “turns against me and the curse is on.” The masses of people rushing to work invade his corner that is his kingdom, and he proclaims that “morning ain’t my friend”; these folks are “racing toward the fires of hell.” The singer wishes for a place where he wishes for a “mama who held tight to me.” On “Old Postcard,” White channels Lucinda Williams as she narrates the story of her life in all its pain and hope; on lead breaks, the guitar riffs come straight out of Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing,” a song that itself recalls a past time that both lays the foundation for a present time and resists exact re-creation. Riffs resembling the Stones’ “Soul Survivor” kick off the growling song of love and loss, “Mary’s Getting Married.” Channeling Rosie Flores, White sonically carries us into a dismal and depressing tale of a motherless child whose emptiness and longing for love palpably emerges through the echoing guitars and soaring backing vocals. “Get Your Cowboy On” pokes a little fun at the faux cowboys that roam “up and down the avenue” of Nashville’s lower Broadway. In one of the album’s most affecting tunes, “Ghetto,” White channels Flores once again as she loudly proclaims that she’s found a home to which she can return after putting “miles on her soul” where she’s “joked for tips while she’s sung the blues,” even though the neighborhood she calls home is far from perfect and its blemishes show as baldly as its beauty. “River of My Dreams” would be at home on one of Neil Young’s albums, closing Old Postcard with a rousing shout of redemption from despair and loss.
White gathers an all-star cast of musicians and writers on Old Postcard, including Doug and Telisha Williams, Annie McCue, Sergio Webb, Jon Byrd, Tim Carroll, and Sally Barris, among many others.
I caught up with her a few weeks ago by phone before she left her East Nashville home to head out on tour.
Henry Carrigan: How did this album come together?
White: It all started with my helping my parents, who are elderly now, downsize and move. For a long time, I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents. I left home when I was 18, ready to get out of my house and away from parents who hardly understood me; we were estranged for a long time, but when I went back home to help them move, the process kind of opened my heart up. We both learned a lot, and we have grown closer now.
I thought, “Omigosh, I have a theme here for the album.” The album is about home in the every sense of the word from the opening song, “Big Blue Sun,” about a homeless guy and his ideas about his own home to a song, “Ghetto,” about my own neighborhood home, East Nashville. I feel like I’ve kind of wrung out my heart on this album and that a circle has been completed in the songs.
Carrigan: How long did it take you make the album?
White: We recorded it in about three days. We laid down all the basic tracks at the Rendering Plant in Nashville, and added overdubs at House of Poole in Nashville. I felt so fortunate to be working with Mike Poole, who produced, engineered, and mixed the album, and Brian Harrison, who provided additional engineering for the album.
Carrigan: When did you start playing guitar and writing songs?
White: Pretty early my family bought me this kind of cheap guitar. When I was 10, though, my brother brought home a Martin D-18 guitar home from the Navy. Playing my brother’s Martin was a revelation, because I found out that you didn’t have to press down hard on guitar strings and hurt your fingers to play the guitar. I fell in love with that guitar, and I saved up my allowance to buy it from him.
I started writing songs when we moved to Seattle. I had moved across the country from everything I knew, and I was lonely; that loneliness really started me writing more. I remember writing a song about this dog of mine that died, “Molly.”
Carrigan: Tell me about your songwriting process.
White: The part of me that writes is so much more disciplined than the part of me that practices. [Laughs] I am a writer first; the playing and singing comes after. For me, I usually get some kind of sense of what the song’s about because I get these stirrings of words that are image based. I paint a lot—I did the paintings on the album’s back cover and inside cover—and I find that thinking in images really does enhance my playing and singing. On the other hand, sometimes a song will come out all at once. There are certain lyrical moments in what first spills out that are really strong, and I work to find lyrics that are up to those first lines. Fortunately, melodies come really easily to me. When I’m writing a song myself, I don’t like to get too many people involved right away; I like to let the process to be natural. The good songs are the ones that keep coming back.
Carrigan: You also do a good bit of co-writing. All but one of the songs on the new album are co-written.
White: I enjoy writing with folks who can reach a broader audience. I’ve been lucky to have attracted writers to me with whom I thought something magical might happen. John Hadley, who co-wrote the title track and another song called “Daddy Run” is an amazing and talented writer, as are folks like Doug and Telisha Williams (“Big Blue Sun”) and Thomm Jutz (“Goodbye Today”) and others with whom I was so fortunate to write for this album. In co-writing, you’ve got to be honest and open and trust your partner; you can come up with an idea and build it out into something a little more universal. You know, songwriting can be a mysterious process, and that’s what I love about it.
Carrigan: Who are some of your musical and songwriting influences?
White: The Beatles formed me in so many ways—both in their lyrics and in their music—and I love music that fuels my passion. Growing up I listened to my brother’s records, from the Stones to Muddy Waters and Neil Young, and music grew into my passion. I kind of knew I would end up as an artist. As to songwriters, the early Elton John influenced me. Hank Williams: I spent half a year listening only to him; he combined these sad stories with happy catchy melodies. Listening to him was like songwriting 101. Lucinda Williams and Karla Bonoff also were hugely influential to me. Neil Young was and is a huge writing influence; I love his non-linear lyrical sensibilities, the dreamy melodies, and that insane groove I aspire to.
Carrigan: How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist over the years?
White: I know I’ve gotten harder on myself. [Laughs] I have learned that art is more than just your feelings in your journal put to music. Trying to get your art into the world is a full-time job. You have to learn to balance kicking yourself in the butt (to work the business end of this stuff) and letting yourself run free. I’m really trying to pay attention and to learn. I’m lucky to get to write with some world-class writers and play with some world-class musicians; learning from all these people has been huge. I’m always trying to maintain a sense of creativity and magic in what I do.
Carrigan: What’s next for you?
White: I started recording a Christmas album, which I’ve always wanted to try. I have another album written. I’m doing a lot of painting; I have this booklet of lyrics from the album, along with some recipes and my paintings called ‘Round the House Diaries.