There is a video from Daniel Lanois’ band Black Dub that can be archived online which shows the band, as a trio, playing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
in 1993. At the time, the collective could have been playing on simply an experimental basis and gave musicians Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson another chance to play together and write as a unit. When Lanois was introduced several years ago to the voice of Trixie Whitley, (he had been in connection with her family for a long time prior to the exchange) over a period of time after, Black Dub was somewhat resurrected and was taken to another level. It is her voice that defines the vocal passion and soulful energy found on the record and as a rising artist in the state of music that is of this current era, her trueness and honesty really resonate in the live sounding atmosphere of the record. Recently, Ms. Whitley took the time before a Black Dub show in Philadelphia at the Theatre of Living Arts to speak with Glide's
Nick Gunther. Trixie, I’m glad you could take the time to chat today here before tonight’s show. Well, I got on board with Black Dub last summer when some of the early material from the record was released, the album eventually officially debuting later in 2010, but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t until a while after that I really introduced myself to your solo work. And from there, when I accessed the Strong Blood EP and The Engine EP, I was completely moved by your voice and your style of lyricism.
Thanks. Yeah, I made two EPs, but I would sell them at shows. I should find a way to get them out, because people have been asking. But I’m releasing my actual record pretty soon.I’m sure you had to put it on pause while recording and touring with Black Dub.
Yeah, unfortunately I haven’t been able to finish it yet because there’s been so much. I mean, fortunately and unfortunately of course. So soon as I get off the road with Black Dub I’m gonna go straight into the studio and finish my record, and get it mixed and mastered and hopefully it will be able to be released by February 2012. I wish it could be sooner, but you know you can’t rush things. There’s a lot of stuff going on, so I’m just thankful for that. Is that something that you’ll do in Brooklyn?
I recorded the first half of the album in April out in Los Angeles. So the second half we’re going to be recording in New York. I like to play with a lot of different people and I like playing solo when I play live too. So it’s nice to have a palette of different ways to work. And I have my steady band in Brooklyn, so I’ll probably be touring with them once the record is out. But on my record, Brian [Blade] plays on a couple of songs and Daryl [Johnson] as well. And Marc Ribot, I don’t know if you know him, he’s a monster guitar player. I’m somewhat familiar with how Black Dub got started and how you became involved. Where you were visiting your mom in Belgium and passed The Engine EP to Daniel Lanois at a show when he was in the area. But what was the dialogue like between you two in the time after that, in the coming weeks or months?
Man it went so fast, it was kind of crazy. Yeah, so I was visiting my mom and we went to see him. And I was still working in restaurants and stuff; waitressing in New York. So that was in the end of August or the beginning of September when I saw him, and then I think at the end of October I got a call from Dan saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be doing this thing in Boston at the Berklee College of Music and I’ve been thinking about this idea of putting a band together with a lot of choral singing.’ Choral singing, you know, it’s like a form of harmony singing. And I just flipped out. And he was like, ‘Yeah, would you be interested in coming to the show and checking it out to see if you like it?’
So I went and did that and sang a few songs and he asked me to stay for a couple more days, because he was essentially an artist in residence in Boston. He asked me, basically, to do a track, almost as a class, for the students there. And he asked if we could do a tune of mine that I had just written, that I played for him, and that was “I’d Rather Go Blind.” I literally just had written that song a couple days before. I played him two or three songs and he was like, ‘Yeah let’s do that one.’ So we did that, and Brian was there, and there was no talk, at the time, of Black Dub. All I knew was that Dan wanted me to come out and that he was interested in finding some harmony to fit the music. And that song, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” it went so well between everyone, and it’s just Brian and I playing. What you don’t see in the video on YouTube is that there is a bunch of Berklee students standing there and watching us, and Dan is sort of conducting. So that kind of gave us an opportunity to work together, and literally right after that, like a week or two later, he flew me out to Toronto and we recorded “I Believe In You.” But there wasn’t any talk of Black Dub.
So we went to his place, checked out his studio and he put on this track, it was an instrumental track, and I flipped out. And it was the instrumental for “I Believe In You.” I was like, man this is totally up my aisle, I can do something with this musically if you want. So we went straight into it, and it was a first take. So that was kind of the first song, and things started slowly, but at the same time things were rolling very fast. And from there on, he finally asked me if I wanted to commit to this band and really go in and make a record; which also meant putting my own stuff aside for a little while. But, there was no way I could have denied that.Especially, for you to be able to use Black Dub as a vehicle.
It’s so amazing. And also, to have Brian there, because the drums was my first instrument. I was already a huge fan of Brian’s. But aside from Brian, I grew up on Dan’s records, so he was already one of my heroes in music. So it’s been an amazing ride, and it’s been pretty intense in many different ways. There’s a lot that comes to it obviously, but it’s just such an amazing learning experience. I realize my life has changed very drastically over the last two years. I’ll be honest it hasn’t always been as easy as a lot of people assume it is. It’s intense working with these guys. And being such a young female that hasn’t released anything yet, it’s pretty challenging. But I have to say too, it kind of felt from the beginning like they were my long lost family that I found back. That’s really how it’s felt form the start. And we go through our little issues as well, but we get out of them as if they were my brothers or uncles or something. So it’s really great, and I’m super thankful for the opportunity. I’m obviously absorbing everything that I can and I’m learning a lot in terms of my own process for my own recordings. It’s just an amazing learning experience.I watched that video a number of times, with Brian and yourself, and Dan is in the middle almost like he’s conducting the two of you. He has what looks like a score in his hand and it appeared that he was really trying to get that energy out of Brian to match the song and what you were singing and playing on guitar on the other side. That leads me to ask, what are some of the biggest things that you have learned from a production standpoint from working with Lanois?
So much, I’m doing my own record right now with this producer Jacquire King. He did a lot of work with Tom Waits and more recently he did some more pop albums. On a production level, I think mainly, and this is a thing that I’ve always felt with my own instincts in music, is that if you can achieve magic, if there’s a magical moment happening, then there’s definitely something there. And in “I’d Rather Go Blind” it’s kind of the same philosophy. Brian had never heard that song so that film that you see is Brian, literally, instantly coming up with that beat. There was no rehearsal, there was nothing beforehand. So what you’re seeing there is the whole blossoming of this seed that started with Black Dub. And Dan has got really strong instincts, which I think is the key to a lot of his production work.
He’s super sensitive to his surroundings and he sees everything. So he takes all of the best ingredients that he can. And I think that as a producer, if you’re able to spot when there’s magic that other people might not realize, then that’s the key. And I’d don’t mean magic in a pretentious way, but just as something really special that is going on. Being able to recognize that and elevate it to a higher level, I think that is his main skill as a producer. And obviously the fact that he is an amazing musician himself. His ear for melody is really distinctive and I’ve learned a lot of that too.
I had a few encounters like that with recording my own record. We’d go into the live setting and we’d try and knock out the songs and it just wasn’t happening. But then when it is happening you know it right away and you latch onto that and you’re like, alright this is the take, and from there on you start building. But I think if the foundation is there and is really happening on a lot of different levels, on an emotional level, on a melodic level, on a percussive level, then you kind of have all the ingredients to work with to build from. I think anyone making records wants to achieve that kind of a momentum that everyone in the room knows is a special moment. And if that doesn’t happen it’s okay. Sure, that moment might come at another take.
Yeah, you never know. And with Daniel, he’s very mysterious in that way. There are no tricks to what he does. Obviously there’s all the sonic stuff, but to me that’s the technical side, those are just the tools. That’s not the core of his production work. I think the core of his production work is really being able to recognize certain moments that I think a lot of people more easily would take for granted. I have it a lot when I’m walking around humming a melody and I’m not even paying attention to it and Dan will be like, ‘That’s a great melody, you gotta hang on to that.’ So I think that’s his gift, being able to spot all these different elements that really matter so much. And they might be the simplest things in terms of making great music. One thing I wanted to share with you, about 6 months ago I heard, for the first time, the a capella version of TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun.” After having heard the fully produced and layered version of the song many times and going back and here the fully stripped down version of it, I had felt, at that point, like I had unlocked something in music, in terms of the evolution of a song. As in how a song matures from the initial musical idea that is somewhere inside your mind. It allowed me to understand the formation of the song so much more clearly.
Yeah, and that’s exactly what I think making great music is all about. It’s finding those things and executing them. There’s no formula to it, you never know when a good melody is going to pop up. You never know when a great drum sound might pop up, or a riff. You can’t calculate those kind of things, they just happen or they don’t. But when they do, it’s about realizing how precious those moments are. And as in the example you gave with the guys in TV on the Radio, just nailing that and keep on building on until things are finished. Going back to your solo material, like I said before I was totally drawn in to what you were saying lyrically. But I felt that on your song, “We Are the Seasons,” one line that spoke to me in particular was “I go back to the needs of my destiny.” To me, it was almost as if it was coming from an individual who had a goal for what they were to become and accepted it as their reality. And with that being the reality in their mind, that person knew that they had to focus on their present needs, and what they had to do at that instantaneous point in order to accomplish the goal they set out to achieve.
Yeah, thanks for acknowledging that. I remember when I was thinking about that. It was so bluntly out there. Personally, I don’t like very literal writing; I tend to go about it in a more abstract way. Just art generally, I like the expressionism and some surrealist work. But that line was an example of a point where there was no other way I can say this. And I thought people were going to think this is stuck up sounding. I realize that it’s not a common thing to feel that sense of purpose that strongly. So in that line, going back to the needs of my destiny, when you have such a strong sense of purpose you kind of can’t choose. And I went through a lot of this with losing my father who was a musician. And as a kid, I didn’t really want to become a musician because I didn’t want to do the same thing as my father. But it was almost something I couldn’t avoid. So I guess in terms of that it was part of my destiny. And I just felt like I had to accept it for what it is and do everything I can to enrich that part of my life and get the best out of it. You don’t really choose everything that comes along you path, you just have to be super aware and embrace everything to make it all as positive as possible.
This is relatable in terms of producing a record. If you’re very aware of your surroundings, even the smallest things that might be completely insignificant could be the most significant thing of your day, in terms of inspiration. But in terms of writing, and writing songs, the words are very important for me. I can’t really sing words that I don’t mean, or don’t come from my heart. So in that sense, Black Dub has been pretty challenging as well because I didn’t write any of those songs. So that was kind of a scary thing for me and a very new thing for me too. But at the same time it shows the chemistry that goes on within a band. So between Daniel and I, the fact that I didn’t write those words, a lot of the stuff was not necessarily things that I would write about. It’s kind of his perspective of life. But I really relate to them enough where I can sing them as if they really come from my heart. So I think that says a lot about our chemistry as a band; the fact that I can sing Daniel’s words and be that convinced of them. In terms of songwriting and using poetry as a process for that, is there an approach that you take to your individual writing?
Yeah, I’m growing a lot. When I started writing, when I was fifteen or so, I would write from a very internal need-to-express-something state. And I think this is a cliché that I think a lot of writers put themselves through. Like, I can’t be inspired if I’m not feeling miserable. But I don’t believe that. And I’m not saying that I’ll ever be able to achieve that, but I’m trying to; to be able to be inspired and write in moments of happiness. Those are the times where it is a lot more challenging to write a song. Any individual, if you’re going through a lot of shit you really have the urge to say something. That’s how I personally started writing and that was the motivation and the sentiments of all of my earlier songs. They were kind of desperate. It was my only way to express myself and to put my feelings in some kind of context. But I’m starting to move away from that. Not that I don’t write when I’m inspired in that way. Again, it comes back to the same thing as I kind of said earlier. I get inspired by everything.
Like traveling, I’m always listening to what people are saying around me. And sometimes I’ll hear someone, whether it’s a Mexican woman on the street or someone serving you at a restaurant. I’ll hear things that I’ll pick up and get inspired by. I remember as an example, someone at a restaurant, she was the owner and she was really pissed off at someone on her staff. And she was like, ‘Man, that kid, he’s like the knot in the web of my life.’ And I thought that was a great line. So I like to be inspired about what’s going on around me, and I’ll write lines like that down.
And sometimes you don’t know. Sometimes it takes years before you find the meaning of a song, or before you know what you’re trying to say. It takes a lot of craft work and I don’t think there’s a specific formula. Some songs they just come real easily, others take years. You might have a feeling that you really want to express yourself in, but you can’t find the exact words and I don’t think you can force that to happen either. It’s like you have to be open to the moment and to the space and time that you’re in, and absorb as much as you possibly can. That’s how I write at least. I take a lot of inspiration from books and other writers, poets and my surroundings.
But in terms of writing a song, I usually start with a melody, with a riff or something. Then I’ll go into my book with my writings and see what kinds of moods are brought up. Or I’ll look in my book and I’ll look at words and go through them and see what sounds good to this riff and then you work around that. That’s how I write, I’ll start with a melody or a riff and I’ll be like alright this could be a chorus or a verse or whatever, let’s see what I have to say to this piece of music. And then I’ll either find the line or I’ll come up with something and be like this is exactly what I’m trying to say ,and build from there. I love writing songs, when I’m inspired, it’s fucking frustrating as hell when you’re not. But I really love the whole process of it, both writing the melody and the music as the words. And sometimes it takes a while, but once you’ve found the key to it, then the words just all of the sudden start unraveling really quickly. Sometimes it can take days if you don’t know, and then you’ll find one word and it’ll be like the key to everything else you want to say. Then you got it, and that’s really fulfilling for me and I really enjoy doing that. Yeah, and I think that as a songwriter you have to be able to think in multiple dimensions. You have to think in the instrumental dimension for how the music and foundation of the song is going to sound. You have to be able to think in the lyrical dimension for what the actual meaning of the song is that represents you at the time. And then you also have to be able to think in the dimension that brings those two forces together, the instrumentals and the words. And I think that that’s also a cohesion that you can’t necessarily force together.
Yeah, and that’s exactly that, the third dimension is where it makes it possible. Sometimes it can take a long time to finish a song. Leonard Cohen kind of has this saying, and Dan often reminds us of that. When you write stuff, or a piece of music, as you said when you go into that third dimension, maybe the words, the lyrics, just don’t work with the music at all. That’s possible. But you might write a piece of music years later that might be the piece of music that was meant to be for those words. So what you do is you stock up on your ideas. You almost have a shelf where you stock all of your melodies, your lyrics and your stories. And you can go back to them. And you can never take those things for granted, because they can really be the seed of something. Another thing that I wanted to share with you is a theory I have adapted, something that I see in some people and admire in some people, which I’ve been learning to apply to my own life. I call it the Michael Jordan Theory. Now, Michael Jordan was a phenomenal basketball player who won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. Often times people asked him about his work ethic, and the reason why he said he worked to fulfill his highest potential and put all of his energy into every play, every time he stepped onto the court is this. Jordan said that each night he played, when he stepped out in front of thousands of people, there was someone in the crowd that would see him for the first time and see him for the last time. And I don’t ever think he wanted to let that individual down, he always wanted to instill an image of greatness in their minds. And I think that that idea is very applicable to many different interactions that people have on a daily basis; especially in music, with artists that are performing on stage in front of people night after night. I think that there’s an energy that can be derived from that idea.
I think, and I’m trying to learn this in life generally, to really make every single step you take in life count. Whether it’s picking up your coffee or going to bed at night. Every breath you take to be significant, and to acknowledge it. I think it makes you so much more aware of the other individuals in life. So certainly, when standing on stage that is definitely applicable. And it can be a hustle sometimes, being on the road and playing every night. And for me too in this band, sometimes I’ll look into the audience and see some guys who I know would rather me not be there. Some die-hard Lanois fans and they’re like what the hell is this girl doing here. And I have to somehow not pay attention to that or try and channel the energy in a different way. I think that’s what you try and do onstage.
Everything that we’re trying to do musically, we want it to be really significant. But it’s definitely not only for ourselves; you want to pass it on too. The only reason why I cannot live without music is because it is a form of expression, for me, that can bring me into a different dimension that has nothing to do with this present world that we’re in. And I try and get to that place every time I’m performing. And ultimately, I hope that I can get the audience to that same place. So by channeling that, if you’re able to get to this higher place that’s kind of above your consciousness, almost your self-consciousness, I think it’s then that you’re really able to speak that truth throughout the music and hopefully translate that to the audience. And I think that an audience will recognize when they see honesty. I think human beings just do, it’s something that’s a true and emotional feeling. Local bystander in the coffee shop named Bonnie: I just wanted to say, I couldn’t help but listen, and I would love to hear your music just from what you are saying. Trixie: You should come to the show!Bonnie: Are you playing tonight?Trixie: Yeah, I’ll put you on the guest list if you want. Bonnie: Yeah, thanks! I do have plans so I don’t know for sure if I can make it but I’ll definitely try to come. I think you’re really inspiring though. I’ll really try to make it. Trixie: Even if you’re not able to come, the band is called Black Dub, and my name is Trixie Whitley. Bonnie: Thanks, I really would love to check out your music. While being on tour I’m sure it’s sometimes difficult to listen to music that is outside of what you’re currently working on. But what is some of the music that you’re really in tune with and have been inspired by in your personal life?
Well, I’ve always felt a little misplaced within my generation. I almost feel like I was born in the completely wrong era, but I don’t mean that in a snobbish way at all. I have a hard time relating to what’s coming out now. And I’m only 23. I definitely listen to a lot of old stuff. On the tour bus I listen to a lot of Thelonious Monk or just a lot of other pianists. I love piano music. And Monk, he’s such a huge inspiration to me because it’s completely rebellious sounding to me, because there’s no format in it, and it’s so imaginative. I think that the force of imagination is so strong, it’s so powerful and I really encourage anyone my age to seek that out. I think technology kind of dims the power of imagination because you’re getting everything fed to you, where you can’t let your imagination free yourself as much. So I try and take as much distance from it as I can with the result that I’m not really up to date with what’s going on. I think anything that was ever produced that was timeless is going to stay timeless. I think that saying something is timeless is the biggest compliment you could give to anything. Anything that has quality in it will last I really believe.