Chris Whitley cites many musicians as having influenced his music making, ranging from the Desert Blues of Mali and blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf to contemporary legends such as Jimmy Page, David Bowie and Prince. Below, in his own words, are his comments about the music he liked and how it affected his songcraft.
bn: A lot of blues fans claim you as their own but neither of your two recent CDs have the blues feel of the earlier ones.
I grew up on Johnny Winter, and that’s why I got into the National. But I was more into the rural electric blues, like Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ and the one-chord sound of early John Lee Hooker. And Elmore James, it’s not about the guitar though, I love his singing. I never related to the blues on any stylistic level, and it doesn’t interest me anymore because it seems to have not been vital to me since Jimi Hendrix.
bn: What else are you listening to now?
CW: I like the last Tricky record, the new D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and I listen to MY FAVORITE THINGS from Coltrane. Also TLC, I have a 12-year old daughter, and that’s what she likes. [Barnes and Noble interview, “Blues Martyr” late 90s]
Apart from his parents’ art-oriented careers and Whitley’s travelling experiences, there was always the influence of music itself, which had a profound effect on him early on. He still recalls the first albums he ever bought, at age 11, with money he got from a generous grandma.
“It was 1971, and I bought Creedence’s Bayou Country, and Smash Hits from Hendrix, and Stand from Sly & the Family Stone. But my parents had listened to Dylan and the Beatles when I was a kid, and my dad was into a lot of Cream, Mountain, and Derek and the Dominos—all of that stuff that’s now classic rock was around when I was a little kid. And then when I was in high school through the ’70s I listened to Aerosmith and Zeppelin.”
Although he grew up appreciating the top rock guitarists of the day, Whitley managed to develop a playing style that wasn’t patterned after any of them. He’s come by his rootsy feel more through songwriter instinct than note-for-note study.
“I learned to play guitar from writing songs,” he points out. “My playing has been influenced by the things that I heard growing up, but I make up all my own chords, and there’s rarely solos on my stuff—I’m not like a blues guitarist who’ll play a solo like Clapton or Stevie Ray or B. B. King. I never do that. If there’s an open break in a song, it’s not a clean solo—it’s almost more like a texture, or a simple slide thing, or a bunch of noise. I think as a kid that Jimmy Page influence was very strong‚ because he was so textural with guitar-playing. It was much more about how the guitar sounded than where the solos were and stuff.” [Steve Newton, “Nomadic Tendencies and Jimmy Page Colour Chris Whitley’s Creative Outlook”]
What have you been listening to lately?
I still listen to my favorite things over and over again, like this Monk Trio album. It’s on the Prestige label, the one with the weird abstract sculpture on the cover. I listen at a lot of Indian shit.
As in American Indian or music from India?
Yeah India Indian (laughs). That’s what I’ve been listening to for a long time, which is originally Zeppelin influenced, from Led Zeppelin 3, Physical Graffiti or something, even the Beatles. I think part of the poetry I’m looking for is timeless in its elements and blues which goes back to Egyptian, Moroccan, and African music, then to Arabian and Spanish before Flamenco that Lorca writes about; even lyrically the folk stuff that’s about death, sex and mortality — real issues (laughs). Basically, been there, never gonna go away shit. And music is like that to me too, there is so much pentatonic stuff — again I don’t know anything technically — but I finally figured out why I like a banjo and a bag pipe and sitar. They’re all pentatonic — related to folk shit and Arabian music and blues. There was a great compilation CD I should have bought in Belgium called Desert Blues; it was all traditional Moroccan, Arabian, African music that was absurdly close to Delta blues. These were really just traditional recordings; they weren’t trying to be new age or world music. It was just traditional ethnic music. [Drinking with Chris Whitley]
Someone turned me on to Gary Numan and Peter Gabriel’s second solo album. I also had discovered David Bowie’s Heroes and it started to feel like there was something else going on that was a little more melancholic than the music I grew up with. That’s what led me into electronic stuff [e.g., A Noh Rodeo]. The melancholic element is a very un-American thing to me in some ways. It’s almost a classical element that’s dictated by culture or geography. For example, it rains a lot in England and Germany is a place with a very different historical weight than America. We’re adolescent in America…. But Germans are still dealing with their history and it’s uncomfortable for them. …. But it’s those ideas that give European bands a certain tone that I missed in America. [Innerviews, p. 278 – 279]
What was your first encounter with a National guitar?
It was the song Dallas, on Johnny Winter’s first major record. It was just a solo acoustic Delta blues on a record that’s psychedelic blues-rock, sort of a power trio. He was like the next Jimi Hendrix in that period. He was great. I haven’t really listened to him since them. But I liked the sound of the National, and it seemed cool.
What other acoustic guitar music inspired you at the time?
I always [was attracted to] the rude side of rock guitar — I didn’t feel like a strumming folk guy, really, though I grew up on enough Dylan. I’ve always loved that. I loved Dylan’s guitar playing back then, too, his early Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side of Bob Dylan … But a lot of my attraction to acoustic guitar as a rock instrument was like Zeppelin 3, probably, or Hunky Dory from Bowie, or even Every Picture Tells a Story, from Rod Stewart — that blend of stuff, electric and acoustic. [Rock Troubadours]
Artists’ picks: CHRIS WHITLEY
(In no particular order.) 1. Iggy Pop, Blah-Blah-Blah: Killer-ass lyrics on tracks ``Cry for Love'' and ``Winners and Losers.'' 2. John Coltrane, My Favorite Things: We will hear this forever. 3. Ride, Smile: Melodic noise guitar - I really dig this one. 4. Eric Satie, Solo Piano, Aldo Ciccolini: Conform - not, melodic originality, soul music, any of these volumes. 5. Howlin' Wolf, Moanin' at Midnight: The meaning of life. 6. Various Artists, Passion-Sources: Soul music, Egyptian, Moroccan, Indian. 7. The Mahabharata, Original Soundtrack: More essential soul music -- Indian. 8. Thelonious Monk, Best of: Songwriting and genius harmony. 9. Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter: Raw, ass-bender, dirty music. His first record. 10. Led Zeppelin, Box Set: Creative as you like. Guitarchitecture. [Rolling Stone, 0035791X, 3/5/92, Issue 625]
His interest in dissonance was influenced by the music of jazz greats he loves – Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis – and his subsequent attraction to what he called “less melody.”
“The dissonant thing is more like trying to express more reality – it’s a little more complicated. . . . It’s trying to get in a gray area between the two poles. I think that’s really what it’s about for me,” he said. [Whitley informs us songs are “dumb,” “functional. Seattle Times, 1997-05-29]
He said friends in the recording industry send him contemporary blues albums, but he’d rather listen to the late jazzmen John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk or such new rock groups as My Bloody Valentine or Ride, or even Moroccan music on Peter Gabriel’s record label.
“Most of the people I’ve gotten off on are independent of vogues,” he said. “All of that stuff has something in common – sort of like people having a need to express something. It’s not exactly made to be pop. It’s not foremost music for entertainment. It has an element of exorcism or something in it.” [“Whitley bristles at being called bluesman.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 1992-04-10]
Whitley’s also uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons to Robert Johnson and other blues masters, since the release of Dirt Floor. “Even blues has connotations that I don’t feel,” he notes. “It’s totally semantic, and people today think of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton when they think of blues. I don’t respond to their music. Spiritually, I’m from the blues via Zeppelin and Hendrix as much or more so than the old blues guys.
“I heard Robert Johnson years [after] Zeppelin and Bowie and Dylan and Hendrix and Bob Marley and the Beatles and the Doors. Mostly, I just respond to [Johnson] lyrically because he’s weird. He’s like nobody else from that era, and his writing is very wacked out.”
Ironically, it’s the in-your-face British rapper Tricky — famous for unleashing heavily ambient records that blend hip-hop, blues and mutant dubs with a hell of an attitude — whom Whitley credits with awakening his blues consciousness as much as anyone else. “That, to me, is more like blues today than slide-guitar solos and s••t like that — which is a style of blues but not the impetus.” [Marsha Barber, “Stripped Down and Dirty.” Mountain Xpress, 1999-05-12]
His playing becomes sparser over time, avoiding the conventions of either rhythm or lead guitar. He wonders if he is a frustrated pianist. “I almost only listen to Thelonious Monk at home,” he says. “I almost don’t listen to anything but solo piano, and I wanted to sound like a fucking piano, like big, really heavy strings.” [“Chris Whitley: anything but traditional.” NUVO (Indianopolis), 2003-05-14]
Audio of an interview with Rolling Stone in April 1998: Chris discusses many aspects of his songwriting: what motivates him to write (e.g., contrary to the “suffering artist” meme, he feels that he writes his best songs when he’s feeling good), the importance of “song structure” – no more Beatles songs, please!, and why many of his songs embody a visceral rejection of our contemporary culture.