Timelessness is often times an adjective, and state, that artists strive to achieve in music. For Trixie Whitley, it’s about optimizing the creativity and emotion found within to work to someday reach that point. With her debut record Fourth Corner set for release, Ms. Whitley fearlessly re-enters to present her full length debut body of work. The recording, a well orchestrated collection of songs derived from experience and interpretation, displays many dimensions of her dynamic voice and abstract lyricism. Recently, Ms. Whitley spent time to talk with Glide about the formulation of her new album, the production work that went into it, and the ability to capture ideas on a personal level.
Trixie, the last time we spoke was in Philadelphia a few summers ago when you were on tour with Black Dub. Now, you’re prepping to release your debut full length, Fourth Corner. To start, how was the production of this project similar or different than previous work you have done in the past?
So for this record, I really did it how I wanted to make it, with Thomas Bartlett, who is a very good friend of mine. We worked on it in New York and it was a really positive and fun process, the making of the record; I’m really thrilled with it to be honest. I guess the biggest addition was probably how much fun we actually had in the studio, and I think how much trust we have for one another. So in that sense it was really great that there was this big trust between the both of us, and that was something kind of new for me. I feel like for the last few years I’ve just been ping ponged back and forth between so many people, and major labels trying to set me up with this type of producer, or some session guys in Los Angeles or something, and every time it happened I had to reestablish these relationships with strangers. I think the main difference with this record was just having that sense of trust that Thomas and I had, and I just appreciated his trust and musical instincts. But also that he’s a young guy too, in that sense it was really fresh for me to work with someone that’s closer to my own age. I was surrounded by much older men in music for the last few years, in writing and recording.
Yes, I remember hearing about some collaborative shows that Thomas [Bartlett] was putting together; I know you had performed at several of them in New York. I think they may have been at the Rockwood Music Hall…
Yes, that’s kind of how this record also started in a way. It’s not at Rockwood, it’s at this club in New York called Le Poisson Rouge, and he gives these things called “Salons,” in a way you can kind of think of it as a collaborative setting for artists to share ideas. It’s been done for ages, like centuries ago, within art communities. Basically people come together and exchange work but also invite each other to remove themselves from their own comfort zones in a way. They either bring work that they’ve neglected for a long time or that they’ve never played before, and so that’s the general concept of those shows. I’ve been part of quite a few of them, and it’s this amazing collective of really talented people. Mainly people in New York, but he often invites other artists that he has come to work with. It’s a really interesting roster of cats.
Yes, it’s a great concept. When you began working on and recording this project with him did you need to re-record or restructure any of the material you had set for the album?
Some of it I did. I went through a period of grief, I basically lost my first record and I had to find the courage to get back at it, and that’s why it’s so wonderful doing it with Thomas. I had to write new material to be able to let go of the bull shit that I went through with the major label. But there were a few songs, definitely older songs, which I felt really needed to be on the record. “Breath You In My Dreams” and “Pieces” are probably the most distinct ones that I had to completely re-record and start all over again. The rest of the record, half of it is just more new stuff, and the other half was material that I hadn’t recorded yet, but had been working on for a longer time.
It’s neat too because I remember watching footage of some of the shows where you first featured new material, it may have been at Rockwood. But thinking about the song “Pieces,” in particular, and looking back on the versions of the song I have heard, of course on the Engine EP there is an initial studio version, then with the Live at Rockwood EP there is the stripped down piano only version of the song, and now on Fourth Corner the song takes on a new personality with the intense presence of the strings and other elements. It’s interesting to see the progression of how “Pieces” has taken form, and the different environments that it has appeared in. I enjoy seeing and hearing he song in different shades of light.
It’s nice to hear that, because, yes, it was out on both of those EPs. But at the same time I feel like I haven’t gotten a chance to really expose my work to a larger audience, and I hope to do that with this record. Not only that, but a lot of people felt that “Pieces” was this key track that had to be on it, and part of me wondered to put it on the record or not. But at the same time, it’s nice to hear especially from you, that it also exposes this journey that the song went through; the fact that there are different recordings of it out there.
And even within this version of it, towards the ending of the song there is this swelling climax where the strings get this rejuvenated energy as it closes out.
Yeah it’s kind of a simple tune.
Now, last time we talked you mentioned a story or concept that Leonard Cohen had shared with Dan [Lanois] who shared it with you; and I’m going to tie it back to where we are right now. It had to do with the idea of putting lyrics, or melodies, or instrumental parts and pieces of songs temporarily aside on a “shelf” to be used in a time where they fit exactly. It could be something where you have the basic structure for a song, but something isn’t right at the particular moment. Or where you really think there is a missing element from the song and hold off until it is filled out at another time in the future. With “A Thousand Thieves,” I know that you had included the song on the Like Ivy EP in the fall. Did you want “A Thousand Thieves” to distinctly be on that record, or did you originally intend to include it on Fourth Corner?
In a way, “A Thousand Thieves” was almost like a mistake in this weird way. Not a real mistake, but it came from the very first time that Thomas and I got together to record, and it was like a demo. And the big fashion photographer that made the video for it, it all happened without a real story for the song yet. So “A Thousand Thieves” to us was like a demo, but it was the deciding factor that after that I was like yes I want to continue to work on this with Thomas. And once we got in the studio and really got working on the record we just felt like “A Thousand Thieves” didn’t really fit in the body of work anymore. So it’s kind of a loner in a way, it took on a life of its own. It had its journey in the last year but it doesn’t completely marry with the rest of the work we did for this actual record. So we’ll see. And you bring up the shelving concept. I think a lot of the songs on this record came from that theory. There were a few songs that I had to re-record, and then there were a few that were completely new that I wrote specifically for this record. But the other half of the songs were material that I had laying around, sitting in my shelf, that really came together and found their place on this record. I’m really thrilled, and that excites me that they found this home. And who knows, “A Thousand Thieves” was a song that I thought would end up on the record but it just didn’t find it’s place now, maybe, as you mentioned, along the road on some other record I’ll rewrite it in a different way or something and place itself that way.
Throughout this album, and it begins with the opening track “Irene,” I sort of get this gypsy/nomadic feel on some of the instrumentals and pace of the songs; it’s something that’s linear because you’re always moving in the same direction. I was wondering if you shared the same idea.
That’s cool, I kind of like that as a thought. Even the title track, “Fourth Corner,” a lot of the themes that come back have a lot to do with a nomadic upbringing. And that’s in a more literal sense. In a way I kind of do feel like a gypsy, but sonically I think, and you’re referring to the tempos and melodies, that has a lot to do with my musical influences, and a lot of them do lay within a lot of different styles of music. And rhythmically too, that song “Fourth Corner” was written in Morocco, and at the time I was listening to a lot of Okinawa music is what it’s called. It’s basically local Moroccan music; folk music from Morocco. But I grew up also listening to a lot of North African music and a lot of hip-hop stuff too. So in a way, with how the influences blend, that’s probably why it has this gypsy feel to the sound; how the influences married on this record. On “Irene” for instance, it kind of has this hip-hop feel in a way that’s really down tempo, heavy bass, but at the same time it’s this trippy weird style that you can’t really point out the exact format, and that’s, personally, what I like. I literally was seeking for innovative sounds. Most of all for this record, my vision was to create a sense of identity in the sounds, in the sonic territory, that was completely my own. And that has a very strong sense of identity that rings true to my own sound, instead of trying to replicate the sound that’s been created over and over again. I wanted to create something that was fresh sounding.
Yes, and you mentioned the marrying between that gypsy world and the hip-hop world. From a hip-hop standpoint, in terms of production instrumentals and beat structure, I felt there were more diverse drum patterns used across the record. I also see that lyrical influence on some parts in “Silent Rebel Pt. 2” and “Hotel No Name” where you get into the spoken word sections in songs. I know we talked before about hip-hop being a core attribute for what influences have had an effect on your music.
Yes, the spoken word part, for me, actually was probably the least hip hop influenced. At least for me when I was writing it, I wanted to really expose this palette of all these different elements. For instance, we used a lot of MPC drum programming and sampling for this record, which I’ve always loved that idea, but at the same time it has this very organic, I don’t know if organic is the right word, but this very sparse realness to the sounds too because a lot of them aren’t played with real instruments. But to go back to the spoken word stuff, I wanted to also expose this other facet of my voice that was not necessarily singing and that was also not rapping or anything, just kind of talking. In “Silent Rebel,” I wanted to use my voice as an instrument that can be played in many different ways too. I think within this record I’ve accepted so much more, and learned to embrace the instrument of my voice in many different ways. And using it also in other ways than just as a singer, but more as an instrument as a form of expression that can go in so many different directions.
And lyrically, across the record, one theme that stood out to me was the idea of discovery. Maybe it’s discovery as an artist or continuing to find your place, and how you want to formulate your ideas. On “Fourth Corner” you say “Gotta find my home, gonna walk through the border of the fourth corner.” It’s almost like a sense of circling around here, and knowing that my place is somewhere in the middle; just trying to navigate back in that direction.
Yes, and somewhere in the middle is very much where that this record is about for me. The search is always going to be there, I hope so at least, I hope I never stop feeling hungry to search and to challenge myself. But there’s also this sort of acceptance of this duality and the fact that the middle ground, I think, is allowing everything to be, without having to choose black or white. And I think to me, that’s the middle ground. And in a more metaphoric way, that’s what Fourth Corner to me really is about. For instance, when you look at how nature functions, there are four seasons and they all need each other, but they are four very different seasons. Or how things constantly evolve, but always come back to these essential points. And that’s really the message with Fourth Corner, and my creative journey that I have been on, and accepting that. There is, in that sense, this linearity where everything comes back and is connected with each other. And, I think, that, to me, is the middle ground. In that sense, when you can make peace with that you can feel home anywhere.
One thing I wanted to share with you is another theory that I have; last time we spoke I mentioned the Michael Jordan Theory, referring to the way people hold themselves in front of others and dedicate themselves to what they do. But this other theory I have developed is called the Musical Time Capsule Theory.
When you record music, when people record music, they are doing more than just recording songs, or melodies or instrumental parts. They are putting ideas down and putting them in this musical time capsule, if you will. But when music is recorded, or captured, they are really recording time, and segments of time. When tracks are assembled, in the case of overdubbing, for instance, multiple sections of songs are being blended, but it is unique moments in time that are also being blended. These independent moments in time are being brought together, and different emotions that you experience at different moments in time are being brought together.
When you listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” for the sake of this example we’ll say he did that song in a single complete take, minus the other elements added to the song, when he added the vocal and piano part to the song, that segment of performed music is a locked down piece of time. So when we go back and listen to the original recorded version of the song, we are listening to that same section in time. And whatever happened at that individual moment in the studio, or in the room, or to whoever was in the room, we are recreating those same moments in time.
One band that I am a great supporter of is a New York-based band called The London Souls. For their first record they worked with a producer named Ethan Johns and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in England. So when they were working in the studio they were recording music, but they were also recording, and capturing, moments in time. And what’s neat to think about is the fact that The Beatles, and many other bands of course, have recorded in Abbey Road Studios. So not only are The London Souls and every other band that plays there, recording their own individual moments, but they’re sharing in that total environment that already exists is that space. They’re really pulling from that energy and creating these moments in time.
I find that concept very fascinating and I think it resonates on so many levels. You could record a song in your living room, and you’re capturing moment in time, and you’re capturing how you felt that specific morning or at the moment you recorded the segment of music. You recreate that moment in time when you go back and listen, but that original moment in time is fixed in space; it’s neat to be able to re-access that.
Yes, it’s fascinating, and that’s what makes music so magical. I think in that sense I’ve always felt that’s why albums are so great. But now, albums are more and more about individual tracks. But I’ve always listened to records in a lot of ways like photography, because it’s similar in the same way. This photograph is capturing a moment visually, and in that sense with recording it’s very similar. And on top of that too, even more so I find the importance of timelessness in the sound to be present as well. My biggest dream, and my biggest admiration for artists, the artists that I admire the most are ones that I feel have captured something that’s also timeless in a way too, that will indeed bring you back to that moment. So people, twenty or fifty years now will want to go back to that moment and will still feel it. I find it so fascinating and it just makes me really excited to be able to do it, and use music as a medium. I really search for that magic anywhere, and music is such a magical kind of channel. And, exactly, that time capsule that you’re talking about is one more aspect of why music is so incredible.