Daughter of renowned singer-songwriter Chris Whitley and a woman with “a low tolerance for bullshit”, soul icon-in-the-making TRIXIE WHITLEY teaches ANDY HAZEL about her ‘career in reverse’.
If you were raised in Ghent, Belgium, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York aged 10, danced with a French ballet ensemble and were crowned Europe’s youngest ever resident DJ by 11, would you ditch it for a job as a dishpig in Queens dear reader? Un-bloody-likely. Not unless you had a truckload of faith and a very good plan.
Trixie Whitley, daughter of awards-laden blues icon Chris Whitley however, did just this. “I guess I just wanted to be normal for a while,” she says humbly. “I was born in Belgium, and my Mom is from there, but I’ve spent most of my time in New York since I was a child. My dad is from the States, and my mom and I followed him to New York when I was barely a year old, so it has always felt more like my home. This is where I learned to walk and talk and read and write, but still, I’m a total nomad. Honestly, I’ve had a life journey that trained me to live like this.”
Constantly travelling with her father as a child, and moving between Europe and the United States, her transience lends a thematic tone of connecting and disconnecting from people and places to her gritty, bluesy neo-soul. “Travelling is a big part of my songs. Up until now, they’ve been carried more by introspective metaphors than a specific line of storytelling or narrative, and not just from my background and my childhood, but from travelling so much as an adult,” she says in a tired, brittle voice. The current Arctic climate in New York and the occasional sniff lends a frailty to her words, which sound like they’re coming from somewhere warm and cosy. “In a way, I’ve had a career in reverse. I started touring so early– long before I released any records - and I’ve been in travelling with music for as long as I can recall. In all the time I’ve been writing, before my first record came out, a lot of my songs had this nomadic spirit about them.”
The death of her father from lung cancer in 2005 marked a turning point in Whitley’s life. From expressing herself in a multitude of mediums, she focused instead on songwriting and singing with openness, similar to that of her father’s near genre-less range of styles. Since the release of her debut album Fourth Corner last year, the talking point has shifted from being “Chris’s girl” to “my God, her voice!” Whitley’s raw expressive instrument attracted the attention of a disparate bunch of musicians before she switched to singer as a full time occupation.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer,” she says, to the disbelief of anyone who has ever heard her sing. “Well,” she laughs, “I always sang, but I didn’t perceive it as a dream I wanted to fulfil, as in ‘I want to become a singer’. In the society we live in we’re all asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I never thought of singing as a job I would have. I’m so grateful that I‘ve turned my life and entire being into a profession.”
When her first EP, 2008’s Strong Blood, produced by influential bassist, singer and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, found its way into the hands of super-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Martha and the Muffins), a phone call resulted in the two forming a band, Black Dub. This became the outlet for much of Whitley’s work, though in the background she released three EPs and recorded what would become Fourth Corner. “I feel like making Fourth Corner was such a turbulent journey,” she explains with a sigh. “It came from years of not only music industry stuff, but being in the shadow of more famous people and years of working with Black Dub and Lanois. We were recording a lot of my own stuff, and I was so thankful for that opportunity, but I’d been working on my own stuff for years before Black Dub. Making Fourth Corner seemed like a process that dragged out for such a long time; some of those songs had been around for years and I’d never put them out. I’m making a new album now,” she says, audibly perking up, “and it’s very exciting for me. Recording new songs and taking a different journey in the writing process, it feels like a big step, and I feel very free in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you who I’m working with, because…” she trails off enticingly before changing tack. “I think definitely for Australia I’ll let the first record have a chance, because it’s all new for you guys.” Bringing a four-piece band with her, Whitley promises a mix of Fourth Corner as well as some of her newest material, songs she is midway through recording when we speak. If the live footage of her concerts online is anything to go by, it will be a galvanising show.
One quality that threads through all her work is a sparseness of her arrangements, a move that foregrounds her voice and makes listening to her music an uncommonly direct and affecting experience. Having so many talented friends who would doubtless lend a hand, that Whitley chooses such minimal instrumentation turns out to be an ethical as well as a musical choice. “I can definitely say that I’ve been a strong advocate for trimming the fat wherever you can,” she says audibly warming to the subject. “I have a low tolerance for – and excuse the language - bullshit. Especially for the world that we live where there is SO much excess in everything. For me, I think ‘don’t fuck with our natural instincts and our intelligence as a species. I don’t want to be numbed and dumbed down by a massive amount of stuff’, and that really resonates in everything I do,” she says brightening. “I’m very philosophical and I tend to bring this sort of language into my work, which is largely an outcome of what my values in life are. I like things to feel honest and pure in a way, and touching. Anything that doesn’t or can’t allow those things to flourish I am very willing to lose.”
Thankfully, one of the things she did lose along the way was her job in Queens. After failing to be ‘normal’, Whitley puts her subsequent step from kitchen to stage down to factors she says are beyond her control, and part of a basic human need for freedom. “There has always been a force inside me,” she explains keenly. “A force that is untameable in many ways. I don’t want to be confined to anything when it comes to this language of expression. I feel like that’s all I can identify myself with.”
With the release of her first three EPs and now debut album, one place that has taken her to their heart is her home country of Belgium, proving it by recently awarding her a Music Industry Award for Best Female performer. “It was very weird,” she says laughing. “Belgium is a very small country and I haven’t lived there in years. It’s a little strange, my relationship with there, because I’m half-Belgian but I don’t really have a lot of ties left. It was a little awkward, but to win was a great honour because it’s voted for by the public and it’s wonderful to see that even being there so little and being so inactive in the scene, I still got recognition. It was like when Gotye won some of these awards, because he has a Belgian mom or something!”
TRIXIE WHITLEY: LEARNING TO UNLEARN
Learning to write music is hard. Unlearning to write music is harder. To help you unlearn here are some tips from Trixie Whitley to cut out and keep:
- - ‘We’re all influenced by life in general, but to stay true to your essential core you have to unlearn every influence you’ve had to develop a language that is truly your own’
- - ‘Everyone I’ve ever worked with has had some impact on me, but it’s dangerous to look up to someone or something so much that their influence designs your sound’
- - ‘I think it’s inevitable that people are influenced by everything that has touched them in life. I can name a few people who have been important to me on my journey. Meshell Ndegeocello; I grew up listening to her records, and then I worked with her early on. She had a big impact on me for sure. The same as Brian Blade and Daniel Lanois, Daryl Johnson, they had an impact on me because I worked with them too. I actively…and respectfully…work to not let them influence what I do now.’
- - ‘It’s one thing to learn from every crossing path, and to make those experiences deeply inspiring in a positive way, but negative experiences are also essential and equally important. Learning how to do this is part of unlearning.’