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'Soft Dangerous' Blues from Chris Whitley

Bluesman Chris Whitley's career has flourished in the indie-label world of shoestring budgets and creative freedom, and he has an intensely devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, Whitley has a new album called Soft Dangerous Shores. It's a collaboration with renowned producer/engineer Malcolm Burn. Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers interviewed Whitley and has this profile.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Singer and guitarist Chris Whitley has released more than 10 CDs in the last 15 years, and only one of them, his debut, was considered a commercial success. So he was dropped by his major label, Sony, and he began to work with a smaller record company. He also began to work on a unique way of making albums: writing and recording very quickly. As Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers reports, that rapid-fire style is allowing Chris Whitley to experience more artistic substance.

JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS reporting:

Chris Whitley wrote and recorded his new album called "Soft Dangerous Shores" in just two weeks. He wrote basically a song a day. While producer Malcolm Burn mixed one song, Whitley wrote the next. "Soft Dangerous Shores" is titled after a poem by surrealist Andre Breton. Like the surrealists, Whitley aims to evoke subconscious feelings by working fast and trusting his instincts.

Mr. CHRIS WHITLEY: That to me is completely what I'm looking for--is a way break down my own rationale, my one way of judging what I do.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) I've never revealed love could ...(unintelligible). How long would it take before they come? We could escape the (unintelligible) before dawn.

I don't want to make something that's not worth buying, but I want it to feel like a human's lifted their head right off or something or opening theirself.

RODGERS: On a sunny afternoon, Whitley is at Sterling Sound, one of the top mastering studios in New York. An engineer is putting final touches on another forthcoming album. The wall is covered with hit records, from Britney Spears to Beyonce, in a sort of a shrine to the record industry that Whitley never fit into. The softness of his new CD is, in part, a response to the relentless hype of pop music.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) How long have I run? Oh, as I do despair. From the valley, I see you. Long questions in heart and prayer...

I love quiet singing when it's miked really loud, but you don't deliver that much; you just deliver a gesture, an impetus. It's also because of how saturated our culture is with bombast that sometimes that resonates even more, you know, when you hear someone just, like, gesture. And then it allows them to listen to, like, mystery and there's a sensual message instead of, like, `Everything's just here to entertain me,' or something, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: Whitley's signature instrument is the National guitar, a relic of the 1920s with a brash tone amplified by a metal cone. On "Soft Dangerous Shores," producer Malcolm Burn colors the guitar's retro sound to keyboards, loops and samples. Here's how he describes the new CD.

Mr. MALCOLM BURN (Producer): In essence, what you have is very, very, very sort of industrial, very frenetic sort of drum and bass, kind of electronicy rhythms going on on top of or underneath or around this very organic, scratchy, old-recordy--you know, I even went so far as to record his instrument sometimes with vintage old microphones just to enhance that contrast.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) These ...(unintelligible) lights come into view like sacrifice from passages through the city streets. Lawyers and whores are helpless, kiss. These soft and dangerous shores are ...(unintelligible).

RODGERS: Whitley has taken a shoot-from-the-hip approach to making records ever since he was dropped by Sony Music for failing to match the style or success of his debut. A turning point came in 1998 with "Dirt Floor," recorded in one day with one microphone in a barn. "Dirt Floor" was released by the tiny label Messenger Records, but far outsold his last Sony record, and Whitley found a new life of astonishing creativity in the rock underground.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) Mm-hmm. ...(Unintelligible).

RODGERS: From album to album, Whitley veers toward blues, jazz, soul, electronica or psychedelic rock. That may be a marketing liability, but it also stirs intense devotion in fans and musicians. Producer Malcolm Burn.

Mr. BURN: There's two kinds of artists. There's people who kind of do something and then kind of get stuck with that, and that's the rest of their life, or there's artists that are constantly evolving and searching and kind of growing. And I put Chris into the second category.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: To Whitley himself, what matters is not the style or genre of music but the emotion behind it.

Mr. WHITLEY: You know, some of the things that make you feel when you hear a song that says `I love you,' the way the vocals sound and the way the melody sits and where the lyrics sit over there, you might totally feel something different than what was the literal intention of those words are. That's the beautiful thing about a three-minute song, if you ask me, you know. Like, you can try to articulate, like, sensually and subconsciously some very, very human things that everyone's been singing about forever.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) Looking up from below. It's all before your eyes. Something falls from above. Somehow it's no surprise. We face (unintelligible) around today.

RODGERS: Anyone seduced by Chris Whitley's new music should be warned not to expect more of the same. His next album, recorded with a band in five days, is loud Gothic rock.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: For NPR News, this is Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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