In 2010, a young, Belgian-born, blues-rock singer burst onto the scene as the voice of Black Dub, a musical project founded by producer Daniel Lanois.
At the time, Trixie Whitley was literally flipping burgers at a restaurant in New York. But Lanois had known her dad, the late blues singer-songwriter Chris Whitley — so when Trixie and her mother showed up backstage at a music festival, Trixie handed Lanois a demo. After listening to it, Lanois invited her to Boston to record as his new band's lead singer.
This week, Trixie Whitley will release her first solo album, Fourth Corner. The title, she says, refers to the winding journey that brought her to this point.
"The reality is that I'm not from one place," Whitley says. "My mom comes from this, like, Gypsy family — a lot of flamenco guitarists and dancers ... kind of these wack-job musicians and artists. It's definitely been scattered at times in my upbringing, but I'm also quite proud of it."
Here, Whitley speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about her unusual childhood, why she avoided learning guitar for most of her life and how she wound up DJing an event at the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels — at age 11. Click the audio link on this page to hear more of their conversation.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In 2010, a young Belgian-born blues-rock singer burst onto the scene in producer Daniel Lanois' project called "Black Dub." At the time, Trixie Whitley was literally flipping burgers at a restaurant in New York. But Lanois had known her dad, the late blues singer-songwriter Chris Whitley. So, when Trixie and her mother showed up backstage at a music festival, Trixie handed Lanois a demo. And after listening to it, Lanois invited her to Boston to record as lead singer of "Black Dub." This Tuesday, Trixie Whitley releases her debut solo album. It's called "Fourth Corner."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
TRIXIE WHITLEY: (Singing) Like a feather, I can blow away in the (unintelligible) 'cause I never get enough of my crown. Keep on calling me, hold my crown, boy...
MARTIN: Trixie Whitley joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.
WHITLEY: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: So, the songs on this album, as we just heard, have this really soulful quality to them. Dark and intense are the words that are kind of conjured up by this music. How do they all fit under the title "Fourth Corner." What does that mean?
WHITLEY: It's obviously, it's a metaphor for just kind of this journey for where I come from, and that the reality is that, like, I'm not from one place.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. I mean, you do have an interesting background. Your mom is from Europe. You were raised for most of your childhood in Belgium, right?
WHITLEY: I lived there for 10 years. So, actually, it's kind of funny. I've spent more time in New York than I did in Europe. But, yeah, I lived there for 10 years. And my mom comes from this, like, gypsy family. A lot of, like, flamenco guitarists and dancers. So, my family on my mom's side are total nomads, too, and all artists and kind of these, like, you know, whack-job musicians and artists. It's definitely been, like, scattered at times in my upbringing, but I'm also quite proud of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
WHITLEY: (Singing) Conflicted by the waves, challenged by the east. I've always been a town dog belonging to this, a town dog from these concrete streets...
MARTIN: I read that you started actually DJ'ing when you were only 11 years old. What kind of music were you drawn to? What does an 11-year-old, you know, throw on the turntable?
WHITLEY: It sounds so crazy. It was kind of a crazy thing too. What happened, basically, it was this - the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels at the time, they were just opening this, like, new division. And I was part of this theater and dance and music collective. So, I started touring at a very young age. This is, like, when I first kind of went back to Europe.
MARTIN: So, this is like your mom's crazy, artistic side of the family.
WHITLEY: This is more like her world, yes. I got kind of, you know, swamped into that world. I guess to them it was kind of like the curator must have had this, like, crazy idea of, like, this will be really entertaining to have an 11-year-old DJ at our opening reception. And I was standing on a bunch of beer crates 'cause I couldn't reach the turntables. It was this big success, 'cause I really was very determined to get people to dance. That was...
MARTIN: What were you playing?
WHITLEY: Yeah. I was playing all kinds of weird stuff, from, like, you know, from really weird, like, African kind of obscure voodoo rhythms to, like, Sly Stone to, like, a lot of, like North African stuff too, like, Malian blues. But I also grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop.
MARTIN: It's a pretty cosmopolitan musical sense for an 11-year-old.
WHITLEY: It was fun. I mean, and it's crazy how at that time - 'cause I was serious about it, you know, like, I really wanted to create interesting sets with, like, weird stuff and not scratch and stuff. But I also really wanted to get people to dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
WHITLEY: (Singing) This is my gradual return, this is my gradual return, through the chain of my consciousness...
MARTIN: A lot of us would assume that you had been playing the guitar for a long time. There's really interesting instrumentation and production on this album. You play acoustic and electric guitar. But I actually read that you avoided learning to play guitar until just a few years ago, so that people wouldn't necessarily compare you to your dad.
WHITLEY: Yeah, partially. I mean, it is. It's funny. Actually, guitar is the last instrument I picked up only about four years ago. My first instrument was drums, you know. And I didn't want to play the same thing as my dad, you know. Like, I wanted to have my own. And I think that is a lot of children don't necessarily want to do exactly what their - I mean, it's kind of like a sense of rebelling but also not. You know, obviously, I couldn't avoid the music. But I did. I did avoid the guitar for a long time just 'cause I didn't want to play the same thing as my dad. But then finally, I came to this point where, you know, I couldn't escape it anymore. And when I started writing on guitar too, you know, it's weird - it really didn't come from this, like, need to become this, like, shredder guitar player, whatever. It was more just like a tool that, like, these songs just kind of poured out right away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
WHITLEY: (Singing) This flame is old, owned by a torch so young. (Unintelligible) to come from...
MARTIN: Did you ever have any doubts that this was the career path that was destined for you - music?
WHITLEY: No. I mean, I've never doubted music. Between the ages of, like, 11 and 16, I was basically on tour with these theater and dance companies but music was always there too. Really, the choice is just expression and creativity. That's at its core, you know, and I feel like all of those worlds come together.
MARTIN: Trixie Whitley. Her debut solo album is called "Fourth Corner." She joined us from our New York bureau. Trixie, thanks so much for talking with us.
WHITLEY: Thank you. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And you can hear a few tracks from "Fourth Corner" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.