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From Cormac McCarthy to Chan Marshall 

Emily Jane White's evocative storytelling

Wednesday, May 16 2007
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Emily Jane White is a rare solo performer who can cut through noisy club din and turn antsy foot traffic into apt listeners. Her voice pierces the egos of those within earshot; it's a low, lilting alto, often compared to Chan Marshall and Hope Sandoval. Ghostly melodies float through her songs on ornate piano passages and simple guitar figures. But no matter how you find your way into White's world, it's easy to stay there. Like the best songwriters, the San Franciscan leaves room for the listener's subjectivity, with lyrics that read more like a Cormac McCarthy novel than a diary entry.

White's characters are defined by what they lack. Lovers drive away; the dead require mourning. Men beyond redemption deliver images from a very American landscape. These are people who admit to their evils, to dancing with the devil, to having holes in their hearts and only "lady luck" for company.

"I would say isolation is definitely a consistent theme in my music," White concedes over coffee, adding that her intention is to "[reach] out for an understanding of, an empathy for, other people's experiences" Her words are underscored by storytelling languages of the musical variety: blues, folk, and American spiritual traditions. Her religious references bring an atavistic sensibility to the work, making her subjects' isolation more universal. White's capability with ancient musical traditions also gives the songs a devotional quality, so the simplicity of a line like "oh, father lay me down," from the song "Bessie Smith," really connects. The title of that track also displays White's admiration for the late blues singer's "strength and influential and transgressive contributions to the history of the blues," she explains.

White developed her brand of "dark folk," at UC Santa Cruz in the early '00s. Her vision was shaped by both classic country and blues songwriters (and contemporary fare like Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey) and her discovery of cultural mythologies through the American Studies program. Although the Santa Cruz music scene provided White a comfortable place to develop her sound, she lacked the confidence to go beyond the house-show circuit with her band the Diamond Star Halos. A post-collegiate sojourn in France increased her sense of self-reliance and further shaped her outlook. "My experience of the world became more vague, spiritual, strange, less concrete," she explains. Playing music to a warm Bordeaux audience provided new encouragement. People she met there wondered "why I didn't have a CD out, why I wasn't touring, why wasn't I on a record label," White explains. "And I didn't really know what to say."

In 2006, White moved to San Francisco and started performing with new musicians under her own name. Her debut album Dark Undercoat, which will be released in September on Oakland's Double Negative Records, draws on five years of songwriting, collecting together songs that "felt the most tangible." Indeed, the album has a warm physicality; you can feel the weight of her fingers on the keys. The song "Wild Tigers I've Known" features a particularly beautiful lead melody accompanied only by graceful piano passages and a brief vocal harmony. Though the song was written for Cam Archer's film of the same name, it is movie-like on its own; visually rich and starkly scored. And like the rest of White's work, it demands a repeat audience.

About The Author

John Garmon

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