Singer-songwriter John White finds inspiration in a variety of places. He models his prodigious songwriting after a hardworking subsect of writers: Stand-up comedians.
“I equate it to being a boxer or being a comedian,” he said recently. “Comedians do it all the time. They’re really up on writing new material. They have to. They have to come up with a new special every couple of years. They have to tour.”
To stay sharp, a comedian has to always keep writing, cranking out new material, because jokes tend to have a short shelf life. White applies this dedication to songwriting. He says he’s always working on new songs, honing his craft.
White recently finished his eighth album, Beautiful Strangers. It’s a collection of songs that tell a loosely connected love story. He recorded the album with his band, the John Whites, which includes members of the innovative local funk group Whatitdo. It rests in that widely appealing center where pop, rock and soul converge. The album release show is Dec. 12 at Chapel Tavern, 1099 S. Virginia St., but even though this record isn’t out yet, White says he’s already finishing up the next album, his ninth.
He says he was inspired to start writing songs after, as a teenager, he saw the Flaming Lips open for Beck.
“I didn’t know who the Flaming Lips were,” he said. “It made me want to do want they did.”
Extra inspirational for him was that Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne was over 40. “That told me, ’You can make a life of this.’” Not long after that, White met Coyne backstage after a show, and he encouraged White’s fledgling songwriting. “That started me on a trajectory that I’m still on.”
He’s from Reno originally but moved to Utah as a child, where he lived until moving back to Reno in his early 20s. He released his first album when he was 19, in 2005. It was all just voice, acoustic guitar, and household percussion—like spoons.
Since then, he’s released albums at a rate of one a year, alternating solo and band releases. The band name “the John Whites” may reek of hubris, but for White, it’s a way of taking a proprietary interest in his craft.
“I’d been in a band before and had my power usurped, and it infuriated me,” he said. “It changed my life, and I think it changed my life for the better.” A former bandmate released an album of material that he considered unfinished, including songs that didn’t have finished vocal tracks. “At the time it was so angering, but it was one of those moments that taught me so much.”
Beautiful Strangers tells a story. The first song, “All I Want,” for example, is about a moment when a protagonist falls short of boy-meets-girl: “He doesn’t meet her,” said White. “He just sees her.” His use of a third-person pronoun demonstrates that he’s not one of those amateurish songwriters who only write from autobiography.
The songs were not written to be a concept album, but White noticed he had all the right songs, arranged it together afterward, and the results worked as an extended narrative.
“Some of my other albums, like the last album, had songs that weren’t about love, but every fucking song on this album—all 10 are really about love,” he said.
And he continues to work hard, drawing inspiration from unexpected sources: “If you think of it as a sacred thing, then you spend time with it and you care about it. … When you see a great movie, like Boogie Nights—for me, one way to synthesize life down to do it right, for myself, is to always be like first-awards-ceremony Dirk Diggler. He was so enthusiastic. He was so thankful for his opportunities, for people watching his stuff, for his audience. He was so thankful to be able to work on his craft. And then you see 10th award ceremony Mark Wahlberg and he doesn’t even speak. He just lifts up his trophy and walks off. That movie is a whole metaphor about innocence and passion. It’s a sacred thing.”