Jack White On Detroit, Beyoncé And Where Songs Come From White's latest album is a career retrospective, but without the big electric sound he's been known for since the late 1990s.

Jack White On Detroit, Beyoncé And Where Songs Come From

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Musician Jack White has won 12 Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums, thanks in large part to his big electric blues sound.


JACK WHITE: (Singing) You drink water. I drink gasoline.

SUAREZ: But his newest album, which came out yesterday, takes that all away.


WHITE: (Singing) I love you. Honey, why don't you love me?

SUAREZ: It's all acoustic.


WHITE: (Singing) Yeah, well, I love you, but, honey, why don't you love me?

SUAREZ: It's a pretty massive project with 26 tracks reworked from some of his other albums and collaborations. And Jack White joins me from the NPR bureau in New York. Thanks for coming in.

WHITE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SUAREZ: Now, you've had a long and prolific career. I guess it makes sense that the album is so big, containing songs from 1998 to 2016. How did you decide what you wanted on there? Are these your favorites?

WHITE: Yeah. I guess it was sort of difficult to choose. We had a list that was, I think, three hours long - was the very first list and just kept whittling it down and whittling it down to things that made more sense and that were more straight up from me.

So it was sort of an idea to put it together - a record that were - to show that there was, you know - where these things all begin, you know? A lot of the songs begin on piano. They begin on acoustic guitar in a room by yourself somewhere and then you bring them to wherever you go, if you're part of a band at that time or you're part of a production of an album. And then they become part of a bigger picture. But they start off as a, you know, sort of one person in a room.

SUAREZ: So that I understand this, everything that I heard on this massive compilation was already cut as acoustic or were there some things that you look back at and thought, I could do this unplugged and it would sound pretty good?

WHITE: Well, I wanted to just put together a record that showed - showcased songwriting throughout the years, and the acoustic angle was the best way to go about that to get away from the sort of, you know, Jack-White-is-an-electric-guitar-player thing.

But yeah, when putting it together, I thought, you know, this could be just all the studio recordings over the years. And initially that was what it was going to be, but then I started finding certain things like, say, Raconteurs' song that I wrote called "Carolina Drama" which started on an acoustic guitar and was just me on acoustic guitar. And it turned into a full-band thing with the organ and electric guitar and drums and electric bass. So I said, well, why don't we strip that back and take those elements out and let people hear the way it started off?

SUAREZ: Let's listen to a little bit of "Carolina Drama."


WHITE: (Singing) It was a junk house in South Carolina held a boy the age of 10, along with his older brother Billy and their mother and her boyfriend who was a triple loser with some blue tattoos that were given to him when he was young and a drunk temper that was easy to lose. And thank God he didn't own a gun.

SUAREZ: Jack, does a song have to have a stronger spine, a stronger skeleton when it is stripped down to voice and guitar when you don't have all that other stuff going on?

WHITE: Yeah. I think sometimes, you know, we would - especially songs in The White Stripes say they could only be electric because it was a two-piece band, you know, and certain things just didn't work. But, yeah, showcasing that was nice because it sort of has an entire mood - the album has an entire mood. And so it's not a vibe of saying, oh, I'm going to rerecord all these songs unplugged and on a stage in front of people or whatever.

That's just - I've never done a compilation before. It was an experiment for me to see if I liked the idea, and as it was going along and we worked together, it did start to sound like its own album to me and felt really, really nice. So...

SUAREZ: This is a solo album, but you're a well sought after collaborator across a couple of genres, too, from Loretta Lynn to Beyonce. What do you look for when choosing a project like that or when people come looking for you?

WHITE: I have to be able to feel like I can bring something to the table. There's been some incredible offers at times to produce an album, and you'd know it would be a number-one record and - but at the same time, I felt like, well, I just don't think I can bring anything to the table for that person. I have to be able to feel like I can help bring the best out of them. That's your job as a producer.

SUAREZ: You're a business partner with Jay-Z. Is that how Beyonce got the idea of coming over and ringing your bell?

WHITE: You know, I just talked to her at some moment - I forget where it was, and she said I want to be in a band with you (laughter). I said really? So I said, well, I would love to do something with - I've always loved her voice. I really love her voice. I mean, I think she has the kind of soul-singing voice of, you know, the days of, you know, Bette Davis or Aretha Franklin. So I was really happy to work with her. She took just sort of a sketch of lyrical outline and turned it into this most bodacious, vicious, incredible song that is - I don't even know what you'd classify it as soul, rock 'n' roll or whatever it is.


BEYONCE: (Singing) We just got to let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, babe. This is your final warning. You know I give you life.

WHITE: "Don't Hurt Yourself" is just - is incredibly intense. I'm so amazed at what she did with it.

SUAREZ: You put out this latest recording through your own label, Third Man Records, and you're based in Detroit. I want to talk to you a little bit about Detroit because it's so tied to your growing up, your identity. You're famously from there, but you're now living in Nashville?

WHITE: Yeah. I moved to Nashville about 10 or 11 years ago, and we started Third Man Records headquarters there, and now we're - have a second location in Detroit. And what's more important right now is we're currently building a brand new pressing plant in Detroit connected to that location, so it will be the first time in a record store you can look through a window and see the records being pressed in the back. And people will be able to see it and buy it right there all under one roof.

SUAREZ: You've been a champion of vinyl and continuing to put recorded music on vinyl. For people who've grown up in a post-vinyl world, which are a lot of people who are listening to this radio show right now, what are they missing? What was great about being able to drop a needle on a record?

WHITE: Well, Ray, I'd like to be known as the czar of vinyl, if you don't mind.

SUAREZ: (Laughter) OK.

WHITE: Refer to me as that. OK? And, secondly, I don't remember what your question was. I'm just kidding.


WHITE: I think it's just - I always think it's beautiful to look at something mechanically moving, and I think you're more involved in it. I think when you look at a campfire, you feel blessed and you don't know why you're staring at it and why you feel so involved. Yes, you can play things on computer and you can lip-sync and people can still get something out of it, but you're more involved when you see mechanics and you see things turning.

SUAREZ: Well, every czar needs an empire.

WHITE: (Laughter).

SUAREZ: And by putting an imperial outpost back in Detroit, putting the factory there - are you kind of saying to your hometown, look, no hard feelings, I'm back, don't be mad at me?

WHITE: Oh, there was never, you know - Detroit's a - it's a tough, you know, blue-collar city. It's in the Rust Belt. Like, all those towns are tough, you know. So, you know, being an artist in those towns is not, you know - it's not like you're in the south of France, you know, in a field of poppies or whatever. You're in a working town, and I worked hard in those towns.

It's about building things and letting people see things being really made in a town that has been always known for creating and crafting beautiful mechanics. And I think that it's going to, as it says on the flag of Detroit in Latin - it says we hope to rise from the ashes. And I think that's probably the most prolific and prophetic phrase on any flag in the country.

SUAREZ: Well, it's been great talking with you. Before we let you go, is there a song off the new album that you want us to go out on?

WHITE: Well, there's a song that we discovered that was a White Stripes record called "City Lights" that I had forgotten that existed. And we were putting together the vinyl last year, and Ben Blackwell at Third Man Records said what's the song "City Lights?" And I said I don't know what you're even talking about. He brought it up, and I said, aw, man, I completely forgot about this. So, you know, Meg (ph) played shaker on it and I played guitar. So I finished it. I added a second vocal, and we just brought it back to life which was a nice addition to this album.


WHITE: (Singing) I want to grab a stranger's head and hold it as tightly as I can. And I will tell by their reaction if they're like me or if I am crazy.

SUAREZ: Jack White. His latest album is called "Jack White Acoustic Recordings 1998 To 2016." Jack White, great to talk to you.

WHITE: Thank you so much I appreciate it.


WHITE: (Singing) I am consumed by a comforting notion that you...

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