The sound of Ward White is difficult to describe, but it certainly has the same class as the music of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and The Blue Nile. Ice Cream Chords is again bursting with beautiful lyrics, unexpected vocal lines, and slightly stubborn melodies and is ‘a bit more user-friendly’ than its predecessor, the equally beautiful The Tender Age.
The sound on Ice Cream Chords seems a bit looser, less intense, than on The Tender Age. If I heard correctly, was that a preconceived plan or did it come about naturally?
There is definitely a different feel to this record – perhaps a bit more user-friendly – but the arrangements are surprisingly dense; as with all art, it takes significant effort to appear like you’re not trying. There was no predetermined framework for the overall tone, although the album title does reflect certain aspects of the writing process. As the songs were coming together, I realized that a significant number of them clocked in at 120 beats per minute, which, when played in sequence, starts to feel a bit like a rather dark Studio 54 playlist.
The title track seems to be a protest against the production of art for mass consumption but could I be completely wrong?
Ice Cream Chords, and its preceding track, Mezcal Moth, are a diptych concerning the final days of a fallen musical icon, flushed out of hiding in the jungle, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his crimes against art. It’s a riff on the Leonard Cohen dictum, “A singer must die for the lie in his voice.” The term ice cream chords is archaic songwriter slang for rote musical changes, overused and mawkish, with predictable resolutions. Every artist makes a choice to follow the path of least resistance, or stop to ponder alternatives. Also essential to maintaining the cult of personality is the public’s complicity, their eagerness to embrace trash. In this song, we see their endgame: a fickle audience, bored with their former hero, and hungry for blood. What, if any, degree of guilt the singer may feel is open to interpretation. He seems appropriately conflicted to me.
Your vocal lines really make your songs unique and seem to have been developed with great care. Is finding the right structure complicated?
My songs are always lyric-driven, so their relative success or failure hinges on the vocal delivery. As I don’t really write in the traditional first-person confessional voice that one might expect from a dreaded singer-songwriter, my phrasing often needs to strike a balance between dialogue, omniscient narration, and stream of consciousness interjection. Mercifully, the material is pretty free of “Yeah”s, “Ooh girl”s, and “Somebody say keep on rockin’?”s, as I suspect such outbursts might push my vocal responsibilities to the point of critical mass.
Also this time all songs are equally beautiful. Do you write a lot of songs to get to 12 or do you puzzle until the few you have are perfect?
I’m a relatively economical writer – there are rarely outtakes from my records. The process will usually start with one or two seemingly unconnected songs, whose shape and content begin to suggest a theme; my interpretation of that theme, inasmuch as I can grasp it at the time, will inform the rest of the writing. Experience lets you know when you’ve got a batch that’s ready – once you can smell the cookies, they’re burnt.
Can you tell us something about the creation of Like a Bridge? I think the lyrics and the sound of the guitar are so beautiful.
There’s a famous truss bridge in Trenton, New Jersey, with a neon sign spanning the entire length that reads, “TRENTON MAKES: THE WORLD TAKES”; a remnant of its industrial past. It’s highly visible from I-95, and as a kid it made a big impression on me – usually as a progress marker on long car trips. The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Ontario has notable neon signs on either side of the border crossing, as well. The chorus plays on the double meaning, turning its attention to the bridge, or middle eight, of a song; particularly the appeal of a classic McCartney bass-driven bridge, suggesting that “counterpoint can cover a multitude of sins.” The verses veer off into old man-bar reportage, with dialogue from a litany of characters who frequent a long-standing small town dive. The track is built around the bass line, and it maintains a sense of tension because it never really resolves, harmonically speaking.
Are you familiar with the music of The Blue Nile?
I am, but hadn’t listened in years – in fact, this question made me go back and revisit the catalog the other night. My first job in New York City, ages ago, was as the receptionist for a small artist-management firm, which had, at one point, represented The Blue Nile. There was a framed copy of the Hats LP on the wall across from my desk. If I close my eyes, I can still see it.