"Songcraft: Chris Whitley"
Featuring compelling vocals, gritty Resophonic slide and no-nonsense songs, Chris Whitley's 1991 Columbia debut, Living with the Law, established him as an earthy, acoustic-based rocker. Over the course of the next two albums, Whitley's music took an edgy turn, getting louder and more dense, culminating in last year's Terra Incognita (Work/Sony). On his latest release, Dirt Floor (Messenger), Whitley has again stripped things to the bare essentials: voice, acoustic guitar, and a fresh batch of soulful, unselfconscious songs.
"When I started writing songs, I used to write the words first, and then put them to music. But now I'll start by humming rough melodic ideas into a Walkman, and then I'll listen back to try and hear what I'm getting at. It's different from the 'intentional' songwriting approach, where you pick a topic and then write about it. When you come at a song like that-with a presupposed literal intent-you block yourself, and your subconscious can't speak.
"When you pull something from your subconscious, however, you get visceral metaphors rather than literal or literary metaphors. It's not exactly a new idea. I think Talking Heads explored it on 'Remain in Light,' and Bowie was definitely making up lyrics and melodies on the spot when he recorded 'Scary Monsters.'
"That approach leaves you open to discover what really works on a soul level. For example, experienced writers often disregard simple chord progressions as boring. But sometimes a vocal melody can sit on top of a simple progression in a way that makes the song special. It goes beyong the literal meaning of the lyric or the catchiness of the hook to that elusive thing-I call it 'resonance'-that makes lullabies and gospel music so timeless.
"I also use subconscious writing as a way to connect with the listener because I think the stuff that resonates with people is pretty universal. It's like, how much can sex change in a couple of thousand years? Culture can change, but, on a soul level, people need the same things."