CHRIS WHITLEY Live At Martyrs' BLUES MARTYR Chris Whitley Makes Blues His Own Way Texan guitarist, singer, and songwriter Chris Whitley left home and headed for New York City when he was just 17. His music reflects that dramatic life change with a sound that seeps deep into the blues and folk music of the rural South, then gushes up rich and dark like a raging avant-garde oil well. His recordings have ranged from the bluesy folk rock of LIVING WITH THE LAW, to the frightening psychedelic sounds of DIN OF ECSTASY. Then, when Whitley lost his major label deal with Columbia, he settled into two solo recordings -- DIRT FLOOR and LIVE AT MARTYRS -- that didn't sacrifice the range of his previous work. Whitley's pen and voice are at home with both rage and beauty. Barnes&noble.com's Roberta Penn caught up with the enigmatic performer between phone calls with record companies. Though he may not be with a major label, Whitley's career is far from over. Barnes & Noble.com: For the first time, I really caught the lyrics to "New Machine" on LIVE AT MARTYRS. The song is kind of thrilling, but it's also chilling, atleast from a woman's point of view. Where does that vision of a woman as a machine come from? Chris Whitley: I've often felt misunderstood when I use a relationship as a kind of metaphor in writing. Really, this song is inspired by my feeling like the media is running our culture, and because I'm a guy, I'm using a woman as the highest thing that shouldn't be messed with. I'm not really into political songs unless you really feel it, and I can sing it and mean it a lot of the time if it's a "her"' or a "you." It's not about a woman. My imagery is abstract while most of the lyrics in pop and folk music are kind of literal. bn: Does that also go for "The Model," another song that is a devastation of some women? CW: I look at it as the opposite. I hear a lot of women and my mom complain about the media looking to models as icons. I am not attracted to that picture- perfect young woman at all, and that's what the song is about. It is dark as hell, but I feel that this song, which I wrote 20 years ago, is more pertinent now "Poison Girl" has also been misunderstood. I grew up with a sculptor mom (a single mom) hearing her side of things a lot. I don't want to approach songs intellectually. It's hard to get away from the loneliness thing with a woman because it's kind of a spiritual springboard. It's also trying to be honest and get at something poetic. Aesthetically, the men-with-guitars image has been used up. bn: I remember seeing you at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the year that Hendrix was inducted, and you looked out of place among all those lawyers and record executives in suits. CW: I just felt like shocked. I was sitting with Sony exec Tommy Mottola and was flattered by being invited. But I felt frustrated with the industry: How saturated our culture is with the thousand records that come out each week, how hard it is to get on the radio, and the low-attention spans. It makes you doubt your most fundamental values. bn: Were you distraught when the Columbia deal ended? CW: I related like a homeless guy with no place to go in this corporate world. It had been coming for a couple of years because they had a harder and harder time marketing me, and I had a harder and harder time fitting into the image. I'm not blues or country particularly. I just want to be a creative artist. With the lack of support I'd gotten from them, I was completely doubting myself. I've never been like, massively confident, and I wrote DIRT FLOOR floor just to ground myself, and it wound up selling more than my last two Columbia records. bn: Do you want to record more rock-oriented albums with bands? CW: Yeah, I still feel like that, but I don't feel like rock stuff. I want it to be more about singing and the groove of it. I love to play guitar but I see that as my personal problem. I'd love to do stuff where I just sang. I have the tendency to hide behind a guitar. I grew up with Hendrix and Zeppelin but I never really played it. Now what's coming out is ballads. I think they are more positive but intimate. I think that's what is needed now, especially from men, to be as vulnerable as possible. And sometimes being quiet can me more intense and vulnerable. bn: Are you looking for a label where you can do that with a band? CW: I actually have another record coming out. It's with Martin and Wood of Medeski, Martin & Wood. It's covers of ballads. I just play national and acoustic guitar and sing. It's titled, PERFECT DAY, after the Lou Reed song I did. And last week, I was in L.A. doing the soundtrack for a movie with John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper with the guys from Nine Inch Nails. It's a sensitive guy mafia movie and the directors wanted the music to have a kind of hard and warm vibe like the film. bn: A lot of blues fans claim you as their own but neither of your two recent CDs have the blues feel of the earlier ones. CW: I grew up on Johnny Winter, and that's why I got into the National. But I was more into the rural electric blues, like Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'" and the one-chord sound of early John Lee Hooker. And Elmore James, it's not about the guitar though, I love his singing. I never related to blues on any stylistic level, and it doesn't interest me anymore because it seems to have not been vital to me since Jimi Hendrix. bn: What about songwriters? CW: My parents are visual artists, and I like visual imagery. Hendrix and Dylan are icons to me. I was really into them and still listen to them, more Dylan now. bn: What else are you listening to now? CW: I like the last Tricky record, the new D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and I listen to MY FAVORITE THINGS from Coltrane. Also TLC, I have a 12-year old daughter, and that's what she likes.