In November of last year John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, performed an unexpected and low key set of brand new songs at The Moth Light in North Carolina. Accompanying White were The Secret Sisters who brought female harmonies and emotional echoes to the songs, and a small band consisting of a keyboardist/cellist and a steel guitarist
Joy Williams has already released her post-The Civil Wars album, Venus, an electro-pop conglomeration. Whereas White has been quieter and more reclusive of late, particularly concerning his own music. In the three years since the ending of the duo, he created the Muscle Shoals music label Single Lock Records with Alabama Shakes guitarist Ben Tanner; collaborated with Jason Isbell on ‘Old Flame’ and Candi Staton’s on ‘I Ain’t Easy to Love’; produced records for Lindi Ortega, Donnie Fritts and Dylan LeBlanc.
White played a number of new songs both beautiful and moving that clearly came from a very honest place of deep hurt and sadness. Among them was the intense and powerful ‘I Hope I Die Before I Do’; the quiet and subdued ‘The Once and Future Queen’; and the emotionally wrought and ambiguous ‘See If I Care’ that made not only the room go silent but also those whose hearts were brave enough to listen. Included in the set list was also ‘Simple Song’, which features on producer Dave Cobb’s compilation album Southern Family.
‘I Hope I Die’ is one of my favourite songs from the set and has continued to grow on me the more I listen to the words and the passion in White’s voice. The tension slowly builds with the hypnotic chorus, and White’s guitar playing that ever since The Civil Wars has always felt like an extension of White’s body and soul, and in this case it has never been more evident. The crescendo comes in the form of the lyrics,
“This is not a burn I want to chase/ This should be the last thing that I taste/ I will love again, I know I will/ But still, but still I hope I die/ I hope I die before I do”
The song perfectly captures that emotional place we all journey to after a relationship ends; just wanting the pain to end, and not being too bothered about how it does.
The Civil Wars were famous for their signature Southern gothic sound and their Leonard Cohen-esque pop sensibilities, a musical vein White continues with in the song ‘I Want to Make You Hurt’. The sleepy piano and the harmonies of White and The Secret Sisters are brought to the forefront of this song about wanting your lover to be suffering just as much as you are for not being together but also hoping deep down that maybe, just maybe, things could be different.
“Oh I want you to need me the way that I’m gonna need you/ Would it kill you to do some bleeding/ Just for a moment or two?/ I want to make you beg/ I’d like to hear you plead/ Tell me that thing’s could be different/ Tell me this ain’t gotta be?”
‘I’ve Been Over This’ was introduced as a country song, somewhat reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt and country songs of the ‘70s that all have that element of hopelessness and resignation running through them.
“I’ve been over this before/ Won’t come anywhere near your love/ It will break me like before/ There is nothing I’m sure of/ So as long as I may live/ I can never let you in/ I’ve been over this before/ Won’t get over it again/ I’ve been over you before/ Won’t get over you again.”
Trying to convince yourself that you will never be in that situation where you have to get over that person again and have made the decision to stay far away from them. But by the end of the song you’re not entirely convinced that he’s moved on. ‘I’ve Been Over This’ calls to mind George Jones’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, the story of a broken hearted man who can only get over his broken heart and lost love when he dies.
‘The Once and Future Queen’ is a song filled with conflict both with inwardly and outwardly with a ghost of a love, telling her it would never have worked out between them as you both wanted different things; she wanted a fairytale, an out of this world love affair where as he admits being unable to love her unconditionally and give her everything she desired. He also paints her as being a little selfish, of wanting someone to give her everything but not willing to give love in return.
“If I thought I was good for you/ If I thought this could work/ I’d reach a little higher and I’d pull you back to earth/ But the man you’re really looking for/ The one in all your dreams/ That someone, that someone won’t be me.”
‘See If I Care’ a sparse piano ballad with White’s guitar barely making an appearance, which says a lot already. Like all good song writing and lyricism, the song is ambiguous and all is not as it appears to be. The first verse suggests that despite what everyone is saying he longer cares for his long lost lover but as the song moves forward you begin to see little cracks appearing in his façade; that maybe he does care. By the end of the refrain it is obvious that he still cares for her, and wishes she was there to see him do so.
“You’re at my door wanting to hold me/ I’ve moved on and you are not really there/ Just come on in see if I care/ Come on in and see if I care”
After writing down the lyrics, I couldn’t shake that some of the songs read as if they were written for two voices not one; a conversation with a ghostly female figure rather than a monologue. ‘Someone Won’t Be Me’ where he’s talking to another person, and ‘See If Care’ where by the end it’s obvious he is having a conversation with a memory.
By merely listening to the songs it is crystal clear the reason White has been silent for so long; hearts break in private.
NB: White never introduced the song titles during the set so these are working titles only. He also remained allusive as to whether a forthcoming album was part of his musical plans.
To keep abreast of all things John Paul including tour dates for which he has two at the Ryman, check out his new website.