You can hear how rhythmic and churning your guitar playing is on recordings, but actually seeing you play at The High Watt last year drove home that you’re definitely not using standard picking or strumming techniques. Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that you were a drummer first?
I only started playing guitar, like, four years ago. So it’s still pretty new to me. I picked up the keys a little earlier, and I noticed with the keys I would play it like a drum kit. Like, I would just play the snare on my right hand. I’ve always been quite aware that I responded to music very rhythmically.
How young were you when you started playing drums?
I was 10 when I picked the drums up, which is young, but it’s not crazy young compared to some people. But I did start touring a year later, which was kind of crazy. I kinda got thrown into this collective of dancers and theater companies and played drums in a lot of these productions. It was all adults at the time.
So you were in a live band accompanying this performing group?
I acted in the performances too. … A lot of the performing arts stuff in Europe is quite different than in the States in that sense. When music is combined with theater, they’re not talking about like musicals.
In other words, it wasn’t Jesus Christ Superstar.
No, exactly. I’m almost embarrassed to bring it up, because I don’t want people to misunderstand. Yeah, that definitely was not the deal that I was in. But it was wild. It was a very international group of people. There were Chilean dancers and Argentine salsa dancers and breakdancers from New York. It was all kinds of people that were part of this, and then I would dance and sing too. It was quite avant-garde stuff. It wasn’t Broadway type of stuff.
And it would’ve been around that age that you added DJing to the dancing, acting and drumming.
Yeah [laughs]. That’s totally kind of absurd, I know. … The DJing thing, that came from the Museum of Modern Art in Belgium at the time. They were just opening a new division. And I guess because I’d been part of this collective, and I was the youngest kid, but somehow people knew that [laughing] I wasn’t the average 12 year old girl … the Museum of Modern Art, they knew that I had kind of a non-childlike interest in music and also had been exposed to a lot of music. I feel like now, looking back at it, initially it must’ve started on their end as almost a crazy art installation.
I remember having a meeting with them and them being like, “Have you ever thought of DJing?” I was like, “Uh, what is that?” But I did have a vinyl player. They asked me to do it for the opening reception, so I was like, “All right.” I was totally into it. And then it became a success. They asked me to become like the resident DJ. They would give these monthly dance parties. It’s so absurd to have an 11-year-old standing on a bunch of beer crates in the Museum of Modern Art DJing. It’s kind of surreal.
The only piece of your back story that would seem commonplace to people in Nashville is the fact that you spent time in the studio with your dad, Chris Whitley.
Of course. It’s nice to have that. And at the same time, especially in a lot of press stuff, I think because the rest of the story is really hard for people to comprehend, they just get fixated on this daughter-of thing, because it’s the easiest thing to grasp and relate to, I guess. But all of these other elements, the DJing and the dance companies, were a major part of my upbringing as well.
Those were formative experiences.
Definitely. And I think part of dropping out of school so early was because of that, was because I totally knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in fucking around. That’s really thanks to the collective. I didn’t see my dad much at all growing up.
Between those years and your current solo work, you were singing with a band assembled by Daniel Lanois, Black Dub. What was it like fronting a band in which everybody else was so much older and more established than you?
It was wild at first, because it was like Act II. So there was this period between the ages of 11 and 16 where I was always surrounded by these adults and touring professionally. And then I basically waitressed for almost six years in New York and just did the regular hustle in the city. I’d just turned 21 when I started working with Daniel. ... To have the thing that got me out of the waitressing shit be working with Daniel Lanois, it was really intimidating in the beginning. ... I was so excited because I did realize, “OK, this is some other chapter in my life that’s starting to open up now.” I was so grateful, but at the same time it was intense psychologically. I was just like, “What am I doing here?” ... It was tough in a lot of ways being this young female and them being such legends and then the expectations on the outside — that was a lot of pressure — and then all this business shit too. It was intense, but amazing. I’m so grateful for that.
When I saw you do your own stuff, my impression was that you were really tapping into something visceral in yourself as you sang and played. But you seemed sort of uncomfortable being onstage between songs. What is performing like for you?
It’s a weird dynamic. Writing music is such a different process than performing. I know that I actually can be a really good performer as well, because I have experience at [being an actress]. And I know that that’s something that I can do. But with my own music, with my own songs, it’s a really strange dynamic, because that never started out of an entertainment need, you know? That comes from a way deeper place than entertainment. In the musical world, I feel like some people are really good entertainers and others are musicians. Real musicians are not always the best entertainers. I mean, think of someone like Rihanna or Madonna. That’s pure entertainment. Not that one is better than the other. But as a writer, it comes kind of from this selfish need, initially, to just get something out.
So songwriting serves a cathartic purpose for you.
Yeah. But to then bring that to an audience, it just takes on this whole other dimension. I often feel so awkward. What I pray for so much in general is this sense of urgency, not only in music. … Even when I see kids dancing on the subway, when you see that sense of urgency, of fire. … It’s not rational at all. Tapping into that, while still sharing it with your audience. But yeah, there are these moments in between songs that are [awkward]. I just try to get back to that place. What I want to share with the crowd is kind of that sacred moment. But you can’t talk about it. I don’t know. I’m talking about it now, but I feel like the language of music allows me to express and share that the best that I can. And then in between songs, I just feel like it’s this jerk-off thing to start talking about [any old thing].
The melodies and lyrics you write, the way you play guitar, the way you use your voice: It all feels so untamed and emotionally raw. I’ve read interviews where the interviewer has clearly wanted to know, but almost been afraid to ask, whether you’ve experienced what’s in your songs. And really, how do you go from songs like that to banter?
Yeah, exactly. I would say lyrically, it’s definitely not all introspective. … On the emotional level, I realize more and more that I’m a total fucking anarchist when it comes to what my values are. … I’ve always been very rebellious. In terms of finding your identity as an artist and the message that you’re trying to convey, if there’s one thing, [for me it’s] this fearless state of tapping into real urgency, which is something that is so suppressed in our society. And I notice it at shows that people are intimidated or scared. Something is being offered to them that in our mainstream world is mostly being suppressed or sugarcoated with a lot of bullshit [laughs].
People have almost always had a harder time knowing what to do with a woman performer who doesn’t try to tame her expression, soften the blow, smooth the edges or make herself more palatable and pleasing.
I’ve fought with a lot of that in the last couple of years definitely with labels and all that. But I almost try to take it as a compliment that people have been so confused up until now. I try to. I can get really down on myself, but I try to take it as a compliment in a way that they’re just like, “What the hell is this?” [laughing] … I think allowing your female strength, your womanly strength to really be without it turning into this macho thing, so also being really vulnerable, [is what I try to do]. Because vulnerability is a major strength too, and I think it’s a very female aspect as well. It’s just so misunderstood.