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Jack White On Detroit, Beyoncé And Where Songs Come From

Jack White's latest album is  <em>Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016</em>.
Courtesy of the artist
Jack White's latest album is Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016.

Between his bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, as well as his more recent solo work, Jack White has won 12 Grammy awards and sold millions of albums. The through-line of his work has always been a big electric blues sound, but his latest album, released this week, strips all that away.

White joined weekends on All Things Considered to chat with guest host Ray Suarez about Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016, a 26-track compilation of new and old songs performed on acoustic guitar — and about some of his more notable collaborations and business ventures. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited version.

Ray Suarez: You've had a long and prolific career — I guess it makes sense that the album is so massive. How did you decide what you wanted on there? Are these your favorites?

Jack White: We had a list that was, I think, three hours long, and just kept whittling it down to things that made more sense and were more, straight up, from me. It was sort of an idea to put together a record to show where all these things begin, you know? A lot of these songs begin on piano, they begin on acoustic guitar, in a room by yourself somewhere — and then you bring them to wherever you go. If you're part of a band at that time, or you're part of the production of an album, then they become part of a bigger picture. But they start off as one person in a room.

So that I understand this: Everything on this album was already cut as acoustic? Or were there some things that you looked back at and thought, "I could do this unplugged and it would sound pretty good"?

Well, I wanted a record that would showcase songwriting throughout the years, and the acoustic angle was the best way to go about that, to get away from the "Jack White as an electric guitar player" thing. Initially I thought this could be just all the studio recordings over the years. But then I started finding certain things — say, a Raconteurs song that I wrote called "Carolina Drama," which started on acoustic guitar and turned into a full-band thing with organ and acoustic guitar and drums and electric bass. I thought: Well, why don't we strip that back and take those elements out, and let people hear the way it started off?

Does a song have to have a stronger spine, a stronger skeleton, when it's stripped down to voice and guitar? When you don't have all that other stuff going on?

Yeah, I think sometimes we would — especially songs in The White Stripes, they could only be electric because it was a two-piece band and some things just didn't work. It's not a vibe of, "I'm going to re-record all these songs unplugged, on a stage in front of people." It's just — I've never done a compilation before. It was an experiment for me, to see if I liked the idea. And as it was coming along, it did start to sound like its own album to me.

You're a well sought-after collaborator — across a couple of genres, too, from Loretta Lynn to Beyoncé. What do you look for when choosing a project like that, or when people come looking for you?

I have to be able to feel like I can bring something to the table. There's been some incredible offers at times to produce an album, and you know it would be a No. 1 record — but at the same time I felt like: Well, I just don't think I can bring anything to the table for that person. I have to be able to feel like I can help bring the best out of them. That's your job as a producer.

You're a business partner with Jay Z in his Tidal streaming service as well. Is that how Beyoncé got the idea of coming over and ringing your bell?

You know, I just talked to her and she said, "I wanna be in a band with you." [Laughs.] I said, "Really? Well, I'd love to do something." I've always loved her voice — I mean, I think she has the kind of soul singing voice of the days of Betty Davis or Aretha Franklin. She took just sort of a sketch of a lyrical outline and turned into the most bodacious, vicious, incredible song. I don't even know what you'd classify it as — soul, rock and roll, whatever. "Don't Hurt Yourself" is incredibly intense; I'm so amazed at what she did with it.

I want to talk a little bit about Detroit, because it's so tied to your identity. You're famously from there, but you're now living in Nashville.

Yeah, I moved to Nashville about 10, 11 years ago and we started Third Man Records' headquarters there. We now have a second location in Detroit. And what's more important right now is, we're currently building a brand-new pressing plant in Detroit connected to that location, so it'll be the first time in a record store you can look through a window and see the records being pressed in the back.

You've been a champion of vinyl, and continuing to put recorded music on vinyl. For people who've grown up in a post-vinyl world, what are they missing? What was great about being able to drop a needle on a record?

Well, Ray, I'd like to be known as the czar of vinyl if you don't mind [laughs]. I always think it's beautiful to look at something mechanically moving, and I think you're more involved in it. I think when you look at a campfire, you feel blessed, and you don't know why you're staring at it and why you feel so involved. Yes, you can play things on computers and you can lip synch, and people can still get something out of it. But you're more involved when you see mechanics and you see things turning.

Well, every czar needs an empire — and by putting an imperial outpost back in Detroit, putting the factory there, are you kind of saying to your hometown, "Look, no hard feelings? I'm back; don't be mad at me!"

Oh, there was never — you know, Detroit is a tough, blue-collar city. It's in the rust belt; all those towns are tough. So being an artist in those towns, it's not like you're in the south of France in a field of poppies or whatever. You're in a working town, and I worked hard in those towns. It's about building things and letting people see things being really made in a town that has always been known for creating and crafting beautiful mechanics. As it says on the flag of Detroit, it says in Latin, "We hope to rise from the ashes." And I think that's probably the most prophetic phrase on any flag in the country.

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