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What we learned from Jack White’s first interview behind Lazaretto

on May 21, 2014, 9:50am

Jack White bestowed NPR’s All Songs Considered with the first interview behind his new album, Lazaretto. Speaking with Bob Boilen, White made several revelations over the course of the 30-minute interview. Among them, the severe case of writer’s block he experienced while penning the album’s lyrics, the meaning of the album’s title, and how he is still recording new music even as the album is nearing its release.

You can read the transcript or listen to the whole interview at NPR. The interview also includes snippets of several album tracks, including “High Ball Stepper”, “Lazaretto”, “Temporary Ground”, and “Want and Able”, at NPR. We’ve pulled out some highlights which you can peruse below.

On his writer’s block: White revealed that he didn’t write lyrics for the music for “seven or eight months” after it was recorded. “I’d become disconnected with the music. [It was hard] to start thinking about what stories make sense and what characters can be involved in this… I had never been in this position before, because I had never worked on an album this long before. So I was getting very frustrated with the idea of, “Oh my God, I can’t imagine sitting down and trying to sing to this song, because now it’s someone else’s song. I have to pretend it’s someone else’s, and I have to cover this song, and collaborate with them.”

How “one-act plays and poems” wrote when he was 19 helped end the blockage: Though the writings “weren’t very good”, White found some inspiration in them. “And then I thought, before I [throw these way], why don’t I pull some of these characters out, some of these names, some of these sentences, and work with them? And I did. And it became a way to collaborate with my younger self… I’m going to collaborate with a 19-year-old version of me, which is half my age. I have experience now. What would I be telling myself how to do? If I could go back and say, “No, this is how you write a song. This is how you work with metaphors. Try it like this.” So that became the way I got out of that bind.”

On the Spanish in the first verse of “Lazaretto” The rhyme is about “the braggadocio of some hip-hop lyrics,” except “the character who’s singing this song is bragging about himself… about real things he’s actually accomplished and real things that he actually does, not imaginary things or things he would like to do. Because sometimes you see people who, they sing from the heart, but they haven’t done anything, you know?” So why the Spanish? “You can’t sing a lyric like “I work hard.” You can’t get away with saying it. So I had to change it to Spanish: “Yo trabajo duro.” “I work hard, like in wood and plaster.” There’s sort of a triple meaning, that wood and plaster are hard surfaces — as in a painter who “works in oils.” It’s sort of bad Spanish, because you wouldn’t say como [to mean] “as in.””

What a Lazaretto is, anyway: “It’s a word for a quarantine hospital, or a quarantine island, or something like that. It’s a beautiful-sounding word, too, “lazaretto” — coming from Lazarus, I guess.”

Why that’s the title of the album:  “[The title track] is the only thing I that I really put in the album of my own personality. There’s also a song called “That Black Bat Licorice,” where I talk about being confined, a prisoner in a hospital. That really is me, personally. My sort of fantasy that I have is, I wish that some other forces, some powers that be, would push me into this scenario for a month and lock me somewhere, instead of me doing it to myself all the time. I’m always imposing restrictions on myself. And so I guess my fantasy is, it would be so nice to be in a quarantine hospital, but not to die from it — just to know that I had to stay here for two months and I can’t do anything else.”

On that “oooo-waoooo” sound in “High Ball Stepper” “This was an idea I had had before we started playing in the studio — I gave this steel guitar player, Maggie Björklund, a “backwards pedal” that takes whatever you put into it and plays it backwards.. She was messing around with it, and by the time she had done that, [fiddler] Lillie Mae [Rische] was tuning up… and she made some sound effect while she was tuning up, and it sounded something like [makes screeching sound]. That thing you’re hearing. I was playing a guitar, and I kept thinking of that little phrase. So I asked her and Ruby [Amanfu], the vocalist, to make that sound effect together while we were playing this song, and so it became something very grandiose, very fast.”

He continues to record new music: “My band’s in town. We’re rehearsing to go play shows. But today we’re taking a break and we’re just going to record things today. Sometimes you just have to get caught up. When you start playing together and rehearsing, you come up with ideas, and then at some point you have to take a day [and say], “Huh, I want to record a few things because I keep thinking of new ideas now that we’ve been playing music all day long every day.” You take a break and record. I think it’s good for me to capture some of that stuff before I forget about it.”

In the rest of the interview, White talks about his his inspirations for the album, memory rituals, his problem with throwing out bad ideas in favor of good ones, and his favorite coincidences. Check it all out at NPR.

Lazaretto arrives June 10th via Third Man Records. Below, listen to the lead single/title track.

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