“Team-building—I’m working on team-building.” Trixie Whitley is briefly at home in Greenpoint, on a hiatus from touring to support Fourth Corner, her first full-length album, and is spending it searching for a replacement drummer for the next leg. Headaches like these use up your time, but Whitley seems to be embracing it as emblematic of a new phase. Having lived through a period of routinely being the youngest person in rooms full of luminaries, Whitley is now driving the bus. “This record is the beginning of what feels to me like a long journey that’s going to unfold,” she says, earnestly and unguardedly. It seems like destiny to her that the dots connected to land her here. Her path to this moment has been episodic, each pivot point a mark on a map.
Whitley’s parentage had a lot to do with it. Trixie’d be rich if she had a dollar for every time her name was mentioned with the parenthetical “daughter of the late, great Chris Whitley.” Whitley père, who passed away from lung cancer in 2005, was often termed a “Texas bluesman,” and though he was born and buried there, the truth was more complex: the son of artists, he was to see life from many sides.
While never a household name, Chris was esteemed among musicians on two continents, his artistic and intellectual curiosity bridging a divide that reached from Howling Wolf to Jean Cocteau. After a time in New York exploring the music scene, he settled in Belgium in his 20s, where he met, performed with, and married Trixie’s mother Hélène, herself from bohemian roots. When Whitley received his big break, releasing Living with the Law on Sony Records in 1991, his young family was living in Manhattan. But as the marriage faltered, Hélène and Trixie returned to Belgium. For Trixie, however, the seeds had been sown.
It is not uncommon for only children to haunt the fringes of the adult world in a way their sibling’d peers don’t. The months Trixie would spend with her dad when visiting New York were peppered with hours recording in the studio and performing together. She was christened D.J. Tadpole and became her father’s companion on stage whenever the opportunity arose. Had you seen one of those shows, most at highly regarded New York venues, you would have witnessed a very small girl singing with her father’s band as if there was nothing unusual about it. No hesitation, no self-consciousness: the drive was clearly there.
Trixie credits her parents with essentially getting out of her way. “I was lucky in my upbringing in that I was really given the opportunity to flesh out my path,” she recalls. “I always knew what I was going to do. It’s not necessarily a choice to be an ‘artist.’ What does it mean to say that? Nothing really. It puts you in one more box people like to think in. But it is who you are.”
And that was what time revealed. At age 10 Trixie took up the drums as an instrument. At 11 she began touring with an avant-garde theater group, and at 14 with the dance company Les Ballets C de la B as an actor, singer, dancer, and musician. During this same period she also became a D.J., spinning at raves, festivals, and parties in Brussels, Paris, New York, and Amsterdam. Trixie quit school at age 17 to move to New York City, as had her dad, and worked as a waitress in Brooklyn and Queens while starting to perform her own music in clubs throughout the city. After returning to Belgium in 2005 following the death of her father, she persisted with her writing. Her EP Strong Blood was recorded in the spring of 2008, produced by Meshell Ndegeocello and the revered drummer Dougie Bowne.
It is not a bad thing to be a wunderkind, but precocious as Trixie had always been, it was not a role she could play forever. The next episode of her apprentice years would be the last. After attending a show by Canadian singer/songwriter/producer Daniel Lanois, at the prompting of her mother she handed him a copy of Strong Blood. When he called a few months later and described a band he was trying to establish that would involve singing in harmony, she was excited about meeting to listen to the material.
That it was Lanois who had discovered her father was not a negligible circumstance, and in fact there is a word—mortmain—that describes the weight of the past on the present. But if Trixie was troubled by this, it was more than countered by the chance to work with artists the caliber of Lanois, drummer Brian Blade, and bass player Daryl Johnson. Lanois has partnered with Brian Eno and produced albums for U2, Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, and Robbie Roberts, simultaneously releasing numerous solo albums. Brian Blade has been a member of Wayne Shorter’s quartet since 2000 and has recorded with Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithful, and Herbie Hancock. Johnson, of course, replaced Bill Wyman as bass player for the Stones.
In the end the chemistry was right, Trixie signed on, and within months Black Dub was in the studio. Upon release, the self-titled album was received very favorably, and suddenly Trixie’s name was on everyone’s lips. She was 18, with a well of expressive talent and a huge voice. Critics likened her to Joss Stone, the soulful English contralto also prone to bluesy vocal gymnastics, who had broken big a few years earlier (and who likewise had recently joined a mega-band, SuperHeavy, with Dave Stewart, Damian Marley, and Mick Jagger). But for Trixie, being just the singer in the group left her hungry for more. “At the time I think Dan thought I was the missing link, but I was just the singer. Dan was the leader of the band. We were his tools. In the end, though, I think he saw there was more to me than just my vocal abilities.”
To Whitley, that kind of compartmentalization was hard to tolerate. Moving forward, her commitment to serving her many-pronged muse has only become more emphatic. As she is quick to acknowledge, “because of my performance background and my upbringing, it’s been pretty challenging for people to understand me. But I choose to stick to my guns with my vision: It’s harmony, it’s rhythm, it’s melody. The philosophy of this record is really marrying all these influences, staying as true as I possibly can to the core of what I do, and just trimming all the fat on every level I possibly can. I’m really excited because I’ve come to a point where I have this rhythmic luggage and I got to just use it, but I also have this melodic/harmonic—ya know—gift.”
This plays out on Fourth Corner in a variety of ways. Unlike the Black Dub tracks, Whitley’s songs glide but they don’t swing. Dense and intense, they swirl with undercurrents. The production by Thomas Bartlett, also called Doveman—a pianist who has produced and collaborated with a number of Brooklyn musical institutions, from Chocolate Genius to the National—indulges the breadth of Whitley’s interests and abilities, covering lots of ground. Periodic low-tuned guitar lines eerily echo the music of her father, but the songs’ quirky and distinctive, clanking and complex rhythmic armatures, sometimes anchored by a dorkball ’70s drum machine, as well as the sonic nods to other cultures, particularly North Africa, provide an exoticism that is all Trixie’s own. “I get moved by those kinds of counterrhythms,” she says. “They do have a dance-y quality, but at the same time the driving theme is kind of swampy.”
The lead tracks “Irene” and “Never Enough” have found a home on the airwaves, but the more intriguing songs on the album are the last three. One part hope to two parts loss, the beautiful “Morelia” is intimate yet executed with a light touch. “Oh the Joy,” with just vocals and guitar, highlights the nimble and expressive instrument that is Whitley’s voice.
When asked which song pleases her most, Whitley names the title track. “Fourth Corner” embodies, she says, the fruition of all her concerns, both musical and conceptual, that underlie the album. For Whitley, the fourth corner is the one on the path where you turn and suddenly you’re facing a new beginning. As she discusses the song’s merits, it is immediately clear that part of what she values is its visual qualities. She owns up to being synaesthetic, the neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
Whitley reveals that she perceives music visually.
I totally do, yes so much, very much. It’s really awkward for me to talk about it. I see it in color but also diagrams and shapes and stuff. The image of the four corners, what it means to me is full-circle. It’s all connected, and I don’t want to be confined to anything other than the belief that everything is connected. I strongly believe that it is possible to produce something that is coherent while allowing all these aspects to just be.
This does not happen, however, without a struggle. The demons of self-doubt she has wrestled with, she claims, “are destructive to creativity,” and she has pushed herself to “step up” to her own insecurities.
There are so many ways to express a full vision. I feel almost responsible to myself to do it. I have a strong need to express myself in multiple ways. Maybe for the first time I’m trying to acknowledge my talents instead of run away from them or destroy them. I have a tendency to be almost condescending to my own work, and I’m never satisfied. This stuff would always come to me, but, even with Dan, it was like, “Why me?’ I haven’t valued my own power in a way. I think it is super-necessary to always stay critical, but it’s a healthy thing to acknowledge your talents. It’s a study in love and it comes back to the art of living. Not to sound all hippyish or whatever, but you need to feel true love within your core towards the littlest things in life—your plants, your cooking, your work. In the grander scheme of things, I want to go the fullest in all ways.