Making music was the New Jersey-born White’s destiny from the very beginning. In fact, music ran in his blood – his parents played violin and piano, while his grandmother was among the first female jazz orchestra leaders of the 1930s. White studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music from the tender age of 3, training in classical performance, music theory and later, jazz improvisation. He quickly displayed a precocious talent for arrangement and composition, at 11 penning an opera which saw him winning a prestigious Metropolitan Opera competition.
“To be honest, I never really excelled at any of it,” White says. “It was more like I spoke on the piano. Music was my way of articulating myself.”
After high school, White attended the University of Wisconsin, where he taught himself to play guitar, mostly for expediency’s sake – “I couldn’t fit a piano in my college room,” he laughs. He returned to NYC upon graduation and began playing with a variety of local bands, indulging his passion for live musical performance on a nightly basis. More significantly, he started taking his guitar to Washington Square Park, jamming with street musicians and singing his songs for passers-by. The experience proved more of an education than all his years in academia.
“That’s where I really learned my skills,” he says. “It was so free, so liberating. I was the youngest kid there. It was mostly me and all these street people, ex-drug addicts and people like that. But they were also really talented. The Village is incredible – you really feel the spirit of Dylan and all the Sixties folk singers when you’re playing there.”
Proudly inspired by the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll – Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin – as well as idiosyncratic tunesmiths like Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, White’s songwriting and unique pick-free playing soon came into full flower. Before long, he was filling New York clubs like Joe’s Pub and the Living Room, a local success that soon spread like wildfire via the net, with his myspace page – www.myspace.com/mattwhitemusic – logging a remarkable following over 20,000 strong.
It wasn’t long before White flew to Los Angeles in search of a deal. Making his very first visit to Geffen HQ, he literally entered the building guitar in hand, singing his songs to everyone he met, from security guards and receptionists to the label’s top executives. “People were like, ‘Who is this kid?’” he recalls, “but it was what I needed to do. I couldn’t just walk in there and take it out of the case – I needed to feel my guitar in my hands.”
Signed within days, White set to work at Hollywood’s Henson Recording Studios, with legendary producer Thom Panunzio (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop) at the helm. When the sessions wrapped, White knew he’d largely nailed it, but still felt the need to push himself even further. He continued writing and recording demos, eventually teaming up with renowned producer/mixer Jack Joseph Puig (John Mayer, the Black Crowes, Sheryl Crow), whose involvement provided just the spark White was hoping for.
“Jack was able to give it the kind of mysterious quality I was looking for,” White says. “Not only does he have an amazing ear, he has a team of unbelievable musicians that he works with. I was so grateful to have these people around me, helping me do what I needed to do to get it done.”
White’s studio labors were indeed well warranted. Do You Believe is positively breathing with infectious melodies and lively rhythms, all made indelible via White’s imaginative guitar-playing and vocal stylings, which veer from intimately conversational to soaring falsetto. From the joyous “New York Girls” to the spirited “Play,” the album serves as an aural history of White’s life thus far, touching on themes of love and loss and longing that ultimately become powerful representations of the collective emotions which touch all our lives. One of the album’s highpoints, “Love” – featured in the 2005 film, Little Manhattan – is about “how crazy and stupid and silly and kind of absurd the whole game is.”
“They’re stories,” he explains, “but they’re also autobiographical. In a way, it’s like keeping a diary. I think I define myself through the songs.”
With Do You Believe complete, White is itching to get back to his big love – playing live. His first order of business upon finishing the album was to put together a crack band with whom he says he’d ideally be playing “30 shows in 30 days.” Having spent much of the last two years in the studio, Matt White is now ready to bring his beautiful music to the wide world outside.
“I want to tour for the next two or three years,” he says. “I don’t want to stop until I can sell out Madison Square Garden. I know that sounds crazy, but after all the ups and downs, I think I really made a great, unique-sounding album and now I just want to play it for as many people as I can.”