Listen to this track by Virginian singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger, and indie label-owner Michael E. White. It’s “Take Care My Baby”, a cut off of his 2015 platter Fresh Blood.
That’s right; I used the word “platter”. I suppose this is because of the distinctly old-school feel to White’s music, and his approach to making it. Forming Spacebomb records in 2011, the approach that sixties and early seventies soul labels took seems to have been a template. In part, this meant the formation of a house band to back incoming clients putting out their own records. Americana singer Natalie Prass was a recent recipient of White’s expertise with her record drawing comparisons with Dusty In Memphis. Yet, White’s first client was himself.
White’s musical interests are wide, playing in rock bands (The Great White Jenkins), and angular big band jazz ensembles (Fight The Big Bull) with aplomb. His success with his debut record under his own name Big Inner created yet another musical stream for him; silky soul music through an indie rock filter. This song in particular is full of orchestral grandeur that conjures the work of The Chi-lites, The Spinners, and The Delfonics. How did this music come out of a guy who kind of resembles Jesus’ bookish brother-in-law? Part of the reason may be that, like the gospel-blues singers of yesteryear, White and Jesus do have something of a history.
Michael E. White was a missionary kid, spending of a chunk of his childhood in the Phillipines and in Japan. This placed him in the unique position of being an American kid who stood outside of America looking back in. This had to have had an impact on his consumption of pop music and his perspective on the culture that fed it. I think this is what empowers this music White has made, which ignores the cultural divides by which genres tend to be governed. When these are cast aside in the most honest way possible, the “rules” about who makes what kind of music tend to be cast aside, too. What’s left just sounds like pure celebration, without the subconscious cultural baggage about what “white music” and “black music” should be.
With this tune, White’s voice is a heated whisper, with sumptuous strings, brass, and delicate backing vocals shoring it up. The roots of this song is clearly in the spectrum of early seventies soul music, complete with sonorous brass and gossamer strings. Yet, there is something thoroughly modern about this song, too. Maybe this is the best thing about it; that is seems to embody the idea that musical textures don’t really have dates on them in the innate sense, even if the associations we have with them do. Lyrically speaking too, the carnality found in a lot of R&B is mellowed and offset by the sophistication of lush arrangements that suggest the song is concerned with more than just the physical, even with a line like “I’m pumpin’ fresh blood for you”.
Like the classic relationship between gospel music and soul, this song too blurs the lines between the erotic and the spiritual. This could be a love letter or a prayer. Every line in the song leaves it entirely up to us as the listener, but for the “ain’t nothing healing like the human touch”. In that, I think this song is also about a sense of belonging, suggesting a sense of common purpose between people, too.
Besides the clear soul and gospel roots found here, the method of its delivery is just as churchy; a group of people with common beliefs coming together to celebrate. In this, we’re reminded that making music together is something of a spiritual act of creation as much as a physical act, and one that springs out of a sense of community. To gather a house band and make it the fulcrim of a label is a tried and true method to success, particularly with American music. But, maybe it’s that very method that made the music what it is to begin with.
For more about Michael E. White, his background, and his approach to making music, take a read of this article from The Guardian, published around the time his first album Big Inner came out.