Blanco White: Building a World [Interview]

Interview with Blanco White

photos by Sequoia Ziff

“I arrived at a place I was sure I’d visited before, but knew I hadn’t.”

This is the kind of mystery that endlessly fascinates Josh Edwards, better known as Blanco White. Under this solo alias, he creates acoustic-based music with a breathtaking purity, his voice bleeding through with conviction, carving a delicate silhouette in the mist for each of his songs.

However, he gravitates towards mystery not just through sound and sentiment, but through the perpetually enigmatic pull of unfamiliar surroundings. As we speak, he’s two and a half weeks into a tour of North America, and in awe of the beauty of the west coast. “I’m definitely one of those people that feels happier in the sunshine,” he observes. “I’m very affected by the weather, I think. I’m in California at the moment, and it feels so good because the weather’s amazing, and the trees are different…it’s nice being in a place where you can watch the sun go down every night.”

London is home for him, but only by default. “I want to move as soon as possible,” he expresses. “If you’ve grown up somewhere, and lived there a long time, it can get a little suffocating. I feel much more energized when I’m in places like Spain.” And Spain has a special place in his heart, having studied guitar there before learning an Andean instrument called the charango in Bolivia. He’s taken these influences, among others, to fuse sonic pieces of various cultures together. The result is an unexpectedly effortless, entrancing blend, making diverse musical elements accessible to much a wider audience.

“The influences that were the bedrock of the project were Latin-American influences, and places like Bolivia, and the Andean region, and then Spain,” Josh details. “There were aspects of those traditions that felt particularly exciting to me, often centered around the rhythms and the instrumentation that I could experiment and play with. I don’t know how pragmatic it was - it was more [that I thought] it would be an interesting way of trying to create music. Inevitably, whatever you listen to growing up and the music that you’re brought up on is the foundation on which you’re going to write music anyway.”

As his songs utilize such elaborate kinds of stylistic choices, he breaks down one of his inspirations to make sense of it for us: flamenco. “Flamenco is astonishing in its complexity,” he explains. “It’s so complex, in fact, that [what] I take from it is often very subtle, and it’s only present in certain songs. The thing that makes it intriguing, and kind of interesting, is that the rhythm moves and changes - it’s very long. If you imagine a normal guitar song that you hear, [like] a folk tune from America or England, there’s a very straight 4/4 rhythm that underpins the song, and the chords move around that. In flamenco, there’s a play across 12 beats that is constantly changing, but still at the same time rooted within quite a firm structure. There’s a reoccurring theme that is the root, and everything else forms around that.” He notes specific artists, naming Camarón de la Isla as “the classic flamenco superstar of the 20th century”, and specifically mentioning how the piece “Potro de Rabia y Miel” exemplifies the rhythms he describes.

For Josh, though, it’s not just about incorporating these foreign musical qualities - there’s something riveting about traveling and being abroad in a larger context. “You end up reading different books, and the life feels different, the buildings are different…” But for writing, he prefers to revel in the sensation of nostalgia as opposed to the instant spark of the moment. “Often when you’re in those places you can feel inspired in some way, but it’s actually really when you get back home that you end up feeling inspired by them, because you’re suddenly exploring them in your own head and through memory. They almost take on a more intriguing and romantic space for you once you get back to normality. I was in Spain this winter for a few months, right at the bottom where you can [see Africa]. It’s a very, very beautiful part fo the world [that has] a real ancient history to it. When I was there, I was writing lots of music and sure, feeling inspired by the place, but it was really when I got home that I was taken back there every day when I was writing.”

The version of reality that he summons is always a little out of focus, as if viewing it through a fogged-up lens; a fantasy that listeners can be submerged in. “In the songs, you have an opportunity to build a world of some kind,” he muses. “That’s in the lyrics, but also in the arrangement and atmosphere. I like playing with surreal themes. I’ve written a song quite recently that’s about a place that feels weirdly familiar, but you know, you’ve never been there…In a way, that’s what I’m getting at, when things feel a little surreal, or if you’ve got a memory that’s a little blurry - making sense of that. That was what my song ‘Nocturne’ was about. It was a delirious memory when I was very exhausted - climbing a huge mountain - and it sort of was what that memory became in my mind.” The track, with fragile, stirring guitar strums, feels powerfully vulnerable, conjuring up images of the moon and the sea.

“I think when a song has that kind of shimmery feel to it, the way that light dances on water, I really like that atmosphere,” he says. And all of Blanco White’s music has perceptible touches of this liquid consistency, both conscious and unconscious. In his latest single, “Papillon”, he explores these depths even further through the song’s meaning and visuals.

“There’s a book called Papillon by Henri Charrière,” he relates. “A friend of mine passed away last year, and it was his favorite book - that’s why I ended up reading it. The song was very much written with my friend in mind, but it was really inspired by the book. Most of the story takes place surrounded by water, set in prison camps in the Caribbean. Javier, [the filmmaker who made the music video], and I talked a lot about the feel in the music, and there’s a real watery feel to the production and arrangement of the song, and that’s what I was trying to do there, because the story all happens surrounded by the sea. He really wanted to include that in the video. The protagonist in the video is in this big open space, but is meant to seem quite trapped.”

“Papillon” is just one taste of what’s to come on his debut album ‘On the Other Side’, set to release on April 3rd of next year. He feels that the process of making a larger body of work has been full-on, but in a good way. “I’m still in the midst of the recording process, but the writing has all been done for some time. It’s been exciting to try to do a full album because we’ve only done EPs to this point, and I was really desperate to take on that challenge. These days, you know, you’ve got to balance getting songs out there and making sure that people are engaged with your music, so it’s harder to set aside the time to apply yourself to a larger body of work. Perhaps I’m quite a slow songwriter and recorder; I like to take my time with things and try to get stuff really right. All of those little bits of crafting and mix and putting things in their right place are the main reasons why I love songwriting, so it’s really important to me.”

What’s different about the songs this time, when compared to his three EPs, which have accumulated over 120 million streams to date? “I’ve started the songs in a slightly different way,” he answers. “I’ve been trying to introduce another kind of tool with every writing period, a different moment in the song to try to keep stuff fresh. Before, I used to do more of the song first, and then start focusing on production, whereas this time I’ve probably done more production and arrangement and then started to get the song really clear after that.”

As it turns out, this tool that Josh speaks of isn’t exotic. When we ask what instrument he would choose to learn that he hasn’t already, he surprises us. “Aw, I think my answer’s probably going to be quite boring,” he laughs. Despite having the ability to include unique sounds like the charango, he’s fallen in love with bass guitar. “It’s more because I’ve been practicing it a lot more recently in the past 6 months, year I’d say. I feel like I’ve discovered a lot about it as an instrument, and it’s really changed the way I’ve written music. There’s something about the power you wield playing bass on stage, and there’s something very special about people who play the bass really well; it’s this mysterious thing that they’ve got, this intuitive feel that I think is very hard to learn.”

There are other surprises to expect on the album as well. “I have a track called 'Samara' that I really enjoyed writing,” he tells us. “It’s just a bit different and more funk-focused. I’ve been listening to a lot of African music from both sides of the Sahara. I think that’s been the biggest influence in the record that's moved beyond the more flamenco-focused and Andean-focused music that's been the heart of up until now. There’s some amazing Somali music from the ‘70s and ‘80s that’s mind-blowingly good, and that song is inspired by those musical traditions.” With a track dropping most likely in the next month, and another set to release around the new year, he’ll be revealing even more sides of his full-length debut before long.

And ‘On the Other Side’, a title he describes as an ambiguous “gateway phrase”, fits right in alongside his ideas for his music being a more comprehensive experience for listeners. “I’m really inspired by architecture and buildings, especially Southern-European architecture [that’s] often very surreal. Architects like Gaudí…what he did in Barcelona is really amazing, and there’s lots of fantasy in his buildings. It’s maybe there in the larger kind of world that I’m trying to create, that includes things like the artwork and the music videos…a dream-like world that people can hopefully step into.”

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