As part of the Civil Wars with songwriting and singing partner Joy Williams, John Paul White teetered near household name notoriety. The group toured with Adele, won four Grammys, wrote a song for “The Hunger Games” soundtrack with Taylor Swift and T. Bone Burnett, and had a track produced by Rick Rubin.
After its 2014 breakup, White retreated to his home in Muscle Shoals, Ala. where he lives with his wife and three kids and focused on producing other artists for his label, Single Lock Records. He even tried to dodge the songs he was writing in head, but ultimately gave in. Hence, “Beulah,” his first post-Wars solo album. Filled with stellar tracks like “Hope I Die,” “Fight for You,” and “I’ve Been Over This Before” (with the Secret Sisters), “Beulah” pulled White back to the road where he’s following a much simpler path this time around.
He plays Neighborhood Theatre Thursday. White spoke to the Observer Monday from Philadelphia.
Q: You took a long time off the road. How has it been?
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A: When I first started doing it, it felt super awkward and clumsy like tuning the guitar and talking to the crowd. Being away from the family has been tough, but I tend to go out and talk to people after shows as often as possible and when I do I feel like there is a connection going on and that helps the homesickness.
(The kids are) 14, 9 ,and 6. They’re a little more mature and able to handle me being gone. You don’t want them hanging on your leg begging you to come home but then you do.
Q: Why were you apprehensive to start writing again?
A: Every step I took toward those songs felt like a step away from the idyllic life I set up at home. I was so happy. A big part of me said, “Just don’t go near them. Leave the songs alone.” I’m obviously at peace with that and happy I didn’t now.
Q: Were you writing for yourself this time instead of with the idea of selling a song to another artist?
A: When I first started writing for the Nashville market I tried to write what I thought other artists wanted to record or what people wanted to hear. The day I decided this isn’t working, when I decided to please myself was when I started getting calls and getting cuts. In that sense it’s not a lot different. The only thing that was successful for me was being true to myself. Once I started doing that it started morphing into what I am now. I don’t know if I could go back.
Q: Most people know you from the Civil Wars. Is it like audiences are hearing you for the first time?
A: In a way. I made a solo record in 2007, but Capitol imploded about the time and it never really got out there. I put it on iTunes, I didn’t promote it. So yes, I think you’re correct and I’ve kind of approached it that way. I tried not to approach it from an angle of “Ya’ll know me. Remember me, buy this!” I’m trying to play smaller places. I know I’m not a baby band starting from scratch, but I’m trying to approach it like I am. I want to earn it.
Q: I read you didn’t take any merch that first tour back.
A: I didn’t want to walk in – “Hey, I’m back. Buy my stuff.” That seems disingenuous. We had a tour poster. So it wasn’t a completely barren merch table. This time I’ve got shirts, begrudgingly. It always feels egotistical to design a shirt for yourself. Who wants a shirt with my name on it? When you’ve got a band it doesn’t feel that weird.
Q: You’ve since worked with Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmy Lou Harris. Did you bring anything back from those experiences when you started on this project?
A: Definitely. The most concrete thing is something I was starting to do on my own. They don’t seem to do anything that doesn’t make them happy. They don’t play games or angles. They don’t do the requisite things that would just sell records. I am 1000 percent in agreement with that and that costs you in certain ways. Having a different mentality of what actually constitutes success – the way I look at it now is totally different. Being a part of something much bigger than myself. I learned what I did and didn’t want to do again.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday (oct20)
WHERE: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.