By bringing the past into the future, Jack White has changed the way we experience music.
When we think of the artists who revolutionized the rock music industry, we often harken back to the artists of yesteryear. Jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane influenced rockers like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, who in turn paved the way for the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Their classic sounds produced entire generations of copycats who churned out hit after hit, only to be replaced by the next big thing. For a while, it felt like originality was dead. Then came Jack White.
Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, White (née John Anthony Gillis), has always been something of an enigma. Though known for his unconventional, slap-you-in-the-face guitar riffs, he grew up listening to classic country and blues, including the Stooges, Son House, Captain Beefheart, Charley Patton and Loretta Lynn.
The White Stripes, the two-piece band of White and his ex-wife, Meg, was a product of these influences. Their sound, a blend of blues and punk, was refreshingly honest, and its popularity quickly spread outside of the Midwest, though it wasn’t until their fourth album, Elephant, that they reached true critical acclaim, thanks to “Seven Nation Army.”
The hit, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 2004, was thunderous and addictive. Soon the brooding bass line could be heard all over the globe, from band classrooms in the U.S. to football stadiums in Italy.
“Jack White and the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ has been a huge inspiration for us,” Chris Mariotti, leader and band manager of the band Edgar Allan Poets, told Crixeo. “That incredible bass line has made history and is now one of the most sung stadium chants in the world.… That’s how the genius of Jack was able to spread and inspire people.”
Jessica Jones, a music teacher, agreed, saying the “minimalist”-meets-blues style “inspired me to start writing my own music…. I actually learned how to play [upright] bass and sing at the same time using ‘Seven Nation Army,’ which I would play incessantly.”
The single was just the beginning, though. While still performing with the White Stripes, White formed the Raconteurs in 2005 with Brendan Benson and the Greenhornes’ Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. Four years later, White and Lawrence joined forces with Alison Mosshart (the Kills and Discount) and Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) to form the Dead Weather.
From there, White released three solo albums: Blunderbuss (2012), Lazaretto (2014) and his most recent, Boarding House Reach (2018), which launched him to the top of the Billboard Artist 100 chart in April.
Though each project has been different, there’s something so undeniably Jack White about all of his work. It’s punchy, it’s diverse, and it keeps you craving more.
For Daniel Aaronson, guitarist for El Metate, White’s success stems from his willingness to experiment with genres “from punk to metal, to folk, to blues, to jazz, to funk” and the company he keeps. “He always surrounds himself with the best of the best, but he picks from such wide varieties of backgrounds, from having an all-female group of some of the best female musicians on the planet [who work with him on Blunderbuss and Lazaretto]…to having some really incredible funk and jazz musicians,” Aaronson said. “On his new record, he has this awesome keyboard player, Neal Evans, who is not the most popular guy by any means but is very well known in smaller circles for playing in the jazz/funk bands Lettuce and Soulive. But on this album, Neal is utilized in such a cool way that incorporates his jazz/funk elements into this folk/punk/rock vibe that is so fascinating.”
White admitted in a USA Today interview that he’s not concerned about fitting any specific mold: “I make my own rules, and I get to break them if I want to.”
It’s that mentality, the resistance to fall under a rigid label, that’s allowed him to work with such an eclectic group of musicians, included Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Danger Mouse, Beck, Alicia Keys and Bob Dylan. He even wrote and sang “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with Beyoncé for her Lemonade album.
His eccentric tastes are evident in most aspects of his life. A 2017 profile in the New Yorker described White as “boss, bandmate, producer, project supervisor, businessman, pragmatist, and idea man.” When he’s not producing albums for others or working on his own music, White might be bouncing between Nashville, where he lives currently, and Detroit, where he’ll always have his roots. In both locations, he’s opened storefronts for Third Man Records. The colors — yellow and black — pay homage to his days running his business, Third Man Upholstery, where he breathed life back into old pieces of furniture.
In a way, you could argue White never hung up his work gloves; he now just works with a different set of tools — like guitars, mandolins and top-of-the-line vinyl printing presses. Last year, he took his commitment to creating quality-sounding music to the next level and opened Third Man Pressing, where his staff operates the equipment manually to ensure that every record gets the attention it deserves.
Rob Janicke, co-owner and founder of SoundEvolutionMusic, chose to print artist Hayley Richman’s vinyl record through Third Man because he knew White “wasn’t going to open a plant without it being as close to perfect as possible.”
“[White’s] trailblazing a path that’s uniquely his own,” Janicke said. “He’s a real champion of vinyl records…. I honestly believe that without White’s passionate preaching of all things vinyl that the growth in its popularity over these past 13 years or so wouldn’t have garnered the attention it has.”
He has a point: White loves talking about the merits of vinyl.
“A big part of this resurgence in vinyl is reverence — that should be you’re preaching the gospel to people,” White said at the 2017 Making Vinyl conference, according to Billboard. “This isn’t nostalgia. This isn’t being retro. This is reverence to the beauty of music and sitting down and paying attention in a world where everyone is texting every five seconds and cannot look away from their gadget for a moment to actually listen to an entire song let alone an entire side or an entire album as one consistent art piece. That’s a beautiful thing, and I think we should all appreciate that’s what’s happening now.”
“This isn’t nostalgia. This isn’t being retro. This is reverence to the beauty of music.”
White’s also on a mission to change the way people experience music in real time. Recently White told Metallica’s Lars Ulrich that he now instructs concertgoers to store their phones in plastic bags during a show because it interferes with his performance.
“I really react to the crowd, just like a stand-up comedian would,” White said, adding that because he feeds off the crowd, he’s never felt it necessary to bring a set list. Unfortunately, he said his experiences onstage had become more “difficult” than in the past because so many people in the crowd were texting or watching the show from behind a screen.
“When you go to a movie theater, a symphony, church, whatever — there are all these moments in life where people put [their phones] away and engage,” he continued. “And I love the idea of rock concerts being punk as hell and there are no rules. I love that. But I don’t like the idea that I have no idea what to play next. And I need that.”
Music needs it, too. And if Jack White can pull people away from their devices, is there anything he can’t do?