Song-by-Song: Paul White – ‘Shaker Notes’

Even for an artist as frequently adventurous and experimental as Paul White, ‘Shaker Notes’ – his fourth album, represents a significant left turn. Graduating from producing library music for Channel 4 and BBC, recent years have seen White buddying up with Madlib and producing on Danny Brown’s critically acclaimed ‘Old’ – all whilst churning out a steady stream of smoked out instrumentals under his own name that saw him positioned as one of this country’s most interesting beatmakers.

White wasn’t content however to be just the man behind the desk, and after building confidence in his instrumental ability through two years of playing with 22a affiliates Mo Kolours and Tenderlonious, he felt ready to put his musical talents at the forefront. The result is ‘Shaker Notes’, an honest and varied collection of songs that finds White comfortably transitioning to his new role as a song writer, whilst simultaneously exploring new ground for the label on which it’s released – R&S. Indeed whilst its perhaps a little surprising to see the iconic Black stallion adorning the record’s sleeve, it speaks volumes that White personally received the blessing of the label’s founder Renat Vandepapeliere after being invited to hang out at HQ in Ghent.

Taking inspiration from a trip to the Gambia to see drummers at work, as well as an occasionally up and down releationship with his girlfriend, ‘Shaker Notes’ is rich with a personality that could only be White’s. Now excited to explore the possibilities of playing with instruments, White invited us down to his South East London studio to give us the full lowdown on the fights, collaborations and new beginnings that fed into the album….

1. Intro

There’s even a little bit of meaning in the intro. It was all about the marriage of electronics and nature – there’s this wooden, rain-forest kind of sound underneath and then all these synths over the top. It’s supposed to unify what the album’s going to be about. I’m at a real stage of experimentation at the moment, not only with the electronic side of things but I’m getting really deep into acoustic instruments.

2. All We Know

That started out when I first met my girlfriend, so it represented a real change at that time in my life and also self discovery. It was also a new path I had just started on musically – it’s was a new beginning. I played a lot of live instruments on this one, I played everything apart form horns which a guy called Wayne Francis from United Vibrations recorded.

The guy Jitwam – he’s amazing, he did some of the vocals. I did the backing harmonies but he was the one who sung. Man, he’s a sicko! I will rate that kid forever, and I don’t mean kid in a patronising way. He’s really young and he’s incredible man. He just jammed over the track and the lyrics he wrote bizarrely fitted perfectly with the track.

3. Where You Gonna Go? 

That one was very direct and personal, to do with – again, part of this relationship. What I kind of found whilst I was writing this album was that it was about me being in a relationship with someone but in that situation you actually learn most about yourself.

Thats’s the track that changed the most from its first demo stage – It was just me stomping at the start, literally stomping on the floor and hitting my thigh, organic and human. As time went on I got my sister on it, Sarah Williams White. I thought it would be lovely to have lots of people singing the same line. I did want to get loads of kids singing on there at one point, but I thought that could have ended up getting weird (laughs).

Jitwam pops up again here. The story with Jitwam is that I met him through a producer friend and he came and stayed at mine for a week with my flatmate. My flatmate went away for a week and I’m like… “Who the hell are you?”, and he’s like “who the hell are you?”… but we clicked straight away and within a week we’d written loads of music together.

I’ve been working with Jamie Woon on stuff for his album and we’d been playing each other a lot of music. I played this track and he just loved it. I left the song on loop when we were recording and walked out the room for about 20 mins, and he literally WENT IN for 20 mins.

I met Jamie through management I think. He took me to an amazing cool place. I didn’t even know there was an island just off of Essex, called Osea Island (laughs). Man it’s heaven over there, dude it’s amazing. We wrote a track together over there that should be coming out on his album that I think will be finished this month. That’s what’s lovely, you meet all these people – it’s like meeting part of yourself. The same mind, the same feeling. That track felt very special to get all of those special energies in there.

4. Honeycats

This one is more simple, it’s just about raw passion and kind of about being high – yeah, just being high (laughs). And like flying around with someone. I was really high when I wrote this one and was just thinking about the passion side of a loving relationship. I like the idea of singing in an abstact way, not using definite lyrics. I was mixing up words. It turned into this weird mesh of words  that kind of sounds like “shall we make black honey together”, and I thought that kind of fit too.

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There’s a lot of JJ Cale influence in this one, I listened to a lot of him as a kid. My Dad used to be in a Rhythm & Blues band and growing up he played harmonica a lot and he would always whistle melodies. When I first started learning music, I learned Blues on piano and guitar, just simple Blues. This track was just me letting go and those old influences just came back quite naturally.

5. Wait And See

This is… probably a direct message to myself to not put stress and strain on my life and over plan everything. Just being able to relax in the space of uncertainty.

6. Running On A Rainy Day

I think this was the last track I put on the album, that was a real quick one. I just sat down one day and started doing the backing harmonies and stuff.

It was around Christmas time, I can tell you the story. I’d had an argument with my girlfriend (laughs) and I was walking back in the pissing rain. People normally think of a rainy day as being bad – it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s wet – but at that time it made think of the story of Buddha. He was sat under a tree before he got enlightened and people were throwing daggers at him but when they got near him they turned to flowers – that whole meaning of a bad thing can be really good!   My girlfriend was actually on that one. She sang on it.

After, we made up! It’s safe to say this album and our relationship fed into each other quite a bit. Maybe doing the album was my therapy. My girlfriend’s really good musically, plus she’s an artist. She’s half Maori and has this incredible spiritual side to her.Totally non self conscious. So when I was writing it and playing some of the guitar, in particular this sort of flying bridge section, it reminded me of her. I let her loose on it and she just sang this one little harmony. In fact, there isn’t even guitar in there, it’s just me playing bass but playing high up.

7, Fighting To Dance

This represents the anger, angst and adrenaline of this relationship and journey – the uncertain and explosive energy that two people can have together. Quite primal, that raw energy. That was all drum led. I went back to lots of percussion and mixed in some computer drums to layer it up. Musically it’s totally my Joe Zawinul impression – not that I get anywhere near Joe Zawinul, but I just love that guy. I love his use of synths. I used a lot of analogue stuff and just left it very raw. There’s a breakdown section in the middle that’s totally improvised, first take. I just played any old solo.

8. Is It Up To Us? 

I kept finding myself loving the bass around this time. The bass is my new favourite instrument – I love it, it’s so powerful. To have an instrument where you can hit one note and it shakes the whole building, what other instrument can you do that with? (laughs). Most of my stuff starts with drums, or rhythms of some kind.

This was actually during a break in the relationship. It was like “who the fuck is going to make the first move and figure this out…” – this was a frustration song. Who the fuck id this going to be up to!? This relationship, climate change, the planet, the whole lot. My vocals are always improvised. Noting was thought out I was just pick up the mic and sing anything, it would would be ‘la la la’ at fist and then gradually it would turn into how I was feeling or things I was thinking about during the day. We’d broken up a few days before and I was heading to Cornwall the next day so  knew that was the last song I was going to be writing for a week. I like the idea of vocals being abstract and open to interpretation.

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9. Sitting in Circles

This is more about cycles in life I suppose. To be fair this one doesn’t have as much of a deeper meaning, it’s just me jamming away on the bass. That one was really Moondog inspired. People who know them will listen to that track and be like ‘ah man, you listen to a lot of Moondog straight away.

Actually my uncle plays electric violin on this, that’s what was really special about that one. He came over to record on another song but I was working on Sitting In Circles and he ended up doing something on that.

10. Numbers of Change

This one again was about aggression and anger – we can’t be good all the time right? I hate that crap. My mom’s a psychotherapist so I grew up around an attitude that human beings are all capable of some horrible shit. She knows the dark side. Not that we should embrace the dark side and go and kill people. She’s seen that side of things and believes we should never hide our feelings – I grew up with that. This song was me just being in a really bad, angry mood. There’s bit of a nicer chord right at the end that tries to hint at a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to get it out of your system sometimes.

11. Shaker Notes

This is the only track on the album written with someone else, Henry Keen. Henry is a very calm, relaxed kind of guy. You’ll slow down when you’re with him and it’s really calming. That’s what I wanted the last track to be about. It’s supposed to symbolize that at the end of this big crazy journey that I went on while making the album, that there’s actually a bit of peace  and something relaxing at the end. This goes right back to my roots because the first type of music I used to make was ambient. Ambient music that was totally Brain Eno to Aphex Twin… It was a full circle moment. A relaxing cresecndo.

‘Shaker Notes’ is out now on R&S, you can buy it here.

Interview: Josh Thomas