The plan was to stay behind the scenes. In 2011, Matthew E. White and a collection of friends in Richmond, Virginia, formed Spacebomb Records, a label and production studio where they aimed to become an in-house band for other artists, complete with a horn section, backup singers, and strings. They were inspired by the great tradition of studios such as Stax and Muscle Shoals, in which the studio itself helped nurture a sound and developed its own reputation for quality. White wrote a handful of songs just to show people how the process could work. “There are so many wonderful artists here in Richmond, and I was going to be the facilitator,” he says. “I never thought it would turn into a solo career.” But those early songs ultimately evolved into White’s soulful, critically acclaimed 2012 debut, Big Inner.
Since then, White’s confidence and sound have continued to flourish. His new effort, Fresh Blood, is an exhilarating collection infused with soul and gospel and coated with peals of guitar rock and a reggae bounce. But while the music accompanying him is often hands-to-heaven climactic, White sings in hushed tones, as if whispering secrets to a best friend or a lover. There’s an inescapably timeless quality to his songs, though he’ll protest that point. A bit. “‘I Heard It through the Grapevine’ wasn’t written to be timeless,” he says. “I’m mainly interested in my songs being strong, holistic statements.”
White grew up in Virginia Beach, the youngest of three children. His parents were Christian missionaries, and when he was three, the family moved to the Philip-pines for almost five years—a defining experience. During the 1989 coup attempt in Manila, he watched government tanks turning around in his driveway. Instead of spending free time around a playground, he played in neighboring squatters’ camps. “My earliest childhood memories are from there,” he says.
When White returned to suburban life in Virginia Beach, he wasn’t in lockstep with other kids and the pop culture obsessions du jour. “I had these weird gaps,” he explains. While he was extolling the greatness of, say, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, his friends were freaking out to Michael Jackson’s Bad album. “I felt a little ashamed then, but now I think it helps me have a unique voice.”
Though Fresh Blood certainly has a retro feel, there is a freshness snaking through the lighthearted piano-driven boogie of “Rock & Roll Is Cold” and the slinky, carnal “Fruit Trees,” where White chases his background singers, trading his mumbly vocals with their shimmering “ooh la la la”s. The album also has lyrical heft. “Holy Moly” is a sweeping excoriation of the abuses committed by Catholic clergy. An elegy for a friend’s mother, “Circle ’Round the Sun,” is a haymaker to the gut, while “Tranquility” is a tribute to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman that White wrote immediately after learning of Hoffman’s death. “I would write that song if I didn’t have a record deal,” he says. “That’s the way I deal with stuff. It’s cathartic.”
White is nothing, though, if not versatile. “[Writing] all personal stuff isn’t music,” he says. “It’s a diary.” And with his Spacebomb Records cohorts, he has created a built-in sounding board for his and other artists’ myriad musical ideas. The label recently released the self-titled debut of Americana singer-songwriter Natalie Prass, one of 2015’s early delights. “We could make a hip-hop album, a country album, or whatever,” White says. “It’s about having the musical brain trust and believing that over time you’ll get better and better.”