On the Other Side: Blanco White's Multi-Cultural Conversation in Music

On the Other Side is the first LP album to be released by Blanco White, dropping in our shop today, June 12th, 2020, after a string of well-received EPs from Yucatan Records and a rather impressive following on digital platforms like Spotify.

Blanco White is the solo project of British born songwriter, guitarist, and singer Josh Edwards whose personal journey, learning Flamenco guitar in Spain and Andean folk music instruments like the Charango and Ronroco in Boliva, is mapped out in his music. In it, you'll find traditional elements handled with great devotion while fused with modern inventiveness and aspects of Anglo-American Folk. 

Josh Edwards took the time to talk to us while staying with relatives in a fairly remote location in Wales, and patiently brought us up to speed on the intricacies of the music he loves and the traditions in which he finds a musical "conversation" taking place.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’d like to ask you about recording this album in Southern Spain. I believe you stayed there for a while to lay down the initial compositions. How did being in a particular place influence you during this process? Some people go to a studio to get away from any outside influence when they are creating an album, but you seem to have done the opposite.

Josh Edwards aka Blanco White: Yes. There was a slight different in timeline. The time in Spain was the start of this process, where most of this album was written. I drove down there from the UK with my gear, and a lot of the arrangements were down by the time I left. In some ways it did feel like I recorded the album twice. Because I then came back to London and I was working with an engineer in a studio, Dani Bennett Spragg, and we did the whole album with much better gear, in a much more polished way.

Writing is the time that I get to travel and be where I want to be. And that’s the beautiful thing about the job. You can write anywhere. For me, I love going down to Spain. There’s just a great vibe there, and it’s a beautiful country.

HMS: And you were right on the coast, right? That location is somewhere where you can really remain aware of the presence of North Africa, too, I imagine. Do you think that influenced what you ended up creating?

Blanco White: There’s something about the place where I was, right on the Southern tip of Spain, with Africa only nine miles away, and you can see the whole Moroccan coastline. It’s really amazing. So it is a place that feels like it has connections to other parts of the world. Especially because you have all these tankers coming in and out of the Mediterranean. It’s kind of this portal to the wider world. That was definitely a really amazing thing to experience. Especially because the house we were in was quite high up. So we had these views of these ghostly tankers coming by every day.

HMS: It sounds like it would be hard not to be influenced by looking out on that!

Blanco White: Yes, I think it did leave its mark on the album. In part, it’s not just the place, but what I was listening to. Even when I came back from that time in Spain and started recording the album, when I was still finishing some of the songs on the album, looking back on that time and that place, I started writing even more about it in that time of home. You end up looking back at something through the prism of memory, and it takes on even more of a dreamlike and surreal image in your head, and that’s really fun to explore. When I was there, I was often writing about things outside of that place, but it was a beautiful and inspiring place to be.

HMS: Several musicians I’ve spoken to recently have said that leaving where they normally are and going somewhere else makes a big difference for them in getting out of their musical comfort zone. It helps them doing something different, so I can definitely see the appeal to go away and work on a focused project of some kind.

Blanco White: I think that’s totally right. It’s like extracting yourself from your normal life with your normal friends. If you actually go somewhere where you don’t know anyone, you may make some friendships there, but the fact that you’ve gone away with that purpose means you’re very focused. It was an intense period of writing. I was working late into the night and intensely.

HMS: You’re fairly isolated right now! Do you think that’s going to result in more creative work?

No pressure! This is a question we’re asking in a lot of our Tower interviews—the question is whether this period is going to produce better art or worse art. It seems very individual whether anyone’s getting any work done during this period.

Blanco White: Well, we got the album mastered the day before lockdown started here. The last day that Abbey Road was open, I think. Alex, who mastered it, got it out just in time, basically. It was strange because I was wanting to see lots of people and catch up with people who I had missed during this intense period of work.

But actually, I did start working on new stuff very soon afterwards. I love just noodling around on instruments, and playing around with synthesizers. That’s fun to me. And if you’re on your own, and isolated, that’s a good thing, too.

My project is that I’ve been trying to get fit and sort my health out a bit. [Laughs]

That definitely took a bit of a battering from touring and album work.

HMS: You’re not alone. A lot of people are taking that approach. If you’re someone who’s very busy, health is one of the first things to go, and if you’re forced into isolation, I guess you have no excuse but to fix things.

Blanco White: I slightly knackered by back, actually, just from playing so much guitar. So for the past six weeks or so, I haven’t been able to play much music. I’m trying to really sort by spine out. In a way, it’s the perfect time to do that.

HMS: I didn’t really expect you to say, “I’m usually so hard on myself that now I have to use this period to recover.” [Laughs]

Blanco White: Yes. You speak to people, and it seems to sometimes happen that in creating an album this happens. You get tunnel vision about it. I’m quite like that anyway. Sometimes that’s good for the album, but maybe not that good for your health.

HMS: But as you say, it’s incredibly fortuitous that the album got mixed in time. I know this isn’t the ideal time for a record to come out, but people are buying music right now. It seems like music is high on the list of things people are paying attention to right now.

Did you originally have more live performances and events that were planned to support the release?

Blanco White: Yes, we had the summer festival season stuff planned, which was mostly European. We were going to record some sessions. We had a couple of tours planned for the September-October period. But we’re trying to stay as positive as we can.

People are listening to music; I’m listening to a lot of music. I feel like fans and people online have been really supportive of artists and musicians throughout this time, and it’s really great to see. But it does seem like we’re not going to be able to gig for quite a while longer.

HMS: I saw on Apple music that you had written a surprising amount of text about the different songs on this album. I believe that’s where you spoke about accessing music digitally, across cultures and times, and how that’s been an amazing resource.

People often feel apologetic about that, as if they think that buying physical media is the more virtuous thing to do. But the reality is that the resources that are available to us right now are outstanding and are increasing all the time.

Would you be where you are with your music without those kinds of resources?

Blanco White: I think there are two sides to this for me. I think digital should be in conjunction with buying records and supporting the artists you love. I think it’s great that there’s been this resurgence in vinyl. That’s really amazing.

But in terms of my own listening habits, that’s the first thing: the range of music I listen to today is so much bigger, unimaginably bigger, than when I was a teenager. We have access to these enormous libraries of music.

I remember when I first became totally obsessed with Flamenco music, that was when I was first using these streaming sites. There were 1930’s recordings from Spain and they sounded unbelievable. I couldn’t believe I had access to that for a tenner a month.

Inevitably, that access is really going to inspire artists from everywhere because we have so much more to be inspired by. So many other places and cultures to learn from. And I think that’s incredible and amazing.

On the other side of things, the support that I’ve received from streaming services, like Spotify and Apple, has enabled me to tour. It’s put my music in front of so many people. It’s changed my life. I feel incredibly grateful for that. So, I’m a fan.

In my own life, it’s been really positive.

HMS: That’s a great answer. It’s interesting to hear the economic role that those have both played for you, the digital and the physical.

Is there any point at which it gets overwhelming to you, having so much access? Does it enable more rabbit holes, feeling like you have to listen to everything in a certain genre?

Blanco White: I think, for me, I’m actually really picky about what I like. And it takes a lot for me to really fall in love with something. There is that temptation to disappear down the rabbit hole, but it often feels quite natural. I think I do what other people do, probably, which is that I find something I like and listen to it way too much. I become oversaturated with stuff.

But in general, I don’t feel my life is overwhelmed by music. I fall in love with music, and I love things for what they are.

HMS: This is the point where I start asking you to educate me about your music and the traditions that you work with. Do you feel that there are friends or peers who are doing anything similar to what you are doing? From my perspective, it seems rather unique.

Of course, there’s other Neo-Folk, and people who look to Folk traditions to create things that are new. But your music seems to me to be doing something even more modern than that in terms of creating something new.

Are there other people who are on the same road as you, so to speak?

Blanco White: It’s hard for me to assess where I sit among things. I’m not sure I necessarily think in that way. But I do have friends who are. One of my favorite albums this year is from my friend Malena Zavala, and we are actually on the same label [at Yucatan Records].

She has this very interesting Argentine-Anglo heritage. And she’s made an album with a real sense of fusion as well. With a real sense of Latin influence. That’s a really inspiring record, for me.

But I think in Folk music, there’s a wider genre that people seem to put a lot of artists in. There’s a more traditional Anglo-American sound that we’re more familiar with. What interests me most in music, and I think it’s the same in art and literature, is the real sense of conversation that you can hear within a piece of art.

If you take Cuban music, for example, there’s a real sense of roots there. There’s a conversation that’s happening within all of those traditions. Another example is the band called Orchestra Baobab, a Senegalese band, I think, and they have loads of Cuban influence in their music. So it’s a conversation between a West African band and Cuban music. The fact that there’s been this incredible back and forth conversation fascinates me. I love learning about that in music, and trying to learn about those little things.

The Atlantic, as a space, is one of the most fertile cultural and artistic conversations. The exchange of ideas, and a story that’s often tragic at times, has produced remarkable cultural phenomena. That’s what is interesting to me. I’m looking to those kinds of bands when I’m working on music.

HMS: For our readers, can you let us know: what are some of the things you are in conversation with in your music in terms of these traditional elements? I know some of what other people say about that, but what do you have to say about that?

Blanco White: I think the main thing that’s maybe more exaggerated on this album is that there’s more emphasis on rhythm. And the thing that I love about Andean music is that it’s not just these haunting tones and open minor chords that you get on these instruments, the Charanga and Ronroco, but there are also these beautiful rhythms that have an internal swing, that to my ears, when I first heard them, were very unusual.

The internal swing was just super interesting to me, and I wanted to start exploring that and try to play with the instrumentation on that. It’s quite rare that you hear electric bass, in traditional Andean music, for example. But when I was playing around with those rhythms, that’s what I wanted to hear, a beefier bass line that you might be more familiar with in the UK.

But for some of those rhythms, you hear a similar a similar kind of swing from bands like Tinariwen. They are my favorite band, I think. They are playing traditional Blues music from their part of the world, the Saharan desert.

HMS: Wow. That’s amazing.

Blanco White: There’s seems to be some kind of conversation even there, which I don’t know specifically, but you can kind of hear the similarity in the rhythms. That is really interesting.

Flamenco music is the same. There’s this amazing film called Latcho Drom, which is about the journey of Gypsy music Westward, I think from India originally. It’s absolutely amazing to see this journey and the mutations that take place, and Flamenco is part of that story.

I’m definitely trying to learn from those rhythms and take inspiration from them when I’m writing, too. It’s things that have really hit me and moved me when I’ve heard them, that tends to be the stuff that I’m trying to respond to in my own way. And take inspiration from them and learn from them.

HMS: This is a cheeky question. What do you think more traditional Folk musicians think of you? Or do they think of you?

Blanco White: I’m not really sure. But someone once asked me, “Who would you most want to be at a gig of yours?” And I said, “My Charango teacher.” In Bolivia. I have no idea if he’s heard my music. I don’t have his e-mail address or anything. I have his details written down somewhere so I can go and find him. I really hope that I go back there sometime soon.

I remember going to a gig in La Paz where there was a band using electric fusion music, rock alongside Andean Folk music. That was really interesting to see. It was fusion in a totally different way. I think that as long as there is a respect and a love for the traditions that you are learning from, people tend to respond positively to that. And I think that music is a conversation, and culture should be a conversation, sharing ideas. It should be about things moving and changing, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

HMS: I could be wrong about this, but it seems like Folk music is built to be inclusive. It’s built to draw people in rather than drawing lines for exclusion. It doesn’t require an entry ticket. And that still could account for its popularity. Also, as you say, it can transcend the cultural boundaries that you come from in a tremendous way. You can hear something from a totally different culture and feel connected to it, and want to pursue it, and learn more about it.

How did this epiphany happen for you, first, I think, with Flamenco? How did you decide that you wanted to learn everything about it? Did people in your life think that was unusual?

Blanco White: That discovery of Flamenco was actually more accidental. I was studying Spanish at the time, wanting to improve my Spanish. That’s part of the reason that I went out to Spain. I had played some Spanish guitar as a kid and had really loved Classical guitarists like John Williams. I knew a fair bit about this Spanish guitar tradition. But I’d never really seen Flamenco. Maybe I’d heard a couple of recordings.

But it was my first night in Cadiz, where I was living for about nine months, that I was invited to go and hear some Flamenco. And it totally blew me away. It was utterly mind blowing. I couldn’t believe that I had never known about it or experienced it up to that point. It was like a visceral, physical reaction to music that I’ve never experienced since in that way. It was very moving.

People who love Flamenco, or who have experienced it live, I think will know that I mean. It’s a very exciting form of live music. It’s the way that the local audiences in Andalusia know the music intimately, and know the poems that are being sung, and know the stories. The fact that the audiences are involved in that way makes it even more kind of spine-tingling. It’s really remarkable. So, it was kind of an accident. It wasn’t planned so much. I wanted to go and discover the music in that part of the world. But I didn’t think that it would affect me in the way that it did, if that makes sense.

HMS: Sure, absolutely.

Blanco White: There was maybe a little bit more purpose in Latin America. I think the thing that gave me this fascination with the Spanish-speaking world is that when I was a kid, my Dad quit his job, and my Mum took a year out as well, and we went on this South American trip when I was ten or eleven. My Mum’s a teacher, so she was teaching us on that trip, and we missed school. You can imagine what that does to an eleven year old’s mind, thinking, “Oh, my god, there’s a huge fucking world out there! I want to learn Spanish!” I heard Andean music for the first time then.

So, with Latin America, I went back with a bit more purpose, knowing I wanted to learn Charango, and learn more about that musical tradition of the Andes.

HMS: That’s amazing. So, did you already know about those instruments because of that trip, or did you discover or rediscover them later?

Blanco White: I came back with a handful of CDs from that trip, as a kid. I rediscovered those CDs when I was eighteen or nineteen and realized that I knew every word in languages that I didn’t even know. You never seem to forget music. It’s that weird thing—you hear something you haven’t heard for fifteen years or something, and it suddenly all floods back.

I knew a little bit about the instruments. I remembered them. And I wanted to go and learn more. So, there was a bit more purpose, I would say, on that trip.

Stay tuned for the second part of our conversation at Tower Records with Blanco White upon the release of his new album, On the Other Side.

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