Matthew E. White relishes crafting his warm, intimate tunes with a sprawling cast. “I believe in the power of humanity coming through the microphone,” the hushed soul crooner proclaims. “When there are 50 people in a room playing in a string section, it is better than one person playing [that part] 50 times.”
White’s content with even a fraction of those players as founder/producer of Spacebomb Records in Richmond, Virginia. His tight-knit team of collaborators help write, arrange, engineer and curate a signature in-house sound, much like Stax and Motown did in their day.
“Those communities and record labels work because they invest in something over the long term,” says White, 32. He acknowledges the luxury of having the studio and musical contacts to shape records within reasonable costs, even when adding strings, horns and choirs. “Spacebomb is founded on people,” he says, “and trusting people and investing time and energy in those relationships.”
White made his 2012 debut Big Inner as a virtual advertisement for Spacebomb, only to find himself as a touted solo artist, splitting time between the studio and the road. That profile’s grown with the March 10 release of White’s follow-up, Fresh Blood, plus other Spacebomb projects, led by singer Natalie Prass’ self-titled January debut.
“The expectations or pressure or anything of that nature is so small in comparison to how wonderful it is to have the opportunity just to have the resources to make music for a living,” says White, who plays Great Scott on April 5.
The son of Christian missionaries, he first learned the basics of a recording studio at Master Sound in Virginia Beach through owner Rob Ulsh, who attended church with White’s family. “He said, ‘Yeah, you could paint my studio,’ ” White recalls of his introduction to the room where Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams recorded. “The first time anyone talked to me about what a producer did was Rob Ulsh. He said, ‘A producer has to know a lot more than everyone else, and he has to have a vision for how things are going to go.’ ”
However, the budding guitarist found his musical footing—and future Spacebomb accomplices—at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There’s no way I had any business being let into a jazz program,” White says. “But that was fortunate for me as I was able to learn the nuts and bolts about how music works.”
Guitarist Trey Pollard (who co-produced Fresh Blood), bassist Cameron Ralston and drummer Pinson Chanselle became core co-conspirators. “We definitely have similar aesthetic values, and different skill sets in some ways, but the same goals,” White says. “We communicate in the same language. That’s really important technically—like I can put notes on a piece of paper, and they can read it. But we also have the same listening vocabulary to a large extent.”
That’s largely American music, with blurred lines between blues, jazz, R&B, soul and hip-hop. “The only way to train yourself is to make sure your favorite records are the best records,” White says, citing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. “When your music comes out of the speakers, you have a bar to measure against.”
Like those artists, White tackles “songs that have a weight to them” on Fresh Blood. It’s centered by contemplative songs about his acting idol Philip Seymour Hoffman, the suicide of a friend’s mother and close-to-home sexual abuse in the church (“I saw the trauma and pain and tremendous terror that breaking of trust causes within people and a community,” he says). Yet White also embraces love songs and the groovy “Rock & Roll Is Cold,” goosed by “ooh-la-la” backup vocals.
Now, after playing a New York record-release show with a 30-piece band, White’s touring with a quartet anchored by Ralston and Chanselle. “The live show is about the songs,” he says, recalling the Beatles’ stark 1969 rooftop concert in the wake of highly produced albums. “It’s just getting to that with a different set of tools.”