Being Regular and Normal with William Elliott Whitmore

Stream his latest album 'Radium Death' in full a week before its release.

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Mar 24 2015, 2:07pm

When I call William Elliott Whitmore, he’s outside in the yard of his farmhouse in Lee County, Iowa, a stone’s throw away from the Mississippi River. It’s one of the first warm days in March after a particularly brutal Midwest winter, and he’s working his garden—prepping it to put vegetables on his and his wife’s table for the next six months or so. As we talk, wind blows in the background, and at one point, he politely puts me on hold—“Would you mind hanging on for just one second? Thank you so, so much”—and I overhear him mention something to someone in the background about what they’ll have for dinner later that night. I can’t tell exactly what it is but, being someone who grew up in Iowa myself, I assume their dinner plans include some sort of meat and potatoes. And milk. Because there is always milk.

This is what Whitmore does every day. Well, not exactly this—talking to a reporter in New York City over the phone about his upcoming record sixth record Radium Death—but instead, just living, daily, not really worried about much beyond whatever the next meal is going to be. The blues singer-songwriter has been making music for over a decade now—typically banjo-driven songs that focus on the grandiose aspects of life (politics, redemption, death, What It All Means). But are presented with casual accessibility, sung by a titanic, gravelly voice that sounds like it’s from the year 1843. Good examples are the lyrics of the opening verse for “Ain’t Gone Yet,” the closing track of his new album:

“When I was young I walked into the woods among the sycamores and the pines I often stood to contemplate life and death,
I’ll be gone someday, but I ain’t gone yet.
If the weather is willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you again over there on the other side, and sure as that creek flows to the river bend,
I’ll be gone someday, but I ain’t gone yet.”

For years, Whitmore lived in the corncrib of the farm on which he grew up. In a building stuffed full of hundreds of LPs, the now 36-year-old found himself writing countless songs, touring endlessly, and growing a rabid fan base from around the Midwest. Last year when I saw him perform in Iowa City at Mission Creek Festival, he played a sold-out 800-person theater in what felt like a homecoming show. Every single person knew every single word to every single song, hootin’ and hollerin’ about black Iowa dirt.

Whitmore’s moved out of the corncrib, though, and now lives with his wife (who he married a couple years ago) in the very house he grew up in. Recently, his grandmother, someone who essentially raised him after both of his parents died when he was 16, passed away. His new album was written at the kitchen table while Whitmore, and his family, took care of her during the last year or so of her life. Even though death is literally in the album’s title, and the most prevalent theme in the musician’s work is a general discussion of the demise of mortality, Whitmore tells me he’s taking a more hopeful approach to his music. He was inspired by the story of Radium Girls—women who worked in factories during World War I who contracted radium poisoning from painting watch dials with the glowing substance who ended up banding together to help establish rights of workers. “It came to represent something that you’re told is good for you, something that you’re told is alright, but it’s really not and it’s the opposite,” he says. “That could be anything in the ear of the beholder. You become aware slowly of that fact and try to stand up to whatever or whoever it is. I thought that was a powerful story.”

Below, Noisey is streaming Radium Death in full. It’s out next week on March 31 via ANTI-.

How are you feeling about the new record?
That “Healing to Do” song was the first song that got put out there, and it’s the first song on the record. I plugged in and played electric guitar for that one. I was listening to a lot of this band called the Gun Club. You know that band? They’re an English punk band that was just awesome. And yeah, bringing in that punk element to it was something I wanted to explore, try something a little different. But not every song on the record is like that. There’s still banjo, and there are still songs that are just me. I just wanted to throw some new elements on there, to keep it interesting, hopefully, for myself and for everyone. It was nice to try some different sounds and tones. That’s have the fun of working in the studio: just trying different things. But I’m a creature of habit, too, so, you know, I’m not breaking new ground here. [Laughs.] We’re working on a video for that song right now, we shot it in my grandma’s house. It’s just me and the guys playing the song. She passed away last year.

I’m sorry.
Thanks. She was awesome.

Is the song about her explicitly?
Well, not exactly, but that was in my thoughts at the time. She had a stroke a couple years ago—and this was a grandma I was really close to. She was just the coolest, kindest, most wonderful lady. We were really close. Because of the stroke, she wasn’t able to be at home alone anymore, so our family was taking shifts and being there and looking after her so we didn’t have to put her anywhere else. She had to be in a wheelchair. She was a strong farm wife lady, but hell, she was 94 years old. She ended up dying in her own home. That year and a half or two years that was going on, I’d be there and she’d lay down and take a nap or something and I’d do a lot of writing then. A lot of the songs for this album were written in her house, just soaking up the memories, tons of pictures and photo albums and the whole family history archived. At her kitchen table.

That’s pretty incredible. Because your career and music is so rooted in where you’re from, how do you see writing in this way reflected in the record? How did this experience separate Radium Death from your previous albums?
Yeah, definitely. This song, “Healing to Do,” it was about how you go through those dark times and you come out through the other side and you realize you made it through and it’s OK. Everyone goes through those things—it’s part of being alive. And so I got to thinking about that idea, and it’s a pretty uplifting song if you look at it. The past is gone; let’s focus on the future. The record is a little different than my other ones. I wanted it to be more upbeat and hopeful. So being there midst all that family history, it informed a lot of the lyrics and the record a lot.

Continued below.

Do you have any specific memories with your grandma you’d like to share?
Yeah, oh yeah. I lived in that old corncrib for years, basically in her yard. Right there on the farm like 100 feet from her place. We were so close, and we’d have these great talks. She’d come to shows—even into her 80s and 90s. She would tell stories of her and my grandma; they were bikers. She’d share stories about taking motorcycle trips across the U.S. They were Harley people. It’s hard to say a specific memory with her, but we always laughed and she’d teach me things. She had a bird feeder outside of her window. She would teach me the name of the birds. She was a great human being. Even if I’d get in trouble, like I had to spend the night in jail for being drunk in public or doing something dumb, I’d come in the next day and she’d say, “It’s okay, you’re a good person.” She was non-judgmental. She just wanted everyone to be happy and do their thing. I try to live like that. I don’t always do it. I live differently than she did for sure, ha. But she leaks a lot into the album.

Since your previous record, you’ve gone through a lot of person changes—gotten married, moved out of the corncrib, etc. How does this record reflect where you are now versus where you were five years ago?
Yeah, yeah. A lot has changed in my life. It was a longer break than I normally take. I’ve gotten married. I live in the very house I grew up in, which is just down the road from where I lived. It’s an old farm house. I’ve been working on fixing that up. A lot has changed, and that deal with my grandma, we were focused on taking care of her. I feel like I’m in a better place mentally; I’m better adjusted, more comfortable in my own skin. Going back to that “Healing to Do” song, like I say, I made it through that stuff. It’s a good thing. There are some things on the record where you can tap into that old feeling a little bit.

What’s that old feeling?
Well, for a long time, I was writing a lot about death. And I guess—well, hell, the thing’s called Radium Death, and that theme will always be a factor in my work. But I was messed up for a long time. By that I mean, just kind of depressed, trying to write songs to deal with it. That was the only way I knew how to deal with a lot of that stuff. And then playing the songs night after night, you’re reliving it each night. You know, it’s fine, we all go through that stuff, but like I say, it started to heal up and now I feel good. I do feel good. But there’s always death and bad things in the world, but there’s a lot of beauty in the world, too. It’s trying to find balance.

That’s what so appealing about your music for me—outside of the fact that I’m an Iowan and this is the kind of stuff I grew up listening to. There’s a warm sound to it that’s almost welcoming, despite the fact that, at times, you’re dealing with such heavy and dark themes.
Yeah, I like that. It’s one of those things where it’s really comforting to realize that we all do go through those things. We’re simultaneously special and not special. [Laughs.] That’s a good thing to remember. It’s important to have your grief, and to go through that, but it’s comforting to realize people have been going through this for millennia. And there are people going through much worse right now. I always try to gain perspective and think about places where there’s literally bombs being dropped on your town. It’s important to gain perspective, and realize that we’ll make it. I like that idea, and I try to write in a universal way for people to understand. I don’t like that selfish feeling of like, look at me. We all have that stuff, and like I say, it’s not special, but each person’s life experience is special. So we’ll just keep plugging along. There’s a song on the record called “Civilization” kind of about how empires crumble throughout time. I’m sure the Romans thought their empire would last forever [laughs]. Right now, and throughout time, I don’t know, empires and civilizations come and go, but normal people, we’re just here dealing with regular things. I just like that idea. We’re just down here in the dirt doing our thing, trying to figure out what’s for dinner, you know? [Laughs.] We’re just trying to figure it out.

I like that. It’s similar to your music in that you can speak in these grand statements, but they still resonate.
I try to make my music welcoming. It’s self-aware. I like music like that—where I’m included in what they’re talking about. I try to do that as well. This is my little spin on what happened, but we’re all in this together. I like that. At a show or anything, I just want everyone to feel like we’re all in this together. And what a cool way to come together, in a non-violent and civil way, enjoying music. I always look out at the crowd, thinking how no one knows each other yet we’re all here together in this social sculpture for a common purpose, and that’s to hear some good music. I want to break down that barrier between me and people. Everyone mixes up together. Going back to the grand statements, pulling the lens back and looking at the earth like a ball of mud like it is, I enjoy that. It somehow makes it OK. [Laughs.] Look at the earth from space and we’d just look like ants running around. We worry about these little things. You know? And they’re simultaneously really important, but yet not important at all. And I love that idea. Let’s get perspective. This has been going on for thousands of years, and it will go on for thousands more, so let’s just relax and do the best we can. Let’s all do the best we can. [Laughs.]

Do you think that’s why you focus on the subject of death?
Yeah. It started when I lost both my folks when I was a teenager—to cancer and a motorcycle wreck, respectively. I was like 16. I was first starting to learn how to play music, learn chords on the guitar, first trying to write songs, and all that happened and it almost was the end for me. I didn’t know what to do. I’m lucky and have two siblings—and I have a big family, cousins, aunts, uncles, even without my parents—so I had that network, but I kind of went crazy. Sixteen years old, you’re already going crazy and just not thinking right. Your brain isn’t even developed yet. So that was almost the end for me, but then I started to write these songs that would later be the first three records—Hymns for the Hopeless, Ashes to Dust, Song of the Blackbird—which I think go to together, all were written at that time. That’s why it’s so dark. It’s all I could think about. And I had the mentality of rather letting this be the end, it could be the beginning of something and I could channel this outward in a healthy way, versus inward in a self-destructive way. But then you get older, and you grow up, and you stop wallowing in own filth so much.

Eric Sundermann probably wallows in his own filth too much. He's on Twitter.