Every reaction begins with a catalyst, some initial event that sets things on their inexorable course. For Drake White, it goes back to something raw and elemental in his debut album Spark.
“I learned how to play guitar and keep people’s attention around a fire,” explains the Hokes Bluff, Alabama native. “A spark can start a fire that can keep you alive and sustain you. So this is the beginning for me. This is the first strike of the flint.”
The spirit of Spark comes from those simple, early days spent enjoying the outdoors among friends in the warm glow of a fire. And though he’s now a city dweller with all the complications and distractions that entails, White still seeks the freedom and deeper connections he felt when the chorus of nature and the strums of his guitar blended into one harmonious song — the kind of contentment he sings about in the swirling majesty of his single “Livin’ the Dream.”
“We grew up free. We grew up on 4-wheelers, riding through the backwoods,” he says. “We grew up hunting and fishing and being out in the Appalachian Mountains. People don’t understand how beautiful north Alabama is until you see it in person.”
Save for “Livin’ the Dream,” White wrote or co-wrote the remaining 11 tracks on Spark, working with red-hot producers Ross Copperman and Jeremy Stover through the process. He also brought in his own band for a handful of tracks to capture the energy of his live shows.
The first sound on Spark — before the pulse-quickening “Heartbeat” kicks into gear — is the voice of White’s late grandfather speaking from the pulpit. Several of these ghostly transmissions from the past appear on Spark, all extolling the virtues of love, brotherhood and nature. It’s a touch of the surreal that nods at White’s fondness for Pink Floyd’s psychedelic masterpiece The Wall, but also a deeply personal gesture that matches his vision perfectly.
“I went through about five or six sermons of my grandfather and picked out certain little snippets,” he says. “I just think they kind of fit. They’re weird and people are asking what they are. And that was my point: to get people talking about it.”
White has his own message of finding some harmony amid the demands of modern life, one that goes down easy in the uplifting, Zac Brown Band-assisted Southern rock anthem “Back to Free” and the cautionary-but soulful “I Need Real.” It’s a simple message of not letting oneself be swallowed up by technology and seeking out honest, genuine connections with others.
“When I’m at home, my wife and I keep our phones in the bedroom,” says White. “We listen to records. We hardly turn the TV on, unless it’s time for Game of Thrones. Before social networking was a smartphone app, we did it around a fire. That goes way back.”
With his gospel-derived, passionate delivery, White seems to have inherited his grandfather’s ability to touch crowds with a sermon — his divine vocal improvisations at the end of the honky-tonk flavored “Story” will undoubtedly get butts out of seats. White stresses that he isn’t a preacher, but doesn’t see a problem with putting his own methods for surviving the world out there.
“Some of the best songs, like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or anything by Bob Marley, have a little bit of preachin’,” he says. “I never want to come across too preachy, but instead I’m saying, ‘Hey man, this is my life, and this is what I do to be happy and I’m figuring it out just like you.’”
Spark covers an entire spectrum of emotions beyond these statements of character and self-definition. In “Making Me Look Good Again,” White cruises on an R&B-style groove to express his gratitude for his better half, while “Waiting on the Whiskey to Work” finds him embodying a man spun out on love and heartbreak. Then in the tropically-themed “Equator,” he flies south to give his nomadic side a little time to play.
“This record is about balance. It’s me asking, where’s that boy I used to be? Oh yeah, we gotta go get him back,” he says. “We gotta go on a hike or camping or grab my wife and go to some foreign country. I gotta feel alive. I gotta go out there and do that.”
Long a respected live entertainer with his (appropriately named) band the Big Fire, White’s climb to the limelight hasn’t been a straight or uncomplicated one. Rather than blowing up right away with a big debut single, he’s toiled on the road for years, giving jaw-dropping performances night after night and making believers one show at a time. “There are many different paths.
“There are many different paths. And mine was just in a van with a trailer,” he says. “I wanted to have a group of guys that went out and did it the hard way and learned from people like Zac Brown and Eric Church, and these guys that did years of hard touring. There were definitely times where I was like, screw this. But now that I look back it’s a perfectly fitted puzzle piece. It gave me everything I desired.”
In the album’s “Elvis,” White touches on the way hard work plays into the business of making dreams come true. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and Elvis wasn’t born the king,” he sings, acknowledging the long incubation period he’s had in the buildup to this moment.
“I’m gonna be an artist ’til the day I die,” he says. “Don’t matter if I make money at it or I don’t. that’s the blessing and the curse. I do this because this is what I am supposed to do. And I feel happy when I’m writing, when I’m helping people and when I’m out there singing and performing.”
And all the while, he’ll be stoking that original fire until it’s a roaring blaze.
While being the drummer for Drake White is an adventure itself, Adam Schwind’s favorite part of this wild ride is the brotherhood that has developed between the guys while on tour. “I’m thankful to be able to rely on the guys riding beside me down whatever road,” he said. Schwind’s passion for music began at a very early age in his hometown of New Braunfels, Texas where he discovered his love for making loud noises on pots on pans, until his parents eventually bought him a drum set. Schwind, who has been playing with The Big Fire for two years, now cites a variety of musical influences including Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and John Mayer.
Philip Pence, Drake White’s bass player of over three years, enjoys seeing new places and meeting new people while on the road. “I have a wanderlust that gets stronger every year,” Pence admitted. The Gainesville, Georgia native was nominated bass player in the band he played in as a teenager and has been thankful for that opportunity ever since. With a style that has been molded by the works of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, James Taylor and Bob Seger, Pence adds a great sound when performing with The Big Fire.
Matt McDaniel grew up surrounded by music in Griffin, Georgia. Once he learned to play the guitar as a kid, he hit the ground running. With musical influences like Conway Twitty, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, McDaniel has come up with his own flare when it comes to performing. Now after almost of year of playing with Drake White, he has grown to love the fact that anything can happen while on the road. “You can find excitement and adventure in even the worst of situations,” McDaniel said.
The opportunity to do some electric and acoustic music on top of playing the fiddle is what excites Jon Aanestad most about working with Drake White. As a kid growing up in Iowa City, he remembers listening to his father’s Willie Nelson and Alabama records. However it is his uncle, a jazz player from New Orleans, who has primarily influenced Aanestad’s personal style by introducing him to artists like B.B. King and Donny Hathaway. Today as he tours with The Big Fire, Aanestad is especially thankful for the rare sense of camaraderie among the guys.