Fourth corner. Physically, it’s where four states in the U.S. come together at one singular point. Symbolically, it’s where the four great rivers in China come together as one. Or, it could be the cycle of life during the four seasons of the year. For Trixie Whitley, it’s a metaphor for trying to find balance and belonging from the songs that make up her scintillating debut album, Fourth Corner.
Whitley burst into public consciousness in 2011 as the lead singer of Black Dub, super-producer Daniel Lanois’ (U2, Bob Dylan) project, blowing people away with a voice and presence beyond her now-25 years.
And it’s that voice: an emotional, blues-drenched instrument that ranges from a lilting slap to a knock-you-backwards uppercut. On Fourth Corner, Whitley explores the range of human emotion in another set of four: utter love, total rage, unadulterated happiness, and crippling loneliness. “It’s those elements of life I keep coming back to,” she says. “Both as a person and musically as well.”
Recorded in New York with producer/keyboardist Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman, who’s also worked with Glen Hansard, Antony and the Johnsons, Grizzly Bear and the National) engineer Pat Dillett (David Byrne, St. Vincent, Mary J. Blige), and string arrangements by Rob Moose (Antony, Bon Iver), aching songs like “Need Your Love” have Whitley working from a spare beginning that explodes into a blossom dripping with pleading vocals and delicate piano. On tracks like the sassy “Irene” and the sinister “Hotel No Name,” Whitley lays down a snarling guitar line on top of scuzzy beats while her voice veers from defiant to remorseful.
It’s a tantalizing mix of sounds that can come only from someone who says: “I’m from everywhere but have never felt like I belong.” Whitley lived a nomadic life: born in Belgium, she split her time growing up there and in New York but also frequently visiting family in France, Texas, and Mexico. Her mother came from an artistic European gypsy family, filled with musicians, painters, writers, and sculptures, while her father, renowned singer-songwriter Chris Whitley, thrust her into the world of music as a toddler when she joined him onstage in Germany at age three.
After her parents divorced, she returned to her mother’s native Belgium and became engrossed in the arts: she played drums, acted and sang with several theater companies, and toured Europe with the renowned dance company Les Ballets C de la B and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. At the same time, she became the youngest resident DJ at the Belgium Museum of Modern Art at age 11, spinning the likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher to old school Hip Hop, African music to avant garde composer John Zorn. “At first the Museum thought it was kind of a joke: ‘Come see our 11-year-old DJ,’” she laughs. “But then people kept coming. I couldn’t beat mix at all and I had to stand on three beer crates to even see the turntables!”
Though Whitley explores the gamut of human emotion in her music, there’s a sense of fearlessness in her that is unwavering. She dropped out of school at 17 and moved back to New York and started slinging burgers at a local dive. Meanwhile, she ground out her own material in the city. She learned piano, guitar and soon started playing solo shows, a preface to recording her first EP Strong Blood.
With that EP in hand, she and her mother went to a music festival in Belgium where Daniel Lanois was playing a gig with drummer Brian Blade, best known for his work with Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter. At her mother’s behest, she thrust a copy of Strong Blood into Lanois’ hand and returned to New York, thinking nothing would ever come of it.
“I went back to that shitty restaurant and it got to the point where I was going to ditch music and go back to school and get my GED,” says Whitley. “But when I got home that day, Daniel called. I screamed.” Lanois invited her to Boston to record. He was so blown away that he asked her to front Black Dub, working with Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson. The band’s self-titled album was released in October of 2010 and the group toured well into 2011, with Whitley’s voice propelling the group’s unique groove to ultimate peaks.
With the Black Dub shows, countless solo gigs in New York and Europe, and buzz-building performances at festivals like Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Celebrate Brooklyn, Whitley has become one of the most talked about new artists of 2012. In November/December 2012, she embarked on her first solo U.S. tour, and currently continues to tour Europe and the US in anticipation of Fourth Corner’s 2013 release.
“I’m psyched and petrified,” says Whitley in her archetypal wide-eyed wonderment mixed with a fierce determination. “As a songwriter, I want to go to places people don’t expect and with that is complete freedom of expression.” Perhaps that place is another version of a fourth corner: something spiritual perhaps, certainly emotional, but most definitely real.