Life-Changing Recordings: John Paul White

Current 55th GRAMMY nominee reveals the song that took his breath away
  • Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
    John Paul White
February 05, 2013 -- 12:13 pm PST
By As told to Paul Zollo /

(Every artist has a soundtrack that reveals their musical journey. But what is the one recording that proved to be a transformative moment? In this ongoing series, GRAMMY-winning and -nominated artists will reveal their answer to the deceptively difficult question: What recording changed your life?)

Elliott Smith
Either/Or (1997)

"I grew up with my dad's records — [Johnny Cash's] At Folsom Prison, [Merle Haggard's] 'Sing Me Back Home' [and] 'Heartaches By The Number' — country classics. In the car with mom, it was all top 40. My friends in high school educated me on Ozzy, Metallica [and] Black Sabbath, Southern rock [and] the sweet soul music of my forebears in Muscle Shoals. Later, I finally got caught up on the Beatles, by way of [Electric Light Orchestra]. Don't ask.

"Then I heard Either/Or. It was by a strange tangent; a friend I was working with in the studio mentioned going for 'that Elliott Smith snare sound.' I had no idea what he was talking about, and I said so.

"He gasped, stopped the session, sat me down in front of the console [and] cued up 'Alameda.'

"From the beginning of the track, I instantly knew the snare he was referencing. It was comically bad. Recording 101 bad. And perfect. Impossible to ignore, slapping you upside the head, forcing you to move out of its path and back in again. Hypnotizing. Mesmerizing. 

"Then the voice. Double-tracked and hard-panned (so it seemed). It was my turn to gasp. I'd never heard anything like it. Fragility, power, fear, courage. Beauty.

"We made it to the end of the first chorus: 'Nobody broke your heart. You broke your own 'cause you can't finish what you start.' I had to pull out of the nosedive. I asked him to stop the track and literally had to take a deep breath. My friend just laughed, and handed me the record. It didn't leave my player for at least a year. No record before or since has moved me so instantly, and lastingly.

"It has everything — pop sensibilities, dark and light themes, unique chord progressions, and melodies that keep you guessing and wanting more. It pulled from all my heroes, and I have to think we grew up listening to a lot of the same things. His musicianship is unparalleled. In his voice I could hear his anguish, but to me it never sounded like 'pity me,' it sounded like, 'This is how I cope.' That clicked in every way imaginable for me. And then he was gone.

"To quote a different record of his, from 'Waltz #2 (XO)': 'I'm never gonna know you now, but I'm gonna love you anyhow.'"

(John Paul White is currently nominated for Best Song Written For Visual Media and Best Country Duo/Group Performance as a member of the Civil Wars with Taylor Swift for "Safe & Sound" from The Hunger Games. White has two previous GRAMMY wins with the Civil Wars.)

(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)

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