Before Jack White walked into a New York recording studio, he issued himself a challenge: Spend only three days recording a new batch of songs with a group of musicians he had never played with. Many of them were from the hip-hop world – he had reached out to players he'd seen with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and others. "I had no idea if we'd be able to communicate musically," White says. "It could've been a recipe for disaster. I think it would scare the hell out of most people, so it was very enticing to me."
Within 10 minutes of playing, White knew his plan would work. "There was so much amazing music being played," he says. "Some of those songs could take up an entire side of an album, like a Miles Davis record or a Funkadelic record. Then someone would do something and another mood would change the room." White booked three more days with different players in L.A., and then took the music home to edit down and add new elements, much like Davis did on Bitches Brew. The result is Boarding House Reach, White's most freewheeling LP yet, featuring him leading the charge through several extended jams with flashes of psychedelia, jazz, guitar fireworks and digital trickery. "It almost hurt my feelings to condense some of those songs, but I wanted to make it relatable in 2018," he says. "The entire record, to me, is incredibly modern. I wanted to take punk, hip-hop and rock & roll, and funnel it all into a 2018 time capsule."
After touring heavily behind his two solo albums, 2012's Blunderbuss and 2014's Lazaretto, White had taken about two years off. "I wanted to be with my children as much as possible while they were still in their single-digit ages," he says. To start writing the music, he rented an apartment near his home in Nashville. "The idea was to use the exact same equipment I had when I was 14, the same reel and mixer, and say, 'If I knew then what I know now, what would I do differently?'" The first song he wrote was "Connected by Love," a synth-drenched plea for forgiveness by a humbled ex-lover who had burned all his bridges (White says it's fictional). The song was initially called "Infected by Love." "I thought people might turn that into 'Do you have an STD or something?'" White says, laughing. "I'm still learning about that song. The melody was coming straight from my gut."
Once he was playing with groups he had assembled, White decided to revive a favorite of his: the manic stomper "Over and Over and Over," which he had written 13 years earlier and attempted to record with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and even for a scrapped Jay-Z collaborative project. "I was just gonna hand it off to my grandchildren," White jokes. "It was sort of my white whale. I chased it and chased it, and finally, all of a sudden, it worked."
White will bring the songs on the road beginning in May. As in recent years, he will tour two weeks on, two weeks off so he can spend time with his kids. "I tour like you're not supposed to. It's not a good thing to do to make money and pay for the trucks and all that jazz," he says, adding he wants to take his live show "to a new place with new musicians." White isn't planning to bring two different bands on the road; in 2012, he traveled playing separate nights with all-female and all-male groups. The tour will include several summer festivals like New York's Governors Ball. "Every musician out there has to play festivals now, whether you like it or not," he grumbles.
Jack White at Governors Ball in 2014. Credit: Griffin Lotz
White acknowledges that his new recording process couldn't be more different from his White Stripes days, when "we'd record and mix the whole album in a week." But he stresses those records have something important in common with his new work. "I've always made it my job to push myself into uncomfortable situations," he says. "If you're an artist, your job's not to make life easier on yourself and make other people do your work for you. I've never been a fan of people who do that, and I don't respect that sort of way of attacking music."