Jim White has been a searcher all his life. And he’s still searching.
The Americana musician was escalated to critical appreciation after he signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in 1997 with his album The Wrong Eyed Jesus.
Yet, while most musicians spend their careers honng their craft, White admits it’s a hobby among many other interests he has, including working as a visual artist, writing and - in a formner life - modelling.
But at the heart of all the work he dose, is a deep curiosity about the world around him.
And right now, that curiosity is manifested in a European tour and White’s collaboration in a film documentary about a clown from Russia.
“I’m working on music for a documentary about a circus called the Slave Snow Show, which is an existentialist circus and was very popular in Russia. The clown who set up the show moved to Paris but the film’s about him missing the snow, so he travels to Siberia in the middle of winter with a film crew.”
The music – which White is co-writing with Paul Fonfara – is a celebration of the extremities of Siberia.
But this is familiar territory for White. The BBC documentary he worked on, Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus - named after White’s The Wrong Eyed Jesus album - is about life in the rural south of America, which White believes has gone largely undiscovered.
As part of the reseatch for the film, White took filmmakers on a tour of back-roads and backwaters to present a true picture of the beauty and hardship of America’s less celebrated society and geography.
“I guess both films are about extremes,” says White. “I think the filmmakers were attracted to dangerous parallel worlds. For the BBC film I collected some ideas of places to go, such as the Jesus is Lord Catfish Restaurant and Truck stop, which is covered in folk art depicting the end of the world. I saw the sign for that place years ago and I just had to go in.”
Of course, the filmmakers were excited about featuring such a quirky venue in the film.
“I told the guy who owned the restaurant that filmmakers were coming and he got so excited that he did the place up. When we arrived he’d painted all the walls white, all the art was covered and the filmmaker just crouched down and cried.”
White moved to Pensacola, in Florida’s Pan Handle, when he was five years old. “We were real Yankees from Southern California and it was a shock moving to the rural south. It was especially shocking for my sisters, who were real beach blanket babes.
“They were older than me and left a California that was all Beach Boys and pop culture to live in the Deep South.
“They didn’t like it at all at first.”
For White, the Southern culture eventually got a grip of him.
“I can distinctly remember the first time I said ‘y’all’, I was at my friends house and they were a lovely loving and proper southern southern family - one son became a preacher and the other a criminal.”
These experiences, along with White’s author-like observations, can be found in his music, particularly his latest album, Where It Hits You. He is unusually outward-looking for a musician, a trait he attributes to the fact that he’s not solely a songwriter.
“This may sound mean to other musicians, but if someone told me I couldn’t do music anymore, I’d be okay. There are so many other things I could do.”
White was a model, appearing in Vogue, among many other things and then worked in a factory where he mangled his hand in an industrial accident.
“After the accident I finished a degree in film studies and was offered a job at Mirimax.”
Fate had other plans for the southern musician, however. “Music was just a hobby but David Byrne discovered what I was doing and I signed to his label, Luaka Bop.”
But for man so intent on searching, he wasn’t looking for any of this. “It just happened because that’s what was intended to happen.”
Jim White performs with Paul von Fara at the Greystones, Greystones Road, on Sunday September 15.