Ian Maleney talks beer, punk and Dolly Parton with William Elliott Whitmore who plays the Sugar Club on Saturday 19th November.

Ian Maleney talks beer, punk and Dolly Parton with William Elliot Whitmore who plays the Sugar Club on Saturday 19th November.

 

William Elliot Whitmore is home on the farm on a cold, blustery day in Iowa. Just off a tour with The Low Anthem, the man is making the most of the downtime before he heads off to foreign lands once again. “I’m soaking up my home time before I hit the road again,” he says. “In the fall that means doing a little bit of harvesting and tending the garden, though most of that is done by now. Just doing the things that need done around the farm, fixing fences, all the chores. The days vary but there’s some basic things that need doing.”

You get the sense of a tight-knit unit on the farm, an old world solidarity which is striking. “My grandmother lives next door to me so I kind of help keep an eye on her and basically just doing the farm thing. My uncle is here and my grandma is here and they keep an eye on things when I’m gone, make sure the horses get fed and the dogs and make sure the eggs get gathered. It’s not a huge farm, certainly by Iowa standards, it’s kind of a small operation. It’s not hugely labour intensive anyway. They hold down the fort.”

Whitmore has been on a practically never-ending tour over the past decade, one that has seen him and his banjo play to crowds all over the world and his newest record, Field Songs, has continued that interminable journey. One primary factor in his success to date has been the ability to convey something utterly human in his songs, to lace his voice with a distilled drop of sheer existence that makes his songs so easy to take to heart. He says the key to this is simplicity. “I try to write in a way so that any one can get something from the song, kind of write about things everyone has gone through, universal themes.”

Of course his songs rely hugely on language and the spoken word, which is fine in Iowa but how does that translate when it comes to playing in places where English isn’t always understood? “I always wonder that myself you know, is someone from Berlin going to be able to get something from this?” he says. “Usually it works out pretty well, I usually get a good response in a place like that. I’ve played in Norway and Slovenia and Italy and different places where a lot of folks speak English but it’s definitely not their main language and so they maybe get bits and pieces of what I’m saying but the theme comes through. The feeling comes through hopefully. It’s why I really enjoy coming to Ireland because of the lyrical traditions and literary traditions that make Ireland world famous. That’s why I really look forward to coming there and testing it out. I can’t speak for every writer, but that’s what I aspire to. James Joyce, Samuel Becket, that’s who I hold in really high regard.”

Whitmore has expressed concern in the past about the strength of his influences, professing not to listen to Tom Waits for fear of attempting to copy him. Does the same go for writers outside of the musical sphere? “That’s interesting because I love to read but there is that sort of feeling where, even subconsciously, sometimes another writer’s style can get into your own,” he says. “Maybe that isn’t a bad thing, maybe everyone does that, you can’t help but be influenced by what you read. I try not to be, that is to say, I want to be influenced but I don’t want to rip anybody off! That’s the eternal balance for any artist, no matter if you’re a writer or a painter or anything. Like if you’re a painter and you’re influenced by Pablo Picasso, you don’t want to do exactly what he did but you want to be inspired by that person. That’s how I feel about my favourite writers, I want to take what they did and put my own thumbprint on it. More of an homage, not a theft!”

One fundamental difference between the high-modernist masters and Whitmore is the latter’s rural background. His preoccupation with the countryside and its life gives him a slightly different spin on things than most people are used to hearing. “That’s the good thing,” he says, “each person can’t help but write about what they know. For those guys it was a certain environment, a certain time. For me, it’s a different sort of environment which is, as you say, more rural and farm-orientated. I enjoy themes of death and rebirth and equating that to planting seeds in the spring and harvesting in the fall and relating that to a person’s life-cycle as well. That’s kind of the themes I enjoy and the metaphors I enjoy. It’s different in that way for sure.”

His well-worn story-telling ability gives him the power to drive home the imagery of survival, space and regeneration, instilling people with a sense of where he comes from. “That’s kind of the beauty of any kind of art, when you can make people see things the way you see them for a second. Any great photographer or poet or anybody, you just want to make people see things how you see them. I always feel that’s something of a true mission. If we can see how each other sees the world, through different lenses, that might help us understand a little more.”

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