by Hélène Montpetit
David Whyte can’t remember a time when he wasn’t engaged in a love affair with music. He remembers being delighted at the age of five when his visiting grandmother sat at the piano to play old time popular songs. Leafing through a catalog at the age of ten, he saw a guitar and immediately marched up to his mother, – (he remembers she was ironing at the time) – pointed to the guitar and told her he would like to try playing it.
“Your grandmother has one of those,” his mother said.
A few days later, they drove out to grandma’s house and he was given his first instrument: a little guitar in natural wood with painted palm trees on the front and an incorporated slide bar. David says he recently found one exactly like it at a friend’s house. He confesses he felt the need to pick it up and smell it. He says the scent brought him right back to his first days playing.
During his early teens, David played gigs around the Chateauguay Valley with a band called The Edge. One night, as he was improvising a lead break, he entered a state he describes as euphoric.
“It was a very momentary, but very powerful experience,” he says. “I was floating on the sound. I have had many nice experiences playing since, but that was a one-time great experience. I never felt that again.”
David has been playing lead and rhythm guitar for forty-four years and also plays saxophone. He has been teaching guitar in his community for several years to round out his income. Several of his former students have started their own bands and he loves to catch their shows when he can. He speaks of them with pride and passion, saying that these days he considers himself more a teacher than an artist.
Still, David, who was raised on a dairy farm, has written country, pop and rock songs most of his life. When he was about eight, he began singing about a little bluebird as he went about his chores. Having heard Trini Lopez on the radio, he had instinctively blended Lemon Tree and Yellow Bird into an original tune, which he immediately shared with his mother. He still remembers it, too: “Where oh where has bluebird gone,” he sings.
David says he wrote four songs during his teens, began writing more regularly in his mid-twenties and stepped up his activities after thirty, significantly increasing his repertoire of original tunes. When asked about his main influences, he says that he liked different people at different stages of his life.
“When is the song finished? The answer is: when it stops bugging you. Until it’s finished, it keeps nagging: ‘I’m not finished, finish me!’”
“The Beatles blew my mind,” he says, then quips: “Then again, the fainting, screaming girls might have had something to do with it.”
He admires Bruce Springsteen.
“As an overall artist, he’s really something,” he says, “Springsteen has managed to have a long career without ever selling out. He is always relevant and keeps trying to be honest. That is the ideal. I saw him this year. He’s a great entertainer besides being an artist. He can really move you while performing, make you laugh your head off and make you cry. He has so much material that he left at least twenty really good concert songs out of his set and it still was great!”
He goes on to name Mark Knoffler, Santana, Hendrix, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Van Morrison. Then he mentions Sting’s voice and integrity, an element that evidently is important to him.
“After fifty is my favourite period,” he says. “What it is is what it is. I go for simplicity. I used to go for complex stuff. Now, I go for soul. Knowing that there is a very good chance I’ll never sell anything frees me. I write because I can’t help myself: I feel compelled to do it. I am less and less influenced by commercial concerns. In my forties I tried to be clever and write something that would sell.”
So how does David Whyte come up with a song?
“Usually one line or phrase triggers the process. My interest is piqued and I twist the words this way and that. When I was thinking more commercially, I preferred clever lines that could be made into commercial country songs but now they don’t have to be clever. They just have to get my attention. I have notebooks full of ideas. I jot them down as I go and if I need inspiration, I’ll go to my notebooks.”
Sometimes, he tries to marry an interesting musical idea to inspiring lyrics. Usually, he begins with the lyrics because they set the mood. Admitting he has been in a slump during the last few months, David says he knows that if he sits down to work for a half-hour a day, he’ll get bitten again and have songs running through his head all the time.
“A little thing I do sometimes when trying to get moving is to get myself in the mood of the song. I intentionally think of past experiences or people to try to get to the emotion.”
He also does what he calls freestyle. Once he gets and idea, he free writes to get his head out of the way and just go with whatever is there. He says this not only has helped get him out of a rut, it has also provided him with ideas for other songs.
David’s notebooks map out his process.
“Sometimes, the first page is really messy, but the next page is neater. It has the verse in its place, a few line possibilities, and maybe one chosen line. Then the following page has more finished material. It takes four or five pages to get it right. Then I’ll record it and I might modify it again after that. When is the song finished? The answer is: when it stops bugging you. Until it’s finished, it keeps nagging: ‘I’m not finished, finish me!’”
When asked about risk and pushing the form, David answers that he hopes to express something unique, but is very cautious about being different or weird for the sake of originality.
“It’s okay for it just to be a song,” he says. “Springsteen has written so many that he rolls over the same territory some of the times, but the point is to get it across. It’s not a problem if the song only has three chords or repeats a melody line I’ve already used.”
How does he deal with negative criticism?
“Mostly I lie naked in a foetal position in the corner and shudder for several days,” he laughs. “No… I’m getting a lot better at that, but I’ve never been good at taking it. The fear of criticism has kept me from presenting my stuff. Less than five percent of my gigs have been original, but then playing covers has been my bread and butter.”
Probably because he hasn’t shared his art widely, David doesn’t feel it has had much of an effect on the world. He says that if he toured and played his own material, he might have more of a sense of that.
“Ideally, I would like to entertain. You know, to have people, small audiences, entertained and enlightened. They might listen for forty-five minutes or an hour and feel better. I’d like it to be a nice human experience.”
David says he keeps plugging away at music because it’s what he feels most at home doing. Being a musician is part of his identity and music is his language. He has recently teamed up with two long-time musician friends and is putting more emphasis on his original songs. Let’s hope he gives us all a “nice human experience” some time soon.
This article was written in the summer of 2013. Since then, David has joined the Durham County Poets, a popular folk-roots-blues band currently providing nice human experiences for people all across Quebec, Ontario and the Eastern US. For more information, click here.