Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Your Little Room

May 21, 2010 - 11:29am -- Carol Diehl
well you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in your bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think about how you got started
sitting in your little room
--The White Stripes

Last night I watched “The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights  (2009), a video of The White Stripes’s tour of Canada in 2007, where this two-person band that can easily fill stadiums, travelled to far-flung towns and villages, playing their punky bluesy, countrified rock in free daytime shows at each location with as short notice as possible. Similar to Sigur Ros’s tour of Iceland, which can be seen in their gorgeous video “Heima,” Jack and Meg White played venues as diverse as a rec center, a pool hall, a small boat, and a flour mill, culminating their tour with their 10th anniversary show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia—where they interfaced with local musicians, said to be distant relatives, playing regional music. The effect is surprisingly heart-warming, with attitude-free Jack White coming off as a total sweetie-pie.

White is also someone who’s thought a lot about the nature of creativity. His favorite quote about the band describes them as “simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world,” which made me think about how it’s the deft mixture of artifice and reality that makes for great art. Err too much on one side or the other and the magic is lost.

And White’s soliloquy on creativity was just the pep talk I needed before going into the studio:

It used to be, before I ever was on stage, there was the excitement of what it would be like to play onstage, or if I could just record… what would that be like? I don’t have inspirations like that anymore. Ten years later we’re just working in the same box….one part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself because I know something good can come out of it if I really work inside of it

Inspiration and work ethic, they ride right next to each other. When I was an upholsterer… sometimes you’re not inspired to reupholster an old chair, sometimes its just work, but you do it because you’re supposed to and in the end you look at it and think “it’s pretty good” and you move on. That’s it. Not every day of your life are you going to wake up, the clouds are going to part, the rays from heaven are going come down and you’re going to write a song…sometimes you just have to force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out of it. Whether we like it or not we write some songs and record them….book only 4 or 5 days in a studio and force yourself to record an album in that time…deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want— that just kills creativity. I’m using the same guitars onstage I used 10 years ago, and I like to do things to make it really hard for myself. For example, I don’t have picks all taped to my microphone stand. If I drop a pick, to get another I have to go all the way to the back of the stage. I place the organ just far enough away that I have to leap to get to it to play different parts of the song…. so I have to work harder to get somewhere. And there are hundreds of things like that…like those guitars I use that don’t stay in tune very well; they’re not conducive, not what regular bands go out and play. So I’m constantly fighting all these tiny little things because they build tension. There’s no set list when we play—that’s the biggest one—each show has its own life....when you go out and everything’s pre-planned and the table’s all set, nice and perfect, nothing’s going to happen; you’re going to go out and do this boring arena set….

All those things have always been a big component of The White Stripes: the constrictions…only having red, white and black colors on the art work and presentations, [sticking to] just guitar, drums and vocals, storytelling, melody and rhythm—these force us to create.


It is one of the great themes of invention or discovery – how to keep refining your patch, and still come up with novelty.

Your post struck a chord with me (to stretch the musical analogy) since I’d recently seen The Rolling Stones’ documentary on the making of their Exile On Main Street album in 1972 or 3 (I forget exactly when). Like the White Stripes, the Stones had been successful for around ten years when they retreated to the South of France to make their album in splendid isolation from the tax man and a changing London scene. They too tried to stick with their musical roots (50s Chess Records basically), but the results – to my ears, then and now – are mostly disappointing. Turning inward, as they did, just became an exercise in self-indulgence and complacency. One senses a narrowing of their tastes, a hardening of their persona.

There are one or two highlights but mostly they settle for the polished brassy sound they achieved in 1969 with Honky Tonk Women. The songs are phony frankly, and so are they.

Anyway, the contrast with The White Stripes is surely instructive. Not for them a massive French villa filled with groupies and drugs. Admittedly, we live in different times, but it seems you can’t keep the music real unless you keep yourself real in some ways.

I love the way The Stripes have stuck with small venues, erratic schedules – an almost Franciscan modesty. It’s not so much a matter of arrangements or scoring – but realizing who you are and what you’re doing – that keeps the work consistent or focused.

Jack’s playing has obviously grown far more expert with the years, and with that comes a certain confidence to try other things, so changes are inevitable. But I don’t sense that he will lose sight of his audience, or himself.

Great post! I was actually searching online for the lyrics to "Little Room" to add them to my list of favorite quotations. I definitely think that restrictions can make for better art. As Orson Welles says in The Third Man, "In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

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