On Wednesday, Jack White joined an illustrious list of honorees — including Quincy Jones, Neil Young, Nile Rodgers, and Rick Rubin — at the Recording Academy’s 10th Annual Producers & Engineers Wing Grammy week event, held at Los Angeles’s famous Village Recording Studios. And in his charming acceptance speech, the 12-time Grammy winner managed to name-check everyone from Bing Crosby to the Kingsmen to the King of Pop, and even Kellyanne Conway, all in less than five fun minutes.
“I had a speech prepared by [Trump counselor] Kellyanne Conway and [notorious music industry blogger] Bob Lefsetz, but I left it in the car on the way here, so I’m just going to wing it,” White quipped, before musing nostalgically about the analog recording techniques of yore.
“When I was younger, when I was about 14 or so, my brother Joe was kind enough to send me a four-track reel-to-reel and sound mixer for my bedroom, and he was the first to sort of show me engineering techniques, which at that time consisted of bass and treble,” said White, a longtime vinyl enthusiast and blues aficionado. “But in that bedroom I learned a lot about how to do things under restriction. … You’d record something and erase it if it wasn’t good enough; you’d erase it, and it was gone forever. Which is something that, I think, is becoming few and far between in the new generation, where you can record a million times and keep all of them. I still work in that [old-school] way, and that kind of restriction, I think, is really important.
“Recording under duress is kind of interesting,” White continued. “The second album we made with the White Stripes, we recorded in my living room on an 8-track, reel-to-reel. … At one point doing the album, we were recording a cover of Son House’s ‘Death Letter’. … We’re playing for about a minute and [drummer] Meg [White] stops and has this fear-of-God look on her face, completely frozen. I’m just playing, and I don’t understand what’s going on. I stopped and said, ‘What?’ She didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what was going on. I turned around, and there was a 300-pound drunk man standing in my living room, who had just been walking down the street and walked into the house. When you record under that kind of duress, I think you really learn a lot about constriction!”
White, the hardest-working man in indie rock, received his P&E Wing Recording Academy honor not just for his six albums with the now-defunct White Stripes, his two solo releases, and his supergroups the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, but also for his career-reviving production work for veterans like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and for his Third Man Records store/label venture in Nashville. White explained his work ethic to the crowd.
“I agree with something that Michael Jackson said once: You’re an antenna, and it’s all about letting God in the room,” White said. “And I also believe, personally, that you let the music tell you what to do. You don’t tell music what to do; it’s not an ego trip. You’re not in control. You sit there and you set up the scenario, and the music tells you what your actions should be — especially when you’re helping other people. Producers are not just supposed to tell people what to do; they’re supposed to bring out the best in [artists]. If you can’t bring out anything in them, if there’s nothing you can add to it, then you shouldn’t take the job.”
White also gave shoutouts to guitar pioneer Les Paul; Kingsmen member Don Galluci for producing the landmark Funhouse album by White’s Detroit garage-rock predecessors, the Stooges; and Bing Crosby, who “took money out of his own wallet and contributed to the production of making analog tape machines, to progress this entire industry forward. That’s about building bridges and carrying on for the next generation — and I think we should build bridges and not walls, especially right now!”
The event — which was attended by Beck, Regina Spektor, Reggie Watts, Blondie’s Clem Burke, Lisa Loeb, ZZ Ward, Weezer’s Brian Bell, American Idol’s Haley Reinhart, and White’s longtime friend and supporter Conan O’Brien — ended with White introducing his latest Third Man Records signing, Lillie Mae (Rische), the fiddler in his touring band and a former member of the sibling Americana group Jypsi. Rische released the 7-inch single “Nobody’s” on Third Man in 2014, and her full-length solo debut is being produced by White. “I was begging her for years to record an album, and we finally got her to do it,” White remarked.
The 59th Annual Grammy Awards take place Sunday, when White will possibly deliver another memorable speech if he wins a 13th trophy: He’s up this year for Best Rock Performance for his duet with Beyoncé, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” one of the most adventurous tracks off Beyoncé’s nine-times-nominated album Lemonade.