Why KERA's Jeff Whittington Took a Break From Music, and Why He Came Back
Courtesy of Jeff Whittington
Jeff Whittington does not work on the most musically inclined part of your radio dial. Yet the executive producer of KERA's Think with Krys Boyd and host of the long running Anything You Ever Wanted to Know, a concept started by the late Glenn Mitchell with whom Whittington worked as a producer for several years, has an impressive history of musicianship and songwriting that started in his childhood, took him on the road with bands like Deep Blue Something and The Hundred Inevitables and recently led to the release of his first solo album produced by Grammy winner Stuart Sikes.
Whittington spoke to DC9 at Night before his upcoming "Patio Sessions" performance tonight at Sammons Park about juggling the busy life of a public radio producer with a music career, the topicality of his lyrics and how to write songs while trail running.
I imagine the two aren't completely different but when people learn that you're a public radio host and a musician, what kind of reaction do you normally get?
You know, the lead guy in OK Go (Damian Kulash) is a former producer at WBEZ in Chicago and they kind of got their start with Ira Glass supporting them. So it's not really outside of the ball park, but it's weird because my career in journalism and public broadcasting has been so completely separate from the music thing.
I went to the University of North Texas and I graduated with a media degree and an English degree. I was in bands for a long, long time. I toured a bunch. Then I decided to get serious about a career and went to work for public radio.
Was the music career not working?
I was looking for a job and I loved public radio. I had a singular experience with public radio in 1995 when the prime minister of Israel was assassinated. I was listening to public radio, I think I was somewhere in Iowa, on the road with this band I was in at the time. I heard the coverage and listened to it while we were traveling between gigs and I just said to myself, "Someday if I have to get a real job, I want to work in public radio."
So then, I went to work at KERA. I planned events for a couple of years. I was a pledge drive producer for a number of years before I started producing the midday show with Glenn Mitchell. I feel like it's one of those stories where if you hang around long enough and you're at the right place at the right time because I didn't really set out to be in journalism or to be in broadcasting but it just kind of ended up that way. I also never stopped writing music. I've been a musician my whole life. I felt like it was time to make a record a couple of years ago. So I got together with [producer] Stuart Sikes and started working on this record.
What made you decide it was time to do a record?
I had like 20 songs and I've been working on music with some other guys. We had a band called the Hundred Inevitables and we might still get a record out in the next year or so. We had a record that Stuart Sikes also produced. That record has kind of been sitting on the shelf for about a decade. So working with him was great and really manageable for me. It is kind of weird that I have the people who know me as the guy at the radio station and then the people that are like, "Oh yeah, that was the guy who was in all those bands."
So I guess people are starting to figure it out. This record came out in July, and it's gotten a pretty good reception. We're playing a little bit here and there and we're really excited to do this show [tonight].
How varied were the bands that you played in? Was there one that was out of the ordinary from the rest?
It always has been pretty much straight-ahead guitar pop. This record was a lot of instrumentation with a lot of organ and piano and stuff like that. I don't play that stuff live. I play guitar and sing live and we're probably going to add a keyboard player at some point but it's pretty scaled down. For me, it's always been about the song and whether it's Adam's Farm in the 90s and those records and we put several records out and the Hundred Inevitables was a little different because Toby Pipes (now with Little Black Dress) and I co-wrote almost everything, probably about 80 percent of the music we co-music, which was great. It was really fun and it's so much fun to co-write music because you can really support each other and amplify each other's good ideas. It really made it hard for me, doing that for a number of years and writing songs with Toby. It was so easy that it made it hard to finish songs. That for me as I've gotten older has become a challenge.
This record really was kind of that. There are songs on this record that are brand new and by brand new, that means from this decade. Then there are literally songs on this record that I always wanted to record but just never got it done and that when we started making the record were already over 10 years old. So I was really excited to finish the record.
As for the songs whether they are older or newer, I found myself writing a lot about big issues like climate change and changes to society in this record. I can't deny it when the first song has the words "carbon sequestration" in it. I think it's important that people talk about it. I don't have an opinion about the issues as a person with my day job because my job is deliver information but I do believe as a person who writes music and a person who writes that it's important for people to think about these things. There are things that I've always written about like personal loss or dealing with our ultimate demise or the ultimate death, so that's in there too. There's some loss and some disappointment in there and some struggle in there but I'm really proud of the pieces that are about what we as people are responsible for.
Were you always as topical with your songwriting?
Maybe with this record, I've gotten a lot more specific than I have in the past. I grew up listening to bands like R.E.M. when you could understand the lyrics, The Replacements, a lot of American rock and a lot of British rock and the British invasion stuff, a lot of folk music whether it was Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel. There was a lot of Cat Stevens records in my house when I was a little kid that I would listen to and get ideas from. I always felt like a song can be a visual thing. For me, it really is. When I hear a song, I see in my head a set of images that corresponds to what I think it's about or what I think it's about to me. I was always hopeful that other people who hear a song that I had written that they would have their own set of ideas of what it's about. I wasn't trying to be purposefully vague as a songwriter but I do like playing with that a little bit.
What's the most personal song from the album?
There's a song on there called "She's Gone," which I wrote about a friend of mine. [Leigh Tomlinson] died from cancer right at the beginning of 2008. We had only been friends for a couple of years but through her, my wife and I met a bunch of really, super cool people who we've been really good friends with ever since then. It's pretty obvious [that the song] is about losing something and I wrote the song right after she died. So the song's about how our lives really changed as a result of our friendship with her. That one's pretty special.
I've got lot of songs about lots of things and they can be about anything. I really feel that a song should be about not what the person who wrote necessarily says but what is it the person who's listening to it. For me, music is as open as any art form as a person who appreciates it and listens to it.
I also liked Literature Hell because it's such a clever idea. I'm just curious where that one came from.
I actually wrote that one while I was walking my dog in my head. I do that when I'm running, when I'm doing stuff where I don't have to think about it. That song starts out as a pretty obvious, oh gosh, you know, things used to be this way and things used to be so much different, maybe better some might say. People will say things like "when I was a kid" and "the good old days" and whatever happened to record stores. People don't think about the fact that we're so wrapped up in ourselves and our list of things that we have to do day to day that we don't think about the fact that there is a lot of stuff that we don't get to experience and we really ought to enjoy what we are able to experience now. There are meals we won't get to enjoy. There's art we won't get to enjoy and it's fun to say "Parker Posey" in a song.
When I heard that part of the song, I first thought to myself that putting Parker Posey's name in a song had to be either a personal challenge or a bet.
[Laughs] Well, Parker Posey's not my favorite actress but she's done a lot of good films and she's great. Who doesn't like Best in Show? And if you haven't seen The Oh in Ohio, you should.
The last part of the song says wait a minute, things aren't the way they used to be and if I'm going to die and miss a bunch of stuff, I better enjoy it all while I can. Then I started thinking about the fact that we don't even think about the fact that we're actually trapped in our bodies. We can experience things and think there's this whole concept of me but really we're kind of locked inside this thing. I guess that's where you get the words of the song, "trapped inside this thing we ride."
Where are you with writing songs for the next album?
Whittington: I've got this record that just came out and getting the record done as always been a freeing kind of thing. Here's the crazy thing: We finished mixing the record last year and it took time to get the mixes mastered and to get that dialed in and now, I've got to decide what's the artwork going to be. Then that got all done and now we've got to decide when it's going to come out. So now that I'm all through the process, I'm like, oh good, now I can start writing songs again. The next record may not get recorded right away but I've got about three or four song ideas. Can you talk about them yet?
I've got this song about trail running. It doesn't sound exciting but it's kind of like an old song format. What is really cool is that I wrote the lyrics trail running and I wrote them all on my phone and texted it to my dad (Dan Whittington) and said, "Hey, set this to music." My Dad's a musician. He sings in several choirs and plays in his church's band. He was a Dallas police officer for nearly 30 years and for half of that time, he directed the Dallas Police Choir, from the late '80s until he retired. He's also a folk musician while he was in the Marine Corps so that's where I learned all this folk music. So then I took that and just messed with it a little bit and came up with the final song. That will probably get recorded and I may play that song [Thursday]. The band doesn't know it yet.
So when you're not at the office or sleeping, are you working on the record?
My wife and I have two dogs and two cats and we have a bunch of chickens. We don't have any kids but there's a constant list of things to do just like everybody, so finding time to sit down and play with a guitar can be challenging. I feel like playing with the guys that are playing in this band, it's so rewarding. We're all of a certain age. We've all been in bands since we were in high school and I get so much of a charge out of it that I want to continue to do it.
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