March 12, 2004
Interview by Bonnie Schendell
Peter White has spent more than 30 years as a professional musician, and most of his albums have spent time on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart. Many of us were first introduced to Peter through his touring with Al Stewart so many years ago. But this guitarist is no longer playing back-up to anyone. As a solo artist, Peter has wowed crowds all over the world. I had the opportunity to chat with Peter in person before his performance at the Berks Jazz Festival in Reading , PA.
SmoothViews (SV): Peter, how are you?
Peter White (PW): I'm great. I came out from sunny California yesterday to do this show. We got into Philadelphia airport late last night and as we started driving towards Reading, I could swear it was snowing. Looked like some very heavy, thick, fluffy rain if it wasn't snow! Is rain fluffy?! It wasn't raining anymore, so it must have been snow. (both laughing)
SV: You just came off a year promoting Confidential. How has that been?
PW: Well, in the pop world, when you come out with your latest album, you tour a hundred cities for four months and then disappear for four years. In smooth jazz we just tour all the time. I'm promoting myself as an artist, not so much my latest album. We tour to make a living.
SV: Has radio always been receptive to your sound?
PW: Well, yes, I suppose so. When I released my first album in 1990, I didn't have any idea if it would ever sell or get played on the radio. What I was doing didn't sound to me like anything I had heard on the radio, except maybe Acoustic Alchemy. They were really influential to me when I started out. They already had three albums released by the time I did my first album and they were coming out with their fourth, Reference Point. Great influence on me. I was so glad to meet those guys. They really inspired me. And when I found out they were English like me, it inspired me even more. So after I released my first album, I started to get some airplay, but back then the radio format wasn't called Smooth Jazz, it was called New Adult Contemporary. There was a lot more World music and New Age music in the mix back then.
SV: After all the years in the pop scene with Al Stewart, how did you end up in smooth jazz?
PW: Because I can't sing, I guess. How did I end up being played on smooth jazz radio? You'll have to ask smooth jazz radio. I never said I was going to be smooth jazz because there was no smooth jazz back then. I just made an instrumental album because I don't sing very well, using all the influences that I had growing up - pop, disco, soul, funk, rock. I started listening to the Wave 94.7 in Los Angeles because I thought it was KMET, which was a rock station, and I liked listening to rock back then. You know, Led Zeppelin every hour on the hour! One day I switched the radio on and what? What was this? This is not Led Zeppelin. It had become a different station, and they were playing, among other things, acoustic guitar music, and it sounded great. Acoustic guitar. I always loved playing acoustic guitar from my Al Stewart days, and that was kind of generally what I was known for. People said to me, “You need to make an acoustic guitar album one day.” I got so much encouragement from the Al Stewart audience and people saying that they loved the acoustic guitar sound and that I should make an acoustic guitar album. So after hearing Acoustic Alchemy and even hearing myself playing with Al Stewart on the radio I decided that I had to do my own album of guitar music. I wasn't thinking Smooth Jazz. I was thinking how can I make my own music. I took some of the songs I had written for Al Stewart and turned them into instrumental songs. “Romance Dance” from my first CD was one of those. What is interesting is that when I started playing with Al Stewart in 1975, he didn't know I played guitar. He already had a guitar player - he hired me to play keyboards. So if I didn't play keyboards, I would have not got my gig with Al Stewart and my life might have been totally different. I keep stressing this to younger musicians when they ask how I can help them. Learn to play the piano. If you don't already play keyboards, learn to play. It helped me enormously.
SV: Do you still play the keyboard?
PW: Oh, yeah. I was in sound check just now and since David [Sparkman], my keyboard player was still asleep (laughs), I tickled the keys a little! I don't play as much as I used to, but when I was growing up, playing the guitar and piano was a release from school work and the pressures of life. It was almost like meditating for me. Taking me away from everything. When I am playing the piano or the guitar, I am not thinking about anything. People don't understand this - they ask how do you play like that? I say don't think - just play!
SV: When you are up on stage, what are you thinking about?
PW: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you are thinking, you are not playing. Basketball players have a different name for it. The say it's being in the zone. “I was in the zone, baby!” You're not thinking where does my hand go? Where does my foot go? You've done all that in practice. When it comes to the actual performance, you leave all that behind. You're just playing now. You're just playing from the heart.
SV: You always seem so happy when you're up on stage.
PW: Well, why not? I get to play music that I like in front of people who like listening to it. I could be working in a factory. I did when I was 19. I know what minimum wage is. One of my favorite people, Michael Fagrey, who passed away a couple of years ago, whenever we complained he used to call us "whining, complaining musicians." He'd say "Remember, minimum wage is $5.75. $5.75! $5.75 per hour! Not $575, just remember that when you're complaining about this job." I'm happy when I'm playing. Yeah, happy. Why not? I didn't always look happy, though. I saw a video of myself when I was playing with Al Stewart and it is very interesting to watch a video of yourself. If you've ever watched a video of yourself, you know what I mean. Nobody wants to watch themselves on video because you have an idea of how you look, and when you see the reality, it's not a pretty sight. It's, "Oh my God, do I look like that? Did I do that?"' I looked at a video of myself and I looked so miserable back in the Al Stewart days. I felt the same about playing music as I do now, but his music was admittedly more serious than the music that I play now. He would write music about Russian soldiers going back to Moscow after World War II …"Roads to Moscow." You don't smile when you are playing or singing about that serious subject. I think that my music is generally happy. It's not enough to feel happy. I realized this as a performer. I even went to see a performance coach and he told me the same thing. He said I looked so miserable. And I played the song “Promenade” to him and he stopped me and said, "What's wrong with you?" I said I was fine. He said, "You look miserable."
SV: So how did you change your outward attitude?
PW: Well, just like the bully when he's told that he can't bully anymore, that he's hurting people. The bully can't hide behind that cloak of deniability anymore. He can't just say it's just a joke and nobody cares. Once somebody is confronting you and telling you that you look miserable or that you look terrible, you cannot pretend to yourself anymore that you don't. I just talked a moment ago about that idea of how you think you look and the ugly reality of when somebody actually shows you a videotape of yourself and you don't look at all how you thought. You might have felt happy, but you didn't look happy. I see people at my shows sometimes who stare at the stage with completely blank faces, or they are looking away. It makes you think they are having an awful time and they don't look very happy. And that same person will come to me after a show and say that was the best show they had ever seen. The performance coach said to me that it is different for the performer. You have to convey to the audience how you feel. You can't just feel happy. You have to be happy and show that you feel happy, and then they'll feel happy. And when you walk on stage, there's an expectation there about you, so you have to be even happier. You have to convey even more happiness. It's almost impossible to overdo being happy on stage, otherwise if you look just a little bit happy on stage, it'll come across to the audience as just normal. You have to be one step ahead of the audience emotionally. So, I do look happy on stage because I am happy on stage and I have learned how to convey it and not to hold back. Some people are very good at being cool on stage. Miles Davis was the King of cool. He could turn his back to the audience and still be cool and everybody loved him. But I am not Miles Davis! There will never be another Miles Davis.
SV: You have worked with so many artists. How do you choose who goes on tour with you? The Christmas tour was so great with Rick Braun and Mindi Abair.
PW: I would love to say it was my idea, but actually …well, very often the agents put things together behind the scenes. My agent is Mario Tirado, who is now with APA. He and my manager talk all the time. You know, there are all these people who do stuff for me, and I am really glad they do because if not, then I would be living in a shack somewhere, wondering where all the money was. My wife, I think I have to thank for that... upping my standard of living. If it were up to me, I'd just want to play music and no business would be done! Every musician should have someone looking after him like that. But, back to the question - I had the idea to do my own Christmas tour. I'd been doing Christmas tours since 1995 with Art Good and JazzTrax and later with Dave Koz. When Dave called and told me that he was going to change the whole lineup and use Marc Antoine instead of me to play guitar, I saw it as an opportunity to go out on my own. You see, there were so many people who would email me and ask why we weren't playing in their city, like Boston. So I thought let's take that as an example. Why don't I do a Christmas tour and play places that Dave didn't play on his tour, like Boston? And we put together a tour based on that assumption. We played a lot of places that Dave didn't play, like Boston and Denver and there were just a couple of places where we did overlap.
SV: Well, there is enough of an audience out there to support both.
PW: I think so. And we wanted to play smaller venues, like the Birchmere. I'm always welcome there. We based our Christmas tour on playing those smaller places. Mario, my agent, said, “Why don't you bring along Mindi Abair?” She had just had a big hit with her song “Lucy's,” from her first album, and she hadn't done a whole lot of touring with her own band, especially on the East Coast, so Mario thought that it would be a great partnership. And it was. I wish I could say it was my idea! (laughs) I knew Mindi. I had actually met her 10 years ago here at the Berks Jazz Fest. She'd never admit to this, but she was playing with John Tesh! Mindi came up to me and introduced herself and gave me a demo CD of some music she had been working on. But then I didn't see her for a long time after that. I never imagined that 10 years later we'd be touring, but life's like that and the music business is like that. That first Christmas tour with Mindi was a wonderful experience. There were five of us in the band and a road manager. We were in two minivans with all of our equipment. We all took turns driving. I drove a lot. Donald, my bass player, drove. Mindi drove some. It was fun. And it was my manager's idea to add Rick [Braun] to last year's show. I wish I could tell you again that it was my idea. So with Rick we started to play a few bigger places. In fact we did play a few places that Dave played, like in Cleveland where we played the State Theater one night and he played the next. I actually joined him on stage for his show as we had a night off, and I must say, his stage set was a lot better than ours! He had a beautifully designed set with sparkling trees, big presents and huge hanging stars. We just had a few blow-up, inflatable snowmen on stage, and one night I looked back and Rick was behind one and Mindi was behind the other, just making them dance to the music! It was fun! Whenever Rick, Mindy and I get together, we get pretty goofy.
SV: What musicians do you feel you really connect with?
PW: On stage? Rick Braun, more than anyone. I've done more shows with Rick than any other musician. Definitely with him I feel a kinship. When I play he listens and when he plays I listen. When we play together it's not ever rehearsed, really. We don't need to rehearse a lot. I would definitely say Rick. And I am doing a tour with him starting in April… with Rick and Richard Elliot, who I have also done hundreds of shows with, mostly Guitars and Saxes shows over the years. And Jonathan Butler, who I don't think I have ever played on stage with before. That tour will be fun. (Check www.peterwhite.com for tour details).
SV: What do you get from your fans and what do you want your fans to get from your music?
PW: Chocolate guitars!! I think you just gave me one. (laughs) I think when somebody tells me that my music has touched them or taken them through a difficult time, that's priceless. Or when people email me and tell me how much they like my music or that they listen to my music on the way to work. I mean, you could listen to anything on the way to work. I am very touched by that and it gives me the enthusiasm to carry on. That's one of the hardest things about being a musician. No one ever talks about this, but when I was a teenager, I had ultimate enthusiasm for playing music because it was a release from my school or any problems I was having like with girlfriends. Nowadays, it's my job and it has been for 30 years. So how could I possibly retain the same enthusiasm? You can't. You can't possibly retain the same enthusiasm as you did as a youngster. So, playing in front of people... which I didn't do as a teenager by the way, I was playing by myself in my room! (laughs) Now I get the chance to play in front of people and that rekindles my enthusiasm. I never really play for my own enjoyment anymore. That's the biggest change from when I was a teenager. When I was a teenager I ONLY played for my own enjoyment and I didn't really play for people. I was too shy anyway. Now playing in front of people is the greatest kick to my enthusiasm. That's why I do it. I'm playing music not for me anymore. I'm playing to share the music with everyone.
SV: I read that you will have a new CD coming out that will be a sequel to your 1994 Reflections CD. Do you think there is a trend toward cover songs?
PW: Yeah, I may call it Reflections 2, if that's not too confusing! I can't think of a better name! Like Reflections 1 , it will all be cover songs. I was listening to WJJZ yesterday, out of Philadelphia, and I heard a lot of cover songs. Cover songs are great songs that have already been hits. I like to record cover songs. It's fun and it takes the pressure off you to write a great song because the song is already great! They don't write songs like they used to. I like the 70s and most of the songs I choose to record are from the 70s. When I produced my first Reflections album, everybody told me it wouldn't fly. You know why? Because they didn't play cover songs back then on radio. I was told this categorically by a few radio program directors that they wouldn't play cover songs. This was in 1994. I was ahead of my time!! I wasn't jumping on any bandwagon. I thought it would be fun. I also had limited time to produce an album because I was going to be touring with Basia, and I knew that the only way I would get it done in the few weeks I had was to use songs already out there, so that's how Reflections came about. The album did eventually get played. In 1995 there was a shift toward playing cover songs. That was already too late for my album! On the Wave in Los Angeles, I still hear almost every day, “The Closer I Get To You,” the version I recorded with Boney James from the Reflections album. I have also heard my version of “Could It Be I'm Falling in Love" many times. So I just thought that 11 years have gone by now and it would be fun to do another set of old songs. Also, I found an old tape of all my ideas from back then and all the songs I didn't use, because I recorded about 25 songs in demo form for the first Reflections album, and I had forgotten I'd done that. I would have sworn to you that I could never do another Reflections album because I couldn't find any songs that were suitable. And yet I found this tape, and there it was... the evidence staring me right in the face that I had recorded all these other songs, which I thought sounded pretty good. I thought why not have some fun, try and do another album, and have it released before the year is out. And now, it's a crowded field with everybody making cover songs. Now maybe I'm behind the times!
SV: One last question before you head off to the show. What has been your toughest obstacle in your career, and what's been your greatest achievement?
PW: Funny enough it's the same thing. We're talking about a 30-year career here, and when I started out my toughest obstacle was that I couldn't sing. I sing a little bit… I mean I get by, but I am no great singer. And back then, in 1974, I tried. I was up there on stage with my first band singing “Teddy Bear” by Elvis Presley, and I realized this is not me. I figured then I'm just going to be a guy in a band playing behind a singer, which I was for almost 20 years playing with Al Stewart and also with Basia. I thought, that's it for me, and I was quite okay with that. I thought, yeah, Jimmy Page, he was a guy in a band. It was his band, but he was behind the singer and he was a star, so maybe I could be like him. Or Ron Wood with Rod Stewart and the Faces. So that to me was my greatest obstacle. My greatest achievement is that I managed to be here today playing with a band and I am still not singing. Well maybe a teeny bit here and there. I think to actually front the band with an acoustic guitar and have people buy the CDs and come to the shows… even in the early days, I used to think to myself that this is impossible. What am I thinking? Why am I kidding myself? But somehow I did it. I'm still here after 30 years and still playing guitar. Anything else is icing on the cake.
SV: Peter, thank you. It is always a pleasure.
PW: Thank you.
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