Every reaction begins with a catalyst, some initial event that sets things on their inexorable course. For Drake White, it goes back to something raw and elemental in his debut album Spark.
"I learned how to play guitar and keep people's attention around a fire," explains the Hokes Bluff, Alabama native. "A spark can start a fire that can keep you alive and sustain you. So this is the beginning for me. This is the first strike of the flint."
The spirit of Spark comes from those simple, early days spent enjoying the outdoors among friends in the warm glow of a fire. And though he's now a city dweller with all the complications and distractions that entails, White still seeks the freedom and deeper connections he felt when the chorus of nature and the
strums of his guitar blended into one harmonious song — the kind of contentment he sings about in the swirling majesty of his single "Livin' the Dream."
"We grew up free. We grew up on 4-wheelers, riding through the backwoods," he says. "We grew up hunting and fishing and being out in the Appalachian Mountains. People don't understand how beautiful north Alabama is until you see it in person."
Save for "Livin' the Dream," White wrote or co-wrote the remaining 11 tracks on Spark, working with red-hot producers Ross Copperman and Jeremy Stover through the process. He also brought in his own band for a handful of tracks to capture the energy of his live shows.
The first sound on Spark — before the pulse-quickening "Heartbeat" kicks into gear — is the voice of White's late grandfather speaking from the pulpit. Several of these ghostly transmissions from the past appear on Spark, all extolling the virtues of love, brotherhood and nature. It's a touch of the surreal that nods at White's fondness for Pink Floyd's psychedelic masterpiece The Wall, but also a deeply personal gesture that matches his vision perfectly.
"I went through about five or six sermons of my grandfather and picked out certain little snippets," he says. "I just think they kind of fit. They're weird and people are asking what they are. And that was my point: to get people talking about it."
White has his own message of finding some harmony amid the demands of modern life, one that goes down easy in the uplifting, Zac Brown Band-assisted Southern rock anthem "Back to Free" and the cautionary-but- soulful "I Need Real." It's a simple message of not letting oneself be swallowed up by technology and seeking out honest, genuine connections with others.
"When I'm at home, my wife and I keep our phones in the bedroom," says White. "We listen to records. We hardly turn the TV on, unless it's time for Game of Thrones. Before social networking was a smartphone app, we did it around a fire. That goes way back."
With his gospel-derived, passionate delivery, White seems to have inherited his grandfather's ability to touch crowds with a sermon — his divine vocal improvisations at the end of the honky-tonk flavored "Story" will undoubtedly get butts out of seats. White stresses that he isn't a preacher, but doesn't see a problem with putting his own methods for surviving the world out there.
"Some of the best songs, like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" or anything by Bob Marley, have a little bit of preachin'," he says. "I never want to come across too preachy, but instead I'm saying, 'Hey man, this is my life, and this is what I do to be happy and I'm figuring it out just like you.'"
Spark covers an entire spectrum of emotions beyond these statements of character and self-definition. In "Making Me Look Good Again," White cruises on an R&B-style groove to express his gratitude for his better half, while "Waiting on the Whiskey to Work" finds him embodying a man spun out on love and heartbreak. Then in the tropically-themed "Equator," he flies south to give his nomadic side a little time to play.
"This record is about balance. It's me asking, where's that boy I used to be? Oh yeah, we gotta go get him back," he says. "We gotta go on a hike or camping or grab my wife and go to some foreign country. I gotta feel alive. I gotta go out there and do that."
Long a respected live entertainer with his (appropriately named) band the Big Fire, White's climb to the limelight hasn't been a straight or uncomplicated one. Rather than blowing up right away with a big debut single, he's toiled on the road for years, giving jaw-dropping performances night after night and making believers one show at a time.
"There are many different paths. And mine was just in a van with a trailer," he says. "I wanted to have a group of guys that went out and did it the hard way and learned from people like Zac Brown and Eric Church, and these guys that did years of hard touring. There were definitely times where I was like, screw this. But now that I look back it's a perfectly fitted puzzle piece. It gave me everything I desired."
In the album's "Elvis," White touches on the way hard work plays into the business of making dreams come true. "Rome wasn't built in a day and Elvis wasn't born the king," he sings, acknowledging the long incubation period he's had in the buildup to this moment.
"I'm gonna be an artist 'til the day I die," he says. "Don't matter if I make money at it or I don't. that's the blessing and the curse. I do this because this is what I am supposed to do. And I feel happy when I'm writing, when I'm helping people and when I'm out there singing and performing."
And all the while, he'll be stoking that original fire until it's a roaring blaze.