It’s a warm June afternoon in Richmond, and Sarah White relaxes onto a wooden bench underneath a verdant tree in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts garden. A slow breeze rustles garden life and pushes lethargic cotton candy clouds through the cerulean sky.
“Isn’t she amazing?,” White asks, tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear and gesturing toward “Chloe,” a 24-foot-tall bright-white sculptural head that was installed in the VMFA garden this past spring. “I love her; she’s so serene,” White says with an exhale.
White seems pretty serene herself. She’s taken the afternoon off from her full-time history gig at the St. John’s Church Foundation—the church is the site of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech—to talk about her upcoming record, High Flyer, which she plans to play in its entirety on Friday night at the Southern.
High Flyer is White’s first full-length album since 2007’s White Light. It’s not that she hasn’t been writing songs—she’s written plenty and released a handful of EPs both solo and with others, including Married Life, Sweetheart and Beeline, in the interim—she’s just been taking her time and living her life.
And with good reason—she wants High Flyer to be the record of a lifetime, the one that ripples and travels outward long after any initial splash. “I’m not trying to say that nothing [from previous records] was worthy” of that, says White. But the sonic quality of High Flyer is bigger than anything she’s done before. “This one feels like the one I’ve always wanted to make,” she says.
To start, White, who grew up in Charlottesville and has lived in town off and on for years, played 30 songs from her catalog for producer Stewart Myers and together they chose 11 of White’s best songs so far—some old, some new, some borrowed, some blue, White says—with the intention of making the best possible record.
After a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign that funded the album, Myers, who also played bass on the record, brought in a slew of seasoned session musicians to play with White, including Daniel Clarke on keyboards, piano and accordion; Charles Arthur on guitar; Charlie Bell on pedal steel and John O’Reilly Jr. on drums. Dave Matthews sings harmony on “Sweetheart.”
Die-hard White fans will recognize some of the High Flyer tracks from previous records, but the songs will feel as new as they do familiar. “Already Down,” which White previously recorded as a rock song, has been transformed into a piano ballad; “Sarah Arizona” has been at least partially rewritten and rearranged since she recorded it for White Light, but it’s still about wondering how you ended up where you are, inspired by a Southwestern road trip full of Italian driving companions and dumpy hotels, during which White swears she saw a town called Sarah—or was it Será?—in remote Arizona.
All of the tracks on High Flyer are classic Sarah White: They’re smart, earthy, honest songs, full of heartbreak that cuts sharp through glittering wit, all a reminder that White is, as she always has been, the coolest gal around.
Take as evidence one of the new tunes, “Love Don’t Bother Me.” Is the title imperative, as in “Love, don’t bother me,” White asks coyly, raising an eyebrow. Is it a sad resignation to solitude, “love don’t bother me”? Or is it a declaration of strength, “love don’t bother me,” not one little bit? (Hint: it’s all three.)
She wrote the song a while back, upon realizing that when walking from Downtown Charlottesville to her home (and cat) in Belmont, her route took her past the homes of multiple exes. She started thinking, “love don’t bother me, love don’t bother me” as she walked by them sitting on their porches. She was tired of bad breakup memories, of avoiding these people in her hometown; she was tired of loneliness and of love (or the lack thereof) getting to her. The line became a mantra, then a song.
“It might speak to my personality, to my exterior that acts like it doesn’t want love or attention, or that it doesn’t care, [guarding] an interior that’s really lonely and dying for it,” says White.
White says that when she first started playing “Love Don’t Bother Me” live, she’d play it fast, a way of hiding what it really meant, and it worked—“people thought it was a fun song,” White says. But on High Flyer, “Love Don’t Bother Me” appears in what White says is its true form, a downtempo soul-tinged tune timed to the pace of walking two blocks out of your way to avoid an ex’s front porch.
When asked what High Flyer, which doesn’t have a release date right now, represents for her as a songwriter, as a musician, White pauses and turns her gaze toward “Chloe” and the hazy humid sky over the garden. “That I’m a songwriter,” she says at last. “Maybe I’m finally a songwriter.”
White has written songs for most of her life, but usually with a band in mind. She suspects that handing over some creative control to Myers and thinking about the music—instead of the music industry—allowed her to let go of paying attention to the people paying attention to her.
“But at the same time, I just made a record that I think should have more attention paid to it than anything I ever did,” she says with a furrowed brow. “I don’t give a shit. Not that I don’t give a shit, because I do—love don’t bother me, right?” she says with a laugh and a sigh.
“I don’t have to live or die by this record. I hope I make another one,” says White, returning to serenity. “All I want to do is make another one sometime, with other great songs.” If High Flyer is any indication of what’s to come from White, we’d all be so lucky.