Meet the ambitious musician from the suburbs who's built an online audience 200,000 strong.
It’s a cold January night, and some 20 people have turned out for an evening at the Fenix Bar in Phoenixville. There’s a singer-songwriter crooning over an acoustic guitar, but tonight’s crowd is here to eat, drink and socialize. The musician, as far as they’re concerned, is simply a nice plus. And as far as he’s concerned, that’s okay. Not every gig needs to be all about him.
Jordan White sits on a stool near the door of the swanky bar, lightly illuminated by the blue and green neon signs on the window. As he sings, he caters his songs to the crowd, mostly setting aside his originals to spend the majority of his set covering bands like Third Eye Blind, R.E.M. and Guns N’ Roses.
When he does play his own material, it’s clear that White’s style was formed in the crucible of that same ‘90s pop-rock. Ballads such as “No Promises” walk the familiar artistic line between impassioned and overwrought: “Last night I whispered to myself / That the true enemy comes from within / ’Cause I took another dip in your fire / And I think I burned myself again.”
That heartfelt-by-way-of-sappy vibe isn’t exactly what’s hip right now, but White either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Hell, he seems totally content strumming along to Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.”
White banters between songs with one of the groups seated close by, a party of about eight people who’ve come out to celebrate a birthday. He cheerfully plays “Happy Birthday” to Jamie, the woman of the hour; afterwards, he takes her request to play “Wonderwall,” the 1995 Oasis hit. It’s a gloriously cheesy song—one that some indie rockers would scoff at playing, Ryan Adams’ cover version notwithstanding. But cheesy doesn’t register with White. The guy has a built-in cup holder on his microphone stand.
Earlier, trying to express his love of music, he’d furrowed his brow in thought before declaring: “It’s a way to tattoo yourself onto the world.” It’s a startlingly sincere bit of poetry from a songwriter who would be easy to underestimate.
White lives in Philadelphia’s suburbs. He plays in the city—he’ll be at the Tin Angel this Thursday, Jan. 30—but not as often as he plays venues in Allentown, Reading and Jersey. Rock fans who follow the Philly scene don’t necessarily have him on their radar.
But someone does. A lot of someones, actually.
See, Jordan White has some 200,000 social media followers—185,000 on Twitter, 19,000 on Facebook. For comparison’s sake, that’s just as many as Philly’s biggest current rock success story, Dr. Dog, and twice as many as critical darling Kurt Vile. In other words, if you were to go by the sheer social-audience numbers, you’d have to conclude that White is one of the Philadelphia area’s top musical acts—despite the fact that we mostly haven’t heard of him.
It’s a feat he’s accomplished through a singular blend of 21st-century marketing, a nonstop DIY gigging schedule and, of course, good old-fashioned musicianship.
So: Who is this guy?
Richlandtown, Pennsylvania is not the sort of place a hungry young musician like White might typically choose to call home. An hour north of Philadelphia, it’s a far cry from the bustling clubs, bars and cafes of the city. Home to some 1,300 residents, Richlandtown looks like any other rural suburb; strip malls and suburban cul-de-sacs emerge from acres of woods and paved road. But it has its own perks, White says, aside from the rustic beauty: “When you’re in a bigger city, it seems to me that there might be a guy like me on every block who’s trying to put his name out there. In this area, the competition isn’t as stiff.”
On the outside, White’s three-bedroom townhouse looks pretty much like that of any middle-class American; there’s white vinyl siding, a patch of green yard and a one-car garage. A small studio on the second floor, however, belies the façade of 9-to-5 normalcy. Guitars of seemingly every variety fill the room, sitting alongside stacks of CDs. A chalkboard leaning in one corner bears White’s scribbled 2014 New Year’s goals—phrases like “national tour” and “Play Saturday Night Live.” And on the room’s back wall, right alongside a bunch of ’90s band posters and White’s golden ticket from American Idol, hangs a framed unicorn art print—the sort of thing one might usually expect to see in a 16-year-old’s room, not a 32-year-old’s.
“I know the unicorns are . . . that’s a long story,” White says sheepishly. He’s a fan, he explains, of the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn, which follows a unicorn who learns she may be the last of her kind remaining on Earth and goes on a quest to find any lost brethren. White sees the story as a symbol for his own struggle to overcome the obstacles on his way to achieving success as a musician.
“It was like an [allegory] for the music industry, which is really bizarre, because it had nothing to do with the music industry,” he says. “It was the last unicorn on earth. [The others] were all pushed into the ocean by this huge thing called the Red Bull. And so many people get bulldozed in [the music] industry. Fight back.”
White speaks quickly, fumbling and rushing over his words like a man possessed. He’s passionate about what he’s saying, even if not all of it makes complete sense at first.
His music is the same way. “We smell the inside of brand new books / ’Cause we just don’t care how stupid it looks,” goes the opening verse to “Maybe, Amy.” White’s vocals shine out clear and bright over the track, as he sings earnestly about those people “who’ll light you on fire/ Just to watch you burn.
When he was 10, White and his family moved from their hometown of Cranford, N.J., to a then-almost totally undeveloped Nazareth, Pa., where White’s father worked as an engineer for a software development firm. While the move, he says, was primarily about quality of life—crime from New York City had started to seep into Cranford, worrying his parents—the Whites’ new home offered young Jordan a serendipitous spark: “It might have been fate or coincidence,” he muses, that Nazareth is where Martin Guitar’s factory is based.
Music had already been a big part of White’s life, since he began playing piano as a child. “He sang before he spoke,” recalls his mother, Dorothy. White’s father, Frank, himself sang in doo-wop groups as a young man in the 1970s, and always predicted that his son would take music farther than he had.
PW's Music Issue 2014