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That Old R&B Sound Has Moved to Richmond

Spacebomb Records convincingly channels the age of Stax Records and Motown

“This is the story of Richmond,” singer-songwriter Matthew E. White says to the rapt Brooklyn crowd, “a city overflowing with good musicians.” He’s a gentle giant type with a man-bun and a gracious attitude. Tonight’s show kicks off the tour in support of his second album, Fresh Blood. Nearly all of the performers have traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to play here at BRIC, a cozy arts center and concert venue.

More important than this performance, however, is White’s Richmond-based studio/music collective, Spacebomb Records. With Spacebomb, White has built a potential powerhouse the likes of which haven’t been seen since the late '50s and '60s, since the heyday of Motown and Stax Records: A studio that produces records with a house band and a rotating stable of musicians, taking advantage of local creativity and regional flavor.

Many of the musicians onstage with White in Brooklyn are regulars at Spacebomb, which White started five years ago with a few friends. In the nearly four decades since Stax closed its doors and Motown was acquired by MCA, Spacebomb’s collective-style studio format has become almost non-existent. According to industry logic, the model no longer made business sense, financially or creatively. 

Here in the snowy Brooklyn night, the evening’s ensemble features White’s core four piece, supported by three backup singers, a full brass section, and an even grander string section. His humble, folksy melodies are amplified by the lavish orchestration—a fully realized performance that does justice to the beautiful production qualities of Fresh Blood and, by extension, to Spacebomb. There are over two-dozen musicians, and White is adamant about ceding the spotlight, recognizing each performer by name. For the strings, who are based in New York, he reads from a piece of paper to make sure he gets all of them right. Later, he urges the audience to check out his backup singers’ YouTube channel.

"This'll be the only time we're all onstage together,” White says. You get the sense he wants to remember it.

When I meet White the next day at the Domino Records office, I find his offstage personality to be similar to his performing one. He is humble and soft-spoken, careful with his words. When I ask him to describe Fresh Blood, he considers the question for a while. The album is clean and lushly orchestrated folk rock, imbued with shades of R&B, swing, and funk. Fresh Blood is ambitious without seeming so; it’s sonically familiar to its old-school influences but respectful of them.

White says nothing like this. After a full twelve seconds, he lands on “soulful.” 

Which is accurate but hardly all encompassing. White’s vocals stay within a narrow range, a smooth but sometimes unassuming baritone. What’s most notable about his brand of folk-meets-white-guy-R&B is the richness of his instrumentation. Horns and strings can be found on almost every track, and White pays homage to a number of musical traditions across the album’s ten songs. Opener “Take Care My Baby” is a low-key Southern rock anthem; “Feeling Good Is Good Enough” (White’s favorite song, he tells me decisively) is equal parts uplifting gospel and “Hey Jude.” 

White’s first record, Big Inner (get it?), made him somewhat of a cult figure for its showcasing of his virtuosity as a songwriter and producer. In an interview with The Guardian, White said the album was created “purely to be an advertisement” for Spacebomb; Big Inner went on, however, to win a raft of critical attention, landing on year-end lists from Consequence of Sound, Art of the Song, and Pitchfork. Two-and-a-half years later, Fresh Blood finds White on the cusp of making a name for himself. He has writing credits with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Sharon Van Etten, and was even an arranger on the last Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth.

White has an easier time talking about Fresh Blood in relation to Big Inner. “It’s darker, it’s lighter; it’s louder, it’s softer,” White says before coming out with the truth: “It has better songs on it.” He is, at least, good at recognizing talent in others. Spacebomb’s biggest success has been vocalist Natalie Prass, who nearly quit music entirely before arriving in Richmond. Her self-titled debut, released last January, delivered one of this year’s earliest gems: a thoughtful blend of country and soul, lifted by warm, expansive production by White himself. It’s probably why Prass’s record sounds a lot like Big Inner and Fresh Blood. The same penchant for impeccable strings and brass is found throughout, imbued with enough restraint that it never overwhelms the album’s singer-songwriter core.

While White admits that a studio like Spacebomb could exist in a handful of major cities, he believes it succeeds in Virginia because it takes advantage of Richmond’s wealth of musical talent. In particular, there’s the music school at Virginia Commonwealth University, White and Co.’s alma mater. “There’s a sincere level of musicianship—especially in string, horn players—but really across the board that’s really rare, truly rare [in Richmond],” he says.

The regional flavor of the city can be found throughout Spacebomb’s current catalog, but it’s not necessarily indicative of what the studio will sound like in the future. Based on the several records Spacebomb has released—in addition to White’s and Prass’s, they’ve put out albums by Howard Ivans and Grandma Sparrow—I assumed that he would go with “lushly orchestrated Americana.” But White denied that these records were good proxies for what Spacebomb will become.

“I think there will inevitably be a ‘Spacebomb sound’ in one way. I don’t think my or Natalie’s records are that sound,” he said. “[We] have a real similarity in terms of some things that we like. That’s why we sound similar. It’s not because Spacebomb is always necessarily going to make records that sound like they were made in 1972.”

When I asked if he would rather be remembered for his records or for Spacebomb, he didn’t really have an answer. He talked around the question for a while, before settling into the more comfortable territory of humility. He explained that he’s thankful for the opportunity to make music, whether it’s as a songwriter or a producer. And he knows that one or both of those opportunities will, in the course of time, disappear.

Matthew E. White is hardly a household name, but with the growing momentum behind Spacebomb Records and the impending release of Fresh Blood, it’s hard not to see this as Matthew E. White’s moment. After Brooklyn, he embarks on a 40+ date tour that takes him to all over the U.S., the U.K., and Germany; later this month he’ll take a national stage for the first time with a booking on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

The refrain of “Rock 'n' Roll Is Cold,” the first single off Fresh Blood, declares that “rock ‘n’ roll has no soul.” The inverse could be said of White, who performs with more soulful introversion than rock ‘n’ roll swagger. But will Matthew E. White be known as the artist, or will he just be known as the guy who started Spacebomb? If White’s acclaim can transcend music writers who nerd out on Spacebomb’s production style, he may never have to answer that question. The buzz behind Fresh Blood and the critical triumph of Natalie Prass is certainly an auspicious start.

Stax and Motown are easy shorthand for what Spacebomb does. Pretty soon, though, White may no longer need the comparison. The road to stardom—for both White and Spacebomb—will involve many more nights like last week’s show in Brooklyn, with many more thank you's coming from a musician who is grateful to perform and an audience that is grateful to listen.