Born in Wellington, raised in Dunedin, New Zealand, White has opened for acts such as Cat Power, Mountain Goats, David Pajo and also some of his favourite New Zealand bands: The Chills, The Bats, HDU, to name a few. In recent years he has been somewhat of a nomad, living in New Zealand, Germany, Sri Lanka, India and the USA.
Four of the 10 albums are credited to Mëstar, a glorious hard-pop New Zealand trio whose first performance was in 1997, at Vogel St, Dunedin. The line-up was White (guitar and vocals), Stef Animal (bass and BVs), and Ian Wilson (drums).
Mëstar’s musicians were in their late teens and thoroughly capable on their instruments – they sounded like a band
One sunny day back in 1997 I was walking at a good pace along the tree-lined through-street of Dunedin’s Octagon when I heard something that made me stop. I listened to several songs, staying out on the footpath, not watching the band but listening. I learnt that this gloriously cheeky-pop was being made by Mëstar.
Then a recently formed trio, Mëstar’s musicians were in their late teens and not only thoroughly capable on their respective instruments – they sounded like a band. Their sound wasn’t an approximation of a borrowed idea or a do-it-by-numbers collection of songs, attempting to reinforce a current fashion, but was a cohesive and distinct creation in itself.
This makes it all sound very serious when in fact there has always been a genuinely playful aspect to Mëstar, and John White cites the band as providing his most fun performing experience. This is high praise given some of White’s later more exotic musical experiences in Sri Lanka and Berlin.
In 2002 White described Mëstar to Rip It Up as “an accessible pop/rock band with a Dunedin sound”. For any lover of well-written, well-played grunge pop these albums are recommended: Mëstar (1998), Steamer (2000), Porcupine (Arclife, 2002), and Shut The Squizwot Factories Down (Arch Hill, 2002).
In 2002, White told Otago Daily Times reporter Angela Crompton, “At face value, [Mëstar may] appear as a very cheesy pop band. But we’re not that transparent … It’s quite sparse material, but everything is really important. We try and make every line or phrase absolutely integral to the song.”
His voice has a gentleness that can slide into a harder-edged tease mode when singing lyrics that border on profound, such as on Mëstar’s ‘Silversong’:
It can be stuck, it can be free,
it can be farther than the eye can see;
It can be Jill, it can be Jack,
It can be over in a heart attack.
- Oh oh oh
The main body of his lyrics involve intriguing fantasy worlds of endearing creatures and characters trying to get back home. Also, perhaps, the human quest towards enlightenment.
White’s musical beginnings were on violin in Dunedin when he was a child. His teacher was Alan Starrett, a long-time member of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra (previously known as Sinfonia Dunedin, Southern Sinfonia); he also guested often with bands such Mink, Cloudboy, Pop Art Toasters, The Bats and others. Starrett guided White not to just read music but to feel it. The precocious eight-year-old was a natural. Violin and viola are still very much part of White’s performance world. He can fiddle out a jig if you want him to but he excels in playing mournful counter melodies to wistful ballads and is a strong presence when performing experimental ambience.
In latter years, White mostly plays viola, although on occasion his guitar work is reincorporated as part of his playful mix of sounds and melodies.
White’s solo albums thus far are: Balloon Adventure, Mogwash, The Inkadies and 2016 release Henry Green and the Islands of Tuliarts. The albums have been released on labels such as Arch Hill, Arclife, She’ll Be Right and Last Visible Dog.
Mogwash was a personal project written while White was living in Berlin and performing with the wonderful Cloudboy: all members moved there from Dunedin in 2003. Almost 10 years later, Henry Green and the Islands of Tuliarts also emerged from the Berlin period. Though nodding towards the folk tradition, these tales of worthy souls are nevertheless told within classic John White phrasing and structures.
The Inkadies was recorded in Madison, Wisconsin, at the studio of friend and occasional collaborator Tom Hanson (The Droplets). It was released in 2010 by Monkey Records. In 2017 the entire album Balloon Adventure was reinterpreted by Matthew Sanborn, also from Madison (it can be heard on Bandcamp).
As a guitarist, White is at home on electric or acoustic; on electric he plays a 1989 Fender Strat through a Boss distortion pedal. He says that when writing a song he is already hearing a recorded version in his head, and so aims at capturing that. His singing is difficult to comment on: his persona comes across as staunch boy who still retains innocence even though he knows the bad shit ... His lyrics having an underlying profoundness, with zen-type teasing.
It can be stuck, it can be free
It can be farther than then the eye can see.
It can be Jill, it can be Jack
It can be over in a heart attack
Don’t cut the blueness too fine
Don’t crush the blueness you’ll die
I don’t ever want to go back
I’ll go cold and then I'll go black.
- Shut the Squizwot Factories Down
White is responsible for the visuals of many of his projects. He has created posters and album covers, and made several gorgeous animated videos for his songs: ‘Mogwash’, ‘Black and White’ and ‘Silversong’. Endearing characters in bold colours share with us their personal struggles, with charm and a naive bravery; often flying or floating and always loving and yearning.
Six months in Sri Lanka in 2016 saw White PERFORM FREESTYLE RAP with several locals.
He also designs computer games. Over a period of years he and his twin brother Joseph created the much-loved Jasper’s Journeys. And in 2016 Mogwash, a solely John White creation, was let out into the world.
Six months in Sri Lanka in 2016 saw White join forces with several locals to perform freestyle rap. He was in what he describes as an ambient psychedelic rock outfit, “O”, and then joined forces with rap band Amoral Compass. With the latter he recorded the album Betel Leaf Space Suit; a live-to-air performance at the Sri Lanka Music Awards was a highlight for the band. Performing in a temple in South Korea – with Johnny Marks and Dan Behan – was a valued experience and his current delvings into viola saw him employing the instrument using distortion and delay for a fashion catwalk.
White gigs often, solo or in collaboration with others: duos, trios or larger. There have been many projects. On New Year’s Eve he has often performed at the Whare Flats Festival. Music is a basic part of his life: a natural wanderer, it looks likely that he will return to Asia in the future.
Be it the full-throttle pop-rock of Mëstar, the wistful melancholy of solo songs such as ‘Balloon Adventure’ and ‘Starry Eyes’, merry fiddling or ambient psychedelia, John White’s commitment to music is personal, dedicated and adventurous.
Mëstar - Mëstar/ Arclife
Mëstar- Steamer / Arclife
Mëstar- Porcupine / Arclife
Mëstar- Shut the Squizwot Factories Down / Arch Hill
The Blueness - The Blueness / Independent
The Blueness - Ravendah Dream / CTPAK Records
John White - Balloon Adventure / She’ll Be Right Records, Last Visible Dog
John White - Mogwash / She’ll Be Right Records, Last Visible Dog
John White - The Inkadies / Monkey Records
John White - Henry Green and the Island of Tuliarts / Monkey Records