And though outgunning the world‘s top-selling CD with 100 million in sales may seem a bit of a stretch, it‘s also true that Whyte seems to have that mystical blend of charisma, romantic lyrics, intense vocals and wrenching songs that have marked great artists from the get-go. Think of the unknown Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, 1961, or the unsigned Nirvana in 1990; raw newcomers who had a stunning, siren-song quality, with their tunes haunting listeners long after the show.
Whyte, with his enigmatic innocent face, dyed hair, leather pants, multiple piercings and tattoos has that same kind of mojo behind his alt-rock and goth-flavored songs. His vocals have a smokey soul edge, and when his band Indulge plays an acoustic set at Border‘s Books, you can hear the audience hold its breath as it hangs on every word. The same is true when the band rocks out on electric guitars at clubs such as the Loading Dock. Just below the cohesion of melody and verse in his songs, you get the feeling that there‘s a primal wail building to a shattering climax.
“When we do originals, people really watch us close and focus because it‘s really serious music we‘re playing, and you don‘t hear those kinds of songs on the radio,“ he says.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Whyte, 21, is part of a new generation of songwriters shaking Northern Michigan‘s aging music scene to its arthritic roots. His first band, Bachanalia, featured Brian Schram on guitar, who is now playing with Uncle Kracker. Other young musicians challenging their older Gen-X counterparts include Jupiter Avenue from Cheboygan, Fourth House In from Traverse City, and Leif Kolt from Petoskey.
Most share one thing in common: they‘re virtual unknowns, playing on “off“ nights at clubs around the region or at summer street fairs. Like Whyte, they may work at get-by jobs at Subway or Hot Topic during the day. Yet they also share a determination to overthrow the established order with dynamic new songwriting directions in Whyte‘s case, or the use of rap idioms and turntable technology from Leif Kolt.
Whyte even manages to be controversial in his own age group (a feat that‘s unachieved by the vast majority of musicians in the region) because he‘s chosen to write intensely personal love songs along the lines of such influences as The Cure, Depeche Mode, Hours, and Tori Amos.
“They all write music from their situations and their souls,“ he notes. “It takes a lot of guts to put yourself and your emotions on the line. You never know how people are going to react to that.
“Some people laugh at me,“ Whyte continues. “A lot of males my age are all testosteroned up and say my music is wussy and not ‘metal‘ enough. And I just say that‘s why we have metal, for those who need that macho music. My music is more serious than that.“
Whyte takes his inspiration from a deeper source than what‘s popular with his peers. His songs come from his heart in a literal sort of way.
“When I write a song, it‘s not my intention to write a song,“ he says. “Every song is a timeline in my life. In every song I‘m crying about something in my past. Every song means a lot to me; it is me, it‘s part of my soul, it‘s honesty.“
Whyte describes his songs as being “sad,“ but they don‘t come across that way. They‘re sad in the way that the blues are sad, or the music of Jeff Buckley.
But a sadness inspires Whyte‘s music because he had a rough ride as a teenager that was often self-inflicted, leading to a state of homelessness that prompted a great deal of soul searching.
Growing up, he was an “MTV kid“ in the ‘80s, enthralled by Billy Idol, The Cure and Ratt. His mother, Robyn, was a singer in a band called White Heaven, and had performed at CBGB‘s in the East Village and at the Whiskey on Sunset Strip.
As a child, Whyte taught himself how to play guitar by observing where the guitarist in his mother‘s band placed his fingers on the fretboard. His mother bought him a guitar at Meijer‘s and a Guns ‘N Roses tape. “I just stayed in my room for months, playing the Guns ‘N Roses and Michael Jackson albums. I could play anything by the age of 12 and got my first electric guitar when I was 13. after that, all I wanted to do was music.“
But life wasn‘t all music. “My parents and I really never got along from age 13 to 19,“ he recalls. “I had some really hard times.“
Whyte has had three different fathers in his life, including his natural dad for whom he wrote the song, “Self Written Letter,“ which deals with feelings of loss.
“It‘s a song to my real father, telling him I know what he‘s done to me, and that I‘m going to carry on,“ he says. “Basically, I‘m talking to myself in the song about how the world works and trying to prepare the kids that will listen. I wasn‘t prepared for the real world when I turned 17. So the song says to prepare yourself, because you‘re going to face the world alone.“
The song also warns kids about the hazards of drugs and the need to stay strong and self-reliant. When Whyte was 16, his family moved to Washington state, where Whyte was kicked out of school and the 10th grade on a drug-related incident. He moved to Las Vegas to live with an uncle for awhile, and then back to Michigan to live with friends, sleeping on sofas and living in his car while working at Bob Evans. Whyte got down as far as you can go on Northern Michigan‘s homeless rung, coping with winter nights and freezing temperatures while living in his car. He suffered from depression at the time, and realized he had to start “building myself back from zero.“
“My bassist (Jason Sannis) saved my life,“ he says. “I was living in my car and he snuck me into the college dorms. I stayed there for months, sleeping on a bunk bed. He really boosted my confidence a lot and things got better gradually.“
Friends noticed Whyte‘s musical talent and a band began to take shape. Extremely shy, he was encouraged to sing, summoning up insistent, compelling vocals. It‘s impossible to draw comparisons with his voice, which ranges from a masculine husk to a pleading James Brown keen. His competent alt-rock band Indulge includes Sannis, Shawn McGhee on guitar and Sean Divincent on drums.
Today, he‘s patched things up with his parents and two brothers. “I love my parents now; I just had to find myself. I did a lot of soul searching.“
His band has recorded a 17-song CD entitled “Indulge,“ and is looking for funding to get it produced. They‘ve developed a local following, have a song, “I Am Only Me“ on WKLT and KHQ, and are cracking the creative gridlock on the music scene.
“I‘m not impressed with what‘s on the radio,“ Whyte says. “It‘s all the same, with the same chord structures. Music is so predictable now; everyone‘s trying to make a buck with these one-hit-wonder songs. Even people like Alanis Morissette change one little thing in their music and put out the same song over and over again.“
Not so with Whyte, however, who can summon songs by the score from inner reserves of experience and feelings of loss and abandonment.
“Artists aren‘t letting their songs come naturally; they‘re just writing bad songs that don‘t mean anything so the labels don‘t hassle them. When I do get a record deal, I want to make sure they give me artistic freedom. I let the song come to me and I do it the natural way.“