William Elliott Whitmore Brings Radium Death to Life

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William Elliott Whitmore‘s Radium Death fortifies broad universal themes (“Healing to Do”) with acutely personal narratives (“Ain’t Gone Yet”). CMT Edge spoke with the Iowa musician about his writing influences and his evolution from stark folk to a fuller rock sound.

“It took a little longer than normal — a couple years to get this written and recorded — but it came together in a nice way,” Whitmore says. “I recorded in Iowa City with my cousin Luke because we have a studio there. We took our time to make something we thought was interesting.”

CMT Edge: So, your label [ANTI- Records] was cool with you working more slowly?

Whitmore: Yeah, the record label’s pretty nice and let me go with my pace within reason. I’m really proud of the record. We were just trying to work when we could and I was trying different things, different sounds and tones and maybe playing a little electric guitar. It was nice to have that time.

Explain the album title.

They would use radium to paint watch dials during World War II so you could read them at night. Of course, radium glows in the dark. There were these women whose job it was to paint the numbers on these watches. They all ended up getting cancer and no one knew why because it was before they knew radium was this toxic, radioactive thing. So these girls brought this lawsuit against the government and won and they were called “the radium girls.” That came to represent to me something that you’re told is OK for you but really isn’t. I ran with that meaning.

Do you typically get material from historical texts?

Yeah. I draw from my own life as much as I can and my own experiences, but I like to read a lot, so I draw a lot from historical fiction. I definitely get stories from wherever I can.

Tell the story behind writing “Healing to Do.”

Well, like I said, I wanted to try something different and started experimenting with electric guitar. I just play it like an acoustic anyway so it’s not like I’m revolutionizing anything. That was the tone I wanted. I had gone through some deaths in the family and hard times and it just occurred to me that everyone does and that’s OK. It makes us stronger. It struck me that if we call come through it, we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. None of us is alone.

Describe how these songs represent your evolution as a lyricist.

This is my sixth album and in the beginning it was all so intensely personal. It’s the only way I knew. I wrote from exactly my own life and I still try to do that, but the songwriters I really look up to really write from different perspectives and draw from other things that make it more universal. I tried to put the lyrics together in a way that anyone can relate to. It’s just a constant process of trying to evolve.

Who are those songwriters you’re drawing from?

Well, I tend to like the old school, a lot of those Texas guys like Guy Clark and Willie Nelson and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Then there are the classics, people like John Prine. It’s amazing how they can put a story together. So, yeah, it’s a constant process of trying to improve and make something that’s gonna resonate.

Describe Ray Wylie’s his greatest strength as a songwriter.

Oh, wow. He has a style that just seems to roll out of him. I played a show with him in Glasgow, Scotland — of all places to play a show with Ray Wylie Hubbard. I actually got to play a song onstage with him, too. He was so nice. Those lyrics just seem to flow so effortlessly from him and they tell such concise story. Nothing seems pretentious. It’s just natural and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

He’s a cool guy.

Yeah, he was so cool. We had just met and he said, “Come out onstage with us and play a song!” It was years ago but I think it was him and his son (Lucas). He makes it seem easy, man.

Does the closing track “Ain’t Gone Yet” factor into the songwriting discussion?

Yeah, when it was taking longer to make this record I was having doubts about whether I should even be playing music and whether it’ll be worth a shit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who goes through that. “Do I need to give this up and become a cabinetmaker?” So, the song is about, “Oh, I’ll be gone someday, but not quite yet.” Of course, we’ll all be gone someday so I started playing with that. We’ll all be gone, but for right now we’re here and we can do the best we can.

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