Lonesome Ballads with Jay Whitecotton

August 31, 2018

Interview by

Lara Smith

Article by

Lara Smith

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For years I’ve been sur­prised and impressed by Jay White­cot­ton. It seems there isn’t any­thing he can’t do. I’ve read prose-like posts, seen amaz­ing sets, watched him open a live pod­cast on piano, and as we pre­pared to start this inter­view, he picked up my gui­tar and start­ed to play. 

Born in Austin, but raised in San Anto­nio, White­cot­ton ini­tial­ly grew up in a poor neigh­bor­hood. Around the age of ten his fam­i­ly moved to a more afflu­ent neigh­bor­hood, but White­cot­ton still got the sense that they stood out as the creepy house.”

Grow­ing up to par­ents that were high­ly edu­cat­ed but strug­gled with addic­tion and men­tal ill­ness, White­cot­ton had to learn to be resource­ful and self-suf­fi­cient at an ear­ly age. Being locked in his room for a sum­mer while his par­ents got high, you can imag­ine what a cre­ative, yet shy per­son­al­i­ty that might fos­ter. It also seemed to make White­cot­ton a prag­ma­tist, devel­op­ing keen sense of self-preser­va­tion and survival.

Com­e­dy, ever the won­der­ful escape, White­cot­ton recalls some of his ear­ly child­hood intro­duc­tion, play­ing a VHS of Robin Williams Live at The Met and falling asleep, iron­i­cal­ly, to Bill Cosby’s Him­self. After his parent’s divorce, his father lis­tened to Sam Kin­i­son Loud­er Than Hell, which appealed to him as a child. He enjoyed Kinison’s con­stant yelling.

Resource­ful as ever, White­cot­ton was attend­ing a pri­vate school on schol­ar­ship, run­ning a gam­bling rack­et in the school to earn cash off the rich kids. Some of the mon­ey he earned as the ama­teur school book­ie”, would go to buy more com­e­dy albums.

Around the age of 18, Whitecotton’s father took his col­lege mon­ey and pro­ceed­ed to throw him out of the house. Hav­ing very lit­tle pos­ses­sions, one being a gui­tar, he taught him­self to play out of neces­si­ty. Grow­ing up around drugs taught him to stay away from them until he got his life in order. Hav­ing seen the neg­a­tive impact on his par­ents and being exposed to them at such an ear­ly age, drugs lost their mys­tique, taboo, and appeal.

Each time White­cot­ton tried to seek high­er edu­ca­tion it would lead to a series of unfor­tu­nate events, includ­ing breakups, car trou­ble, and ulti­mate­ly an arrest for an out­stand­ing war­rant he was unaware he had. Final­ly, White­cot­ton vowed he would not seek a degree, if he could just get out of the rut of misfortunes.

White­cot­ton found him­self mis­er­able, work­ing as a DJ for bar karaōke. He would put his own humor­ous spin on the show, roast­ing singers and telling jokes just to keep his san­i­ty. The karaōke nights he host­ed became infa­mous. Soon he was urged to pur­sue his gift of riff and take a work­shop. He even­tu­al­ly agreed to the work­shop, because he knew if he paid for it he would com­mit to it. 

Ini­tial­ly his sets were half high-con­struct” polit­i­cal humor, and half incred­i­bly offen­sive mate­r­i­al that would play great to a bar but not to a com­e­dy club. White­cot­ton recalls the style was based in inse­cu­ri­ty, and out­grew it as he gained expe­ri­ence. The San Anto­nio scene offered him a decent amount of stage time to devel­op his act as a long-form com­ic, but, real­iz­ing that he would need to adapt to more short form if he want­ed to make the jump to New York or Los Ange­les, he set his sights on Austin. White­cot­ton learned to adapt his sets from the alt scene to the club as he gained expe­ri­ence in Austin.

In com­e­dy and in life, White­cot­ton seems to keep to three fun­da­men­tal rules:

  1. Don’t bull­shit yourself
  2. Don’t take your­self too seriously
  3. Allow your­self to suck

These seem to have served him well, as White­cot­ton has had suc­cess as a tour­ing com­ic, com­piled a long list of fes­ti­vals under his belt, and released two albums, Hi, Lone­some (2016) and Mon­ster Bal­lads (2018). Whitecotton’s style has devel­oped into a form of com­e­dy that makes the audi­ence think, ques­tion their per­spec­tive, and laugh at con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects with his flair for inge­nious analo­gies. Laugh­ing in the face of hav­ing one’s ideas challenged…the world could use a lot more of that right now, don’t you think?

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Jay Whitecotton