Healthy White Baby guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Danny Black and bassist Laurie Stirratt are like star-crossed lovers, without all the complications of being in love. The pair met eight years ago when Black was touring with The Blacks, his twisted thrash Country trio featuring his on-again/off-again romantic partner Gina Black, and Stirratt was getting great notices for her work in Blue Mountain, the Americana/Rock quartet she had formed with husband Cary Hudson.
By 2001, hard times had befallen both of them. The individual Blacks' stormy relationship finally took its toll on the collective Blacks, and the band broke up. Stirratt and Hudson had also called it a day as a couple, which ultimately led to the dissolution of Blue Mountain. Black had tried numerous times to get a new band together in his native Chicago, but he was so frustrated with the uninspiring results that he eventually just bought a drum machine and recorded demos on his own at home for three years.
Meanwhile, Laurie Stirratt relocated to Chicago in 2002 for a change of scenery and teamed up with her twin brother, Wilco bassist John Stirratt. The siblings started their own record label, Broadmoor, and released the vinyl version of the debut album from John's side project, The Autumn Defense, as well as their own Folk-tinged Pop album as a duo, entitled Arabella.
For a more regular paycheck, Stirratt got a job as a bartender at The Hideout, Chicago's legendary nightspot. Coincidentally, Black had already been working there for some time, and the pair became reacquainted as fellow employees.
Impressed by Stirratt's taste in music, Black decided to invite her around to play with his home set-up and they discovered an amazing mutual chemistry. With the addition of drummer Ryan Juravic, Healthy White Baby was born. And why that particular name?
"It's one of my favorite lines from Raising Arizona," says Black from his Chicago home. "I wrote it down in one of my journals to use later, like for a song or something. People either love it or hate it. Our publicist said some magazines won't review it because of the name, like we're a racist band or something. To me, it's like the opposite of The Blacks. It's how I feel about this band."
For Black, the arrival of Healthy White Baby restored his faith in the band structure, something that was definitely in jeopardy before he hooked up with Stirratt.
"I figured I'd always do solo shows and put out my own records, but it got to the point where I'd stopped thinking about doing a band again," says Black. "It's the old cliché — when you stop looking for something, that's when you find it."
With the lineup solidified, Black, Stirratt and Juravic spent two weeks in Black's home studio and banged out the band's eponymous debut album, released on the Stirratts' Broadmoor label. Comprised predominantly of the songs Black had written during his three-year hiatus from recording and performing (he also has a contracting business that keeps him gainfully employed around the Chicago area), Healthy White Baby offers a thrashy, Garage vibe similar to The Blacks, with the Country touches supplanted with a distinctive Blues/Soul/R&B flair.
"We were influenced by Creedence (Clearwater Revival) a lot, and Velvet Underground and Otis Redding," says Black. "I just wanted to keep it simple with no overdubs and plenty of space in the arrangements."
Although the physical structure of Healthy White Baby is identical to The Blacks (with a woman on bass and a powerful drummer underneath it all), Black didn't dwell on any possible comparisons going into his new band.
"I didn't really think about it at all," he says. "I was more concerned with just doing something that was different than what I'd done before. I still love some Country music; Hank Williams and George Jones and Bill Monroe. But I felt like I'd played that all out. This is a lot more rocking, although I did put (Bill Monroe's) 'With Body and Soul' on there."
In the year since Healthy White Baby's been together and touring around Chicago and the Midwest, plenty of new developments have taken place. The band has added keyboardist Lena Yohey, originally from the Columbus area, who has added a completely new dimension to the Healthy White Baby sound, and Black's writing has changed slightly since he laid down the demos that would become HWB's first album. With his stint in rehab after the Blacks' demise, his 18-month-old marriage to Tiffanee Beeman and the rejuvenation he's experienced with Stirratt and Juravic, Black is writing with a renewed sense of passion and purpose.
"With the new songs, there's more of a range," says Black. "The stuff that rocks really rocks, but there's more sensitive stuff as well. There's a lot more R&B and there's a big Hammond B3 sound in there. As soon as Lena joined, I thought, 'Damn, now I'm going to have to re-record the first album.' "
In the old days, Black often wrote from the dark heart of his personal demons but that's changed to a great extent. He calls "Home," the last track on HWB's debut album "my first happy song," and he feels his new material leaning more in that direction. He still has an EP's worth of songs left over from his home demo period that he feels strongly should be released, but under his own name.
"They're way too depressing for the band," he says wryly.
Life continues to look uncharacteristically up for Healthy White Baby. The band has secured a slot for next spring's South by Southwest festival, and they're heading back into Black's home studio in December to lay down some of the new material, which could possibly become HWB's sophomore release — just in time for their trek down to Austin in March. With all of the personal and professional turmoil that Danny Black and Laurie Stirratt have endured to make it to this point in their lives and careers, it's nice to know that the kids are finally all right.
HEALTHY WHITE BABY plays The Comet on Saturday.