Whitmore's latest record, Radium Death, comes out March 31

By Alex Heigl
Updated March 27, 2015 03:00 PM
Credit: Andy Sheppard/Getty

William Elliott Whitmore and Public Enemy don’t have much in common on the surface.

One is a pioneering political rap group whose heyday was the early ’90s, and the other is a singer-songwriter from Iowa. But the one thing they do have in common is the experience of listening to their music the first time: The voice is the first thing that grabs you.

With Public Enemy, it’s Chuck D’s aggressive bass voice that takes the lead, but with Whitmore, it’s something harder to describe. His voice is deep, sure, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s a thorny, craggy kind of deep, like looking down a dark well. It sure doesn’t sound like it belongs to a nice boy from Lee County, Iowa, who’s barely into his mid-’30s.

Whitmore’s latest record, Radium Death is out on March 31, and it’s something of a departure from his previous releases, which usually focused on just his voice, accompanied by guitar, banjo and the occasional foot stomp. The new record features more of a band, recorded at a studio in Iowa City he built with his cousin, Luke Tweedy.

“Been working on this thing for a couple of years,” Whitmore tells PEOPLE. “I took a little different direction with this one, experimented with some different sounds, different tones. It was neat to try some things outside of my comfort zones.”

“I wanted to come with a little bit of noise,” he adds. Which makes sense, given that teenage Whitmore grew up hunting down copies of Thrasher magazine to read about punk bands like Descendents and Bad Religion. He says he grew up (on the 30-acre-farm where he still lives, “a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River”) on country like Willie Nelson and Hank Williams and soul like Lee Dorsey and Ray Charles from his parents, but branched into more adventurous sounds like The Gun Club (he calls “Healing to Do” off Radium Death his attempt at Gun Club song) and the aforementioned Public Enemy.

“That punk rock attitude, that urgency, was something I wanted to capture on that record,” Whitmore says. “We all heal in different ways,” he adds of the hair-raising yell he lets out at 2:39 in the song. “I had gone through some deaths in the family – you know, things that people go through nothing new, things that people have been going through since the beginning of time,” he continues. (Whitmore’s got a self-deprecating streak a mile wide.) “And how I heal is, well, partly, with a hoop and holler.”

Whitmore’s distinctive voice came from necessity first: “When I first started playing shows, and I mean like a group of friends in a basement somewhere, I found that I could cultivate a sound with my singing – well, with my hollering, I can’t even call it singing – it came from playing shows with just a banjo and then some hardcore punk band. And I’d have to do whatever I could to make a racket to cut through all that. I don’t have too many tricks up my sleeve.”

Whitmore’s jokes remarks aside, he doesn’t need too many tricks up his sleeve. He’s got that voice, and that’s enough.

And that’s where it comes back to Public Enemy. “They’re heroes of mine,” Whitmore says. “They came out in an era where hip-hop was real easygoing, and they said, ‘Nah, we’re gonna wake people up, we’re gonna have sirens and loud noises’ and Chuck D said, ‘I knew I could cut through all that with my voice,’ and I thought, that’s what I want. I want to cut through all that with my voice.”

“And you know, [my voice is] just what I got,” Whitmore adds, laughing. It’s still just what it is. I wish I could croon like Dean Martin, but you gotta deal with what you got.” Based on Radium Death, it sounds like he’s dealing just fine.