Though she just turned 20 in April, Alex White is already a six-year veteran of the local garage-rock scene. Her thundering vocals are as instantly recognizable as her fiery red hair and matching Rickenbacker guitar, and later this month her first solo album, Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra, comes out on the tastemaking LA label In the Red. But for all the breaks that’ve gone her way, her career has been shaped largely by tragedy: each of her two previous bands ended with the sudden death of a friend. “The last couple years have been tough,” she says. “I’ve definitely had to become thick-skinned.”

A native Chicagoan, White grew up listening to her parents’ records–the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, the Modern Lovers. “The tone of Jonathan Richman’s voice, the sheer simplicity of the songs, was so striking,” says White. “It blew my fucking mind.” By junior high she was using her lunch money to buy singles at Laurie’s Planet of Sound and going out to all-ages shows. “I went to the Fireside for the first time on my 13th birthday,” she says.

After a short stint singing and playing guitar with a band called the Psychotic Sensations, she formed the duo the Red Lights with her friend Alisa Dymarets on drums. “We were playing bars at 15, 16. My mom and dad were great about it, though–they’d drive me to shows in their minivan.” White still lives at home with her parents on the far north side, and they’re regulars at her Chicago gigs, often with a video camera in tow.

Toward the end of 2002, though, Dymarets was regularly backing out of shows. To avoid canceling an October gig at Cal’s, White tapped Chris Saathoff, who played bass in Chin Up Chin Up, to fill in on drums. The two would become a regular duo in their own right, with Saathoff taking the stage name Chris Playboy. “I’d met him at a Halloween party–he was dressed as a Canadian postal worker, and I was Shirley Temple,” she says. “A little while later I called him up. We met up and had this five-hour conversation and ended up spending every single day together for the next two years.”

At that first show with Saathoff, another band got its start too–after the set, guitarist Jered Gummere of the Ponys and drummer Matt Williams of the Baseball Furies recruited White for a new trio, the Hot Machines, which would debut in less than a month. She graduated from Northside College Prep a semester early at the end of 2002 and headed straight to DePaul–suddenly her plate was pretty full. But in July 2003, the question of where the Red Lights would fit in was answered in the worst possible way when Dymarets suffered a fatal asthma attack at age 18.

White continued to play with Saathoff, though, and in their first year together two major labels offered development deals. “But they were pretty shady, and they were only interested in me because of the Avril Lavigne factor,” says White. The pair declined, and instead started their own label, Missile X Records. “I figured I had enough money saved up to release a single,” she says. “But we cut a lot of corners.”

“Cutting corners” is a polite way to put it: White and Saathoff broke into a local studio to record (White won’t say which), bringing along a student engineer who carried in his own mixing board. “We snuck in at four in the morning, recorded and mixed it in two hours, and took off,” says White. The resulting “Young Monsters” seven-inch came out in January 2004, and White and Saathoff celebrated its release with a set at the Double Door, part of a bigger party for the Maybe Chicago? compilation on Criminal IQ Records.

“I didn’t know it,” says White, “but that was our last show.”

Three weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, Saathoff was killed by a hit-and-run driver while leaving a show at the Empty Bottle. White was at a nearby house party, and when he missed their rendezvous she tried to walk back to her car, which was still parked near the Bottle. It was blocked off by police tape, so she asked what was going on. “The cops were like, ‘See that ambulance, there’s a dead guy in there,'” she says. White took a cab to Saathoff’s house to wait for him, and was cleaning his room when a friend called from the hospital.

Saathoff’s death devastated White. “I basically decided I’m never gonna play music again. I’m gonna turn my guitar into a birdhouse,” she says. “It wasn’t just music. I had become disenchanted with everything. I was in a state of shock for months.”

That summer, still mired in depression, White got an e-mail from Larry Hardy at In the Red. Unaware that Saathoff was dead, he sang the praises of the “Young Monsters” single and insisted that the duo record for his label. White, who already had plans to visit friends in LA, made time to meet with Hardy while she was there, and he offered to release Criminal IQ’s recording of her final show with Saathoff. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity to honor him and revive what we’d done,” she says. “And that eventually became the launching pad for making my own record.”

White started playing shows again, this time with Williams on drums, and in the fall of 2004 assembled a band with two members of the now defunct Clone Defects, guitarist Wes Kerstens and drummer Eddie Altesleben. The day after Thanksgiving they headed to Jim Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders studio in Detroit to make White’s first LP. “We recorded and mixed the whole thing in 16 hours,” she says. Everything, even the vocals, was recorded live in the studio, and eight of the ten tracks–nine originals plus a cover of Teenage Head’s “Picture My Face”–are first takes. Spare, scorched chords and runaway drums carry the songs, and White slices at the melodies with serrated guitar, her singing escalating from hunger and hurt into full-throated fury.

White will celebrate the release of the record with a gig opening for Holly Golightly and the Reigning Sound at the Wicker Park Summer Fest on July 31, and then she’ll take the Red Orchestra (which now includes bassist Eric Villa) out on a west-coast tour supporting the Ponys. In the Red will release her live album with Chris Playboy later this summer in a limited vinyl edition, with part of the proceeds going to the Christopher Saathoff Foundation.

The Hot Machines released their first single in January on Cass Records, the label run by Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell, and hope to record a full-length soon. White has also revived the Missile X imprint, selling out small pressings of seven-inches by the Dirges (featuring Ross Fisher of the Brides) and Seattle spaz punks the Spits. Up next is a single by the Luxury Riders, whose lineup includes former members of the Dirtys and Les Sexareenos.

Meanwhile White is still in college, on track to graduate with an entrepreneurial studies major next spring and looking to apply to law school. “But I don’t want to be a lawyer,” she says. “I’m doing it just so I can analyze my own contracts and that sort of thing. If I had my way I would play music for the rest of my life–and I will.”

White admits she’s still recovering from the deaths of her friends. “It doesn’t get easier. But it’s caused me to value life above all things,” she says. “I don’t ever want to waste my time, because who knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Diane Alexander White.