Interview: John Smith
Richard Hawley’s support act steps forward with a third album in his hand and a broken heart on his sleeve
ith a name like John Smith, it’s not surprising to discover this guitarist and songwriter is a quintessentially English folk musician – the softly spoken and modest gentleman on the other end of our phone is as down-to-earth and smooth as his namesake Yorkshire bitter. However, blindly listening to Smith’s new album Great Lakes without this knowledge may belie his Devonshire roots, as a North American blues and folk sound seems more apparent and his steel-stringed lap and slide guitar-playing – Smith won Young Acoustic Guitarist Of The Year in 2003 – owes more to the likes of Ry Cooder than his British contemporaries.
You might recognise the name, having appeared on gig posters under the likes of John Martyn, Seth Lakeman, David Gray, Jools Holland, Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Hawley. But now John Smith will be embarking on headline shows throughout 2013 and prove he deserves top billing.
So we endeavour to get to the root of John Smith and find out where this Anglo-American comes from and where he’s going.
Where did it all start?
“I started out on the piano and from there to drums. I was classically trained on the piano, but I kind of went off piano lessons and got into drumming. But then I didn’t own a drumkit so it all very frustrating, then I found the guitar when I was 11 years old and something made sense. It all come together so I stuck with it. It was a warped classical thing that my dad gave me that he’d dragged around Europe, then he gave me an electric guitar.”
What inspired you originally?
“I was just listening to my dad’s records and I was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix and Cream, so I learned all those riffs first. Then a couple of years later I got into Nirvana and all the guitar bands of the time. But always the background was folk music like Paul Simon and Ry Cooder, so I would be learning folk and blues standards as well.”
Can you remember the first song you wrote?
“I can kind of recollect doing something on a dictaphone in the attic with a keyboard. I think I might’ve been 9 years old and writing a song about Sonic The Hedgehog or something! Really basic stuff and then I wrote terrible songs until I actually wrote something that I could listen to and not cringe. But that took a long time – when I was in my 20’s.
“I’d finished university and I was living in Liverpool and trying to get by as a jobbing guitar player. I was working days in a comic book shop and then my evenings in restaurants playing guitar. I was just gigging instrumental guitar music and then a couple of songs came to me and from there I thought it would be great if I could get a whole set of this. In a couple of years I had enough material for my first record. It just sort of occurred in that way and then once I had the imputus to really get into it, I’ve been taking a lot more seriously ever since.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I FIND WRITING SONGS QUITE A TOUGH PROCESS. I REALLY STRUGGLE WITH IT NOW [/cc_blockquote_right] So you fell into this by accident just from playing?
“Yeah I was just playing and playing, but feeling like I needed something more. At that point I wasn’t a very good singer, but I liked singing other people’s songs and then it just happened that I wrote a couple of songs quite easily and I wanted to write more. Since then it’s been very up-and-down. If all of them had came to me as the first few did, it would’ve been great, but actually I find writing songs quite a tough process. I really struggle with it now.
“This latest album came about after a couple of years when I couldn’t write anything. I was absolutely dry. But now I’ve constantly got the guitar, so I’ve got a rich musical life through playing the guitar, but the songwriting is still something I struggle with… daily!”
Did you have anything happen in your life when the songs came easily? Were you emotionally charged at that time?
“Ah, well, I was 23 or 24 and deeply in love. At that age everything’s a big deal! I think you can find any subject to write on at that age and it’s going to have a depth of meaning that later on it might not. I think that’s probably why writers become more nuanced and less charged – they tend to mellow, and the same’s happened to me. I don’t feel the need to express things so passionately and urgently now, because… well, I know it’s not that big of a deal!”
When you had that ‘dry’ period, what did you think unlocked that?
“It was two things. It was meeting the songwriting and producer Joe Henry and just talking very freely about songwriting and the landscape of it. We got into sending songwriting ideas back and forth and out of that came three very good songs, two of which are on the album – She Is My Escape and the first song, There Is A Stone. Then I took a trip to Canada and went to play some gigs on Prince Edward Island. I met this songwriter there called Dennis Ellsworth, who’s a very prolific and brilliant Canadian songwriter. We just sat in a room for a couple of hours and wrote two tunes – two of the best songs I’ve ever played on. They just occurred and it made me think ‘maybe I can write an album’, so I went home to Finchley in London and spent that week writing the new record.”
How did you go about writing this album?
“I was reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy and I was given this brilliant compendium of 20th century French poetry, so I was working my way through books and engaged with writing again, in a meaningful way. I just holed-up and wrote the songs. It was great. I’d read Tom Waits treats it like a job – it doesn’t occur naturally – that it’s something you have to wrestle and wrangle and fight! I had a couple of months off touring so I just stayed in and worked 9 to 5, writing songs.”
What did your typical day consist of?
“On a day like that I would go for a run, have a coffee, then start writing. To break it up I’d go for a walk, go for some lunch and then come back and keep writing. I find it’s much harder to write on tour. I know a lot of people really thrive on that because they’re seeing things and instantly turning it into words. But I find it’s always a couple of weeks after I come back off tour that the ideas have fermented and I can make sense of them. So when I’m at home with nothing else to do that I get the work done.”
When you’re writing, what’s the first thing you look for, and in what order do for find it comes?
“I usually have four or five riffs on the go, or different ideas and tunings. I’ll pick two or three that I’m really into at that point and then go from there. Maybe a word or a few lyrics will be in my head, but often I’ll write stream of consciousness and I’ll pick some of that and it’ll turn into a verse. I’ve got so many of those little one-line song ideas floating around that never come to anything. Usually if a song’s going to get written I find the first verse will write itself and I’ll go from there. There’s not really any set routine with my end of it. I’m not saying it’s some sort of ‘outside influence’ but I didn’t really have any control over it!”
[cc_blockquote_right] MAKE ENOUGH MONEY THAT I CAN HIDE AWAY AND MAKE ANOTHER RECORD. THAT’S ALL I’M HOPING FOR! [/cc_blockquote_right] Can you give us a snapshot of the album – how would you sum it up?
“It’s a step forward for me as a writer and a singer and a player. For me it feels like the heaviest record that I’ve made. I recorded it last May and it’s mastered and at that point I kind of hand it over and it doesn’t belong to me anymore. So I’m just really looking forward to seeing what people thing of it. I’m just really pleased with it. It’s an album that means a lot to me because a lot of what I’m writing about are things I’ve lived through in the last four years, that effected my quite deeply, so I’m just really pleased it’s done basically. I feel proud of it.”
Can you pinpoint any of those moments in the last four years that have influenced the record?
“A lot of travel and a little heartbreak, and a couple of new beginnings. I’ve dipped into those things in different songs and tried to make sense of it.”
So what’s next?
“I go on tour in the UK, Ireland after that and then we’ll be get into festival season. So the most I can ask for is to be busy gigging for a year or two, and then make enough money that I can hide away and make another record. That’s all I’m hoping for!”
Interview: Alex Miles
Great Lakes by John Smith is out on 25 March on Barp Ltd. To find out more, visit his website: www.johnsmithjohnsmith.com