When the words folk and music are uttered together they can be quite evocative. In some it may conjure up outdated images of fair isle patterned woollen jumper clad musicians, harmonising over the strains of a mandolin, to others the sound of the likes of Nick Drake and his beautiful lilting lullabies may come to mind. In its more contemporary form, folk music remains fairly true to its roots, as at its heart it still delivers great stories often told by amazing artists.
One such gifted modern day storyteller is musician John Smith, maybe ordinary by name, but that perhaps belies the spellbinding music he creates through a perfectly honed guitar technique and a captivating voice, part raspy, part honey toned. Certainly in his hands the future of folk is safe indeed. We spoke with John in Copenhagen, mid European tour to go over life on the road, what’s shaped him as a musician and his fantastic new album Headlong.
The MALESTROM: How’s the tour going?
John Smith: It’s great, really good. A lot of the gigs are selling out and people are buzzing about the new songs, it’s all really positive.
TM: Tell us about your genesis as a musician, how it all began …
JS: Well I’ve been playing guitar for most of my life and making records for about twelve years now, touring for about the same length of time. I got my first big break in touring opening for John Martyn, from there started playing festivals and that kind of led to playing around the world and here I am pretty much. This is my fourth album; I’m touring Europe, warming up the songs getting ready for the album to come out.
TM: You mentioned John Martyn, what was it like working with him?
JM: We were touring, I was opening up for him. I’d go out and do my thing he’d go out and do his and occasionally we’d get to have a drink afterwards, yeah it was a really great experience, really good. A nice way to start, and it was intensive, I’d gone from just playing little club nights in Liverpool to playing 2000 seat venues all over the country. Driving myself here and there, yeah it was a great time.
TM: Which musicians have been your strongest musical influences along the way?
JS: As a guitarist, people like Ry Cooder and Nick Drake, people who treated the guitar differently to those who’ve come before, I’ve always been interested in that. I listen to everything I can, I guess the people I always go back to when I need to hear a good song are Neil Young and Paul Simon. Always.
TM: We felt the solo on your new song Far Too Good had some Van Morrison-esque guitar to it …
JS: Well yeah, Van Morrison is one of my favourites really, I think Astral Weeks is the record I’ve listened to most in my life.
TM: Can we talk about the new album Headlong and the process of how that came about?
JS: Well I signed up to join David Gray’s band playing lead guitar and we were on a number of long tours in America and I just found myself with time on my hands to kill, and I spent that time writing. Once I’d initially put pen to paper it all happened very fast, and by the time I’d got back from touring as a session musician, which I did for a couple of years, I then sat down at my table and wrote the whole album and it was kind of ready to start so I recorded it between Spring and Summer last year. It was completely painless, Great Lakes took a really long time to write, I really struggled, but this one just happened and it was a really joyful experience writing it, it felt very natural.
TM: What is your writing process? Is there a norm, or does it change every time with different albums?
JS: It really depends on the song. However that song wants to get written. I’ll either sit there and bang my head against it for a couple of weeks or it’ll just happen in a couple of minutes. With Far Too Good, I wrote that song in five minutes, it just came out.
TM: It’s a great song. Which tracks on the album are you particularly proud of?
JS: The title track in particular (Headlong) was cathartic cause that was about something I was going through at the time I wrote it. The same deal with Save My Life, I wrote those songs removed from the others, because I just needed a couple more songs and I went and sat down and wrote them, I’m really proud of those two as I managed to get out what was in my head and put it in a song, and that always feels really good. I like Joanna as well because I think anytime you manage to write something that is directly linked to how you’re feeling at that given time, it feels like you’ve managed to confront whatever it is coming towards you and deal with it in a meaningful way. I suppose that’s the catharsis of writing. For this album I sort of abandoned the kind of mythic standpoint I’d taken on previous albums and tried to write more about myself and actually it felt pretty good.
TM: Is it important for you to lay yourself bare in that way?
JS: Yeah it’s become more so. I used to hide behind as I said mythic figures or more deliberate storytelling, whereas now I think I’m a lot more comfortable telling people what’s in my head, speaking my mind as it were.
TM: Where was this album recorded? You recorded part of Great Lakes was in a church, do the spaces where you record change the way the songs feel?
JS: Absolutely. I think the whole point with this record was to make something very intimate and restrained, although some of the songs are quite big there’s never more than three or four instruments at any one point. So we recorded in a loft in Somerset, my friend Sam Lakeman who I’ve toured with for a number of years, he’s married to the folk singer Cara Dillon, he’s a great musician, but also a great producer, he’s produced all of Cara’s records which have won numerous awards. We’ve always talked about doing something and we were having a chat about what I was going to do for this record and it sort of clicked that we should be doing it together. And as it began in this intimate warm space physically, it did inform the sound of it, because actually I wanted it to sound like I was singing up close and I’m hoping that translates in the recording, I think it sounds like quite an intimate record.
TM: It absolutely does. It’s hard to compare it to your other work but do you feel it’s a step on for you in terms of being a musician?
JS: I think so yeah. I spent a lot of time figuring out the guitar parts and practicing them, with Great Lakes I was more concerned about the production of the record, but this time I had a producer so I spent every spare moment just practicing, whether it be the solo in Far Too Good or whatever, cause every song seems to have a guitar solo in it pretty much so I was doing a lot of playing in the sessions which was really good, so I feel I’m representing where I am as a guitar player at this point.
TM: The emotions really come through on the tracks, how important is it to get across the spirit in what you do?
JS: I suppose that’s everything isn’t it? Without that it feels like an empty vessel, I think we’re all trying to convey that when we’re writing songs or whatever it is you’re doing, whatever your medium is, you’ve got to try and impart something of yourself or something of what you believe into it, because that’s the thing people relate to, I certainly do, when I hear something and feel they’ve put a bit of themselves into it I feel much more connected to it, cause as I say without that it just feels shallow. That’s something that’s becoming more and more of a trend, it feels like there’s a trend for style over substance, for making music to make money and I reject it. I think it’s important to tell a story that you hope people can relate to.
TM: Totally agree
JS: Without sounding pompous (laughs).
TM: No, I think we definitely agree on that one. You’re an independent, unsigned artist and you’ve made that choice consciously, so it’s an important thing for you?
JS: It is, I’ve always stuck to it and now I’m at the point where I don’t regret anything. The way to survive in this industry is to work really hard and bring people around you that’ll work just as hard. I never was made an offer that represented that kind of hard work, so I hire a great agent, I’ve got a great manager, we’ve got a great intuitive distributer, publisher. These are all people I’ve had long relationships with, but essentially me and my manager are the record label, it’s just a different way of looking at it, there’s not a lot of money, but 100% control and you can’t put a price on that I don’t think. I’d rather be able to do what I want than have loads of money. Obviously it’d be nice to have loads of money cause it would free you up to get Steve Gadd on drums, but you have to view things realistically, for now I’m happy where I am.
TM: What is your life like as a musician? Some people might associate it with a hedonistic existence packed with groupies but it must be quite a grind at times?
JS: Well typically it is a grind yeah, it’s hard work. I mean the last week I’ve done six shows in a row and I caught a train to each of those gigs, I spent 40 hours on trains, slept five or six hours a night before getting up and going to the train station, getting on the next train, wait around at the train station, go to the venue, sound check, go to the hotel, get a bit of dinner and you do that day in day out. But you don’t complain cause it’s your job. If you get home off tour on a Tuesday, Tuesday becomes Sunday and … I’ve one friend in particular, one of my closest friends who tours as a guitar tech for a huge band, and when we get off tour at the same time we’ll find ourselves sitting in our pants playing Playstation on a Tuesday on the phone to each other, and I think that’s why a lot of touring musicians get thought of as bums, because when we’re home we just draw the curtains and open the whisky and that’s that. When you’re on the road it is non-stop really.
TM: So not quite the rock and roll image some might perceive …
JS: I suppose the rock and roll thing requires caretaking, you need a bus with a driver and a tour manager who’s going to look after all your shit, but if it’s just me and I’m trying to pay the mortgage and look after my family I’ve got to do it by myself, I’ve got to take on the roll of tour manager, accountant, driver and travel agent, I do all that shit myself. There’s a balance issue because I spend my time as much doing admin and spreadsheets as I do playing guitar so there comes a point where I just switch the computer off and practice my scales. I wish there was more cocaine and groupies but …
TM: We can only hope …
JS: (laughs) That’s no fun anyway man, that stuff will get to you after a while (laughs).
TM: Artists are usually compared with others, often pretty badly, is there anyone you would like to be compared to, or feel similar to?
JS: Honestly no. People always read too deeply into the John Martyn connection, my only experience with John previously to touring with him was being played Solid Air at a party, I didn’t really know who he was, I was more into Nick Drake, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch. After that I discovered John Martyn but I never tried to sound like him, I developed a guitar style and went on tour and discovered this guy has paved the way for what I do, without me knowing. People always say I owe a tremendous debt to John Martyn, be that as it may, it’s not something I’ve consciously copied. It’s the same with Ray LaMontagne, people always say you sound like Ray, but I think as far as I’m aware I’ve been touring the same number of years as he has, and although I think he’s fantastic, I’m just not as famous as he is, so people always try and ascribe what you do to someone who’s more well known. I think for me it implies a competitive element and I don’t think music is a competition, I think when you start comparing people to others it implies people are trying to get one up on others and that for me is the antithesis of the creative endeavour. To a cynical reader this might sound like me saying please don’t compare me to these people because I’m clearly trying to rip them off but don’t want to be compared to them, at the end of the day I think Bob Dylan said it best, “when I put out a record it’s none of my business what people think of it,” so if people want to compare me to others that’s fine, I don’t really give much thought to who I might sound like, or who’s career I might emulate, I don’t know, life is too short to worry (laughs). Sorry, again without trying to sound arrogant. I just do my thing and hope for the best.
TM: You mentioned the competitive element of art there, It’s a funny thing isn’t it? You’d think artists should be encouraging each other, but that doesn’t seem common place …
JS: No, they should. It’s one thing I find really reassuring on the road there’s this sort of family of musicians, this brotherhood and sisterhood of touring musicians and you can be at your lowest ebb and walk into a venue and see someone who’s also on the road and you can pick each other up and spur each other on. It’s happened to me on this tour, suddenly you remember, ‘ah yes I’m in this, and this is real and this is good.’ I don’t think music is a competition whereby people should be worried about how many plays they’ve had or how much royalties they’re making because it just kills all the joy of it, the whole idea is to play songs to people and for them to have a good time, that’s it really, that’s all it is (laughs).
TM: What do you hope people get from your music? What do you hope they take away?
JS: As I say it’s sort of none of my business. I equally make music for my own satisfaction as I do for others and I suppose it’s only really with this album, now I know I have a modest but growing following, which has taken a long time, I am for the first time aware of what I want to give them, and that’s new on me. I wrote this album thinking I’m going to put a couple more happy songs on there, there’s not going to be any death on this one, we’re going to steer it in a more positive direction. If people don’t like the fact it’s not as dark as previous records then that’s none of my business, but equally if there’s a song on there that someone wants to get married to, amazing! I heard that a couple of times recently, people came up to me and said, ‘hey we got married to your song,’ and that just really blows my mind, that’s a kind of life changing affirmation, so if I can hope to get that kind of response that people want to make the songs a part of their lives then that’s great, but it’s not something that I can strive for because life is just a series of random events most of the time (laughs). I try not to read too much into it. It could be that this album tanks and no one hears it or it could be twice as big as the last one, who knows?
TM: What is success to you? How do you determine it?
JS: For me it’s about me being able to tour and make a record every few years and pay the bills … that for me is material success. But true life affirming victory is having an audience of people who want to be at your gig, listening to every word and maybe singing along, that for me is “success”, that’s why I do it now. Touch wood that’s happening more and more now and it feels really good.
TM: Can we talk about your musical tastes? What would be the three songs your passionate about and couldn’t do without in your life?
JS: Wow. That’s a good question man.
TM: Not to put you on the spot or anything …
JS: (Laughs) Tell Me Why from Neil Young from After The Goldrush, Sweet Thing by Van Morrison from Astral Weeks, both for very different reasons. With Neil Young that song is brilliantly written, brilliantly structured, a completely singable classic country song, whereas that Van Morrison number is a rambling, sort of porous, poetic, living breathing thing that sounds different almost every time you hear it, and they to me represent two very different, very important touchstones of song writing. It’s interesting to look at songs from different aspects, one that’s free flowing and almost interminable in its structure and one that’s a solidly written great song with verses and a chorus, and then for another song … I’d maybe go for something like Tango Till They’re Sore by Tom Waites cause it’s somewhere in the middle, it’s sort of free flowing yet it’s the rambling genius of Tom Waites. I don’t know, if ever I’m stuck for something to listen to, I’d probably listen to one of them.
TM: Three very good songs. What are your hopes for your music in the future, whether in the next twelve months or further ahead?
JS: As I say just more gigs, hopefully bigger, playing to more people. Selling some CDs, some records, paying the bills and just continuing to do what I do cause it’s just a wild privilege to get up on stage and sing songs to people. So if I can continue that’ll be great, and if I can’t then i’m in trouble cause I can’t do anything else …
JS: I really can’t! There’s no other way I can make a living, so I’ve got to keep going, and hopefully this album allows me to continue on this path.
TM: Finally is there any wisdom you’ve picked up during your career in the music business?
JS: Yeah. I was having a really hard gig and I came off stage and I was whinging a bit and I was exhausted, and a tour manager looked me in the eye and said, ‘it might not be a great gig, but it’s a gig’, and that’s really stuck with me. So anytime now that I feel down about it or hard done by, as we all do from time to time, I feel encouraged to dig in and get through it as best I can, because it is a gig and it’s my livelihood and it keeps me going. So even if it’s bad there’s a way to make it good most of the time (laughs).
After The Goldrush Astral Weeks Bert Jansch Bob Dylan Cara Dillon David Gray Far Too Good FOLK Folk Musician Great Lakes Guitarist Headlong Joanna John Martyn John Renbourn John Smith Male Magazine Men's Lifestyle Neil Young Nick Drake Paul Simon Ray LaMontagne Ry Cooder Sam Lakeman Save My Life Solid Air Steve Gadd Sweet Thing Tango Till They’re Sore Tell Me Why The MALESTROM Tom Waites Tom Waits Van Morrison