Listen

Music Journeys: John Smith

Jun 10, 2021

With his new album The Fray, musician John Smith believes he's created his most honest work - and it came out of necessity. Not unlike other performers, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist found himself grounded by the pandemic but also dealing with unrelated family health matters. Here on Music Journeys, Smith shares how turning to music helped him accept life's challenges.

Smith takes part in the Fast Five and also paints us a picture of Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, where he recorded his new songs. Please consider downloading the NPR One app and make WCBE your station. You can subcribe and receive updates to many of WCBE's Podcast Experience shows through NPR One, including Music Journeys. Thanks for listening. 

One Day At A Time plays...

Although it's the final song on John Smith's new 12-track release The Fray, One Day at a Time reflects his outlook on life. The pandemic already made things difficult in 2020 for the singer, songwriter, and guitarist who resides in North Wales. But Smith and his wife lost a pregnancy, and his mom received a cancer diagnosis in the span of just a few weeks last year. 

"It's been a complete nightmare, but I'm counting my blessings that my wife and mom are still okay," Smith said. "It's a cliche' but it's also just fundamentally how time works. You don't have a choice but to face it one day at a time. I suppose these songs are about getting a bit older and facing up to real life a little bit. We all had a lot of that to deal with in the last year, real life events beyond our control. In my case as they were spinning out of control, the only thing I could do was write some songs and try to be optimistic. My wife is calling the album 'sad songs, happy man' so that's the adopted title for the record."   

The Best of Me plays...

"I was born in 1982 in Essex in the very far east of London, west of Essex," Smith continued. "We moved from there when I was very young. I grew up in South Devon by the sea right on the south coast of England. I always had this big horizon outside my window. Though I lived in a small town, I could always see there was a lot of world out there. That played a big part in my mentality growing up. I've always used the water as a metaphor in my work. Just the idea of the ebb and flow of life and at some point it's going to come good. To The Shore is just about hoping for the best and at some point receiving the best."  

To The Shore plays...

"I'm fortunate to have grown up in a house with a big record collection in it," Smith reflected. "My dad was always playing me Paul Simon and Ry Cooder and B.B. King, lots of classical music and Blues. So I was always exposed to good music. By the time I finally got around to playing guitar when I was 12, I already knew how a guitar should sound because I've heard so much good guitar music."

Deserving plays...

"I managed to rope Sarah Jarosz and Courtney Hartman into singing with me," Smith said of the song Deserving. "That song is more about domestic life and being cooped up with your partner. I wrote that song after we had an argument. Of course I was in the wrong. You go up to your room, pick up a guitar and the song comes out. A little self-loathing and self-examination. But mostly I'm in love, and I have to fit into this relationship even though I don't feel like myself. For me it was a big shock to be grounded. I was on tour 200 days a year the last couple of years, and then suddenly I'm home. I have to figure out what do I do at home? The answer is make records, but it took me a minute to figure that one out. But it turns out I really like my family so it was good. It kind of came together."  

Friends plays...

"As I was finishing up the writing of this album, I had a clear idea of who I wanted to work with," Smith said of the new songs. "I was talking to my friends in America and had this idea that they would record their parts and send them to me. In the last few months a lot of people have been revealing projects in which they've done that kind of thing. But back in September it felt completely new still. As I received these parts back, I would put them in the mix and then bounce off them. I wasn't overthinking them. I was trying to move instinctively as I would if they were in person. We cut the whole record in seven days in that process. We had Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Hartman, The Milk Carton Kids, Bill Frisell, and Lisa Hannigan contribute their parts remotely. In person I had the great pianist Jason Rebello and my core band who I've used for a long time. Then Jessica Staveley-Taylor of The Staves came in for a day and recorded vocals on Hold On in particular and just elevated the whole thing completely."

Hold On plays...

"Over the border from Somerset in the rolling hills in the southwest of England is the county of Wiltshire," Smith said in describing Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. "It's a very green and verdant place. You drive through a little village called Box. It's all cobbled streets and dry stone walls. You drive down a hill next to a river and turn into this little secluded vale, and there's Real World Studios. It's a beautiful old brick building. You go inside, and the first thing that hits you is the smell of the place. It's all wood. Studio 2 there is called the Wood Room, and it just smells like oak. There are vintage instruments and gear everywhere. Little flashing lights that promise great sound. The sound of that room is reverberant but not too reverberant. When you plug in a guitar and play loud, the sound that comes back to you is the sound of the Wood Room at Real World. I wanted to work there because I wanted that sound to be a participant in the recording. I wanted it to be as much a member of the band as my bass player or my drummer. We recorded things very live, and we used the sound of that place to inform the recordings." 

Eye To Eye plays...

"As a lover and listener of music, it offers me some sort of solace and sanctuary completely removed from daily life," Smith said of music. "It's a place where I can go and be alone and be completely comfortable. As someone who creates music, it's a similar feeling. The guitar is like experiencing meditation. It takes me out of myself and makes me feel calm and relaxed. My relationship with music changed when I started writing songs. Suddenly I was giving something to people. I'm now thinking how people will react to this. I love playing a song to someone and seeing that they are enjoying it and having that circular exchange of them singing it back to you, it's the greatest feeling in the world. As a participant I'm still the same kid with my headphones on listening and looking for magic in a record but I'm also looking to see if I'm lucky enough to create that feeling for other people." 

Visit johnsmithjohnsmith.com to learn more about John Smith. He's only performing in the UK at the moment, but he did say he'd love to come and play here in Columbus so we'll hope for that sometime down the line.