Making Songwriting Sound Effortless

An Interview with Chris Smither

Singer-songwriter Chris Smither has been around long enough that not much surprises him. His latest album, though, came together in a way he didn’t expect. But his producer knew what he was doing, and that’s the way Smither prefers it. His expertise is in songwriting, not producing albums.

Smither isn’t exactly a household name. As with John Hiatt, more people are probably familiar with him through his songs than his voice. A lot of records have been sold because of Smither’s work; they just happen to be other people’s records. Diana Krall’s current hit album The Girl in the Other Room features Smither’s “Love Me Like a Man,” a song that’s also been recorded by Bonnie Raitt. (Raitt appears on his new record, too, and has been a longtime friend.)

Like Hiatt, Smither is a star in the songwriting world. His finger-picked guitar playing is also distinctive, a function of his one-man-band performance style. (His feet provide the percussion, and he can’t perform if he’s told to keep them still.)

For those unfamiliar with Smither’s work, his 2003 album Train Home is an excellent primer, with seven originals, four covers, and a vibe unlike anything he’s done before.

“I think it sounds very relaxed and ... ummm ... effortless,” Smither said in a recent interview. “It just sounds as if I’m in control without having to work at it.”

Credit for that goes to producer David “Goody” Goodrich, who suggested a change in Smither’s typical recording process. The basic tracks for Train Home were laid down at Smither’s home, and for the first time he recorded those without a rhythm section to keep time for him. He also began exploring progressions that lean toward jazz instead of his typical folk and blues.

Smither said he didn’t know what to expect from that process, but the record’s atmosphere — and Smither’s ability to stay on-beat without accompaniment — are impeccable. “Basically I hire producers for their ideas,” Smither said. “I try not to second-guess.” And Goodrich’s instincts were good, the singer-guitarist said: “He knew exactly what it was going to sound like.”

Train Home showcases all of Smither’s strengths, from his detail-rich finger-picking style to his seasoned voice, which at times echoes Dylan and Tom Waits and Randy Newman but just as often could only come from Smither. Like all those artists, the singing isn’t pleasant or refined, but it’s singular, worn, and expressive.

Easily the album’s best song is its title track, with a delicate vocal and guitar melody of warm, gentle longing, and a softly rocking rhythm.

Some of the songs have the songwriter’s typical autobiographic bent, but he’s also added a new twist on a few songs: fictional characters. “I sort of occupy a different head,” he said.

“Lola” is a first-person account of a man who knows his woman’s bad for him but is a glutton for punishment: “She’s got hooks to make a fish think twice / But I ain’t no fish, I’ll pay any price / If I think at all, I think, ‘This feels nice!’”

The narrator of “Let It Go,” on the other hand, is conflicted, trying to figure out what to do when his car is stolen: “Now my mind tells me to kill &srquo;em / My heart tells me that’s wrong / My wife tells me, ‘Go get a better one / It’s what you wanted all along.’”

Those clever lyrics don’t come easily, Smither said: “Songwriting is one of the hardest things I’ve tried to do.”

Smither plans to record again early next year, and while he has four of five songs started, he’s at the stage of writing he calls “panic mode.” The album is “in a state where it really hasn’t declared itself,” he said. He has melodies and rhythms, but at this point there aren’t any lyrics, only scat singing.

Now he needs to dedicate himself to writing from 9 a.m. to noon every day to get the songs ready for the road, where he’ll test them before going into the recording process. It’s a combination of magic and discipline, he said, a mixture of instinct and hard work. “I sort of trust my mood and the head that I’m in,” he said. By his calculation, he needs to have half the new album’s songs finished by the end of the year.

Smither started his career in the Boston coffeehouse scene of the 1960s and in the early 1970s got a taste both of record-industry realities and the dangers of drink. His third album, 1972’s Honeysuckle Dog, fell into purgatory when his label, United Artists, was bought. Smither got cut from the roster, and the album remained unreleased until March of this year, when Okra-tone put it out.

After Honeysuckle Dog was shelved, Smither didn’t release a record until 1984. “I was too busy drinking,” he said.

He said he’s still not sure why he gave up alcohol. “If you could answer that question, you could sure save a lot of people,” he said. “You get tired of it. You get scared. You don’t want to die. ... You’re sick of being sick.”

As for his “lost” album finally seeing the light of day, Smither said he was happy for fans who’ve wanted to hear it but essentially shrugs his shoulders about it.

“It could have happened at almost any time,” he said. “The record was available to be released for years.” Smither said he could have released the album himself, but “it just didn’t interest me that much. ... As the years went by, I re-recorded anything that was really of interest.”

And the record’s debut provided another reminder that the music industry is about making money above all else; Okra-tone didn’t want Smither to be involved in the release. “The company that finally released it wanted very little to do with me,” he said.

Smither’s relationship with the recording industry is at best ambivalent. When talking about his “lost” record and who owned the rights, Smither went off on a tangent about how things really work. Companies don’t do what’s legal, he said; they do what they can get away with. “The first question is, ‘Can they afford to sue us?’” he said.

But he doesn’t sound bitter; on the contrary, he’s matter-of-fact about what most musical artists have to deal with. That’s because he’s a seasoned pro, someone who’s lived enough to have good, true material and who’s been able to channel his disappointments, frustrations, and heartache into shockingly strong songs.

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the River Cities’ Reader.

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