On stage and, as I found out, in person…John Smith is the epitome of coolness.
It’s a personality trait that resonates entirely with his music; restrained, reflective, confident and effortless. A musician’s musician, Smith’s fifth and most recent album ‘Headlong’ (reviewed here) is the latest development in the gravel-voiced artist’s ten-year recording career. When not releasing and performing his own work, John’s celebrated guitar mastery has recently underpinned the music of David Gray, Joan Baez, Joe Henry and the guitarist’s guitarist himself; Martin Simpson.
As we chat ahead of his performance at the Kenilworth Arts Festival, I’m intrigued to know how John feels ‘Headlong’ is translating to a live performance;
“It’s going well” he concludes. “I’m trying to just flesh it out as much as I can on the gigs I’m doing solo, because as soon as you take a band on the road, touring becomes really expensive. I’ve got a mix of band shows and solo shows, but a lot of them are really stripped back. I’ve just done a run in Ireland where I just took one acoustic guitar….and that felt great. It was the first time I’d done that in a while. Each gig is different.”
The foundations of Headlong were formed during an extended period touring in the US, playing guitar for David Gray; “I found myself with time off during the day” John explains, “before soundcheck there’d be a couple of hours to kill and I was just writing a lot. It was really good, time well spent. When I got back from America after that two years or so, I had a full notebook. It seemed most of the songs were about travelling really…being away from home or dealing with short spells at home. I got it all together and put it down about a year ago. That happened really quickly…I did the whole record in a week.”
In contrast to the in-depth preparation that went into the recording of John’s self-produced 2013 album Great Lakes, this time around he handed over production duties to Sam Lakeman and arrived at the studio with nothing other than his notebook and some ideas. The resultant organic approach to making the album has resulted in a piece of work that John definitely feels is a progression;
“I think musically it’s as minimal as Great Lakes, perhaps more so. I try to go with ‘less is more’ in everything that I do really, so I wanted to keep stripping things off; we’d record things then pull them back just to keep it as tight as possible. We let go a bit on a few with drums and some strings, but not a whole lot. I think it’s probably a bit tighter than Great Lakes as a record, but I think a lot of that’s just from the economy of touring and gigging; you can’t carry too much, it weighs you down. I’ve been applying that approach, I suppose, to recording and writing.”
I ask about John’s creative process; “It’s completely random” is his reply. “Sometimes I get an idea that becomes a lyric, sometimes I get a guitar part that becomes a verse…there doesn’t seem to be any set pattern. I just wait for something to come along and then pounce on it before it evaporates, as they do if you don’t get on it straight away.”
As for inspiration, John summarises that as just coming from ‘being alive’.
“I’d feel silly trying to quantify that one because inspiration comes out of all kinds of mundane things and distils over the course of a day…and the end of the day you’ve got a lyric that sums it up. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m very fortunate that I get to travel with work so I get to see a lot of different things and that informs a lot of what I write about. But some days I’d feel just as inspired staying in bed and picking up a notebook.”
It seems that touring his solo show isn’t, however; conducive to the writing process; “You don’t get to write or play guitar when you’re on the road. It was different touring as a session musician because you’re part of someone else’s show, but if it’s my show then I’m full on all the time. I’ll probably sit down after Christmas and do some writing once this tour’s over.”
John performed on Martin Simpson’s latest album ‘Trails and Tribulations’. I asked him how that opportunity arose;
“I’ve been friends with Martin for a few years. I got to know him very well on the Elizabethan Session. He’s just a Gent. He’s been very kind to me over the years. He’s helped me out with lots of guitar bits and stuff. If I need to know something about some strings or a type of guitar, the chances are Martin has got it…or has played it. So, he’s been very good to me.”
“I was around Martin’s house having a cup of tea” John continues, “playing this vintage strat that he’s got; I sat and played it for about an hour. Then a few days later he asked if I’d play on his record. My noodling must have registered somewhere in his mind that it would work on his record! It was really nice, we did the album in Sheffield with Andy Bell. I can’t describe what an honour it is to play guitar for Martin, because he’s one of the best.”
As we continue to chat, it’s clear that John’s collaborations that are amongst his proudest achievements;
“I’ve played on some great records I think. As well as Martin’s, this year I played with Joan Baez. And the great Joe Henry, I played on his last two records.” He ponders further for a moment on my question of ‘what makes him proud?’ “I think I’m just really proud of the fact that I’ve written maybe sixty songs that I think are good. I’m really proud of that.”
The rest of 2017 sees John on the road; “I’ve got about forty odd gigs before Christmas, around the UK, Ireland and the rest of Europe, ending in Switzerland a few days before Christmas. Then…probably a two or three-week spell of sitting on my arse, drinking whiskey and watching box sets…”
Film & Photos: Redwood Photography
Audio: Drew Coleman Sound