09 October 2010
Chris Smither has had a career which has spanned forty years without ever managing to become a household name. Widely admired for his distinctive guitar style, and laid back delivery, he has a large and loyal fan-base, including Bonnie Raitt, who know just how good his acoustic blues based songs are. On Chris’s latest album, Train Home (2003), Bonnie Raitt adds vocals to a version of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row which really benefits from the skilful guitar arrangement. Barry Jones met up with Chris early in 2005, in Dublin, and chatted to him about his career, his hobbies, his guitars, his foot-tapping accompaniment and his, fairly lengthy, “lost weekend.”
Chris, I understand that you started off playing ukulele - do you still play?
No, I don’t even own a ukulele.
They’ve become very popular again - you’re not tempted at all?
Well, marginally, y’know I’ve been into a music store… there’s a music store just a mile from my house and they’ve got a whole raft of them. Some of them are nice and some of them are cheap pieces of crap, but… and I sit there and twang away on them and there’s something about them, y’know… I might be able to find a slot for it as a backup thing, maybe on the next record, just as a nod to my beginnings y’know just to put a little tinkle of a ukulele on something.
You’ve been doing a lot of Irish dates, have they been everything you expected them to be?
I like Ireland very, very much. I enjoy working in England as well, but I was in England last summer briefly, for about six dates, and then we had six dates here, so that’s an even dozen, but I hadn’t been, with the exception of one Dublin date last year, I hadn’t been to Ireland in over two years, so it made sense to try and get out and see the folks.
When I was doing some research on the Internet, I found a site called MP3.com/music vine, which has you at the centre and then influences around and about you. It had you linked to Bob Dylan, which is fairly well to be expected, but it also had close links to Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. Do you see that sort of link yourself?
No (Laughing) that’s the first I’ve ever heard of it to tell you the truth, it’s like they’ve confused me with someone else I… Louis Armstrong of course is from my hometown (New Orleans), or I’m from his hometown, if you want to put it like that, but Bix Beiderbecke is from Davenport, Iowa, I think. I don’t know y’know. It’s very interesting because I know people who are very interested in those people, I don’t know where that would have come from.
I noticed that you had an interest in photography, and there were some links to some photographers on your site. What about your own work, do you take pictures a lot?
I do, I take a lot. I’ve taken pictures…my dad gave me an old 35mm camera when I was nine years old, about the same time as I started ukulele. And I had another camera before that even. I just love it. I do, I’ve taken pictures obsessively ever since I was a kid. I do mostly digital stuff, but it’s fairly high-end digital stuff, digital SLR 6.1 mega pixels, and I just love to make pictures.
Have you been taking pictures while you’ve been on tour?
Oh I’ve taken a few, it’s a vocation and I’ve... a lot of people have asked me, “Why don’t you do something with this?” People who’ve been very nice about what they had to say about the pictures, but I’ve already turned one hobby into a profession and I’m not sure I want to turn another one into a job, but y’know it’s interesting, when I was in Ireland, I mean in the north of Ireland, I saw some pictures in Port Stewart on the hotel wall and I, for the life of me cannot understand why I didn’t get the photographer’s name. They were really impressive in a classical mould… black and white, beautiful.
Talking about the Internet, you have gone through that time when it wasn’t even heard of, do you use it much?
Oh constantly. I mean I use computers for everything, from writing e-mail to recording, everything is on computer. And I take pictures on computers essentially. The Internet though has made what I do viable. It’s very hard to exaggerate the effect it’s had on the particular niche of music that I occupy. Prior to that sort of access, life was a dismal repetition of people saying, “Chris we love your music, but we can’t find your records anywhere.” That’s no longer the case. If they can’t find it immediately, they can have it on their doorstep within two days. Thanks to the Internet. The truth is that as soon as someone finds my website I’m instantly as big as Warner Brothers. It’s just phenomenal that that sort of thing didn’t exist when I was starting and more power to it, and at first I was a little dismayed in the beginning of the download era at the potential for piracy, but I’ve since learned the error of my ways, and realised that it’s actually very good for me and y’know for every person… I mean one of the most common things to happen to me at concerts is that someone comes up and says to me “Hey Man, I downloaded two of your tunes, give me everything you got!” And they buy all the records, y’know it’s just a sampling.
I think that people like Metallica made quite a big mistake, having said that it doesn’t appear to have affected them financially, I don’t think, but I think they lost quite a lot.
I think you’re right, and I think they lost some cred, street cred, but I could see myself, had I been in their position, at the time that they were there, agreeing with them at the time. I didn’t… It took a while for me to realise that in fact it was the coming thing, and was quite good for me and my music and everything else. I’m a little bit surprised at myself that it took me quite that long.
The blue Alvarez guitar is obviously a trademark, but what about “at home” guitars, what type of guitar do you pick up at home.
At home I pick up, almost invariably, my Collings. And that’s what I recorded the last album on and I’m seriously considering taking it out on the road. I’ve found a good, what is euphemistically called, a sound reinforcement system, it sounds very good, but it’s actually a pick-up. It worries me a little bit to take it out because it’s a much more expensive and irreplaceable instrument than the blue Alvarez, but it’s a beautiful instrument to play and it makes me happy. I just may go with it.
After about forty years performing your album still sounds very fresh. Do you still have the hunger for it, or have you ever wished that you weren’t a solo performer?
No I don’t really regret being a solo performer. I best believe… the music is conceived, that’s the way I do it live. I use arrangements and production in recording, basically to make up for the aspects of live performance that you don’t get in a recording. It’s one thing to go and see someone play it by themselves, it’s another thing to listen to it on a record, and not have the visual component. The association of other people is a group effort to make this thing happen, this live performance, but no I don’t really want to take people out on the road and to think about things on that scale. It is an economic consideration as well, it’s just not profitable y’know, unless you’re quite a well known band making really good money is very difficult, to make money as a group.
The 1973 album Honeysuckle Dog, with Lowell George and Dr John, was never released…
It has been now been released?
Yes… Honeysuckle Dog was leased from EMI Capitol, by an outfit called Rooster records? Or a division of Rooster records. It’s a small outfit and they sort of went about their business doing it without much consultation with me. And they would have liked very much to dress it up as a contemporary release and I cooperated as little as possible on that. It’s a little bit deceitful. The other thing is I will never see a penny from it. That’s alright in a way I suppose…
No it’s not.
…but it’s not something… y’know the record was recorded thirty years ago. You’re right it’s not alright, but it doesn’t particularly bother me. It’s what I’ve come to expect from the record business (both laugh) If you don’t keep it close to you, if you don’t keep it close to home, a small manageable record company that you can actually talk to, you will never be paid, in the music business. The major music companies, the first thing that they ask themselves, when it comes time to pay the artist is “Can he afford to sue us?” And if the answer is no, you don’t get any money.
It’s just a fact.
I really don’t want to pry into your private life, but between that album and 1991 or thereabouts, seemed to be a long “lost weekend” for yourself.
Other artists, say Steve Earle, or David Crosby, people like that, eventually document that time in some way. Are you likely to do that?
No, not really, not in any formal sense. It’s something that I’m perfectly willing to talk about. It’s a process of getting sick and getting well which was of intense interest to me, but in the end y’know it’s just boring. It’s another tale of y’know people get sick and some people get well and some people don’t. OK I was one who got well and that’s of enormous importance to me. It can be of enormous importance to people who are trying to get well from the same thing, but as far as the general public is concerned, most of the general public has no motivation whatsoever to understand it, in the first place, and I don’t blame them, y’know if it’s not something that concerns you directly in a sense becomes well as I say totally boring and uninteresting, you’re just more interested in the salacious aspects of it and that’s just y’know you can pull those kind of skeletons out of everybody’s closet.
That’s interesting, I tend to prefer biographies to autobiographies, and the David Crosby one I found to be particularly tedious.
Well there you go. Y’know and if you want to give yourself and example of that y’know my drug was alcohol, I mean I took a lot of others, but most of them I took to enable me to drink the way I wanted to, amphetamine and cocaine and stuff. Like God, y’know… just to illustrate to oneself how boring that can be, try going into a pub some night and stay sober all night, and find out just how interesting it is to talk to the people who’ve been drinking all evening.
Son of university professors, which might indicate above average intelligence in the offspring as well. I know that you started to study anthropology, but then stopped, have you actually done any serious academic study since then?
No, I haven’t, I haven’t. I’ve learnt a couple of languages. My first two foreign languages I learnt, well, before my academic career, I learnt them very young, but since then...
Is that when you lived in Ecuador and Paris?
And Mexico. I spent a couple of years, at two different instances, in Paris and then spent time in Mexico. My Dad speaks very good Spanish, teaches… that was his field, was Latin American literature and languages in general, romance languages. Since then, I’ve got a smattering of German, and now I’m working on Chinese (laughs) It’s just something I enjoy, but no, as far as academic, y’know I think about it every once in a while, but then y’know my whole life was lived around academics and they all look at me and say “Chris do you want the degree?” And I go “No not really.” And I say, “Why do it? If you’re interested in a subject why don’t you just go get a book?”
That’s fair enough. Talking about books, Linda Barnes, author of Carlotta Carlysle mysteries, loves your music so much that she always makes reference to it in the stories. I was interested to find out whether you knew her, and whether there was any possible film spin-off from that?
Well there could be. I do know her. We’ve known each other for years. She’s one of my oldest fans. She was a fan of mine long before she started writing mystery novels. She had, when she first started writing mystery novels, she had one of a hero who she wrote about in the third person, who was a guy, and then after about three books she switched over to Carlotta Carlysle and started writing in the first person, and her career took off. And she mentioned me in the first one, and she claims that I bring her luck, y’know, “all of her success is due to the fact that she keeps mentioning me”, and y’know she never fails. And I have to admit I get a certain thrill, y’know I get her new book and I read it, and I say “Am I going to pop up in this one? Does she still believe?”(Laughing)
I was hoping for film royalties for you…?
Well it could... I think almost all of her books have been optioned for films, but none of them have actually happened, and if one of them does, I suppose there’s a chance I could show up in it. That would be a thrill, and not so much just for the royalties, I’d just like to see my phiz on the big screen.
Where did the cover of Desolation Row come from? Was it a song which you’d known from years back, or did you suddenly just hear it again and think, “I just need to cover that song.”?
No, it was more of the former, although not exactly that. It’s a song that, to me, is one of the seminal Dylan songs. There’s a couple from the early Dylan that I liked, one of them is Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna is another one, and the year… I guess it was about three years ago that Dylan turned sixty. Everybody was paying a lot of attention to that birthday for him. I was playing a festival, and they were having a workshop, and they asked me if I wanted to participate in it was just called Dylan. And Tim O’Brien and I, and I’m trying to think who the third guy was…. it won’t come to me, we were on stage, and we kicked Dylan songs around for ninety minutes and I had never performed it live, and…
Tim O’Brien did an album of Dylan songs.
Yes, he’s a wonderful Dylan...and the third guy does wonderful Dylan stuff, originally from Oklahoma, and lives in Texas now, no it won’t come to me, I’m a failure… and I did Desolation Row at that workshop, and it was very successful, very well received, and we came off stage, and Tim asked me, “Have you ever recorded that?” And he said, “Well that’s a very interesting arrangement, I think you might want to think about that.” And that was what really put the bee in my bonnet to put it together.
I’m delighted that you did. Just before I came out this morning, I heard Bonnie Raitt singing “Dimming of the Day” the Richard Thompson song, and it didn’t occur to me till that moment, that there might be some sort of parallels between you and Richard Thompson really, in that you seem to travel that path of revered guitarists, but less widely known in the greater… And didn’t know if that was why Bonnie Raitt particularly chooses those sort of people, or those sort of songs?
Well, she does choose those kinds of people. It’s interesting that you should mention that because Richard Thompson, in a way, I’ve always looked at his career, and said, “Now there’s a model that I could follow.” Y’know especially when I came back basically getting healthy again. I was looking around and sort of getting back in touch with what people were doing y’know, and as he himself puts it “He flies below the radar” He’s not a household word, but he’s got quite a successful career. That can be done; it’s a doable thing. And in fact those are the kind of people that Bonnie looks for. And she does it… there’s a bit of self-interest involved as well as trying to benefit those artists that she thinks are really worthwhile. For one thing she can usually get songs from them, very good songs that are not widely known, and at the same time, she delights in promoting the careers of people like that. I’ve never had a more loyal friend in my life than Bonnie Raitt; she never loses an opportunity to tell people that I’m wonderful (both laughing).
I was interested that when she recorded Desolation Row that you hadn’t been there. People like me like to think that you’re all sort of hanging around the studio, but I spoke to Tony Joe White last year, and most of his Heroines album was done at a distance. Is that the way that you would prefer to work these days?
No, ideally I would have loved just to have gotten together with her, but it just doesn’t work out that way. Y’know essentially I called her and said, “Can you do this?” And she said, “I want to do it, when do you need it?” And I said, “We need it by such and such.” And she said, “This is the only day I’ve got. I can book time in the studio here, you get me something that we can put up on Pro Tools, and I’ll get the parts for you and I’ll send you enough material to put together whatever you want.” And she did. It’s a marvellous thing. Had I been able to go out to California, or have her come over to do it so we could hang for a little while, that would have been great too, but…and we never get to see each other any more, but at the same time in the old days in the sixties and seventies when we were recording we used to make jokes about the fact that y’know, “So and so says he’ll phone his part in.” And now you can phone your part in.
Were you actually playing in Paris in the mid sixties?
I was trying to play in Paris in the mid-sixties. I hadn’t gotten into it… we’re talking about ’64 and I was playing, just for fun, in little cafes, trying to find a way to get my foot in some doors, but I hadn’t even found the doors yet. And there were vague rumours that Rambling Jack Elliot was here, and so and so was there, and they were all coming through Paris on their way down to Marseilles, on their way to Marrakech, and a heavenly stash of illegal substances. But it was there that I got my taste that I realised that I really didn’t want to be an academic, I wanted to do this, and I wanted to be paid to do it, so I really didn’t have to do anything else.
I’d read that you struggled to write once you’d finished an album, so you try to discipline yourself. Is it working, have you any new songs that you’ve added to the set? And can you write when you’re travelling?
I can sometimes write when I’m travelling. I’m at a stage now, here, if it’s going to happen it would. I have most of the music done for a new record, but most of the songs are still embryonic. Well they’re a little more than embryonic at this point. I have one that I’ll play tonight. I have one new cover that I’ll probably play tonight. The rest of them are coming more slowly than I would wish, but I’ve reached that point where once again I’m convinced that I will be able to fool the world at large. It’s a terrible thing, y’know, they’re starting to come together, and I think to myself, “OK, you’re going to make it one more time.” (Laughing)
I’d written down that Roly Salley’s Killing the Blues is a song which you’d wish you’d written. Would it be in your set tonight?
It often is, for years, for probably ten years, it’s been a fixture in the set, it’s being slowly moved out a little bit to pasture, partly by the new cover, which is a similar feel to the song takes the place, has a little bit of freshness about it. Particularly here in Ireland, Killing the Blues is a big favourite, so I’ve played it probably half the nights that I’ve been in Ireland.
The other one is the daft question, but the wood for foot tapping; I was just wondering if there was an optimum size for your piece of wood, and do you carry around your own piece of wood?
I do carry my own piece of wood and the optimum size is a size that would fit into the smallest suitcase that I’m likely to travel with. Y’know of the order of two feet by fourteen inches, something like that.
Is it like guitar tops, are you going to get a different sound out of maple or mahogany or…?
Interestingly enough, what you really want, or what I want, is a lack of tonality. That’s why I don’t use actual wood I use particleboard, which is non resonant, has a very dull uniform sound. Use a nice piece of oak, or maple, it has an inherent tone itself and it will often conflict with the key that you’re playing in, so what I’m really looking for is something which is just a basic whack thud which won’t interfere.
Thank you very much, that’s been great.