Bryan Elijah Smith makes incredibly affable music. One is quickly struck by what good songs they’re hearing and how well handled, too, yet there’s nary a whiff of mainstream stink or premeditation. Instead, one encounters a lively craftsmanship-minded music that’s contemporary but with sturdy roots dipping into much older traditions, crooning, “It’s hard to write a folk song that’s honestly in tune…It drives me wild/ It drives me insane.” Smith genuinely sounds like he’s after something fresh, new, real, and true on his latest offering, One More Time, which is filled with tunes that attach quickly, an array of radio-ready takes on love and life that hum with deeper character than the mainstream generally offers. The primary backing of Smith’s band The Wild Hearts – Jeff Miller (banjo, vocals) and Jay Austin (fiddle) – swings and sways, stoking the romantic elements in his lyrics, as multi-instrumentalist Smith plies guitars, bass, drums, ukulele, harmonica and more. The album is also produced by Smith, who increasingly reveals an impressive studio savvy that’s full without being fussy, the arrangements riding infectiously below his husky, appealing manly voice. What his new album makes clear is Smith is one to watch, the sort of fellow that could easily be opening for dyed-in-the-wool singer-songwriters like David Wilcox and Greg Brown, or just as ably, the likes of Brett Dennen, James Blunt and other current chart tappers, and quite likely stealing the show from the headliners if he did.
We grabbed Bryan for a few minutes to chat about making music.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
I never really had to think about it. I’ve always known what I was supposed to do. I’ve always wanted to make music for my whole life, and it’s definitely my passion, my one true love. I have absolutely no idea where it will take me, but I’m certain wherever it does that’s where I’m supposed to be [laughs].
You strike me as someone with real confidence in what you’re doing. I saw you jam with a dude like Steve Kimock on Jam Cruise and you showed no apparent nerves at all. You just went in and got some of what was available.
With anything going on in life – bad or good – as soon as I pick up an instrument and start singing or playing everything feels right. Playing with really good musicians is just icing on the cake. Playing with people like Steve Kimock is easy because they’re so damn good. And with my band, I’m really happy with the guys I’m playing with right now, who are all really competent musicians, and that makes me even more confident. Because [music] is my passion it makes me confident when I play, and not because I’m cocky or anything. I just know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Listening to One More Time, one’s struck by how you straddle a bunch of interesting worlds. You have a very pure singer-songwriter streak, but you take instrumentation that’s not typically modern and make it so.
I definitely get what you’re saying. I’ve known the banjo player for eight years, and the fiddle player for a couple years, and it just seems like it works. The banjo and fiddle, the way they play it, doesn’t sound as traditional as those instruments often do. The way they play sounds more modern to me, which I really appreciate.
It would be easy for you to go the straight folkie route, but that doesn’t seem to be the music in your head.
No, definitely not [laughs]! The people I listen to – everyone from Nathan Moore to Dylan to Todd Snider to Gillian Welch to Ray LaMontagne – often have a folkie sound but it’s really a matter of the arrangement in how a song turns out along with the production. In my mind, I often hear these BIG productions even if oftentimes the core is still folk. But in my mind I want it to be as big as it can.
Production is a strong element in what you do, both in your own work and as heard on Nathan’s Dear Puppeteer (which Smith co-produced).
I love producing a record as much as writing songs for it or playing out live. It’s another element to my passion. I’m just happy I feel that way because I couldn’t imagine relying on producers and stuff like that. I don’t know what I’d do then [laughs].
It’s always hard to be at the mercy of someone else when realizing one’s vision. Do you have a studio of your own? Are you accumulating gear? That seems to be the path most studio aficionados follow.
Yes, I have a basement studio, nothing fancy but I’ve definitely been accumulating gear. And for the next record I’m going to get a new computer and a bunch of new mics and a new interface, and we’re gonna cut it completely live – no tracking or anything like that – which will be a first for me.
It helps that you have a banjo player who understands the percussion elements of his instrument. He gets that he’s holding a drum with strings.
Yes, yes, but we just stumbled across a new drummer and it’s completely changed everything for sure. He’s the kind of drummer that can put a beat to a song you’ve been playing for four years and give it a completely new life in a way you didn’t think possible. It’s making it a lot easier for Jeff, the banjo player, to do his thing. We’re all really excited.
Rhythm is a big part of your sound, along with hooks and a steady drive. Swing is very strong in your music. Are you a pop music fan? Pop is definitely an element to what you do.
99-percent of the time I’m not trying to write the quintessential pop song, but then again, I consider Dylan a pop songwriter. There was that element of catchy hooks and easy to follow chord progessions. A really great song says something to someone where the first time they hear it they feel like they’ve heard it before, in a positive way, like it’s always been there. I have a lot of love for a lot of pop artists, though not really mainstream people. I can definitely get into newer acts like Foster The People. I think that stuff’s cool.
What’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Usually when I walk into a show I’m trying to read the audience and figure out what kind of people I’m playing to. I try to read the vibe of the room and figure out what would be a good opening song. Other times, I walk into a room and I feel like the energy is completely off. From there, I’ll do the opposite and figure out a song that will help manipulate the energy in the room to a place that would be conducive to putting on a good show.