John Smith: ‘I see myself as a working musician… my first responsibility is to my family’
The neat confluence of several circumstances involving two small children (mine); a miscalculation regarding peak time traffic in the North-east of England; and the promise of an afternoon visit to the seaside extending into early evening means that I end up interviewing John Smith live from a Northumbrian beach rather than from behind my desk.
John Smith is hot musical stuff. A superb musician described as the ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ who has played with, among others, Martin Simpson, John Martyn, and David Gray, he has also found time to build a stellar reputation as a solo artist. The playing is sublime, the songwriting of the highest order, and the message delivered in a honeyed growl of a voice that speaks of years on the road and the deep, deep emotions of an artist in touch with himself and his world.
As such, a professional journalist would also certainly take the call behind his desk, but we’re an edgy lot here at Exposed Towers, and so when the affable Mr. Smith ‘phoned through, we ignored the squawking seagulls, and got down to brass tacks.
Mr. Smith! How are you?
I am very well. Yourself?
I’m building sandcastles on the beach with my youngest two. Do you mind if they sit in on the interview?
Not at all. Sandcastles are way more important than me! Whereabouts are you?
Just outside of Bamburgh. The whitest sand you ever saw; a sea as blue as the Caribbean and as cold as the Arctic ocean! Yourself?
Ah. A fine part of the world. Not the best of days for paddling, then? I’m in Manchester.
We’ve lost a toe or two, but they breed us tough up here in the North-east. You were playing with Martin Simpson last night, yes? How did it go?
Very well, thanks. It’s always a pleasure to play with him.
Obviously you’re developing a great reputation as a solo artist, but you’ve worked with a lot of different people. First up, you appear to be lucky enough in as much as you’ve worked with some established artists with great track records who also appear to be decent people, but in that sideman role is there ever a sense of ‘have guitar, will travel’?
Secondly, how does that process work? Is there a difference between, say, recording an album with Martin Simpson as you did with his recent Trails and Tribulations release, and then playing live with him.
Phew! Well, to answer honestly, I see myself as a working musician – as a man, a husband, and a father, my first responsibility is to my family. I see my first responsibility as being to provide for them and look after them. Everything I do, no matter what, is driven by that – whether it’s my own work, guitar shows, or working as a sideman in someone’s band or on someone else’s project. If they’re happy and they’re being taken care of, then my job is done, in a sense. That said, however, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great names, and just as importantly some good people.
Obviously Martin is the most recent, but I guess even though I say I’m a working musician, so a little of the ‘have guitar, will travel’ idea comes into it, I’ve been fortunate in who I’ve worked with. Part of that is maybe down to the areas that I work in: I’m guitar-driven, acoustic and electric; I’ve been fitted into the folk and singer-songwriter areas in my own work, and in that world at certain level you start to come across people who work in those areas too. It’s like a large field, and we all work our patch, but occasionally it’s nice to get asked to come across and maybe help someone else with their patch – whether on a session, an album, or a tour. It’s all grist to the creative mill, and it all feeds back into my primary reason for doing this.
When you’re wielding your hoe in someone else’s patch, are you given a lot of direction? Or is there a sense that you’ve been brought in to bring what John Smith does best to that particular moment?
Good question. I like to think that I sound like me! Every guitarist does. So, in that sense I suppose I’ve brought in to add that to the mix. But you tend to find firstly that it’s quite easy to play well when you’re surrounded by good musicians; and also that established artists tend to have good balance between knowing exactly what they want while allowing space for the happy to accident to happen. So, in the case of working with Martin, it was as simple as trying a take, perhaps, and then Martin might say ‘more of that here, less of that there’. It sounds like a contradiction but you’re given licence to bring what you bring to the table within certain parameters.
Echoing the old axiom that imposing limitations helps creativity more than hinders it, maybe? Were there any gunslinger moments in working with Martin? After all, you’ve been described as ‘the guitarist’s guitarist’ and Martin is widely-renowned as one of the finest acoustic players in the world.
Guitar shootout at the studio?! Not really, no. I think that our styles are very different. When I listen Martin I hear this wonderful lyricism in his playing; these delicate filigrees and flurries of notes … he really has a way of making an acoustic guitar sing. I use the guitar far more as a blunt object to get the job done!
In his hands a paintbrush, in yours a hammer?
Something like that!
You’re being too modest! I mean, after all, you are renowned for your use of alternate tunings, and you’re part of a burgeoning movement where players talk about the tunings they use and how they’re used where once upon a time they were jealously guarded secrets …
Well, it did used to be like that, I suppose. But they way I see it is that I maybe have forty years left on this planet – if all goes well, and nothing breaks down in the meantime. Why would I close myself off from other people in that time? Surely the whole point is it to connect? I learned to play because people showed me things and talked about what they did. If I can pass something on that someone else then takes further or then passes on themselves, then that’s surely more valid and human a response than to guard it like a miser with his gold? I mean, I love it when I see other people doing covers of my songs in places like South America.
I love doing guitar shows and talking about guitars. Talking about what I do helps me understand it and develop it further, for a start, and if it gives someone something they can use … ? Job done.
Ah, guitar shows. Where do you stand on the subject of guitar trainspotting? The endless forum debates on rosewood vs. mahoghany, factory-made vs. luthier-made, adirondack vs. sitka?
(Laughs) Nothing wrong with a bit of guitar trainspotting! Part of the magic of guitar music has always been how did they get that sound? Whether that’s discussing Hendrix or anyone else. Oh, he used this amp. Oh, he uses this guitar. It’s all part of the fun. But at the end of the day, a guitar is something you use to make music on. The music is the most important bit of the equation. I play guitars made by Roger Fylde, and I think they’re great. It’s all about ‘does it make you want to play?’ I’ve played guitars costing a deposit on house that simply did nothing for me, and I’ve played guitars in pawnshops that I couldn’t put down. There are options now, especially for acoustic players, that just weren’t available a decade or more ago.
Some great stuff is coming out of China, for example. Can you make music on it? If so, play it. On top of that, I don’t have a hunger for stuff just because it’s there. As I said, my main focus in life is my family. We choose to live very simply. Does this guitar do a job for me? Yes? Great. I’ll play that one.
We went slightly off topic there, largely because I was interested in your response, as a guitarist myself. However, dragging it back to your album Headlong. Fantastic reviews, great songwriting, and it’s really turning heads. I guess the plan is to run with it for as long as possible?
To a point. I’m aware that there’s a cycle to the music business. After all, it is a business. And that sometimes doesn’t match up with your creative cycle, you know? You need an album by this point to tour to this point so you pick the festivals at this point. Well, that’s great. But sometimes creativity has other plans! Luckily, it’s matched up with this album. It happened very organically. Some songs wrote themselves in the time it took to play them; others you have a part, then nothing, then a lyric comes, or a second part comes and it develops. On this occasion, the creative stuff coincided nicely with the business side of the cycle and also, luckily, people seeming to like it. So, yes, definitely keep going …
But that’s what we all have to do in life!
Absolutely! Hey, are you still building sandcastles?
No, we’ve gone for ice creams. Want one?
If there’s one going!
With that, the wind whipping about us as the sun set over Bamburgh Castle, and with John heading off to another gig, we called it a day. I always say everyone I interview is a nice person. Maybe I’ve been lucky. I’m sure I’ll get a git eventually.
But with John Smith, my luck continues to hold good. A stellar musician, a lyrical songwriter, and an affable, thoughtful man with a superb philosophy on life to boot. Check him out asap!
words: Aaron Jackson