DEEP SOUTH SOUND IN A BIG CITY
If you only had to go on the music of Jonah Smith, chances are you'd probably think he lives in Nashville or New Orleans, but in reality he resides in New York City - a city that has a little or even a lot of everything when it comes to music.
Smith, 30, who rocks out as much as one can on a Fender Rhodes, is the songwriter behind some of the most expressive, serene and soulful compositions of the year all on his self-titled debut album on Relix Records.
“I didn't really have a specific thing in mind, like I wanted to play American roots music when I moved to New York,” said Smith. “I moved to New York to be a songwriter and to be a musician. This is my first national record, I guess you could say. I've recorded two other albums before (one jazz-inspired and the other classic R&B) independently and each record is pretty different from the last one.”
The works feature his band - Ben Rubin on bass, David Soler on steel pedal guitar, Marko Djordjevic on the drums, Bob Reynolds on saxophone and Andy Stack on guitar - along with famed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Garth Hudson of The Band on accordion, and Texas fiddler and singer Carrie Rodriguez, the former who played at the request of Lee Townsend, who was a dream producer come true.
Smith now lives in Brooklyn, moving there from nearby Boston. With a nasal ebb and flow in his vocal repertoire reminiscent of Van Morrison and even Ben Harper, Smith sounds nothing like his singing version when in conversation and cites a library of influences. Smith wrote all of the album's songs (one co-authored by Soler) with the exception of one: a cover of Malcolm Holcombe's “Dressed in White.” The album was recorded at the Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, N.Y., where Smith met local resident and member of The Band, Levon Helm.
“I grew up listening to a lot of different music. I have just always been fascinated with American music and the roots of American music, everything from blues and a lot of jazz up through soul and R&B and classic rock,” said Smith. “But I have just kind of tried to follow my muse and go where it takes me, and it takes me to all sorts of different places. It's not like it's real drastic, I'm not going to be doing a gothic metal album any time soon. It is all based in American roots.”
The record is a sincere illustration of American roots music combining elements of jazz, blues, gospel and even country, fused with Smith's low, Southern vocal drawl stretching over a collection of deep, moving lyrics. The band is conscious of working as a collective whole the way a group of clouds come together for a rainstorm, and the end result is a set of polished, mid- to slow-tempo songs rich in their melodies with lingering harmonies and involved rhythmic patterns. One can't help but imagine how the songs translate to the stage, chances are twice as good as on record: an authentic mark of an accomplished band.
SONGS INSPIRED BY THE SEA
Hailing from Laguna Beach, singer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter seems to love music just as much as surfing, and in the same vein as Ben Harper and Jack Johnson, his sun-kissed love of nature as well as a good guitar melody emerges within his tunes like a promising swell out in the ocean.
Frankenreiter's passion for surfing began earning him money and took him all around the world by the time he was 16. Frankenreiter then decided to learn how to play guitar and by his senior year in high school was a member of the popular local band Peanut Butter and Jam.
Frankenreiter's sophomore work, “Move By Yourself,” which is his debut on Lost Highway Records, combines soul, pop, rock 'n' roll and a bit of country in the spirit of the Allman Brothers with a dash of Jamiraquoi, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers and a bit of Van Morrison. The laid-back grooves hint at Motown and 1970s funk with their great use of the wah-wah pedal. Frankenreiter's first album was on Johnson's label Brushfire Recordings.
“Jack and Mario (Caldato) did a great job on that last record and I had a beautiful time making it. I just felt like I needed to make a change, and there were definitely no hard feelings involved,” he recalled. “I wanted to succeed or fail on my own merits and I jumped at the opportunity to be part of a roster like Lost Highway's.”
Frankenreiter produced the new record and it was released over the summer. Mixer Neil Pogue suggested that he get in touch with Benjamin Wright who ended up composing the string arrangements for the song “The Way It Is,” which prove to be an enthralling touch to the dreamy, lighthearted, earthly rhythmic song.
“We went into the studio up in L.A. and there was a 30-piece string orchestra. They laid it down live to the track and that was the first time I've ever done anything like that, but it was really cool,” said Frankenreiter.
Frankenreiter notes the importance of his band mates - Matt Grundy (bass), Eric Brigmond (keyboards) and Craig Barnette (drums) - who helped in the song collaboration both musically and lyrically. The latter ranges in subjects from home, to family (his wife and toddler son), unrequited love (“Fool”) and a spot of meditation near his house that is nestled in a canyon - an ideal atmosphere for reflection (“These Arms”).
“Whenever I am at home it's nice because I am never there,” he said while on tour in upstate New York. “There is a lot of wind that blows our way and (the locale in the song) it is a place that I can stand out there, take it all in.”
Along the way in the recording process, Frankenreiter did seek out suggestions from both the band and Pogue.
“For me, I am really into collaborating on songs, and working on lyrics with other people,” he said. “That is kind of the thing with me - I have a lot of songs, but I kind of get stuck on the lyrics. I don't want to repeat myself; and there are only so many scenarios, scenes and situations I can describe. Other people have different words to describe things. But on the other hand, you always exist in that realm and things happen. The music part just comes easier for me, the melody comes to me and then I think, ‘What am I going to say?' That's why I like working with other people on the words.”
For the next album, Frankenreiter would like to see his music taken in a new direction with a different producer at the helm. He added playing the producer role is a lot of responsibility because at the end of the day, the work from “Move By Yourself” rested on his shoulders. But he said he wouldn't have had it any other way, calling it a “great experience.”
“I want (the producer) to take it somewhere,” he explained. “All my songs are definitely written on the acoustic guitar, so you can take them anywhere really. The song is there and you can frame it any way you want. I think it would be good for someone else to take their interpretation of where they think the music needs to go. I don't know what the next record will be, but I definitely don't want it to be like the same record I just made.”
Ray Davies, former frontman for the Kinks and arguably one of the most influential songwriters of rock 'n' roll, set sail on the seas of solitude earlier this year with the release of his first solo record, “Other People's Lives.”
“My strengths as a songwriter, I think I've got a fairly good fix,” said Davies. “I can hone in on detail with people, all right. I do go for the details. You know, it's like little things people do, habits that people have, the way they walk. I do love that sort of observation with my writing, which leads to be sometimes a bit quirky.”
The work, some songs inspired from his time living in the U.S. - an Englishman in New Orleans - also covers subject matter from good and bad breakups to traveling to the media. V2 Records released the long-awaited album in February, which was written, produced and arranged by Davies and recorded in London.
“The Kinks' work was very diverse. I'm not as visible as my peers. I've stayed away simply because I'm not (evasive) and I don't really do, in comparison to others. I'm talking about Mick Jagger and people like that,” said Davies.
Davies said he returned to New Orleans where he mixed a few of the tracks for the album, but said he hasn't been back since Hurricane Katrina.
“A lot of the people I knew down there are back, but it's going very slowly, and (basically) the musician friends I have there were quite devastated by, you know, some of them were on zero when it happened, and they went back and were quite devastated by what they saw,” added Davies. “I've tried to keep touch there, and I'm trying to get down there at the end of this tour.
“I think it's the lack of musical snobbery down there,” recalled Davies about the historic city. “It's kind of a mounting part for so many different types of music, and I can't - it's something inexplicable. It's everything - I'm not just talking about music.”
Davies is now living in North London, within a mile of where he grew up with his family. The Kinks grew out of the 1960s, but never gained the world recognition of its contemporaries - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who - with its last release occurring in 1993. Davies eventually relocated to the U.S. to finish the album where he was shot in the leg during a street robbery in January 2004 after all the material had already been written.
“His getaway car - it was classic movie material - pulled up about 20 yards away,” said Davies. “ He took a classic shot, two hands on the gun, crouched slightly, got his aim together and shot, and I ducked. I saw the flash come out, and it was just like a movie, but it really did hurt. So I don't remember much after that. Anyone who has been shot will know it's just the absolute coldness that goes through your body.”
THE MANY SIDES OF BEN HARPER
Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain once said something to the effect, “I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.”
Like Cobain, tour-driven troubadour, singer and guitarist Ben Harper doesn't want to be anybody but himself: A man who appeals to a truly diverse array of people from surfers, reggae buffs and the working class to the politically minded, environmental activists and other musicians, just to name a few.
Harper and Damian Marley will embark on a summer tour that begins in Phoenix next week and concludes in mid-September at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The duo will play two shows at the Greek Theatre Aug. 11 and 12.
“I've been a fan of Damian's music for a long time, and all the Marley brothers” said Harper.
The summer tour came about after Harper put out some feelers to see who else was touring during the season and found out that Marley was planning one as well. Coincidentally, Harper's first concert was in 1978 when his father took him to see Bob Marley.
“It is a mental twist of fate, to put it mildly,” said Harper. “Whenever I see Damian, it reminds me of that moment of seeing Bob on stage for 2-1/2 hours that night. It is a full-circle moment and I don't say that lightly.”
Harper will have a chance to return to two of three of his favorite venues - the Greek in Berkeley and the Santa Barbara Bowl (the third is Red Rocks outside of Denver).
“You have to put in as much energy into the last song as you do the first,” said Harper on touring. “I have never enjoyed playing guitar, especially slide guitar, as much as I am now. On an instrument there are peaks and valleys, and when you are in a valley, there is no talking your way out of it, you can only play your way out of it, and I have come out of a place of almost musical redundancy. I have come out of it and now I am finding a whole new language on the slide guitar, which I didn't have at my disposal, and a new attack on the instrument. So now I am running to it every chance I get. It is another opportunity to really dig into my tone and sound and find something new to say on it. ”
Harper has completed seven studio albums with his latest works being the gospel-inspired 2005 release “There Will Be Light” with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the 2006 two-disc project, “Both Sides of the Gun.” The recording experience of the former, Harper said, reminded him of the importance of capturing the first-take experience in all of its emotion and perhaps imperfections. Harper also mentioned that one of the original members, George Scott, deemed Harper an honorary Blind Boy before he died.
“They redirected my musical focus in a way that I don't think anything else could have,” said Harper on working with the veteran group. “When they were in the studio, they really handled their business in the most efficient way I've ever heard or seen. They don't take a long time in the studio, if they are there for three hours; it's been a good run because they have been doing this since '39 - putting music on tape. They are from the school that when you sing, you're making a record, you don't get second takes because you are cutting the record at the same time - that's the school they come from, you get a take and you're done, so when they are on the mic, it's for real. It's for keeps and there is no looking back.
As for “Both Sides of the Gun,” Harper had no idea when entering the studio that he would emerge with a two-sided album, and the reason for it was that Harper had a strong and sizeable collection of songs. Some were written beforehand and some written in the studio like “Black Rain,” based on the mortifying response among elected officials in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The album comprises 18 songs - one side the electric tunes and the other side the more light, ethereal, string-oriented compositions. Harper said it was a creative choice to make a double-disc work, and that all of the songs were necessary to make what Harper considered a “complete body of work.” In fact, both Virgin Records (his label since his 1994 work “Welcome to the Cruel World”) and Harper took a pay cut to release it as a single record. The work once again features Harper's band, The Innocent Criminals - Oliver Charles (drums), Juan Nelson (bass) and Leon Mobley (percussion); and its two new members, Michael Ward (guitar) and Jason Yates (keys). It also showcases Harper on the drums, bass, piano and a whole other musical slice of studio players: cellist
“My band is my band, and they're gonna be my band for a long time to come,” said Harper. “They play with other musicians and in other bands from time to time, and it's really healthy to experience music in different ways. For this record, I have a specific style and when it comes to bass and drums it's very visceral, it's unlearned and you can't have great musicians play in an unlearned style. But a lot of these songs called for the nastiness and rawness in the style I play them in so I wanted to serve that. Then there are other guys whom I have been saying for 10 years, ‘We are going to play something together. I want to record with you.' The songs on this record seem to provide this opportunity. In all honesty and fairness, the Innocent Criminals have made every song on this record better through touring them.”
The album, depending on what side you're catching can be private, unrefined, delicate, political, quiet and soulful, consistent with every other Harper work that draws not only from current events but also his private world.
“I am greatly influenced by all of my relationships but none as much as the relationship closest to me, that one being with my wife,” said Harper, of his wife, actress Laura Dern. “She is an incredible inspiration, and she has got great musical ideas and tastes, and she has got her own musical side of the fence that she guards and has introduced me to. Music is big in our household and she is a very big influence.”
In terms of style, Harper has said that a mood is what dictates a song and an ability to “feel it.” He then becomes committed to one style as if it's the only style he's done his whole life. Because Harper has always drawn from so many genres - rock, pop, reggae, folk, blues, soul and jazz - it was at first hard convincing a record label at the start of his career to sign him, and that Virgin was really the only company to take a chance.
“Now it's a case of having done it wrong for so long, that it's a style,” he said.
These days, Harper's biggest challenge is trying to figure out what to do next, and although he's been on the scene for the last 12 years, Harper, now in his mid-30s, feels he is just beginning to carve out his niche; he still feels new in the world of music when he compares himself to someone like Neil Young who has released more than 30 albums. He does write on a daily basis, spends a good portion of the day jotting down portions of conversations, and then works late at night when “people are asleep and the phone's not ringing” to take the time putting words to music. As a listener, Harper turns to everyone from Coltrane to Emmy Lou Harris for comfort.
Although he has graced numerous magazine covers such as Rolling Stone, Performing Songwriter, Relix, Guitar Player and Los Angeles City Beat, Harper still exudes a sort of graciousness common to up-and-coming artists appreciative of the press. Furthermore, he enjoys speaking with writers who actually come prepared for their Q&A session on everything from music to career to life, dispelling a common misnomer that he dislikes interviews or journalists. Like any successful, hard-working person, Harper expects the same out of those around him whether it's the guy selling his merchandise or the newspaper writer, and he hopes that people have respect in their work, understanding that being good at one's craft takes time and effort.
“Questions coming from journalists should come from the music, from listening to it and their response to it,” said Harper. “It shouldn't be about waiting until the night before and trying to pull questions off the Internet, asking questions about old quotes like ‘What did you mean when you said, blah, blah, blah?' It's unprofessional, and it would be like me hitting the stage and doing all covers.”
Harper recently got together with Ry Cooder to write a song for the new Mavis Staples record, along with Willie Nelson for a song called “Peace on Earth.” He hopes to one day work with Wilco, a band that he considers one of his favorites. In the next five years, Harper hopes to put out a reggae record and a work that he calls a “real significant representation of the Innocent Criminals as a band and myself.”