Celeste Macdonald talks to Steve Smyth about his new album, his influences and his collaboration with Howling Bells' Juanita Stein:
Originally from the south coast of Sydney and based in London, Steve Smyth has returned home to the country he describes as the "endless summer." Smyth's passion for the country he was born and raised in is evident when he speaks of the way in which the Australian landscape has influenced his music. "This country doesn't do anything lighthearted in a lot of ways. Its weather, its landscapes that I've seen across here, from the dessert to the oceans and floods to the fires. It's very fierce."
Smyth was born with a case of wanderlust. As a child, his parents would tether him to a tree on family picnics to keep him from disappearing. He explains, "I get itchy feet, I love to travel, change is the only constant. I would just keep running against that rope. For some reason I just came out kicking and wandering. I'm still trying to find out what's round the next corner; I feel that kind of fire in me."
It's the fire inherent in Smyth that impacts on his songwriting and had an insurmountable effect on his first solo album, Release. It's a cohesive album, drawing on a wide range of musical styles and genres. He is reluctant to classify the album, stating that the outcome of a song comes down to when it's created. "You have to give a song what it wants, not what you want. It's shortsighted to aim for a particular genre. It has its own little formations and it begs for different instruments and arrangements."
Smyth once played with a band featuring men much older than him, men who he credits for teaching him much of what he knows about music. Realising that he couldn't expect them to travel long distances to play gigs for next to nothing, he began playing as a solo artist. "I went out solo and it made me work harder for the songs and for what I was trying to put across. I don't feel as though I'm letting people down at the moment, so I'm keeping it solo and seeing what the future brings up."
Along with Australia and his upbringing, Smyth is equally influenced by the musicians he was introduced to as a teenager. He mentions Howlin' Wolf and Leadbelly among others. It's impossible to avoid comparisons with artists like Tom Waits, especially evident in songs like Barbituate Cowboy and His Dark Horses. Smyth refers to his voice as a muscle that you exercise, with versatility as a key, saying he uses his voice as if it were an instrument, just like a guitar or a mandolin. "I found that you can really get across a lot more emotion and feeling and story of the song by going into different aspects of your vocal range."
The gorgeously delicate Stay Young features the gentle vocals of Howling Bells' Juanita Stein, a collaboration Smyth recalls happened in the studio late into the night when, "everyone was over-tired and cracking up." The result is definitely one of the standout tracks of the album. He also recently supported Howling Bells on their tour. "It was wonderful having her Juanita up every night, singing the song as it is on the record," he says of Stein, who he refers to as a wonderful friend. Howling Bells, he says, are an amazing band.
Steve Smyth has a number of dates lined up over summer and is excited about the release of his album in late January. He feels privileged for the experiences and opportunities which he believes have "flowed into the album." He adds, "It feels nice to let it go now. I'm hoping it'll get out to a few people and they'll appreciate the songs."
Check out Steve Smyth's Australian and European tour dates here.
Interview by Celeste Macdonald.