Call Me Lucky: A Conversation With Chris Smither

Mike Ragogna: Chris, you recorded and are releasing a double CD titled Call Me Lucky on Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert. In an era in which labels are cutting CD production, why are you releasing such a large project?

Chris Smither: This is a more complicated question than it appears to be. While it’s true that labels are cutting back production, the reasons for that  apply less to me than to some others. I’m not an artist who once sold millions and now only sells a few hundred thousand. I’m an artist who once sold maybe a few tens of thousands and now sells maybe ten thousand less. The scale is entirely different and the purpose of the record is different. I’m not trying to make a lot of money selling records. I’m trying to sell seats at live performances and to that end, the records are a form of advertising. Also I’m still a believer in the “album concept,” that is, trying to deliver a complete snapshot of the artist at a given point in his or her career. My audience still believes in it too and I like to deliver. As for the size of this project, that is somewhat illusory. The “A” disc or “side” is a pretty standard Chris Smither record. However, the “B” disc has only one song that doesn’t appear on the A side, a cover of The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said.” The rest of the side consists of re-imaginings of most of the originals on the A side, kind of a “this is what we might have done with this song.” The concept arose out a fascination that “Goody” [David Goodrich] and I share about the nature of “cover versions” of songs, how infinitely malleable a song can be, beginning, in this case, with the cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” done in a minor key, no less! I don’t think Chuck ever played in a minor key in his life and the difference is astonishing. The song takes on an entirely different character. Another point is that most people think of my own songs as being guitar-driven. So on the “cover versions,” I don’t play guitar at all, sort of saying, “Let’s see what happens if you pull the rug out from under it.” Interesting things, that’s what happens.

MR: You’ve been recording with producer David Goodrich–Goody–for a while now. What is the collaborative process like between you both? Since David is a multi-instrumentalist, do you find you rely more on his talents or does he push you to evolve on your own as a musician?

CS: Both of these things happen, which to my mind is what makes it a fruitful relationship. Goody is an amazing instinctive and intuitive musician, but he is also a schooled musician, which is to say that he has an expansive understanding of the overall framework within which instinct and intuition operate. This is an invaluable resource for someone like me, entirely self-taught, with nothing but instinct and intuition. The ways in which he has directed me, pushed me, and suggested avenues for exploration are too numerous to count. The partial songwriting credits that he receives on my records tell only a very small part of the story. I never come away from a project with him without having developed my own skills in some way.

MR: Morphine’s drummer Billy Conway, as well as The Suitcase Junket’s Matt Lorenz appear on Call Me Lucky. What do you feel their contributions added to the songs and are you a fan of their past work?

CS: Both [are] amazing people, and extraordinary musicians. Billy Conway understands how a song is supposed to work, and he remembers how even if I’ve forgotten it, or mislaid it. Every musician has experienced the sensation of “losing the groove,” forgetting the little thing that made that lick so good. Billy will save you at times like that. Matt Lorenz comes to every song like a kid on Christmas morning. He cannot wait to open it up and see what’s inside, and what he finds inside is usually himself in one form or another. He brings the gifts that make the gift what it is.

MR: Can you take us on a short tour of the album, maybe sharing a couple of stories?

CS: We recorded this project at Blue Rock, in Texas, maybe 30 miles outside of Austin, a beautiful place, SOTA recording facility, and all you could want in a location to stay and work in. No distractions other that what you import yourself. [It’s] probably the most focused project I’ve ever done, yet at the same time, the most lacking of any sense of urgency or pressure. Rather than get a lot of basic tracks done all at once, we approached each song as a unit and worked on it until it was done, then moved on to the next. There was a sense of everyone was the boss, and no one was the boss. Everyone worked on everything until it seemed there was nothing left. We barely noticed shifting to the next song, and at the end of the ten days or so, it came as a real surprise that we were at the end of the road. At some point, we said, ” Let’s listen to it,” and Keith Gary–great musician and engineer–put the tracks in some kind of order and hit play. What we heard astonished us all. It was as though we hadn’t seen the forest for the trees, we were so close to it, with our noses to the grindstone so long, that this was the first time we’d seen the whole thing. People kept asking, “Who’s that?” (“It’s you, dummy!” “When did we do that?” “I dunno, but I like it.” It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

MR: By the way, you mention it earlier, why did you choose to record the Chuck Berry song “Maybellene” for this album?

CS: I’ve always been a huge Chuck Berry fan, from the time of his first hits, I think part of what attracted me to him was the fact that he was such a wonderful and inventive lyricist. When Goody and I started talking about this project, Chuck was still alive, had just turned ninety, and was releasing his new record. We started the conversation that became a pivotal point for this project, the whole idea of covers. It started with wondering what Chuck Berry sounded like at ninety, had he gotten more reserved…resigned even? Goody said, “Play something by Chuck in a minor key,” so I started “Maybellene.” We couldn’t stop both laughing and being fascinated by what was happening to the whole thrust of the song.

MR: You start the album with “Blame’s On Me” that seems to have a bit of humor to it, that song making me believe you’re not totally to blame.

CS: No, you’re right, I’m not totally to blame, it’s the Universe that’s guilty, but arguing about is pointless, and the quickest way to move on to something that actually matters is to accept the blame and put an end to the discussion. Back when I was doing residential construction, in another life, we had a woman carpenter on our crew, and every time someone tried to fix blame for some bad piece of work, she would raise her hand and say “my bad,” whether she had anything to do with it or not. It was a valuable lesson, since the only thing that was really important was getting it fixed.

MR: Your song “Nobody’s Home” packs a lot of sentiment regarding today’s reality, politically and otherwise. What motivated you writing it–any particular event or thoughts about the state of things?

CS: Like so many songs, this one started with a word or a phrase that is rhythmic and suggestive of several possible directions: NOBODY HOME. Okay, you say, who’s not home, and why not? The answers can start coming pretty fast if you read the paper or look in the mirror then you just write ’em down.

MR: Speaking of songwriting, you have a reputation for being one of the great ones, your material having been recorded by superstars like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, John Mayall, Diana Krall, and many others. How do you think your songwriting evolved over the years? Can you give us a peek into what your process is like these days?

CS: The process hasn’t changed much but I’ve gotten better at understanding it and encouraging it to take place. The music almost always comes first–a lick, some changes, a progression–then a sort of scat-sung melody line developed against the changes. That’s really the easy part. More difficult is writing the lyrics, and it’s a process that demands discipline above all, the patience to just sit there and wait for it to come. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned about it over the years is that it will come if you just have the patience. Also the realization that it’s an organic process. You usually won’t know what the song’s about until it’s half done.

MR: Do you have an all-time favorite Smither original? How about a favorite recording of your songs by others, obscure or popular?

CS: That’s like asking if I have a favorite child–unfair, but there are probably half a dozen that I feel will stand up long after I’m gone, whether I like them or not: “Love You like a Man,” “No Love Today,” “Leave The Light On,” are among them. One of my favorite covers of my own songs is Aoife O’Donovan’s take on “Small Revelations.” How she found what she found in that song is beyond me, but I’ll be listening to it for a long time.

MR: How much of your original material is autobiographical? How much would you say might come from your unconscious?

CS: Well, it all comes out of my own experience of the world, whether it’s strictly autobiographical or not. The unconscious has everything to do with it, learning how to let your unconscious run free is fundamental to good songwriting. I’ve never sat down to write a hit, but I have sat down saying, “I will not quit until I have something.” I have more control than I used to but that’s not saying a lot.

MR: When you listen to what’s being played on the radio, what are your thoughts about current songwriting and production? Do you have any new favorite artists? How about some past favorite artists?

CS: When I listen to what is successful today and what’s winning awards, I mostly think that it’s a miracle that I’m still making a living. [It’s] very, very different in intent and execution from what I do, which is not to say that it’s good or bad. It’s more like a Rembrandt or Renoir looking at a Picasso or an abstract expressionist. It’s a whole ‘nother animal. My favorite artists from the past are still the great wordsmiths and tunesmiths, Randy Newman, Paul Simon… Loved Tom Petty, speaking of hits.

MR: Chris, what is your advice for new artists?

CS: Take every opportunity that comes your way to get in front of people. Move to someplace that has a lot of aspiring musicians and hang out with them. There’s a reason they’re where they are. Don’t take other work that you can’t leave at a moment’s notice with no regrets. Don’t forget that it’s supposed to be fun, and don’t forget that the only reason to do this kind of thing is because you gotta!

MR: You have a pretty packed touring schedule but I’m noticing you’re not coming to Iowa. Not even to the Englert. How is that even possible?

CS:  I will admit that that seems odd, but some questions are above my pay grade, the mysteries of touring schedules are best left to those who deal with such things for a living.

MR: You’re looking at your 8-Ball, asking it a certain question, and it gives you an answer that surprises you. What were the question and answer?

CS: Question: Will I ever retire? Answer: Quoting Jorma Kaukonen, “So you can do what? Play more guitar? Sing More?”

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