20 Questions With Darden Smith
The return – again – of Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith
Darden Smith and Eliza Gilkyson probably have a lot in common: longtime locals, singer-songwriters, Cactus Cafe loyalists. That's not why they're on the cover of this week's Chronicle, however. Unlike comedians Jon Dee Graham and Stephen Bruton, interviewed together for a cover story in February -- bandmates, guitar sidemen gone solo -- the connection between Smith and Gilkyson, in this case anyway, is an altogether more circumstantial one: Both have new albums coming out next week. Really fine albums that find both artists in peak form. Since the pair have been profiled in these pages individually over the years, this particular go-round we updated their stories via the "20 Questions" format -- separately, with different writers. Spoke to them about their latest efforts, their careers, and about songwriting. Like so many great Austinites over the decades, this is what they do. They got together for a photo shoot at the Cactus Cafe, falling into an easy rapport and comparing notes on publicists, tour bookings, and labels. "We should do a show together," quipped Gilkyson playfully. Cafe proprietor Griff Luneburg, meanwhile, who's long nurtured both their careers -- as well as an army of others starting with Townes Van Zandt -- looked on, beaming, like a proud parent. This one's for you, Griff -- Darden, Eliza. Proprietors of Song. -- Raoul Hernandez
On Sunflower, his first album of new material in five years, Darden Smith opens with the perfectly warm pop of "Perfect Moment." On this dazzling Austin April am, some higher power has commissioned the "Perfect Morning."
"Perfect," nods Smith, looking out the kitchen window to his expansive back yard and hearing only the sound of birds. You'd never guess this lush, half-acre was 'round the corner from South Lamar. Feels more like the Hill Country. It wasn't always quite so West Texas, however. "Back when Stevie Ray Vaughan had a space up the street," waves the songwriter toward the front door, "it was pretty bad. They blew up a speed lab right over there."
He laughs and sips an altogether safer stimulant, coffee. Wife Kay kisses him bye with a reminder that he's picking up the couple's 3-year-old daughter Willa at 3pm. Check. Following his spouse's lead, we exit through the back door and step past the blue stucco shed that dead ends the long, gravel driveway. The picturesque front yard can't compare to what's behind the main frame: a recessed, up-sloping field complete with vegetable garden and a plot of bluebonnets. Up a stone path to the summit, a large, stand-alone studio. Not bad considering its present owners initially thought establishing a homestead meant kissing Austin adios.
"We built it ourselves," smiles Smith at the high, peaked ceiling. "Well, not ourselves ..." As with the house, contractors have been here and gone. The square, airy entry is home to Smith's desktop studio, piano, keyboards, loveseat, and enough radiant Northern light to make a city-dweller dizzy. The narrow studio next door is for Kay, who restored rugs there before they realized all that heavenly light played hell on old colored fabric. During our interview, Smith sits facing the open door cum windowed wall, the sunlight still low among the trees lighting up his piercing blues eyes. Life is good.
But it wasn't always quite so. When the Chronicle last sat down with Darden Smith in his rehearsal space, in the spring of 1997 (austinchronicle.com/issues/vol16/issue31/music.smith.html ), it was located in East Austin, and the 35-year-old Brenham, Texan was on the rebound; via a divorce from his label Columbia, a union that yielded three well-received adult pop LPs; and the breakup of his first marriage, which yielded Eli, now 9. 1996's Deep Fantastic Blue, released on then-manager Ron Fierstein's label Plump, waded the middle ground between new love and old wounds.
He went on to score dance pieces, completed a commission for the Austin Symphony, and recast some of his best songs for 2000's indie release Extra, Extra. Last year, Smith almost resigned to Nashville-based Sony imprint Lucky Dog. "I was waiting on the paperwork when they realized I wasn't country," he laughs. Sunflower, perhaps Smith's best song cycle thanks to its author's sonic reinvention, issues next week on Dualtone (David Ball, Radney Foster, Jim Lauderdale, the Reivers), a Nashville label that took his call when no other label would because they loved his "last hurrah."
Austin Chronicle: So, five years ...
Darden Smith: It's been a long time, but I did do other things. I'll tell you, though, I got really frustrated trying to make a living. I was looking around for other ways to make music and make money. Well, when Extra, Extra didn't sell, I was about ready to quit -- ready to hang it up. One day, I was talking with the guy I produced Sunflower with, Stuart Lerman, and he said, "You might as well do one more. Just do one more, and give it your best shot. Go out swinging."
AC: Did he really mean "one last shot," or was that his way of keeping you working?
DS: No, it was his way of saying, "Don't think about quitting." The guy who did the drums on this record is a really good friend of mine in New York named Sammy Merendino. He's worked on every record of mine since Little Victories. We were talking one day about how fun it is to make records. How that should be the goal. The goal should be to have fun, not to make a record and then sell it. Just go make the record.
Well, I had no label, no manger, no agent. I had a lawyer and a business manager. And a production company, which is how I fund the records. So, I didn't have to ask anybody, "Can I make the record?" Cause no one cared anyway. No one gave a shit -- in the biz. I couldn't get a phone call returned. So I just made the record.
AC: Who's responsible for its sound?
DS: Stuart is of course very important, because he's the one with the real ears and the real gear. But I had an idea. I bought this nylon string guitar three, four years ago for camping trips. A guitar for around the house that the kids could play. And I fell in love with it. I'd been listening to records from Brazil that use the nylon string, and there's an intimacy to those records that's beautiful. The Bebel Gilberto record, the new Sade. They're these intimate, cool records that move. It got a groove to it, but it's quiet.
AC: What about the material itself? Had it built up or was it written in the studio?
DS: Some of these songs are five years old, some of them are brand-new. The oldest one is "Shadow." After that is "Swept Away." I write all the time, and at a certain point it just comes down to picking songs.
AC: What's this album about?
DS: [Long pause] Comfort. Comfort with whatever happens. Because there's ugly stuff that happens in life, and there's stuff that's not so ugly. I've gotten better at being comfortable with both. These songs were mostly written during the process of getting comfortable with that. It's about that process.
AC: It's also an album full of love songs: "A Perfect Moment," "Satellite," "Stronger," "After All This Time," "Closer to You."
DS: I think it is a love record -- I'm in love. I'm married, it's great. I'm probably more comfortable now admitting it's a love record than I would've been five,10 years ago. At that point, I didn't think it was cool to write a love song. Now, I really don't care. I have a better ease with love in that way than I ever had before.
AC: Your early influences were gritty Texas singer-songwriters, but yours has always been a softer style. Where does Darden Smith fit in the continuum of Texas singer-songwriters?
DS: My blessing and my curse is that I really love different kinds of music, and I don't listen to much Texas singer-songwriter music at all. Those things definitely influenced me, but I don't know that I carry the tradition of Texas singer-songwriters very well. Maybe it's that I still tell stories. I look at songs as little stories that are maybe put in more of a pop song format as opposed to a folk song format.
AC: Has that presented a problem career-wise?
DS: It's presented a challenge, because I've never really fit in the folk thing. I don't really fit in with the Texas movement that's going on out there now, either. It's a marketing issue [laughs]. I also look at it as a blessing, because I always thought "singer-songwriter" seemed limiting -- potentially a ghetto. There's great people in that idiom, people that are really talented. But, for me, I wanted to use different melodies and hooks and rhythms, and production of records. However, when I go and play, most of the time I play solo, and it probably sounds like every other Texas singer-songwriter [laughs].
AC: Ever felt a need to fit that mold more?
DS: I remember growing up and being in the folk world very clearly. And feeling limited by that, but feeling like I had to be in that because it was the only game in town.
AC: What comes first, a melody or a line?
DS: The idea of it comes first. Then the music will start happening. Then the actual melody will come, and then the words will start happening -- usually. Everything's different. The lucky songs are when it all starts happening at the same time.
AC: On Sunflower, which are those?
DS: Most, actually: "Perfect Moment," "Stronger," "Closer to You," "Day Dream," "Dreams Don't Lie," "Shadow," "Til It Bled," "Swept Away." All those were written pretty quick -- like say, an hour. "Shadow" was the fastest one of all.
AC: What about "After All This Time"?
DS: "After All This Time," I had the chorus written. I was going out to L.A. a bunch, writing with all these people I'd met through Warner-Chappell Publishing -- J.D. Martin, Rick Nayer. I was set up with Nayer, and walked in with "After All This Time."
AC: It's an instant song, one you wonder where you've heard it before.
DS: Thanks. I like that song. Rick's a very good songwriter.
AC: Great melody to it ...
DS: Those guys that write those amazing stories, you just can't beat it. It's just incredible. But the melodic stuff and hooks, there's a real trick to that, too.
AC: Do melodies come easy to you?
DS: No, it's actually something I have to work at. I fall into habits easy, so I have to kick myself into gear.
AC: Do you write more on a piano or guitar?
DS: Both. A lot of these songs were written sitting at the piano with the guitar. I'll get going on the guitar and then I'll play it on the piano, and because I'm not a really good piano player, it forces me to get dead simple. You can also see the melody on the piano, which for me, is where it really helps; "Okay, that's the highest note. I can't go up to that note, because that's the same high note I'm hitting in the chorus."
AC: As a songwriter, where are you headed with the sound of this LP?
DS: I was thinking about that the other day. I really don't know. What do I do next? I guess I don't have to think about it now.
You know, in a way I'm starting all over again, because my career was down at such an incredible low point, and it's such a miracle to even have a record out -- on a cool label -- that I haven't really thought that far. I do know that what made this record so much fun was that I fell back in love with making music. I feel I'm incredibly lucky to have a second wind going.
AC: Deep Fantastic Blue seemed like that second wind.
DS: Yeah, I've had a run of bad luck. I am in the music business, you know [laughs]. A lot happened to me between Deep Fantastic Blue and this one -- personally and business wise. Not that it was all bad, because I had great stuff, too; I did a symphony, which changed my life completely. I'll tell you something, talking about that Texas music thing. I was the first Austin person ever commissioned to do a symphony for the Austin Symphony.
AC: Commissioned by ...?
DS: Peter Bay. I don't read music, and I was scared shitless. A friend of mine said, "Man, you got the contract, you gotta do it. It'll be over in 30 minutes, anyway." So I did this thing, and I was working with the arranger and writing all this music. And this arranger, who I never met -- he was in Rochester, New York, and we did it all by e-mail and telephone -- at a certain point he goes, "Man, I listened to your records, and I'm hearing this stuff you're writing, and I don't see where it fits together. You know, you're a songwriter. Write a song, for God's sake. Write a song in this symphony. Do what you do."
And I was thinking, "God, he's right." So I wrote this song. In about 20 minutes, I wrote this really simple little folk song that ended up becoming the whole center of the symphony. And it showed me what he said: Do what you do. Write a song.
AC: Is that what the life process is about? Doing what you do?
DS: That's one of the life processes. One of the better ones, anyway.
Darden Smith performs two nights at the Cactus Cafe, Thursday, May 2, and Friday, May 3.