Chris Smither On Updating Career-Spanning Songs And Bringing Us 'More From The Levee'

[Cover photo credit to Joanna Chattman]

Chris Smither did a retrospective of 50 years as a songwriter and performer in 2014, titled Still On The Levee as a reflection of his New Orleans roots, but he wasn't in the least done at that point. He used the refresher on so many of his old songs to add to his live performance repertoire and put out another new album not long after.

Now, some of the excess from that massive slate of recordings is making its way into a special offering that originally debuted on vinyl (his first vinyl foray in 35 years) for Record Store Day, and has also been released on CD. More From The Levee was simply biding its time for a good chance at release and fans get the treat of some very "spare" and moving pieces from Smither, including the totally new song, "What I Do", which is about New Orleans and Smither's own role as a musician.

Chris Smither recently joined us on our Tower Live Instagram show, and you can still watch that right here, but he also spoke with Tower's PULSE! about the making of the new release, where his Blues loyalties lie, and shared some of the secrets behind being such a great live performer and lyricist.

Hannah Means-Shannon: How long ago did you realize you were going to release these extra songs?

Chris Smither: It was last year. Record Store Day called and asked me if I’d like to participate in the 2020 date, which was supposed to happen back in April. They wanted either a really old CD of mine that had never been put on vinyl, or something that had never been put out. We thought, “This is our chance to get the rest of these tunes out.” When I recorded Still On The Levee, we must have recorded 40 or 50 songs and there wasn’t room for them on the CD.

We didn’t want to do a three CD release. It was a hard choice to decide what we were going to leave off of that project, and we knew we had at least one CD’s worth of good stuff. Then we saw the silver lining and got our chance. But then Record Store Day got cancelled, so the release of the vinyl and the CD are much closer together than they would have been.

HMS: I’m so glad it’s coming out right now, regardless of how weird the world is right now. People really need music right now.

CS: Me too. I agree. I’ve played a couple of gigs recently outdoors and socially distanced, and you can feel it. The relief is palpable. I could feel it in myself, I’m so happy to be there, actually in front of people. I can hear them clap! It’s what I do. You almost don’t realize until you miss it until you’re sitting there.

HMS: I’m someone who goes to a lot of live events, and people who don’t usually do that don’t understand why it’s upsetting not to be able to.

CS: They don’t, no. There’s an aspect of spiritual communion that you don’t get any other way, really.

HMS: I think there’s one song on More From The Levee that people hadn’t heard before, “What I Do”. How did that one work its way in there?

CS: When we were recording Still On The Levee, we went down to New Orleans, which is where I grew up, and we hadn’t been there three days before my Producer, David Goodrich, said, “Chris, you gotta write a New Orleans tune for this project now that you’re back home.” I didn’t want to do that, because I had already worked really hard getting this material back into playable shape. Some of it I hadn’t touched in 20 years. Between getting those polished up and the logistics of getting down there, I didn’t want to. But he convinced me to do it and I came up with that tune.

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get in interviews is, “How do you think growing up in New Orleans affected your music?” It’s a very difficult question to answer because I don’t know. It’s something that other people should be answering. But to me, what I heard in New Orleans and how it translates into my music is invisible. It just is. I say that in the song, “Fish don’t understand the water. Birds don’t understand the air.” They just use it.

HMS: That’s an amazing way of putting it.

CS: I finished the song and David liked it pretty well, but he kept telling me to slow it down. But the thing is, I’m not used to recording songs as they are written. I like to road test them, get them out with audiences. It’s not until you play them for audiences, that you realize the little tweaks that can make them better. You ask, “Why didn’t they get that line?” And then you think, “Well, maybe if I accentuate that down-beat they’ll understand that lyric better.” And that’s how you wrestle the song into its final shape, but I didn’t have the chance to do that with this song. So, I was inherently suspicious of it.

HMS: [Laughs]

CS: [Laughs] So that’s probably why it didn’t make that release: I was suspicious of it. Five years later, we went back and listened to it, and thought, “That’s a great song!”

HMS: Thank you for that story. It suggests what I thought was true, which is that you have a relationship with each of these songs that often spans a long period of time, whether or not it’s been recorded. And you build that relationship up over time.

CS: I do. And the relationship changes over time to be interpreted differently, because over time you become a different person.

HMS: Yes, that’s a really good point. Most people would say, “because the world changes”, but probably the biggest and most important thing is that the person changes.

CS: That’s right. So maybe that’s the test of a song, that you can alter the interpretation so that it suits the person you are now without missing a beat. That makes for a good tune.

HMS: How did that idea influence you when you looked back at 50 years of songs for Still on the Levee? Did you feel a distance of how much you had changed over that time?

CS: I did, but what really impressed me, not to blow my own horn, was how well most of them held up. I was sure I would think, “Oh my God, I wrote that when I was 22, when I thought I knew something about the world.” But actually, there was so little of that. I think that’s because even back then I avoided painting myself into a corner by adopting a hard and fast position on anything that I would later come to regret.

HMS: That was smart!

CS: It was more of a defensive way of living. I don’t think I’m like that now. I don’t have to watch out for the future quite so much as I used to.

HMS: I would say that you’re “unassailable” now.

CS: That’s a nice thing to hear.

HMS: What materials did you have to work from in order to bring these older songs back to a new version? Did you have studio tapes? I know some had been on albums. Were you intentionally looking at live recordings, or did you want more of a studio sound?

CS: Oh, yes. I think I did both. I would start with the studio version, and then I’d think, “I can’t really hear what I’m doing.” Most of the songs start with a fundamental lick that I like on the guitar, and if I can’t remember that lick, I have a really hard time getting back into it. Then, I’d look and see if I had a live recording, and if it was just be playing it, it would be much easier that way.

There’s one song “Lonely Time” where I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly how I did that tune. I got pretty close and I like the way it turned out, but boy that was a long time ago.

HMS: That reminds me of when I want to put something somewhere safe so I don’t lose it but I put it somewhere too safe and then can’t find it.

CS: I’ve had that happen so many times!

HMS: Were there instances where you listened to various versions of a song and just decided to go in a totally different direction instead?

CS: Yes, I did. Mostly, it all boils down to two aspects of it: one is tempo, and the other is key, what key you’re in. Because my voice has lowered over the years. On the early stuff, I was singing higher. There were a couple where I could change the key. Then, there’s tempo. When you’re young, you tend to play fast. Almost every artist I’ve ever watched over the years does that.

Then, as you get older, you learn the value of slowing down and leaving some space in between things. Those were the two major changes that happened to just about all the songs. At the same time, there’s a different flavor, feel, and groove to a lot of the songs and that’s not really intentional, it’s just the evolution of me and the people around me.

HMS: Yes, it’s like what you were saying about how people change. You can’t really do things the same way twice.

CS: And if you do, people will call you on it!

[Photo credit to Joanna Chattman]

HMS: You perform live so much, that must be a constant concern.

CS: It is! Sometimes people get mad if I tell the same story two nights in a row.

HMS: After recording Still on the Levee, and polishing up all those songs, did you then take all of them into live performance again?

CS: Oh, yes. I play them now. It was kind of nice because it stirred up the whole repertoire. I just have a lot more performance-ready music to choose from.

HMS: That must have really set up some touring for you.

CS: It was really nice because normally you have to make an effort and can’t keep everything performance-ready all at once, at least I can’t. At first, you play newer songs because you prefer them, but if you go back to play an older song, you realize you don’t feel confident because it’s been a while and you don’t want to disappoint people. That turns into a vicious circle since the more you don’t play it, the more you forget it. It takes something like putting together a project like this to make you actually grind it out.

HMS: Are you admitting that after all these years you still get worried or afraid of live performance?

CS: No, I don’t really feel worried or afraid of it. I do feel a sense of obligation to the fans to give them a certain feeling. All I’m really obliged to do is bring a freshness to the material. But that’s a lot easier if they haven’t heard it for a while. It has to sound like it’s still alive, otherwise you’re just going through the motions.

HMS: That’s really wonderful that you feel that sense of obligation towards the audience.

What do you think about vinyl as a format for this release?

CS: I think it’s perfect. For the most part, when we’d decided what songs were going to go on the album, Still on the Levee, we stopped doing further production on these songs. The project is very spare for that reason, and it kind of harks back to an earlier age, so it’s suitable that it should be on vinyl. I like it so much that I think the next record I do will be just that spare, because I just like it. It’s easier, for one thing. And nothing gets obscured. The songs are conceived of as solo pieces in the first place, and sometimes Production becomes something that I enjoy simply because I don’t get that many opportunities to play with other people.

Sometimes I can lose sight of how important it is to not obscure the original intent of the song. There’s more space for my mind to wander when I listen to this record and go off on little tangents when I listen to it, which I like. I’ve only heard it once on vinyl. I have to go and plug my turntable in if I want to listen to, since I don’t really have room for it. But I like the great big picture of me on it, and I like being able to read the type!

HMS: Yes! Album art and credits, as well as production notes, are things that people should be aware of. And that’s becoming harder and harder to receive in other formats.

I think you started off as a pretty big fan of Blues music when you were young, but where was the interchange, the crossroads, between Blues and Folk music for you? How do you see that relationship? It seems like a lot of people draw a firm line between the two.

CS: I think that’s just silly to draw a line like that. When I first got into it, I was getting into acoustic Blues guys, like Lightnin’ Hopkins. In those days, those Country Blues were called Folk Blues, as opposed to Chicago Blues or Electric Blues. And yet, there’s really no difference between the two. It was the same people playing it. I know that when Muddy Waters left Mississippi and went to Chicago, he was still playing with his fingers. Then he got an electric guitar and he started playing the same, basically, but with a bigger sound. Then everyone said, “It’s the Chicago Blues.”

But it is most definitely a Folk form, in my opinion. I think I do make a distinction between Folk Blues and other kinds of Folk music, but Hillbilly music and Irish Ballads are all different kinds of Folk music. I don’t know why people would consider Folk Blues any different.  They are all, basically, 1,4,5, progressions at the fundamental root. It’s all Folk music to me.

It was the same kind of progression that Bob Dylan went through when he went electric. It’s still Bob Dylan.

HMS: That’s great, thank you so much for explaining that. Are all the different types of Folk music, like the ones you just listed, equally interesting to you?

CS: Oh, yes, they are. I think my two biggest guitar influences are Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, but if I had to pick a third, it would be Doc Watson.

HMS: Do you think that you are influenced by Country or Western styles or traditions?

CS: Not so much, but there are some really good lyricists in Country music, and, on the whole, they are better lyricists than the Blues guys. I really got into Blues because, musically, it’s a dynamic way to drive home a lyric. When I write songs, I don’t sound like a sharecropper. I sound like what I am, which is the son of a university professor. There’s more involved storytelling in Country music, and I like the lyric aspect of that.

HMS: I was going to ask you how important it is to you to tell a specific narrative, a story, in a song, or is the emotional arc more important than the narrative?

CS: It’s always the emotional arc. It helps if there’s a story. It doesn’t have to be an explicit story, but there should be enough information that the listener can construct a story. That’s how you make lyrics memorable, that’s how you make them stick in peoples’ minds. If you can get people to remember even one line of the lyrics, you’re home free. They are into that song forever.

HMS: That’s amazing. I’ve never heard anyone say that, that the storytelling aspect of the song is a memory aid. Which it is. That’s got to be true. Story is the main way we remember anything.

Do you have any tips on how to tell a story concisely in a song?

CS: I don’t know that I could explain, but the essence of any kind of verse, whether in poetry, or in a song, is learning to imply without having to describe. That’s one of the things that you hear as advice for any type of writing, “Don’t tell, show.” You can evoke a whole scene with a few little details, and details are key. There’s something more memorable and more vivid about saying, “He was standing on the corner smoking a Lucky”, than “He was smoking a cigarette.” Those little details paint the scene. And one person who’s very good at that is Randy Newman. He’s phenomenal at that aspect. He paints a scene in three words.

HMS: It pulls you into a sudden close-up and you feel like you can see the situation.

CS: Yes, you can see the dirt under their fingernails.

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