On the Record: An Interview with Jonah Smith – A New Album and That Time Levon Helm Got Him “High Musically”

New York singer-songwriter and keys player Jonah Smith (who has opened for such well-known artists as Little Feat, Taj Mahal, and Martin Sexton) recently took time out of his busy touring schedule to discuss his career and new record Little Known Cure with me. Jonah wrote, arranged and produced the record on his own (along with the help of very loyal fans), and the result is a testament to how far hard work and passion can get you. Jonah’s ability to entertain comes naturally, and he and his bandmates, Gintas Janusonis (Drums), Andy Stack (Guitar) and Ben Rubin (Bass) have an undeniable chemistry that shines onstage and in the studio. There is a clear understanding and appreciation of precision here, but also of humor, which always makes for a fun show.

Jonah Smith plays at the Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street, this Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15, and Jason Myles Goss opens. There will be special guests throughout the performance, and fans will have the opportunity to meet Jonah after the show. Jonah is planing to move to the West Coast in December, so this a great opportunity for New Yorkers to see him perform this album in its entirety before he leaves for LA. Don’t miss it! For more info and to purchase tickets, click here: http://highlineballroom.com/show/2012/07/28/jonah-smith/.

 (Photo credit: Michael Weintrob)

So, Little Known Cure. Did you use Kickstarter to fund this record? Was it through your site? Tell me about that process and the fans – the loyalty between you and them, and also producing it yourself. 
I first heard about the concept of fan-funding by reading a music blog called the Lefsetz letter which detailed how Jill Sobule had offered special incentives for her fans to donate money. I took the concept and ran with it for my last record, Lights On. I think this was before Kickstarter existed (or maybe it was just starting out). Fan-funding still wasn’t common. I created a PayPal button and my own dedicated page, and I raised around 15K. It was a great experience and brought me closer to my fans. So I didn’t hesitate to do it again. I didn’t use Kickstarter or Pledge because I couldn’t see how they were going to add value to what I was already able to achieve on my own.

This time around, I made a page to fund two records that I (kind of crazily) recorded at the same time — one is the debut record of The Statesmen, a project I’m involved in with Josh Dion, Scott Metzger and Ben Rubin, and my next solo effort which is called Little Known Cure. I let the fans decide which record they wanted me to make more on by choosing where to donate. Magically, both records got funded.

Tell me about the songwriting and recording process on this and what makes this record different.
The songs on Little Known Cure are in a lot of ways on a continuum from my last record. I started writing political songs on my last record, and they became more explicit on this one. I have a few different styles and modes that I work in, and they are all pretty well represented here. When I start grouping songs together for an album, one thing I always think about is making sure that it has beautiful starkness at times and grandeur at other points.

The recording process on this one was very different though. First of all, I produced it myself, so I really didn’t have to take into account anyone else’s perspectives if I didn’t want to. I also set no deadlines for myself, which is why this record took a year to make. In the past, there has always been crazy deadlines to get a record done for whatever reason — a tour is booked, the producer is going to be unavailable for six months, etc. I cut basic tracks for ten of the thirteen songs in two days with my band at a great studio called Mission Sound in Brooklyn. I knew I wanted to get the best drum sounds possible, and I asked all of my favorite drummers where they liked to record and many said Mission. My friend Tony Mason, a great drummer, said that he had changed the room up and really dialed in the sounds so I went back there and was blown away by what Oliver (the studio owner) was doing there.

I tracked seventeen songs in two days, and then I took about three weeks off before I went back and started listening to takes. I spent a month or so editing the record in my apartment with headphones, which was great because I didn’t feel any crazy deadlines and I could just take my time and enjoy the process. From there I worked in a handful of studios — including Brooklyn Recording and Grand Street Recording.

This record was a pleasure to make. I got to call in a bunch of friends to contribute their talents, work with awesome engineers in great studios. I was involved in every step from writing to mixing and mastering.

Can you describe the sound of the new record and how you hope people will react to it?
Little Known Cure sounds expansive to me (and expensive). I wanted great drums sounds, a french horn section, strings, harmonica, pedal-steel, singers… and I didn’t say no to myself once. I think the songs represent different aspects of my personality, and the fact that I have listened to and absorbed so much music in my life that it’s impossible for me to stay in one genre. There’s a folk song on this record called “Big Box Town” that I think is one of my most important songs lyrically. It was recorded live with a a few microphones. There’s also lush strings in other parts on the album, some McCartney-esque melody work, Americana, and some guitar-heavy rock and roll.

So, future plans and upcoming releases and tours — what can fans / our readers look forward to?
I’m working on getting Little Known Cure out as soon as possible. Hopefully, by the end of summer. I will tour a bit to support it, I am going to Spain at the end of August to promote it and will continue to do shows for the rest of the year. But in the fall, I am hoping to start work on a new record…a stripped down acoustic record akin to an album I made in 2009 called Brooklyn Session.

It seems that you really thrive on the live performance experience. How was it transferring that energy into the studio on this record? Do you prefer the studio or the stage?
I love them both for different reasons, but for Little Known Cure I really wanted to try to capture the live energy of the show, which is why I tracked everything live in the studio. In the past, I’ve heard from fans that my albums don’t do justice to my live show, which is a compliment, but a double edged sword. I love performing for people; I get off on it. When it’s the right crowd and the band is firing on all cylinders, it can be a transcendent experience.

I love the studio because I get to look at things under a magnifying glass and see what makes a song tick; plus it’s always a great learning experience for me.

What is the relationship between “Big Box Town”, Occupy Wall Street and your family? 
I wrote the song “Big Box Town” after finishing up the tour for the Lights On record. I was driving home from Kentucky through Ohio, and we stopped to get some breakfast and the entire town was just chain restaurants and big box stores. I started wondering to myself, “Is this the new normal in America? Do people that live in this town think about what it used to be like? Do they miss it?” The song is told from the story of a man who works at one of those big box stores and barely makes enough to survive (did you know that they had out food stamp applications when you get a job at Walmart, because they know you’re not going to make enough to survive on your own??). He drives around town in a beat-up Camero looking for some authenticity in his town and laments the fact that the kids coming up around there don’t even miss it.

I relate pretty heavily to the sentiment in the song. My grandfather owned a paint store in Syracuse for decades that he passed on to my father, who also ran it for decades until big box competition put it out of business. For years, downtown Syracuse, where the store was, was like a desolate wasteland as people flocked to malls and chain restaurants. It was sad to see. It was also a strange time to grow up in that town at the time when the giant air-conditioning company, Carrier, decided to leave town for cheaper labor. It wiped out a big part of the working middle class in that city.

Have social media and sites like Bandcamp made a difference in getting your music to new fans?
The Internet has made it easier than ever to get new music out there in the world for fans to listen to. It’s also made it harder to get anyone to pay attention because there is so much music out there that it’s overwhelming. Generally, I would say new fans come from word of mouth and live shows. Tastemakers, like cool blogs or music writers can also have an impact.

When and why did you start playing music?
I started playing music when I was eight or nine because I was infatuated with it and thought it was cool. By the time I was twelve, it became a creative vehicle for me, and I started writing songs.

Tell me about meeting the other guys in the band. 
I’ve been really lucky to play with great musicians my entire career. My bass player, Ben Rubin, and I met in college and have been playing music together for almost twenty years now. My drummer is my next door neighbor — we’ve been making music together on and off for close to a decade, but he joined the band full time in 2009. I met Andy Stack while doing some sideman work when I first moved to New York. When my original guitarist moved back to Spain, I knew he was the guy to call. I’ve been playing with him in the band and as a duo since 2005.

Do you find living in Brooklyn, where many artists and musicians live, inspirational musically?
There are so many talented people living and working in Brooklyn, it’s a constant inspiration. If I don’t get out to see music I start to get depressed. All it takes is one set of music in a small club by a great artist and I am recharged.

Who are your musical influences? Old or new… Any good stories of interactions with other musicians that shaped you?  
I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock and early hip-hop. That’s what was on the radio back then. Plus, I’m an MTV child so whatever videos were playing back then, I was watching them. Back then, there was incredible variety on that station before they really had any formatting. When I really started formulating my sound as a musician was when I started learning about the piano greats like James Booker and Dr. John. I was also really into great soul like Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. I’d have to say my favorite bands are probably the Beatles and the Band. I was lucky to record with Garth Hudson in 2006. He came into the old Bearsville, and noticed an upright piano in the corner and mentioned that he had left it there thirty years ago and sat down and played for twenty minutes the most incredible medley of Duke Ellington, stride stuff, Monk – it was amazing for me. He was the sweetest, most generous man. He gave me pointers on my left hand and watching him work was an experience. He records a lot of notes and then sits there in the control room and cuts them down to size. It was pretty unique.

I also had the pleasure playing a couple of Rambles with Levon Helm. He was a raconteur of the highest order. He got me so high I sat in his parking lot for an hour and half before I attempted to drive anywhere.

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