by Kimmy Sophia Brown
Chris Smither is an American bluesman who is blessed with a smoke and honey tinged voice, an army of responsive, dancing fingers that pick wonderful tunes from his Collings guitar (while his feet tap the rhythm), and an ear for lyric writing that rivals the originality and humor of Randy Newman, Paul Simon, or Joni Mitchell.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Smither since I was a junior in high school in 1972, although I didn’t know it at the time. I bought Bonnie Raitt’s album, Give it Up, which features one of Chris’s early compositions, “Love Me Like a Man.” Bonnie Raitt later recorded another Chris great, “I Feel the Same.” Fast forward to 2014, and Chris Smither is about to release his sixteenth album, Still on the Levee, which is a retrospective collection of his fifty years in the music business. A book is coming out too, entitled Chris Smither Lyrics 1966-2012, to be followed by a Chris Smither tribute CD coming out in the fall, Link of Chain, which features other artists covering Chris’s compositions.
I had a chance to speak with Chris about this great harvest he is reaping, as well as thoughts about music, parenting, writing, and life.
Noise: I’m excited for you, that you’ve been doing music for fifty years. You have the new CD Still on the Levee, a book, Chris Smither Lyrics, and the upcoming Link of Chain CD—do you feel a certain satisfaction, like reaching a mountain top?
Chris: [laughs] That’s an interesting way to look at it. To me, it is a very revealing sort of experience. I don’t think that I had ever once bothered to look at the whole body of what’s been going on for the last fifty years. I just keep plodding along. The revelation has come when I look at this CD and all the stuff that’s going on this year and say: “Oh my God. Look at all this stuff.” There’s this huge pile of things that have happened. It’s kind of amazing. I just look at it one step at a time. What are you doing? Well, I took a step today. It’s that sort of thing. I never really looked at the thing in its totality and now that I do, it’s kind of amazing what’ll happen, how you keep doing things day to day.
Noise: You’re almost seventy. You have this great body of work. You’re part of the generation that gave us The Beatles, The Stones, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell, and so many more artists. Many of your generation hit their peak decades ago. To me, your songs have gotten deeper and wiser. Your star is still rising. Does it feel like that to you?
Chris: That’s one of the advantages of not getting famous too young. [laughs] You get burned out. Since I’m not famous in any big sense yet, there’s still room to go. I don’t know what that is. I’ve always been kind of a late bloomer. I did terrible in school until I was almost out of it. [laughs] I took about ten years out to get drunk and almost kill myself and then, when I got healthy again from that, it seems that things picked up. There was a ten year delay that possibly delayed the peak. It means everything else was delayed by ten or twelve years, too. I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea. It’s the difference between just being in it for the long haul and being a pop star, I guess. A pop star, you think of them as these momentary flashes of brilliance, but they grow and then they wax brilliant for however many split seconds, and then they’re gone. It’s sort of like Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. When I was younger, I had visions of getting really famous like that and I said: “Oh boy, here we go.” [laughs] That didn’t last very long. I just thought of it as—this is what I do. I’m in it for the long haul. Most people who do things for the long haul get better at it. If you run into two carpenters, one who’s been doing it for five years and one of them who’s been doing it for thirty years—the guy who’s been doing it for thirty years is the one you want to build your house. I sort of look at it the same way. I’m sort of a journeyman. I got my union card. I go out and do the job. After so many years, you learn how it’s done.
Noise: Yeah. You mentioned the gap in your musical history—man, you’re kind of like a phoenix, rising up like some kind of mythical character, like Rocky.
Chris: Rising out of his own ashes. I think you’re right.
Noise: I wanted to ask you about the title, Still on the Levee—is it a play on words, like “All is Quiet on the Levee” or “I’m still here, on the Levee”?
Chris: As much as anything, it has to do with where I was raised and where I’m from. I grew up in New Orleans, three blocks from the levee. That was our playground. That was where we used to go. For one thing, when you grow up in Louisiana, it’s very flat, and it was the highest ground that there was. It’s the only thing that even remotely resembled a hill. You go up there and you felt like you were the King of the World. But it’s also sort of symbolic of what I consider to be my roots. I left New Orleans when I was 23. For the majority of my life, I haven’t been there, but in my mind, I’m still on the levee.
Noise: I love that, it’s a beautiful metaphor. I noticed that your daughter, Robin, appears on the CD. Does she say what she wants to do when she grows up?
Chris: My daughter is at an age where her determinations tend to change from week to week. I think part of her would like to be famous, at least for a little while, but how she wants to go about that is something subject to change rather rapidly. She’s turning into a very good violin player. She does play on a song on this record.
Noise: Does she play on “No Love Today”? That was great!
Chris: Yes, that little violin part that sounds almost like a harmonica. She’s a reasonably bright nine and a half year old, with a big world in front of her and I think she’s actually smart enough to realize she doesn’t have to make any decisions yet.
Noise: You and your wife adopted her from China. You contributed to the book, Sixty Things to do When You’re Sixty. How has parenting changed your life?
Chris: It’s made me a much more tolerant person. It’s taught me an incredible amount about patience, and about how little affect you can really have – intentional affect you can have on other people. I look at this little kid, and I’m responsible. I need to turn her into the person she needs to be. Well, that’s a fantasy. All you can do is help her find out what she wants to be. You can’t turn her into anything. You can make sure she has the tools that she needs – make sure she knows how to read. If there’s one thing a kid has to know how to do and do well, in order to explore the world and figure out what they’re going to be, and how to justify their existence on the planet, is learn to read well. She’s learned that, so it makes me feel like in a way, my work is done – sitting back and watching, and having these flashes of memory, of how familiar it seems because you remember what it was like for yourself, having these realizations that you’ve totally forgotten about, so it’s like growing up all over again. It’s a wonderful experience.
Noise: I love your song “I Don’t Know”—it’s so funny. Did you read to her?
Chris: I still read to her—everything under the sun. Let’s see, right now, Lord have mercy, we’re in the middle of a series called, School of Fear. We’re about to finish that. It’s a three-book trilogy, and it’s about a sort of phantasmagorical, very imaginative stuff—there’s another series that she wants to get into called Divergent—we’re going to find out what that’s all about. It’s kind of futuristic—sci-fi stuff.
Noise: So she’s way beyond Winnie the Pooh—you’re into serious stuff.
Chris: She loves Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. When I read to her now, I make her read along with me. She has a Kindle Fire, and so I buy them on my Ipad, and then I can share it with her—so I may read to her and I make her read along, and it’s amazing how it helps her reading. She almost is impatient having me read because she can read so much faster to herself than I can read out loud, but it’s still fun to read. She likes the companionship. She likes the feeling that we’re sitting around before bedtime reading these stories.
Noise: That’s the best gift you could ever give her as a dad. That’s absolutely A-plus. You seem very fit. Do you have a fitness regimen?
Chris: I do—I spend an awful lot of time at it. I came to that kind of late in life too, after I got sober. I was in such terrible shape, I was trying to get fit. It stuck with me. When you become a parent for the first time at age sixty, you say: Oh, my God! Now I have to live to be a hundred. You have to live until they’re forty – because that’s as old as they have to get so they’re old enough to forgive you.
Noise: Okay, this is a personal question. I just wondered about your beautiful hair. Everyone must be jealous! I associate great hair with kind of a Samson thing, do you get your musical power from your hair?
Chris: [laughs] My advice about hair is to pick your parents very carefully. Both my dad and my mom had great hair. It lasted all their lives. My dad finally went gray when he was 91, and he still wasn’t completely gray. My mom only lived to be 82, and she had nearly no gray at all either. You had to be really close to her to see that there was gray in her hair.
Noise: Are you French?
Chris: No, English, with some Swiss German in there.
Noise: It sounds like they shook up the DNA correctly so you could get the blessing.
Noise: I looked at your upcoming touring schedule, it looks like you’re going to be on the road for almost a year.
Chris: We’ve been cutting back recently. In the last few years, I’ve been doing about 100 shows a year, which is half of what I was doing in my peak. It’s still a lot. But this year, with all the projects coming up, I’ll be performing considerably more than I have in recent years. When you look at the schedule, it looks like a lot of work, but it’s spread out over a year—if you look at how much time there is between those dates, it won’t look quite so impressive. I miss my family. I never used to get homesick before I had a family, but now I do. I want to get home.
Noise: Your lyrics are so clever, I read somewhere that you like the lyrics of Randy Newman and Paul Simon. I would say your songs rival anything they’ve written. Are there any poets in particular that you love to read as well?
Chris: I like Mary Karr—she’s a friend of mine—she wrote The Liar’s Club. I like Elizabeth Bishop. I like a hundred poets. I subscribe to Poetry Magazine. The kind of stuff I like, I never remember their names… I’ve enjoyed poetry as poetry. When I was about twelve I started reading TS Eliot. I got addicted to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
Noise: There was a beautiful movie, a love story about two kids in Australia, with Helena Bonham Carter—that poem was the centerpiece of the movie—the line was something like, ’til we awaken….
Chris: ’Til Human Voices Wake Us! That was a line from the poem, almost the very last line. My daughter’s violin teacher is a member of a group called The Parkington Sisters [Editor’s note: They were on the cover of The Noise, July 2012]. Their first or second album was called, Til Human Voices Wake Us. I looked at it and said, “Is that from Prufrock? Did you mean it to be from Prufrock?” She was so pleased that I knew.
Noise: How did you find and choose the Collings guitar?
Chris: That’s an interesting story. I did not know much about Collings ’til one day, a guy went into the Music Emporium in Lexington, MA. I want this Collings, custom—twelve frets instead of fourteen. Cutaway, this that and the other thing, he specified. At the time, they didn’t even want to build it. But Joe Caruso from the Music Emporium talked them into it. The guitar was almost finished and they called and said: “This guy is really onto something. This guitar is a cannon. No one in the shop wants to let it go.” But they did, it was made in Austin, TX, and they sent it up to Lexington. The guy came in and played it for half an hour and didn’t like it. Joe Caruso was about to protest, and then he thought to himself: “What am I talking about? I’m going to sell this guitar to the first player who walks through the door.” The guy walked out with a Santa Cruz or something. I walked in about 45 minutes later. I said, “Hey, Joe.” He said, “Hey Chris!” I asked him, “You got anything interesting?” He said, “Do I!” He showed it to me and I couldn’t believe it. I fell totally in love with it. I said: “I just got off an airplane and I don’t trust my ears. Let me come back tomorrow first thing in the morning, and I’ll play it again. Don’t show it to anybody.” So I went back the next day, and I brought a check with me.
Noise: That sounds like it was meant to be!
Chris: So much so that I had them build me another one! Now I have two of ’em.
Noise: Do you have any advice for people starting out in the music business?
Chris: Remember that it’s supposed to be fun.
Noise: That’s wonderful.