ONE MORE TIME by Bryan Elijah Smith
Posted April 2, 2012 on swampland.com
After reviewing the quietly excellent Dear Puppeteer by Nathan Moore, I couldn't help but notice that his album had been enhanced by a co-producer, musician, and collaborator named Bryan Elijah Smith. A quick bit of websearching led me to Smith's own website. I reached out and Smith graciously sent his latest album to Swampland HQ. My curious streak was rewarded as One More Time revealed itself as one of 2011's best releases.
But first a little background...
Bryan Elijah Smith is a young Virginia-based songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer. Smith was born and raised in the small town of Dayton, VA which lies in the Shenandoah Valley near the Virginia-West Virginia border. This is rural farmland area and Smith proves it in his bio by explaining his time spent working on a dairy farm.
After a brief time in NYC trying to further his music career, Smith settled back in the Shenandoah Valley area and began a fruitful stretch of recording. One look at his website and you will see over 8 albums and EPs that Smith has released since mid-2008. In a recent radio interview, Smith estimates that he has written over 500 songs.
Through all this glorious productivity, Smith has found solid footing on One More Time. The connection between Smith and Nathan Moore began on Smith's last album Pour On Me. They recorded "I'm The Same" which also appeared on Dear Puppeteer featuring dual vocals. This soulful and heartfelt song is a highlight of both those albums.
Pour On Me, which precedes this release, was Smith's first album to prominently feature the backing duo of the Wild Hearts, Jay Austin on fiddle and Jeff Miller on banjo. Smith and the Wild Hearts create a unique but familiar acoustic sound that fits Smith's Shenandoah roots. On One More Time, this trio further hones its sound combining bluegrass with old time mountain music, displaying hardscrabble edges, while never losing a pastoral sense of melody.
As is always the case with great songwriting, the final product can be lifted or undermined by the playing. It is rare that the quality of the songs are matched by the quality of the performances and vice-versa. This is where Smith and the Wild Hearts shine. Though a trio of guitar, fiddle, and banjo might appear to be limiting, they stretch these limitations to the furthest extent.
In many ways, Smith and the Wild Hearts have expanded the definition of mountain music with their sound. They have elements of dark and brooding Americana ("Goodbye, Hello" "Smoke & Mirrors" "Minute Or Two"), pop ("Forever" "Baby Blue" "Somedays"), old time mountain ("All Those Years" "Penny Arcade"), roadhouse blues ("Another Day (Until I Go)"), and even a little funk on ("Hook Me Up"). Most all of these elements come together on the album's centerpiece track "Dance With Me" which blends driving acoustic strumming with mournful fiddle and fragile banjo to reflect the song's sad and lonely center:
I'm moving to a song that no one knows
Dancing to a song I can't see
I'm moving to a song that no one knows
Come on baby, dance with me
Only in his mid 20s, Bryan Elijah Smith appears to be shot out of a creative cannon. This energy has been fully captured on One More Time. That this acoustic trio can link together timeless sounds with modern sensibilities stands as a testament to how far Smith and the Wild Hearts can take things going forward.
Written by Jim Markel
7 Minutes In Heaven
Posted April 19, 2012 on dirtyimpound.com
Bryan Elijah Smith makes incredibly affable music. One is quickly struck by what good songs they’re hearing and how well handled, too, yet there’s nary a whiff of mainstream stink or premeditation. Instead, one encounters a lively craftsmanship-minded music that’s contemporary but with sturdy roots dipping into much older traditions, crooning, “It’s hard to write a folk song that’s honestly in tune…It drives me wild/ It drives me insane.” Smith genuinely sounds like he’s after something fresh, new, real, and true on his latest offering, One More Time, which is filled with tunes that attach quickly, an array of radio-ready takes on love and life that hum with deeper character than the mainstream generally offers. The primary backing of Smith’s band The Wild Hearts – Jeff Miller (banjo, vocals) and Jay Austin (fiddle) – swings and sways, stoking the romantic elements in his lyrics, as multi-instrumentalist Smith plies guitars, bass, drums, ukulele, harmonica and more. The album is also produced by Smith, who increasingly reveals an impressive studio savvy that’s full without being fussy, the arrangements riding infectiously below his husky, appealing manly voice. What his new album makes clear is Smith is one to watch, the sort of fellow that could easily be opening for dyed-in-the-wool singer-songwriters like David Wilcox and Greg Brown, or just as ably, the likes of Brett Dennen, James Blunt and other current chart tappers, and quite likely stealing the show from the headliners if he did.
We grabbed Bryan for a few minutes to chat about making music.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
I never really had to think about it. I’ve always known what I was supposed to do. I’ve always wanted to make music for my whole life, and it’s definitely my passion, my one true love. I have absolutely no idea where it will take me, but I’m certain wherever it does that’s where I’m supposed to be [laughs].
You strike me as someone with real confidence in what you’re doing. I saw you jam with a dude like Steve Kimock on Jam Cruise and you showed no apparent nerves at all. You just went in and got some of what was available.
With anything going on in life – bad or good – as soon as I pick up an instrument and start singing or playing everything feels right. Playing with really good musicians is just icing on the cake. Playing with people like Steve Kimock is easy because they’re so damn good. And with my band, I’m really happy with the guys I’m playing with right now, who are all really competent musicians, and that makes me even more confident. Because [music] is my passion it makes me confident when I play, and not because I’m cocky or anything. I just know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Listening to One More Time, one’s struck by how you straddle a bunch of interesting worlds. You have a very pure singer-songwriter streak, but you take instrumentation that’s not typically modern and make it so.
I definitely get what you’re saying. I’ve known the banjo player for eight years, and the fiddle player for a couple years, and it just seems like it works. The banjo and fiddle, the way they play it, doesn’t sound as traditional as those instruments often do. The way they play sounds more modern to me, which I really appreciate. It would be easy for you to go the straight folkie route, but that doesn’t seem to be the music in your head. No, definitely not [laughs]! The people I listen to – everyone from Nathan Moore to Dylan to Todd Snider to Gillian Welch to Ray LaMontagne – often have a folkie sound but it’s really a matter of the arrangement in how a song turns out along with the production. In my mind, I often hear these BIG productions even if oftentimes the core is still folk. But in my mind I want it to be as big as it can.
Production is a strong element in what you do, both in your own work and as heard on Nathan’s Dear Puppeteer (which Smith co-produced).
I love producing a record as much as writing songs for it or playing out live. It’s another element to my passion. I’m just happy I feel that way because I couldn’t imagine relying on producers and stuff like that. I don’t know what I’d do then [laughs].
It’s always hard to be at the mercy of someone else when realizing one’s vision. Do you have a studio of your own? Are you accumulating gear? That seems to be the path most studio aficionados follow.
Yes, I have a basement studio, nothing fancy but I’ve definitely been accumulating gear. And for the next record I’m going to get a new computer and a bunch of new mics and a new interface, and we’re gonna cut it completely live – no tracking or anything like that – which will be a first for me.
It helps that you have a banjo player who understands the percussion elements of his instrument. He gets that he’s holding a drum with strings.
Yes, yes, but we just stumbled across a new drummer and it’s completely changed everything for sure. He’s the kind of drummer that can put a beat to a song you’ve been playing for four years and give it a completely new life in a way you didn’t think possible. It’s making it a lot easier for Jeff, the banjo player, to do his thing. We’re all really excited.
Rhythm is a big part of your sound, along with hooks and a steady drive. Swing is very strong in your music. Are you a pop music fan? Pop is definitely an element to what you do.
99-percent of the time I’m not trying to write the quintessential pop song, but then again, I consider Dylan a pop songwriter. There was that element of catchy hooks and easy to follow chord progessions. A really great song says something to someone where the first time they hear it they feel like they’ve heard it before, in a positive way, like it’s always been there. I have a lot of love for a lot of pop artists, though not really mainstream people. I can definitely get into newer acts like Foster The People. I think that stuff’s cool.
What’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Usually when I walk into a show I’m trying to read the audience and figure out what kind of people I’m playing to. I try to read the vibe of the room and figure out what would be a good opening song. Other times, I walk into a room and I feel like the energy is completely off. From there, I’ll do the opposite and figure out a song that will help manipulate the energy in the room to a place that would be conducive to putting on a good show.
Written by Dennis Cook