When Dan Smith began writing songs, he always had a fascination for peculiar voices and intricate, winding storylines. “I was a huge fan of odd narrative writing. I loved stories and darker, more twisted narratives,” he says. The Bastille frontman grew up on the usual suspects: Kate Bush, the Beatles, and David Bowie. But he also found himself drawn to artists like Anhoni, Regina Spektor, Elton John, and an assortment of other piano-centric creatives.
“I was also always really drawn to voices that felt unique. I’ve got quite a weird voice, so I always found myself inspired by songwriters who had that, too ─ not only in tone but in terms of tone but what they wanted to say,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call.
In his pre-band days, many of his songs were “quite weird, free-flowing, and pretty structure-less,” he recalls. Once he began using a loop pedal in his live shows, a tool he used to layer harmonies, he found a whole new world opening up to him. “That really affected my songwriting. It made me have to be more structured and come back to choruses and things like that. I never studied the songwriting craft or what made pop music pop music. There were just things I loved and things I didn’t.”
“I stumbled into songwriting as it was something I enjoyed doing for myself. It was never something that was coupled with an ambition,” he continues. “It’s always been something I’ve gone to when there’s been time and space in my head.”
A huge part of his musical education came when he finally began pursuing a career in the industry. Bastille debuted in 2010, and their first record, Bad Blood, written entirely by Smith, arrived three years later on Virgin Records. “I was really naive at the beginning. I just thought all artists wrote their own songs. I didn’t know so much about the world and community of songwriters and producers,” he admits.
Over three full-length records, a handful of mixtapes, and several EPs, that notion has certainly changed, and subsequently, so has their songcraft. On Bastille’s new EP, Goosebumps, Smith brings together two of his idols, Kenny Beats and Graham Coxon, and a tight-knit circle of songwriters, including Dan Priddy (James Blunt), Mark Crew (The Wombats), and Phil Plested (Lewis Capaldi, Little Mix).
Opener “Goosebumps,” a collaboration with Kenny Beats, satiates Smith’s thirst for an old school R&B song, slickly produced and magnetic. “We’re such huge fans of his work. He came through London and hung out at the studio for the day. He loved the song and immediately started making beats for it,” Smith remembers. Warm guitars wrap around pitched-up harmonies to give it an intoxicating quality that goes down smooth.
“I love the idea of writing a song from two perspectives. One person is pining after another they can’t have anymore. And the other person is like ‘Actually, leave me alone. Fuck off,’” he adds with a chuckle.
Written well before the pandemic, “survivin’” feels both prescient and timely, tapping into themes of mental health and coping. “What can I say? I’m survivin’ / Crawlin’ out these sheets to see another day,” he sings. In an effort to switch up their songwriting approach, he began reaching out to set up songwriting sessions, a decision which quickly “made me relax a bit and want to change the process,” he says. The chorus popped into his head first, but an ongoing tour last year forced the song back on the shelf.
“It got a bit lost on the hard drive,” he admits. When he began sifting through potential songs to cut, at the start of the year, he knew instantly it would be essential to the new batch of music. “This song speaks to what so many people go through ─ of just getting through one day to the next. I wanted it to feel really honest and have a tentative optimism to it. There’s not a huge amount of space in the verses for lyrics. I thought really hard about every lyric and wanted to paint a picture of the weird washing machine that is touring life and has been for the last thousand years of our lives. I really wanted to tell a story of the complexities of how the mind works.”
A week after finishing the song, they went into lockdown, and as the year drug on, he became increasingly hesitant to release it at all. “It felt very on-the-nose. I remember playing it to a friend back in April, and she was like, ‘Did you just write this about the pandemic?’ Enough people heard it and got something helpful from it. It unintentionally articulated what many people felt at different points this year.”
“survivin’” also proposes the question: are you barely surviving or actually living? For Smith, it took him years to confront things about himself that he’d long buried. “With touring, it’s easy to get swept up in it a little bit. We just didn’t take a break ever, really, until this year. We’d always planned to have this year off from touring and reset a little and ground ourselves again,” he observes.
“I’m not particularly at home onstage. I love making music, but I’ve had to confront how to get to a point of trying to enjoy it. I know it sounds mad and potentially ungrateful. There’s so much I get from shows. But there’s a lot about touring that doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve tried to confront that more recently.”
Bastille throw in a curve ball with “WHAT YOU GONNA DO???,” a brash, punkish anthem with Graham Coxon. While they’ve certainly done plenty of experimentation in their careers, it still comes as a jolt to the system. “I’ve always wanted the band to have a thrash/punk, sort of straight-up rock song. I was thinking about ‘song two’ by Blur and how they can have that sit alongside such different songs on an album and how that song makes it feel like you’ve been punched in the face with the distortion and guitars and bass and the drums.”
During a tour stop in Salt Lake City last year, Smith was tinkering around on the guitar ─ and he’s not much of a guitar player, mind you ─ when he stumbled into unexpected territory. “I wanted to do an eye-rolling, cynical, semi-joking piss take,” he says, “about the relationship with our phones and social media and advertising. I was thinking about wanting to shock people.”
Charlie Barnes, resident touring guitarist, cooked up some different riffs that would soon become the electrifying foundation. Then, they only needed a worthy collaborator, and Graham Coxon soon came to mind. “I was quite nervous about sending it to him. You never know what someone is going to think. He loved it, and he was really up to play guitar on it. It was a proper lockdown collaboration. This is the song I can’t fucking wait to play live… on day.”
The band closes Goosebumps with two session recordings, tracked in their London studio One Eyed Jack. “survivin’” emerges as far more ethereal, burying deeper into the anguish of mental health. “[These sessions] came from wanting to highlight the songs in a different way. We’ve always really enjoyed doing different versions of our songs,” he says. “It’s nice to take away production sometimes and invert a song. It’s why we love doing covers, and it’s why we like doing mixtapes. Pop music is so brilliantly malleable, and it might seem really simple but there are loads of complexities behind it. It’s always fun to take a song and reframe it.”
Even “Goosebumps,” once a propulsive, braggadocious entry, uncovers a much richer, chest-pounding ache. “Sometimes, the actual bones of a song can get lost amongst the production. I love the main version, but I just wanted to put it at a piano and sing it in a more raw way. There’s something to be said of reducing a song to a voice and one instrument.”
Bastille’s Goosebumps EP “shows a real range of what we’ve been up to this year and a tiny preview of a lot of other things. It’s been a real life line for us this year,” Smith concludes.
Photo by John Miller