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Together with American Songwriter, we had the pleasure of interviewing John Smith over Zoom video!
Against the backdrop of a universally difficult 2020, songwriter and guitarist John Smith found himself facing personal and unrelenting change. In the spring of 2020, Smith and his wife lost a pregnancy, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. With his touring schedule of two hundred days a year on the road suddenly on indefinite hiatus, for the first time in over a decade, John was home.
“With newfound pain coming from so many directions, dealing with the uncertainty it brings, I closed the curtains and picked up the pen, turning to songwriting as a lifeline.” It’s unsurprising that the new songs reflect a shift in priorities. On his new album ‘The Fray’, Smith gives us an uplifting perspective on the path forward, but pays beautiful homage to the difficulties along the way.
‘The Fray’ is Smith’s sixth studio album, and his vulnerability throughout is offered to his listeners, unadorned. “It’s been a hell of a year, but I feel I’ve created my most honest work as a result, and as a necessity. A lot of these songs are about accepting that life is hard, but just holding on and trying to enjoy it anyway.”
Smith’s stubborn optimism in tough circumstances shines through on the title track, in which he sings “Holding onto hope / I don’t need a decent reason / Yes and though it disappears sometimes / It returns with every season”.
On the upbeat opening track “Friends”, he gives a nod to old friendships, and the importance of maintaining connections in troubled times, singing “When the weight of the world gets heavy / You don’t have to bear it alone /I know that burden and I’ll be ready / To stop what I’m doing /I’ll be there to help with the load”
Despite his hopefulness, the emotional turmoil that Smith has faced this year is visceral throughout the album, as is his observance of the pain of those around him. On “She’s Doing Fine”, a delicate guitar underpins the lines “Walking slowly / The pain of the memory / Fades in the eyes”. A melancholy flugelhorn seems to cry out for hope in the darkness as it plays out the song.
Smith co-wrote a couple of songs for the album whilst on tour before the pandemic. Driving a rental car from Asheville to Nashville, John stopped to write the standout track ‘Eye to Eye’ with North Carolina-based Sarah Siskind. The Americana influence is a red thread throughout the album which beautifully compliments Smith’s unmistakeable British Folk roots.
Smith co-produced ‘The Fray’ with long-time friend and producer Sam Lakeman. They recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, with pianist Jason Rebello (Sting, John Mayer), bass player Ben Nicholls (Seth Lakeman, Nadine Shah), Drummer Jay Sikora (Paolo Nutini) and Jessica Staveley-Taylor of The Staves. The album is a true reflection of the times, with American collaborators Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Hartman, The Milk Carton Kids and Bill Frisell recording remotely and sending contributions over international borders. John’s frequent touring partner Lisa Hannigan contributed via a virtual studio session in Dublin.
Smith was born in Essex and raised on the Devon seaside. Known for his intimate songwriting, his honey-on-gravel voice and pioneering guitar playing, he has spent the last fifteen years touring internationally and has amassed over 40 million streams on Spotify. As a session musician he has played guitar with artists as diverse as Joan Baez, David Gray, Joe Henry, Lianne La Havas and Tom Jones.
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