“I was a really annoying child,” says Jordan O’Jordan (née Jordan Smith). “A little precocious, and a bit hyperactive… and so my mom, whenever she would get exasperated with me, would just say ‘Jordan… oh, Jordan.’”
He’s grown up to be many things: banjo player, singer, songwriter, storyteller, showman, scientist, and Seattle folk favorite.
The four full-lengths and two EPs Smith has released under the O’Jordan alias brim with warmth, humor and insight, demonstrating an uncommon grasp of the English language and musical diversity belying the seeming simplicity of his chosen instrument.
Smith, who is in his thirties, first picked up the banjo while studying at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, his home state.
A self-described “weirdo, queer, chubby musical theater kid,” Smith “grew up playing drums in punk bands in the woods, but, at college, realized it’s really hard to practice drums in a dorm room. I knew I didn’t want to be another dude with an acoustic guitar… that just wasn’t my game. I’d been listening to a lot of bluegrass at the time, and thought to myself, ‘wait, this is where I’m from.’ People don’t think of southern Ohio as Appalachia, but it is… it’s hilly and rural, folky and slow.”
The instrument, too, “has immediate folksiness, even if the performer isn’t from the country. The banjo isn’t without its baggage, that being [the film] Deliverance, but when you see one, you’re usually like, ‘this person’s going to be a little twangy, probably relatable, maybe a bit pastoral.’”
While those terms are appropriate descriptors for Smith’s sound, his lyrical bent is a little more unusual. A cancer researcher by trade whose work has, in the past year alone, taken him to far-flung locales like Honduras and Uzbekistan, Smith finds the nature of his day job often impacts the words and themes of his music.
“The vocabulary of science always slips in,” he explains, “because it’s the language I speak most often. I speak in in microliters and cell counts, DNA and RNA, data and analyses, and I think being allowed to infuse my art with that makes it kind of novel. I like that science offers really beautiful metaphors that oftentimes get interpreted in a very fact-based way. To me, the interesting thing about it is that we’re telling stories to ourselves about existence… a cosmology of sorts with some data to back it up.”
Smith’s most recent effort, 2011’s Drawn Onward, is at once educational and romantic, 14 songs combining his affectionate mid-range cadence and clever turns-of-phrase with barbershop quartet, New Wave goth, twee-pop and even modern country sensibilities. He describes the follow-up, Dream Radio — out this summer on Seattle label Electricity/Lust — as being “about history and memory and the nebulousness of time… radio waves, and our bodies as transmitters.”
This concept-driven approach, however, isn’t limited to Smith’s records. “I try to have a narrative arc to every live performance, with a beginning, middle and end. I recently read Plastics: A Toxic Love Story [by Susan Freinkel] — a science book about the history of plastic, which is fascinating to me — and played an afternoon show about plastics as a metaphor for human interaction. Plastic is the most post-modern substance. It can be rigid, amorphous, or totally nebulous… just like human interactions and communities.”
Considering the demands of his job, Smith tours with relative frequency, engaging audiences “wherever there’s a general expectation there’s going to be a performance, a crowd of 15 to 75 people willing to go somewhere together, and maybe a slightly dramatic shadow I can play with.”
Though black-box theaters are his preference, Smith has been a pillar of what he calls “the queer house show vaudeville circuit” since moving to the Northwest eight years ago, and he’ll happily play your living room… on one condition.
“If there are dogs in the space,” he bristles, albeit still smiling, “I will refuse to play. When you have a dog in a room with 30 people, there’s things to smell, probably some vegan potluck going on, somebody’s making music… maybe some crazy sound artist creating frequencies that only the dog can hear… but for a performer, nothing can ruin a show more than a fucking dog running up on the stage and everyone being like, ‘look, it’s the dog, chuckle, chuckle.’ I’m not OK with that. Just give me 30 minutes, and put your dog outside!”