The White Buffalo Runs Free on ‘Year of the Dark Horse’

You might think you’ve roped The White Buffalo, also known as singer-songwriter Jake Smith, but he’s roaming another plain entirely, taking on an all-new form. Welcome to the Year of the Dark Horse..

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Traditionally armed with a guitar and a cigarette-scorched baritone, Smith shed his trademark acoustics for the album. “Instead of writing on my acoustic guitar which I’ve done primarily one hundred percent other than just melodies coming in and out of my head, I started writing on the keyboard and using different sounds and different things,” Smith tells American Songwriter.

“I wanted to have something that was conceptual, as well as sonically elevated,” he adds. The result is what Smith calls his “headphones” album, one song bleeding into the next for an epic sonic journey in which genre is thrown to the wind and where anything goes.

“I really wanted to abandon these trappings or these cages of genre,” Smith explains. “I always think it’s hilarious … I Googled what genre I was, not too long ago, and it said I was country music.”

Pre-Dark Horse, Smith had built a career on desperate, strumming acoustics and deep, smokey vocals that became easy to file away, labeled with broad terms like country, folk, and Americana. However, The White Buffalo was never so much a coffeehouse as he was a roadhouse, but like a roadhouse where intellectuals discuss God and war over quarter beer night.

“I’ve always been moderately hard to pin down,” he continues. “But I think I went to an extreme for this album.” The styles, themes, and ideas that appear on Year of the Dark Horse may seem to come out of left field, but they’ve always been a part of Smith. He’s only just now gotten to explore them. But underneath the tilt-a-whirl of melting soundscapes, the funhouse of melodies that shapeshift in your ears, what is at the heart of the album hasn’t changed.

Smith explains, “The songs still have the same purpose of either telling a story or hitting you somewhere emotionally.” Based loosely on a calendar year, the songs on the album mirror seasonal changes, setting moods in order to tell a tale through the highs and lows of the seasons.

“It’s kind of autobiographical, but it’s twisted kind of truths of my stupid adventures,” he says, telling of a character, an anti-hero of sorts, trying to find his footing in the midst of debauchery and blame, love and loss, living his life against the odds one lunar year can hold.

“A year, in the grand scheme of things, is such a spec in time, it’s such a short thing, but at the same time … the year is almost like a life,” Smith details. “You’re reborn in the New Year and you have all these ideas and all this grandeur of what you think you can be.

“That often fades by the end of the month,” he adds. What follows is explored throughout the album, feelings, and emotions shifting with the seasons.

The making of Year of the Dark Horse started with what Smith describes as “these bones of songs.” Going into the studio, only three of the album’s 12 tracks had been fleshed out, then everything else was “bare bones, shadows of songs.”

Year of the Dark Horse album cover

The process was a whirlwind, recording twelve songs over 11 days, and writing lyrics in the interim. “It was 24 hours a day,” Smith explains. “I’m just like spinning my wheels. I’m walking around like a madman for the most part because I’m humming and whispering and talking into my phone.

“We would go to war every day,” he says of the recording process, led by Grammy award-winning producer, Jay Joyce. Smith recalls being pushed by Joyce out of his comfort zone and into uncharted territories.

“I’ve always wanted to make every word count, every song count,” Smith says. “I wanted [the album] to be whatever it wanted to be. However the songs unfolded and whatever kind of twists and turns we could do, I really wanted to push that.”

He adds, “That’s probably what I’m most proud of, that at this stage in my career and my life that I’m creating things that I think is some of the best shit I’ve ever made, if not the best.” And he knows the album may not be for everyone. “Some people just want me to be on acoustic guitar and my voice, just singing.” To that, he asks, “Can’t I grow? Can’t I be more?”

Year of the Dark Horse is out now.

Photos: Courtesy of Prime PR Group

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