Pittsburgh: Interview with Chris Smither by Monica Yasher

Posted on 9/18/2009 by Monica Yasher

I first met Mr. Chris Smither this summer at a Summersounds concert in June. At that time, we talked about his new release and doing an interview. I met up with Chris a week ago via the phone and we talked a lot about songwriting, acoustic guitars, and how Bonnie Raitt found his song, Love Me Like A Man. I personally learned a lot about songwriting in this conversation. So, why don't I begin to share the conversation with all of you?

Monica: Hey! A new album, Time Stands Still. Thank you so much for the copy. I was listening to it this morning. Thank you.

Chris: Your welcome.

Monica: And why are you so excited about this new piece of work?

Chris: Because it’s a new one (Laughing). I’m always excited when a new record comes out.. I don’t know.…I work and I work and I work on it and I don’t let it out of my hands until I think they’re good. You know. They have to be good and then I’m excited about it. How did you know that I’m excited about it?

Monica: Well you should be.

Chris: Oh OK.

Monica: That’s right you should be! Why would you put out something you weren’t excited about? I noticed in my interviewing all the artists…it’s a passion… it’s your passion so you have to be excited about it if it’s your passion!

Chris: That’s right. And, if you’re not, there’s something wrong.

Monica: Right, right. So lets talk about… that you said you work on it and work on it…. let’s build on that. How long did it take to write the songs…to how did it come about?

Chris: Well. How long did it take to write the songs? Well you know in a certain sense it took 3 years to write the songs.

Monica: Did it?

Chris: Because that’s when the last record came out. But, that wasn’t steady work. I guess from the time that I actually really started working on it to it was done...was probably eight or nine months.

Monica: Wow.

Chris: Then a couple of months spent playing them and practicing them and trying to figure out what makes them work. I don’t think it took us more than three days to make the record though.

Monica: Oh really?

Chris: Yeah. It was very fast. You actually work and work and work on it. I mean this…it’s the only thing on my mind for months at a time…. and there is a certain amount of worry and anxiety involved too because I start every project…. that with the over riding thought that I will never get this done. It’s never going to come out right.

Monica: Oh?

Chris: And, every time I make a good one, I think that’s it because the next one will have to better than this (Laughs) and I don’t think that I got it in me.

Monica: Are they usually though?

Chris: Yes they’re fine. Every single one of them has something about it that I like better that the ones before.

Monica: Which one is your favorite on this one? Do you have a favorite?

Chris: Do I have a favorite song on this one? I like so many of the songs on this one. A favorite. A favorite. Not really you know. There are some that are fun to play. And, also some are kind of easy. And, I like that aspect of it. The first song, Don’t Call Me Stranger, is like that. Time Stands Still is like that. And, I Don’t Know. The one that my daughter actually wrote.

Monica: I love that. That one is my favorite. And, I loved to see you do that one in person more than listen to it. So I hope that whenever the audience gets your CD that they actually see you perform that song, because it’s cute how you perform it. It’s all through you. As you perform it…when you go… I don’t know. I don’t know if you realize it or not, you nod your head as a child saying I don’t know. (He laughs) That song is all through you and I really enjoyed watching you perform it.

Chris: Well the audience loves it and it’s always a standout at the show. Most people get into it.

Monica: It’s great. Who do you think your listener is for this CD?

Chris: Everyone who listened to me before. In a way I try not to think about that. Because I just put the songs out there. I don’t write for anyone in particular. I write for myself. So when they’re finished there’s no point in worrying about who’s going to listen to them. I mean, I’m not kidding you, I find myself at times wondering if anybody is going to like any of this stuff. You know, is anybody going to like this stuff? Then I say it doesn’t matter. I don’t really have another choice. All that I can do is what I do. But you know if you ask me in general what kind of person likes my songs probably people who are more literate than most. I think they would appeal to people who read.

Monica: OK As a songwriter do you still have…in quotations… practice songs even after you’ve been doing this for as many years as you have? Do you still have practice songs or are they all usable, viable songs as a songwriter?

Chris: I never finish a song that can’t be used.

Monica: OK.

Chris: Yeah. I think the last record, Leave the Light On. I was having a terrible time getting started on that record. And, I finally wrote one song. I just pulled out every little songwriting trick that I knew, to try to get something down. I knew if I could just finish just one song that would sorta open up the gates and it worked! And, the song turned out to be quite good! In it’s own way it’s a one of the better ones on the record. That’s the only time I can think of that I have ever done anything like that. As far as writing a song, as you put it, as a practice song. No. It’s too hard to write songs for me to write one that not’s going to be useful. Too much effort involved. You know at having said that. I know a lot of artists who write 100 songs and throw away 90 of them. That’s a whole style of songwriting. And there’s lots of songwriters who do that. I just don’t write that many songs. It’s too hard for me to do it.

Monica: Thank you. In regard to when I asked you who you’re listeners are you said someone well read. Let’s talk about being well read and you are part of a book.

Chris: Oh yeah. You mean the short stories?

Monica: Yes, do you want to talk about that?

Chris: I was approached by the editors and they said they were putting together a project of songwriters writing short stories, because songwriters are always writing in three and four minute batches-very short chunks. They were wondering what they would do if they had a chance to spread out a little more. And, so they asked me if I would be interested in writing a short story. I said what do you mean by a short story? They said well about four thousand words (laughs). And, I said that’s doable ‘cause that’s only about ten pages.

Monica: OK

Chris: Then I said yes I would like to do that and I had a lot of fun doing it. I really did. I enjoyed it. It was great. It was very different from songwriting.

Monica: Let’s talk about your acoustic guitar. Number one-do you ever play electric?

Chris: Occasionally. I have played occasionally on records and on other people’s records. I have them kicking around the house and I like to play with them around here. But I don’t play them on stage.

Monica: For acoustic guitar you were voted within the top three for being the best acoustic guitarist which was way cool. And, I see that you have a DVD acoustic guitar instructional.

Chris: That’s acoustic blues guitarist not just acoustic guitarist.

Monica: OK. Thanks!

Chris: It was nice. It was nice. I was in some really nice company there. You know. Me and Jorma and Keb ‘Mo. I know both of those guys, and you know, I thought it was nice to be grouped in there. I don’t know what to say past that. I think it’s very nice. Basically the leadership of acoustic guitar is probably in front of the most sophisticated artists for this kind of playing that you will find. Believe me. To be ranked like that is nothing’ to sneeze at.

Monica: I only asked for 20 minutes of your time. So how about one blast from the past kind of question. Could you tell me how Love Me Like a Man got into the hands of Bonnie Raitt?

Chris: Oh, she lived down the street.

Monica: Really?

Chris: Yeah. We were friends, good friends before either one of us ever made the record. So, when she started making records she turned to her friends. Yeah. When she started recording. The songs she picked were songs that were songs she liked. When I first wrote it she kept saying, I gotta do that song. I gotta do that song, and she did!

Monica: Whenever I saw you perform it, that was the first time that I heard that song performed from a male perspective..

Chris: Yeah I’m about the only guy that does it. So you may never hear it again. (laughs)

Monica: I’ve been telling my guy musician friends that they have to do that song. It’s awesome! And I guess it’s true when they say….when you’re trying to pitch a song….when you get the demo singer always try to get the man, because a woman will always do a man’s song but a man will never do a woman’s song.

Chris: That’s it.

Monica: I’m seeing that to be very true.

Chris: You know they won’t turn it around. They won’t. The thing that is brilliant about Bonnie’s version is that how she changed the song to being a woman’s perspective. You know. She put these little lyric changes that changed the whole thing. And, she slowed the tempo down and it was great. And that ‘s the best kind of cover when someone makes it their own song.

Monica: I want you to know that I really enjoyed yours ….the man perspective. It was way cool. I keep talking to my male friends to get them to do it.

Chris: Well. God Bless You. You know maybe you’ll get someone to do it. And it will be a hit all over again.

Monica: I don’t think I have that much clout. I think about that song your little girl inspired and I think the opening song to a children’s show on PBS.

Chris: Really?

Monica: Yes, that’s what I thought! That’s perfect.

Chris: I had another friend tell me that if I took out the second instrumental bridge I would have a Grammy for sure for children’s songs.

Monica: Well who says you can’t put yourself in the running just as it is?

Chris: Well, we’ll see what happens.

Monica: Why not? One last question. I did try to tap my foot with your music as you do front to back front to back. How do you do that ALL NIGHT LONG?

Chris: The front of your shin starts to hurt, right?

Monica: Oh, I couldn’t even get to that point. That’s like training for a marathon I’m sure.

Chris: I know.

Monica: It sounds fabulous and the crowd really loves that you do that. But, I sort of felt your pain for a while.

Chris: It doesn’t hurt. I’m totally not conscious of what my feet are doing.

Monica: It’s amazing. How you sing, play and do that. It’s just amazing. I don’t think people know how hard it is to get to all that working together.

Chris: The funny thing is it was never a conscious effort to learn to tap my feet. I can’t not do it. I can’t not do it. If you were to hold my feet still, I can’t play.

Monica: Like I said when you are nodding your head in the child’s song the music runs all through you. So you have just reaffirmed it, huh?

Chris: Yep.

Monica: Your new release is September 29, right?

Chris: Yes that’s right.

Monica: I would like to thank you for your time.

Chris: No problem at all.

Monica: And, you have good luck with it. I’m a fan. And, I wish you best.

Chris: Good luck to you too.

Monica: Thank you. Bye Chris.

Chris: Bye.

Here is a song from the performance I caught Chris at in Greensburg, PA.

You may wish to read my review of Mr. Smither's show.
If you enjoyed reading about this acoustic blues act, you may enjoy this one:

Izzy and Chris

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