How an old Polaroid and the pandemic helped reinvigorate a thirty-plus-year career.
Austin-based songwriter Darden Smith has always done things his way, rather than following the norms of the music business. Texas-born Smith came to Austin as a student and to play music in its various coffee houses and bars having been influenced by the first wave of great Texas songwriters, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, et al, and he built a local following that helped land him a record deal. While Smith saw himself as a songwriter in the Texas tradition, that didn’t stop him from enjoying and being influenced by some of the great ‘80s songwriters, including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Chrissie Hyde. Smith even recorded a duet album with hard to define songwriter Boo Hewerdine. While his burgeoning career may have been better served by moving to New York, Nashville, or London, Smith decided to stay in Austin for family reasons and, continued to release acclaimed albums to his dedicated fanbase that celebrated his songwriting skills, and used patronage to fun his recordings. He founded Songwriting With Soldiers which brings veterans and service members together. The pandemic gave Darden Smith time to think about what he enjoyed doing, and to cut a long story short, he is about to release a multi-media project ‘Western Skies’ that includes a book, album, and selective art exhibitions celebrating the mythology of West Texas, which was only made possible by the pandemic. This is a significant event in Darden Smith’s long career, and Americana UK’s Martin Johnson meet up with him over Zoom at his Austin home to discuss ‘Western Skies’ and its various facets. Continuing Americana UK’s exploration and assessment of ‘Western Skies’, Book Editor, Rick Bayles, will be reviewing the ‘Western Skies’ book and album.
Is ‘Western Skies’ a planned and fully realised multi-media project, or was it the product of a more organic approach?
No, it wasn’t planned at all. My last record came in in 2017, and it was called ‘Everything’, and that was my fifteenth album, and then I put a book out in 2018, and I didn’t know whether I would make another record again, even though I love making records I also love making books, haha. I just love doing all kinds of different work with music, and fifteen is a lot of records, it is not like I’ve been slacking off or anything for the last 30 years. I think it was late 2019 and then when 2020 hit everything just got weird, I began writing songs for myself again aggressively. I’d spent a lot of years writing songs that were for other people, like with the Songwriting With Soldiers project, and Mary Gauthiers’ ‘Rifles and Rosery Beads’ came out of Songwriting With Soldiers, and I’d started that with a friend of mine and loved it and I did a lot of that work. It was really amazing and it changed my life and changed so much about what I think that songwriting is about, and how to use songwriting, and it really changed how I feel about songs, if you don’t mean it don’t sing it. There are too many songs in the world for there to be songs that aren’t meant, and if you mean something and it is true then it is very valuable. whether it sells or not, and it needs to be said.
So that was my thinking and I just started writing songs and really loving it, and once the world went nuts on us in 2020 I came up into this room where I am right now every day, and I was home for the longest time in maybe 25 years because I haven’t been home that much, it was just crazy, and I thanked God I had this room to come to because left to my family I would have ended up living on the street, haha. I would just come up here every day at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I would start painting, I would write songs, I would start writing essays and stuff, and though I’m not doing it anymore, at that time I was still doing work with Songwriting With Soldiers, and I started driving out to Arizona, which from Austin is a two-day drive. I think it is 14 hours, total, so it is a long way, and I was driving across West Texas and it is a bleak part of the world, it reminds me very much of the Scottish Highlands, like when you get up the Scottish west coast and it looks very empty, the weather is harsh and it looks like it is all one colour, and then you slow down and it becomes full of colour and full of life. So I was driving out there, and it is empty at the best of times and during this time it was even emptier because there was nobody on the road, haha. I just began to write songs, and I’d found a Polaroid Camera in a box in my garage and I started taking pictures, and I thought I was just having fun and I was messing around. Then after I went into the studio to start recording some demos of these songs, just to get a recording, it fell together that it was one thing these essays, these photographs, these songs, and it was a book with an album. So the book idea came first and that is a new thing for me, and then it took off and had a life of its own, and now it is kind of this big, sprawling project. I’ve never really done anything quite like this, it is really cool, really fun, a lot of work, haha.
How scary is the project now?
Very, actually, but in a good way. I feel really blessed to be 60 years old, I’ve been making music for 35 years, and I love it more than ever, and the way I can stay interested is every now and then you have to scare yourself. You have to step out to the edge, where ever that edge maybe, and do something scary. This is pretty out there for me creatively, I’ve never done a book quite like this, and I’m really super proud of the record, it is just a lot but I think it is a healthy fear for an artist to have, you need to get that as an artist. I’m going to name-drop now for a second, haha, I was just talking to Rodney Crowell, who wrote the foreword for the book, and we were talking about that very thing of how you need to get scared every now and then. If you are not doing that, then you are not trying hard enough.
Texas is full of mythology, you have boots, hats, the Alamo, and deserts.
The mythology can be oppressive at times, but what I love about it is that I grew up here so I can make fun of the mythology, I can tell what it is and what it isn’t, haha. There are parts of Texas that I really love, the landscape and the people are weird and there are a lot of strange and dark things here. It is all juxtaposed together, and I find that to be great fodder for songs, I think it’s great for creativity in general, and we are blessed with a horizon line. Horizon lines are good for songwriters.
As you say there are lots of dark things in Texas, but the art of Texas has been quite liberal.
It used to be liberal, when you get out of Austin, Houston, and Dallas it is very, very conservative politically. So you have this juxtaposition, and Austin is now one of the fastest-growing cities in America, it is a tech world and people are moving here. The problem about Texas is that we make it very easy for companies to move here, and the companies bring all the people which is changing the culture, and so there is a huge culture clash going on in Texas right now, which I think is very interesting, haha. It has always been that way though, ever since the beginning when people who weren’t native Americans started coming here, they always tried to change things, the Hispanics, the French, the Spaniards, the people coming in from America. It is a very strange place, it used to be its own country much like Scotland, and some people want to take it back, haha.
About twenty years ago I did a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4 and it was on Texas songwriters and landscape, it was fascinating how many songwriters talked about the horizon line and its importance, Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard, they all talked about the value of this horizon line in opening up your mind. Guy and Kristofferson, both were very, very all about the horizon line, and it was really fascinating, Lyle Lovett as well.
You’ve stayed in Austin for your whole career.
Yes, I have. I grew up in Texas and then I moved here in the early ‘80s to go to school, and also to play music, it really is a great place to play music. I then started travelling and I got my record deals and started touring, but I had a family, a kid, and I got divorced and decided to stay here in Austin so that I could play music with the music community here, but I could also see my kid as well, and if I had moved to New York or Nashville, and at one point I was going to move to London, I wouldn’t have. I just decided to stay and dig into this community and make this where I live, and I’m so glad that I did because living in Austin has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had, had I moved to some of the other main music cities. It has also forced me in some ways to look outside of the traditional music path to find work and income. I think that Songwriting With Soldiers would have happened if I had lived in New York or Nashville because I would have been doing other things if that makes sense.
How did you record ‘Western Skies’, did you get caught up with the pandemic?
It was an interesting time to make records because a lot of people couldn’t be in the same room, you had to have small groups. I started the record on my own at a recording studio called Sonic Ranch, which is out near El Paso, out in the desert, it is a wonderful place right on the border. I started with just me and an engineer, and we began building these tracks, and by building I mean it was guitar, piano, and vocal. I then took that, and I had recorded 25 songs and lived with it for a couple of months, and then we recorded the rhythm section, Glenn Fukunaga bass, and Ramy Antoun drums, and Ramy used to play with Seal and he is a fascinating guy, and I like Ramy because he is different, I loved him when he played. Then we added the other instruments, Ricky Ray Jackson on steel and Ricky plays with Steve Earle now, and then Charlie Sexton on guitars, and Charlie of course has played with everybody, haha, he is like a budding rock star, haha. What was great was that that was it. James House who is a songwriter in Nashville and a really great friend of mine sang a lot of the harmony, I sang the harmonies as well. James wrote ‘Ain’t That Lonely Yet’ for Dwight Yoakam and ‘Broken Wing’ for Martina McBride, he has a bunch of great songs and has some on the new Joe Bonamassa record. That is really the core band, Michael Ramos produced it with Stewart Lerman who lives in New York, and Michael lives here. This is the second record I’ve done with Michael, and Stewart and I have done records dating all the way back to 1986. It was a collection of friends who got together to make this record, and it was interesting to do it with the separation we had to have because of the time we were living in. However, if you have the right players and you take care not to load up the record with too much stuff, like too many instruments, I wanted it open, finito. I think it is possible to make records that way, but you have to be careful and make sure you have some mistakes on the record, haha. Which there are, there are things that are out of time, not like bad but you have to have a little grit on it. When those things happen you have to be careful making records that way not to erase those things. Is it real, is it good? If it’s good then leave it, don’t worry about it, the other thing is that it was fun.
A simple question, would you record this way again without a pandemic?
I’ve made records that way before, in the early 2000s, I made a record called ‘Sunflower’ that was made that way. I would prefer that we are all in the same room, it is quicker and it is cheaper, and you get more people vibe, but I think it is important if you only have one way of working that cuts you off from possible accidents you need to be challenged. The whole point of ‘Western Skies’ was to push myself, and Michael Ramos, who was the day-to-day producer on it with me, though he is an old friend, he is not the kind of friend who just says yes to all of my ideas. You need someone to go up against, you need someone to consciously be aligned with you, but also have a different perspective. Our goal was to do something that I have never done before, to make a record that sounds like nothing I have ever done, yet make it me. I want it to be me, but also I want to make it different and new. So saying yes to the reality of the world we were living in, and embracing it rather than fighting against it, embrace it for the positives it can offer I think is really exciting. I didn’t look at it as a negative at all. Yes, the whole pandemic time was difficult and many people suffered and it was really difficult, but for me, as an artist, it was a blessing.
That is a surprisingly common view amongst artists, not in a negative way given the real suffering, but purely practical about the availability of quality time.
It doesn’t minimise the struggle and the difficulties the whole world and individuals have experienced, but I had two years of intense creativity.
As you’ve said, you are 15 albums into your career, and you have chosen to look at the Texas myth, what stopped you from inadvertently falling into a cliché?
When I talk about the mythology of West Texas it is not the cowboy and Indian mythology, because that is largely bullshit anyway, haha. The Alamo didn’t happen the way everybody says it did, none of that stuff is real, haha. The mythology I locked into wasn’t just about West Texas, it was also the mythology of the South West, it goes into Arizona, and it is a mythology I hold in my mind, it is not the mythology in books or things like that. It is things I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, but it is also time I have spent out there in that landscape for the last 40 years now. Travelling around in West Texas, spending time quite often alone, I’ve created my own mythology, and the mythology of the landscape is very vital. It is an old land, people have been out there for thousands of years, and the mythology of all that juxtaposes up against parking lots and highways, that is mythology to me and it is a mythology I have created in my mind. When I talk about the mythology of the land, that is what I’m talking about.
Do you think your multi-media project has managed to fully capture the mythology in your mind?
It did what I wanted it to do, and absolutely yes. What I liked about it was that through the photography, the essays, and the songs, I was able to tell a broader story, to give a broader perspective. And that really is a lot of fun, it is great, haha. If someone just heard the music they would be satisfied, I think, and they would get a picture. If someone just saw the book and never heard the music, they would be satisfied. There are a lot of videos we are putting out, and I did a series of lithographs based on the Polaroid images, so there is an art show happening in Houston. That is another extension of this work. The tons of videos coming out over the next period of time are because I have taken the essays and did an audio version of the essays, making it a different audiobook but scored them with music to create a bigger picture of these essays. We have taken these essays and done this series of videos so in essence, each essay has been turned into a short. I’m pressing vinyl on that and putting out a spoken-word record in August or September. There is a series of drawings that have happened and will continue to happen. So ‘Western Skies’ as a concept is not done yet, haha, it is just the first shot across the bow.
Nervous breakdown permitting.
I enjoy it, it is fun. I’m at the point in my work where it is really up to me to come up with projects. Nobody is sitting behind that door going crank a record out, haha, it is up to me and I’ve worked a long time to get to this place, and it is really what do I want to do. I want to stay interested, I want to stay producing things I am proud of, and I want to have fun and hang out with all my friends, and make a living and all that stuff, but the making a living just happens. As I said before, I feel very blessed to still be curious, that is big.
Did your own view of the mythology of West Texas change during the project?
No, but it did evolve. I think more than anything looking at the stories I was telling I think it didn’t change so much as deepened. My love of the landscape and of the weirdness that is out there, I think I felt more in love with it. Somebody asked me about this at one point and I described it as a love song, the whole project is a love song to the place where I grew up, which is Texas and the South West of the United States. It is this love song, and that encompasses everything from the trash on the side of the road, to the migrants coming through who are being arrested, and the awfulness of that and the beauty of the mountains and the landscape, the wide-open deserts. It is also the stories about these peoples who have lived there for thousands of years. The Pecos River and the Pecos Valley are big in my sort of image of that, I love that zone. So it just deepened through the doing of the project because I did so much time out there. I spent weeks shooting videos, and I’ve never done that before as far as shooting the video myself, and in the shooting of the video I began to see things differently out there, and the quiet, and the harshness of the elements, the wind, the dust that blows, the rain because when it rains it really rains, haha. The danger of the landscape itself, the effect that has on people, and the way people look out there. I began to see it deeper and really began to appreciate it for its beauty and its ugliness if that makes sense. I don’t know whether it altered it, but I just began to see it deeper, I think I guess that is what it is, haha.
We’ve talked a lot about Texas, but I think I read that at one point you were drawn to UK songwriters like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello?
Very much. I grew up listening to country music, though I loved AM pop radio when I was a kid, but I was very much schooled as a songwriter in the Texas Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, school of writers, John Prine was also a huge influence on me, Jackson Browne was also a big influence on me, Dylan of course, but if I only had one school of songwriting it was the Texas storyteller school. However, when I was 18 and went to college and I remember I was at a party, and ‘Watching The Detectives’ came through the speakers and I was just spellbound by this sound. I had a friend who was into reggae and Bob Marley, and I just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about, and ‘Watching The Detectives’ had this beat to it, and the sound and rawness of it, and I thought this is an amazing songwriting thing. That led me down the road to discovering Rockpile and Nick Lowe, bands like the Pretenders, Crowded House, and I began to listen to that kind of music but I wasn’t a very good guitar player so I couldn’t play it. I had no idea how they played that music, and that was the great thing when I was introduced to Boo Hewerdine by his music publisher, Nigel Grainge, it had a massive impact on me.
What is great is that Boo knew how to play the music I listened to, and I played the music Boo listened to, haha, so we taught each other how to play this music. The collaboration we had was that, and the guy who produced that record, Martin Lascelles who lived in London, and he was an R&B type producer, and he had a massive impact on me and I started opening up to write the kind of music I was listening to. Though at that point my music strayed from the path I’d been on, the traditional Texas singer-songwriter thing, and I began to explore. It was great fun but it is not that great if you are a marketing person with a record label, haha. Maybe that explains the circuitousness of my career, but you have to follow your heart, you have to do that. So I had the music and I was opening up to the English way of writing songs which is very different from traditional American Texas singer-songwriters. It really was massive and huge for me, and still, to this day, I can trace some of my songs which are really not that different from songs I was writing when I first started making records in 1986, they have the same thread. There are a couple of different threads in there now. I think ‘Miles Between’, the very first song I wrote for the record, couldn’t have been written when I was younger because to me it is a different thread of songwriting. ‘Running Out Of Time’ is a direct thread back to things like Jackson Browne and that kind of song, the sort of song Bonnie Raitt would have recorded, ‘Nick Of Time’ that era. There is a song called ‘Perfect For A Little While’ and that to me is a country song, straight out of country. These threads that are in things I listen to, somebody who I can’t remember said we only write three or four songs over the course of a career, and you rewrite those songs and they say different things. I think there is a certain truth to that, and it is fun but that is also one of the challenges, have I written this song before, haha? Have I said this, you know?
Do you trust yourself to make that judgment?
I trust myself to a point, and then I always collaborate, not always collaborate on the songwriting, I collaborate when I go and make a record. I never produce myself, first off because I like working with other people, and also I want people to tell me no, I really like being in the room with people who are better than me and who know what they are doing. People who will come up against me and say I think that song isn’t as good as this song, because if the artist only chose themselves it is very easy to get stuck in a loop. There are songs my girlfriend doesn’t understand why I haven’t put them on a record, haha, and it is all the other songs and it didn’t get the votes the others got. I’m sorry but I allow myself to be shot down by other people, I think it is healthy for me to do that, and I trust the people I work with.
West Texas multi-media projects, I have to ask about your views on Terry Allen as a multi-media artist?
I saw Terry play on Saturday night here in town. Terry Allen to me is like I want to be Terry Allen when I grow up. I learnt a lot when I did that documentary for the BBC called ‘Songs From The Big Sky’, and Terry was one of the first people I interviewed for that, and Terry talked about horizons, and in talking with Terry, he opened me up to to the idea of multiple mediums. I think with ‘Western Skies’ I was in no way trying to copy Terry Allen because that’s dangerous, like trying to copy Bob Dylan, don’t do that, haha. Bale Allen, who is Terry Allen’s son, is a friend of mine and very influential. He was the very first person to give me an art show, and my drawings were in Bale Allen’s Gallery, and the influence of Terry on me is the ability to see myself and push it, I can use other mediums to tell the story. I can draw, I can use photography, I can do spoken word, I can do whatever I want to do if it hangs together and there is a certain quality to it, it is worth it. Terry Allen explores mythology as well, and I really picked it up the other night in his live performance, and I’ve seen a lot of his visual art and sculptures, and while he is exploring mythology his mythology is different from mine. I love that, the fact that you can mine your own life, you can use different ways of expressing that thing. It is a very freeing way to go about it, as opposed to just being locked into songs, to me that seems boring now. Terry really carved the path, and I learnt when making that documentary that Terry really carved the path for people like Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, all those guys, and also Steve Earle and Guy. He really did carve the path, nobody was impersonating each other, but he opened the door and said look out there, there is all this great stuff out there. It gave us a lot of freedom, and as Texas songwriters, I’m not Terry Allen, but knowing what he has done and his take on what was possible has helped me immensely, especially as I’ve got older. Even though I’m about to turn 60, I don’t want to slow down I actually want to speed up, and that is a really lucky break. The easy thing to do would be to slow down and do the same thing over and over again, which I don’t want to do because it is more fun this other way.
As the project is only just starting, you are not really going to know where it will take you and what you will learn from it, are you?
To me, it is like doing the spoken-word album. First just doing this album was a massive learning curve, doing the photography was an incredible learning curve because, it is what it is it was the first thing I’ve done this way on a Polaroid, and there is no editing on a Polaroid, haha. That was fascinating to me because you have to frame the picture before you take the picture. We are so used to taking photos digitally where it doesn’t matter because you can change it, but you can’t change a Polaroid. When I was talking about deepening the mythology, there were two processes that were extremely analog in ‘Western Skies’, one was the Polaroids because there is no digital to it, it is just there, and I began to see the landscape and the buildings differently through these Polaroids. I didn’t take way more pictures than I did take if that makes sense because Polaroids are an expensive process, haha, and so you go, is that worth an expresso, and if it’s not I would begin to not take the pictures. Also seeing the land in a more architectural way, and looking for stories in that stuff. There is one fella with a book called TNT, it is on the firework stand, and I love that it is this great story of these fireworks. The other thing is that these essays were handwritten in a moleskin notebook before they ever hit the computer they were written out longhand. The songs were written on a piano and a guitar, with a really old drum machine that I have. So going back to this very analogue way of learning, and that forced me to push myself in this new way. When I began making videos for it I shot most of the video myself and I’d never done it before and I was using my phone, with lenses and things like that. There was so much learning involved, and it is pushing me. It is exciting but it is exhausting and also fun.
I think if artists do it long enough, you are going to hit a wall of creativity, of interest, you hit a wall of just exhaustion. Music is always a young man’s game, and I know people who do it, they can just do the same thing over and over again. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that and it can be very lucrative. I have a lot of freedom and my goal in life is to have more freedom, creative freedom, and I’m really lucky and to get to this place and not use that freedom would really be a drag, haha. I’ve been listening to Jeb Loy Nichols, and I love Jeb Loy Nichols and he actually grew up here in Austin, and his records are weird, it is strange. I love his art, I’ve got a book of his art right here on my desk, and the last record he put out is amazing. So here is this guy, he is still pushing, and a lot of people don’t know about Jeb Loy Nichols, some of us do and I’m glad he is still pushing himself because I win. The risk is that somebody out there wins when you push yourself, Rodney Crowell is another person to me who is constantly pushing himself, I win when Rodney Crowell pushes himself, and when Rodney Crowell ceases to push himself I lose interest. Right now I’m interested in these people who are pushing their craft forward in this great way, there is a lot of them including people I don’t know. I want to be part of that club as well.
How did you get the funding for ‘Western Skies’?
I believe in the patron model where there is a certain community of people with financial resources, and they want to be involved in the arts and they want to be involved in creativity, but they can’t necessarily do it. I just know they will give all to projects and they are compensated by being involved in a project, and then I turn around and give them myself, whether that is a song, whether that is an event for them, and that is how I fund it. It is like Crowdfunding, but a very small crowd, haha. To me, that is the comfortable way, and I’ve been doing it for years, it is how I do my work because a project like ‘Western Skies’ is expensive and does need resources. To me it is a really old way of artists interacting with the world, Michelangelo didn’t fund that ceiling, you know, haha, and I think it is more than fair because I make sure I give back more than I am given. It means a lot to me that they have entrusted me with their resources, so if I want them to fund the next project I have to make sure I use this project to do everything I said I was going to do. If I can’t do what I said I was going to do, then call them up and tell them immediately, haha. It is an interesting way, artists are more powerful and smarter than they give themselves credit for. I always tell people if you have been doing things of any kind as an artist for twenty years, you are probably the smartest person in the room, because you have street hustle and you have craft, and that is a very powerful combination. Street hustle is the reason people keep making a living, you just have to hustle more. Everybody has a different way of doing it, that is just how I make it happen and to me, it keeps it interesting because I meet some very interesting people.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I’m coming over there in June to do some shows, Boo Hewerdine and I are doing a workshop outside of Inverness, a songwriting workshop. I will be playing five or six dates in England in June, and I can’t wait because I’ve really been missing the UK during these last couple of years. London is one of my most favourite cities on the planet, so I can’t wait to be back over there playing shows, it is going to be great.
Is it going to be just shows, are you bringing anything else over?
I will have books with me of course, haha, but I won’t be doing any art shows at this time because I don’t have a gallery over there. Any galleries out there who are interested, just give me a call, haha.
Darden Smith’s ‘Western Skies’ book is available now and the album is released independently on 25th March.
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