Holler Country Music

EXCLUSIVE: John Smith Premieres his New Album 'The Living Kind'

March 14, 2024 2:30 pm GMT

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“Time - who could beat it, who could defeat it ever?” Chance Wayne laments in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth, as he wrestles with realising that everything he lives for could just as easily be swept away from him. The new album from John Smith seems to have been forged from that same profound realisation.

Produced by Joe Henry, The Living Kind is a gentle Americana masterpiece and a subtle, mesmerising work of profound beauty.

At the start of 2022 the pair cooked up the idea for an intimate record together – “an acoustic album that sounded like Spirit of Eden”, Smith explains, referencing Talk Talk’s 1988 classic. Along with John Martyn’s Solid Air and Joni Mitchell’s electro-acoustic odyssey Hejira, it was one of the three creative inspirations for The Living Kind.

The result is a not-quite-British, not-quite-American folk record that mixes intricate fingerpicking with waves of echoey looping, jazzy folktronica as Smith dips effortlessly between acoustic, electric and resophonic guitars. Gently melodic and curiously life-affirming, it’s an album written as a cohesive song-cycle that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, as Smith reckons and reconciles himself with all the places and moments his life has lead him to.

At the start of the Covid pandemic, Smith’s family suffered a cluster of personal crises in the space of three months. His mother began radiotherapy for breast cancer, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his wife lost a pregnancy which also endangered her life. The couple, who have a young daughter, sold their house in Sussex and relocated his parents from Spain to a new home, for treatment.

“I gotta find a new way to feel / Caught in a spiral / I spin like a wheel,” Smith sings in ‘The World Turns.’ “Pull away with me darling to some innocent field / We’ll be stronger if we soften and yield.”

“The living Kind is about responsibility and being very keenly aware of your place within a family dynamic,” he explains. “When I started writing these songs, I knew immediately what was happening; in the space of three years, I had essentially become a different person and had a lot more to deal with. I wrote the songs just as we were beginning to rebuild our lives. They are about changing for the better in the face of loss. Celebrating the good things and facing up to the bad. Staying positive, trying to keep an eye on the centre, holding on to those we love and working towards a better future.”

There are open-hearted moments of confusion and solitude, when he lies down and puts his ear to the ground, listening for a heartbeat or a sign of life. It’s an album filled with the kind of unflinching hope that only comes from having nearly lost all hope at all.

The Living Kind was recorded over just four days in February 2023, in Joe Henry’s remote home in Harpswell, Maine. With temperatures dropping to -25 outside, the band – a tight trio consisting of Henry’s son Levon and bassist Ross Gallagher – didn’t leave the house at all.

By day they’d record, while evenings were full of simple family rituals: listening to jazz by the fire, enjoying the home cooked Italian meals from Henry’s wife Mel. Following Henry’s diagnosis of stage 4 prostate cancer in 2018, the couple, who both hail from the Detroit area, sold up their home and studio in LA in search of a more seasonal climate. That new atmosphere is in the very bones of The Living Kind.

It was the first live recording made in Joe’s new “music room”, a space above the garage, and cutting a record there was a leap of faith as it was completely un-soundproofed: “if a truck came by, you’d have to stop recording.”

The record that came out the other side is a distillation of all those moments; the fireside jazz, the home cooked meals, the cold air blowing up against the walls outside. Henry’s regular keyboardist Patrick Warren, who composed the music to True Detective, can be heard adding keyboards, strings and unmistakeable gothic vibrations to many songs, while the drum stool was shared between Jay Bellerose (Robert Plant) and Joshua Van Tessel (Bahamas).

Smith calls Joe Henry “Captain”. He knew that Smith needed to make this record quickly, to capture a particular psychological space, and his tight deadlines held him to it: six weeks to write, just four days to record.

“I got immersed in the slipstream,” Smith recalls. “Joe upfront as captain, Ross and Levon at the engines, myself tumbling around on deck singing my guts out and driving the whole thing with my right hand. I was singing and playing how I’ve always wanted to… and these were the songs I had always wanted to write.”

The Living Kind is like a odd kind of companion that leans in and listens to your heart and echoes your deepest, darkest, strangest feelings back to you.

“There are days when I find it easy and there are days I don’t find at all / When I reach for the hands that held me and they’re waving at me as I fall,” he sings on album opener ‘The Candle.’

“I do feel without my guitar and without song-writing I would have lost my mind, many times” Smith says. “I had finally got out of my own way. It might be the first record I’ve made that really sounds like me, and what I’m trying to do. I can only see my work from the inside, but I’ve never felt this good about a record ever. I tend to think, I hope this is good… With The Living Kind, I know it.”

That’s where John Smith finds himself on The Living Kind; with one of those rare kind of records that capture all the chaos and beauty of a joy filled life, and everything that comes along with it, “Singing ballads ever louder in these silent, restless days,” as he sings on ‘Silver Mine.’

Sometimes that’s all you can do; and it’s enough.

Listen to The Living Kind in full exclusively on Holler below.

JohnSmith. · John Smith / The Living Kind

The Living Kind by John Smith is out on March 15th on Commoner Records Marketed and Distributed by Thirty Tigers. Available here.

Written by Jof Owen
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