THE BLOG
10/15/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chatting With Alabama's Randy Owen, Meiko, Vinyl Theatre's Keegan Calmes and Zak Smith, Plus a Soul Rebels Exclusive

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A Conversation with Alabama's Randy Owen

Mike Ragogna: Randy, the latest is titled Alabama & Friends At The Ryman. What is it about Alabama that has attracted so many friends and fans over the years?

Randy Owen: If I knew that exactly, I could make billions of dollars! Honestly, I think it's a combination of a bunch of things and I'll name three or four of them. First of all we came up the hard way. We paid our dues, brother. Nothing ever came easy. We were the underdogs and in some respects I still feel that way. As far as people who critique the music and all that stuff, we've never gotten any praise for that, and that's fine. The people who like us like us for what we are. I think the common down-to-earthness that we really are and we really portray. We don't run away from it and try to be somebody in Hollywood or whatever. We're Southern, it's just what we are. I think that is important to people: The authenticity of being who you really are. I also think we were very lucky that we could write and that the songs that we wrote appealed to people from a generation and a half of people, and now it's a three generation thing. And then there's the live performances. We put so much into rearranging songs from the record they would play on the radio into something to cater to our particular audience. It was about entertaining people, making them feel like they were important, which in our eyes they are the single most important thing. I think that's all why we're still here.

MR: I think you're being modest when you say you're not the critics' darling. A lot of people admire you. I think you resonate so well with your audience that it leaves critics asking, "What's the sensationalist story here," not that you're the most successful country band of all time.

RO: I agree with you.

MR: What is the creative process like when you get together and write?

RO: At that time, it didn't seem like good fortune but we tested a lot of those songs one night in a college crowd with these coal miners from West Virginia, people from Tennessee, South Carolina. We got to test those songs for a live club audience that was paying tips. We got to see, "Hey, they like it," or, "They don't like it." But I remember the girls who worked as waitresses and dancers down on the Grand Strand, we all got to be friends and buddies because we all worked on the waterfront and we all worked for tips. I remember that we would work on Saturday afternoons sometimes and the girls would not be working so they'd come by and even request songs that we had written. I remember a young lady from New York--I'll never forget that--she requested "Lady Down On Love" over and over every time she came to The Bowery. She said, "Someday, that's going to be a big hit for you." It did give us a chance to test songs. I remember the first night we did "My Home's In Alabama," this big wrestler who was there from Tennessee came up to the stage and he said, "That's the best damn southern rock song I've ever heard in my life." I thought that was interesting because he was from Tennessee.

Then I realized we'd just gotten back from California a couple of weeks ago and we did two shows there and we played "My Home's In Alabama." Everybody knows we're from Alabama. We're really from Alabama, we're not from Nashville, we're not from New York, we're not from LA. We still live in Alabama by choice. We really got to test our music. This is not me bragging about it, but we knew "Mountain Music" was a hit before we ever recorded it. We did "Old Flame," written by Donny Lowery and Mac McAnally, we put it on the album and we saved "Mountain Music" because we knew we had one for the next CD. We saved that cut because the reactions that we had gotten from the audiences at The Bowery and Myrtle Beach showed us that we had a hit. That song has endured; in fact we still close our shows with "Mountain Music." I worked on just the intro chords for that song for a month. The arrangements that we did on songs may sound simple but they're anything but. It's interesting to hear people cover the songs because sometimes it's like, "Uh, they missed those parts."

MR: [laughs] I'm sure you've heard some Alabama karaoke as well.

RO: Uh-huh. But I love it! I think the greatest tribute you could ever have is to have someone karaoke or cover one of your songs. If they record it for real like a real artist or if they just sing it in a club or they're singing it to their girlfriend or whatever it's a special thing for me as a writer or just a performer of one of the songs recorded by Alabama, that they care about the music enough to do that.

MR: You have such a freaking large catalog!

RO: Yeah, I read one of the critiques of one of the shows that we did and it said we acted like we had all the time in the world to perform the songs and we just kind of drug them out even though there were forty-three number one songs to pick from. To me it was like, "Hey dude, have you stopped to think about how long it takes to perform forty-three songs?" An hour and a half is a pretty good while to perform, and I'm very grateful that those songs are there but at the same time, pick one. We just try to pick the ones that we think are the most popular with the audience. We don't know, we were in Canada and we thought, "Well we might not should do 'High Cotton' because they probably don't grow cotton in Canada." Well, we went ahead and did "High Cotton" and those folks were singing. If they want to sing we let the audience sing, we'll let them do a chorus of the song and when you hear it, it just touches your heart. It's not about if you grow cotton, it's that these guys have lived it. They've picked cotton, they planted cotton, they've lived in a cotton patch and they learned how to sing in a cotton patch. They learned their craft by working. I was just talking to my mama yesterday about some picture that she had. One of the pictures is me and my mom and my sister with our pick sacks in the cotton field. We did a lot of singing even though we were working our butts off. We did a lot of singing and family harmony and stuff like that, which was done by people working in the fields.

MR: You were talking about family a bit there, that was your introduction to music?

RO: Yeah, my daddy taught me how to play the guitar, it was a Stella. Then he bought me a Harmony Archtop, and then my mother who had done without a piano for a few years got a piano. Of course my mother can still tear up a piano. She's eighty-two years old. That's how she and daddy met, at a singing school at the little Westland church on the corner less than a mile from where I'm talking to you. She was the pianist there and fifteen years old and my daddy was the guy out with the mule plowing in the field. He saw this pretty little brunette and she saw this pretty little dark-headed guy and next thing you know they hitched up and there I am.

MR: Randy, how many songs have you written to that? I bet there's more than one.

RO: Well, I wrote "Food On The Table" a long time ago and it was dedicated to my daddy. It described by life with my daddy, I just think he's the best man I ever knew. I saw him do a lot of wonderful things in this world. My mother's still living and as soon as I get done talking to you I'm going to take her a fresh cup of coffee and sit down and chat with her.

MR: Is that the ritual in the morning?

RO: Yeah, man. After a while you've done this and done that, but with us you'll see we have mamas--we did have, Jeff lost his dad, Teddy lost his mom and dad, I lost my dad but I still have my mother--we understand people and what you go through. I'm going to go over and see that little girl. When she answers the phone I always say, "Is this the prettiest girl on Lookout Mountain?" and she always says, "No, I don't know where she is."

MR: [laughs]

RO: She don't like me to do that, but I think she really likes it, too.

MR: Sweet. So we're talking about growth. You've been with Alabama from day one. What's been the biggest evolution for the group over the years?

RO: I think we've grown into understanding that we need one another and only we understand each other. That understanding of being "in battle" together, I won't tell you what Teddy texted me at the last show but I texted him back, "That's why I love you." He was having severe cramps in his back during the show, I knew he was hurting, I didn't know what was wrong but you don't stop a show and say, "Hey man, my back's hurting!" We've been in situations where one of us is sick or we're going through something--I've been going through this deal with my father in law, he got injured so bad in a freak fall he had at his house and of course what bothers my wife is hard for me. We all know that kind of stuff. Jeff just texted me yesterday that his test had come back and he was cancer-free. Those kinds of things you know. ONly we understand the feel of stuff that we come up with. Sometimes we'll have the pickers play it, but we're not detached from what they're playing, if you understand what I'm saying. The studio is not my favorite place to be. My favorite place to be is on that stage entertaining people who need entertained and need some relief.

MR: And you guys are lifelong friends.

RO: Absolutely. I knew Teddy because he was as poor as I was. We had one baseball and we had one catcher's mitt or maybe two sometimes. We would play catch because there wasn't anyone around to play ball with and the rest of the time we were out working. When I got to put my first uniform on when I was a senior in high school and play real baseball, that was one of the happiest times I had as a kid. I'm a baseball fan. I love baseball. I played center field. I wasn't much of a stick, but I was a great glove.

MR: Hey Randy, what advice do you have for new artists?

RO: Well that's a very individual thing. If you're talking to artists and they're serious I would hope that they have the chance to face some of the audiences that hate them like we have. Back in the early days when you were on stage, you could tell if they absolutely hated you and wished to hell you weren't on stage. I can tell just as well when I hear people start singing that they're great singers, but they have no grit and no soul in what they're doing. I think it's great to go back and cut your teeth on some adverse conditions. I'm not talking about where somebody's trying to kill you or something. I'm talking about the places where when you leave they try to kill you. I left the Bowery so many times with enough tips in my hand that I'd think, "I'm gonna get killed before I get home." Then, of course, I remember a lot of the clubs where you'd get out of the way of fights as you were leaving the door. Not that everybody has to do that, but I just think you appreciate stuff better if you do. And it's always good to try to write, and if you can't write then that's okay, but you sure need to have an idea.

And if you're going to work the United States, you have to go to the United States and work. I remember a guy told me something I'll never forget as long as I live, he said, "Once you've toured the United States you'll have a much better idea of what you need to do to write a song that's commercially successful." That's true. It may not be my favorite song but it might be a song that works for the entire country. There's people who spend their whole time working in one city, and they're great, they do really good there, but they never open up and try to do something that works in Seattle, or that also works in Detroit. And don't forget about the northeast. And I'm talking about country music. We made a point to try to do as many shows as we could in the northeast because folks in the Northeast love country music too, you've just got to take it to them. I think it's the same story there as it is in California. The people are the same. I look at the crowd and they may look different or be dressed a little different in one place or the other but why are they there? They're there to hear your music. I'll never forget what Eddy Arnold told me: "Find you a good-looking girl and you sing most of your songs to her, as if it's just you and her in the studio." I will never forget that. Eddy did pretty good.

MR: What would you say is the anthem of the group Alabama? Maybe "Mountain Music?"

RO: Probably. "My Home's In Alabama," "Feels So Right," "Dixieland Delight,"...

MR: "Dixieland Delight," Ronnie Rogers' song.

RO: Brother Ronnie! That's a funny story, too. I wanted to cut that like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or whoever was involved--You never knew with them. I said, "Let's just sing it all the way through with harmony and acoustic guitars." It's flat, sharp, up and down, guitar's maybe a little bit out of tune, but next thing we know we stop off in Macon, Georgia and the guy with RCA says, "I want to tell you boys something." We're like, "What?" and he says, "'Dixieland Delight' just became the most added single in the history of country music." We said, "Single? Are you kidding?" Anyway, it's always been funny to me, every time I get to thinking about how that song was done. And we left it that way, we didn't try to make it pretty. I am not a fan of pretty music. I like music that speaks to me. I've cut my share of sweet ones, but they didn't turn me on as much as the ones that are raw and have some emotion to them.

MR: Alabama has a legacy that one day they'll leave behind them. Predicting four or five decades from now when Alabama finally retires, what will you want people to remember Alabama for?

RO: I think we changed the approach to country music to look past the star standing on the stage. The heroes like Hank Williams and stuff like that, we did it our way. I was told so many times, "Hey, you need to get out on stage and forget about all that stuff." I wanted to be part of a band. I didn't want to leave my bandmates behind. I still remember that day that me and Jeff and Teddy practiced at Jeff's house. We practiced at the old house down in Bonham, Alabama when I was going to school. It's just something that we put too much effort into. I just felt like there was something offered there that had never been offered before.

MR: What's Alabama up to in the future?

RO: Right now, we're writing new music and we're going to put out a new CD. I'm hoping that we still have the time. That's always an issue after you get successful; time. I spend enough time away from my family already. But I want to do some Alabama cuts, and I hope the guys feel this way too. Whether they're singles for the radio or whatever, I want to do "My Home's In Alabama" and "Tennessee River" and "Mountain Music." The songs that we worked on arrangements for a week on the same damn song. I worked on the guitar sound for two or three days and then I've still got that same guitar. I'll tell you something that's funny, Brad Paisley did that single "Old Alabama" and they said, "Will you do that lick that you did on 'Mountain Music?'" and I said, "As a matter of fact, I still have the guitar." He's like, "Oh, we don't need the guitar, I can make mine sound that way," and I said, "No you can't." It will not sound like my guitar. So I get the old Musicman guitar, take it over to the studio and hit one lick and Paisley says, "That's the guitar." I said, "Yes it is." It has its own sound, that's why I played it on all those early records. I played my daddy's acoustic Gibson, I still have it, too. Then I have the guitar--it's the hall of fame--The Micro-Frets that we played in the club days. I didn't realize when I put it in the hall of fame put I still had the receipt on it and I hadn't cleaned the strings, so it was just like it was the last time I played it. I didn't realize it was such an unusual guitar. It's a great guitar, but nobody's ever heard of a Micro-Frets guitar. I got it because I like to have a wound third string. I like to play big strings. Those little strings sound little to me. I like to play the guitar slightly out of tune with just a little effect on it because when we were doing those early things you could make a guitar sound bigger and at the same time you could run it through something else and get the natural sound. Working on those effects also enhanced the harmony, too.

MR: I think the Randy Owen legacy might just be that he was a real music man and a great center fielder.

RO: [laughs] So many of the songs we did, it goes unnoticed by a lot of people but I'm the guy playing the song on the guitar they did the effects on. The engineers would say, "Well that's got a roar to it," and I'd say, "Okay, I don't care." This is the sound that I have for this song. I know when we did "My Home's In Alabama," "Mountain Music, "Tennessee River," "Lady Down On Love"... I actually shut everybody out of the studio when we did "Lady Down On Love" and I just recorded it by myself. Everybody had gone to lunch so I got to keep the sound of the guitar. Anyway, we worked on Jeff's guitar and Teddy's bass and put a little different sound on them when they were recording. Anyway, if there's a legacy, I think what's been totally unnoticed is what we contributed with those guitars and fiddles and pianos. On the first stuff, Jeff's actually playing piano. We cut everything with a drummer and the three pieces. I sang as it was going down. It was fun.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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photo credit: Tyler Shields

MEIKO PRESENTS "BAD THINGS"

According to Meiko, "I wrote 'Bad Things' almost as a writing project. I wanted to see if I had it in me to write a sexy, sultry song. It was definitely written from my alter ego! This version on my new album Dear You is a bit different from the digital single I put out last year--it's slower and sexier--definitely baby-making music!!" [Note: Her interview immediately follows the EPK.]

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A Conversation with Meiko

Mike Ragogna: Meiko, your new album Dear You features the single "Be Mine" that you premiered with Paste. Ahem. Anyway, you could make up for that faux pas by perhaps revealing a little about the creative and recording processes for this album, maybe how this one differed than your last album, The Bright Side!

Meiko: Haha! Paste's co-founder Josh Jackson was the very first person to put my name in print in 2006. Can't blame a lady for showing some loyalty to a publication that's been supportive from the beginning, can you?

MR: [laughs]

Meiko: Anywizzle... The last album, The Bright Side, though I love it so much, had a lot--and I mean A LOT--of peoples' opinions involved in the recording process. I wanted to make this new record, Dear You, a little differently. I basically hid in the studio with the producer, Jimmy Messer, for about a month, he and I recording the majority of it on our own. I felt a little rebellious and very FREE when making this album, with no one breathing down my neck saying "change this" or "change that" or "we should have this guy come in and do this or that." It was basically me and Jimmy in a little studio making what we felt was like an art project.

MR: This project is, I guess you could say, "moodier" than the last one. What was going on in your life that inspired this direction. You know, every single personal story behind every song. Or maybe just a couple, that's cool too.

Meiko: A lot of these songs are ones I've collected over the years. I'm actually in a very happy place in my life right now (I swear!) But happy songs get boring sometimes, for me anyway. I wanted to make a moodier record. I like sad songs. I like intense songs. I'm a product of "'90s Alternative Sad Girl Music." Hole. Portishead. Liz Phair. Juliana Hatfield. Patty Griffin. I wanted to make a record that I would enjoy listening to. One of my favorite songs on the record is "Sweeter." I wrote it about my first boyfriend. I wanted to write a letter--errrrr song--to the Hooters girl he cheated on me with. Her name was Jeanette. I will always remember that. Her name, and the fact that she had enormous chesticles. My other favorite song is "Go to Hell." It's a song about being judged as a kid and always feeling like I was doing something wrong. It hits a deep chord with me and I'm pretty sure lots of people--especially ones who grew up in the Bible Belt--will relate to it.

MR: This being your third album, I'm imagining you've gotten into a groove with regards to your music career and lifestyle. How have things changed from your early days? Is there anything slipping away because of your success and maturity that you're kind of wishing could have stayed a little longer?

Meiko: Not really. In fact, I LOVE where I'm at in my life right now.
I'm still young-ish and a hell of a lot smarter than when I first chose this crazy-ass profession. Being mature is a blessing. The only thing I miss, maybe, are house parties. Mature adults hardly ever have big ol' house parties.

MR: What do you look for in a song? What kind of calibre does it have to reach these days? And would you define your material as being autobiographical or simply topical or something else?

Meiko: My songs are always autobiographical. Even if I claim I wrote a few about a "friend's" situation. Ha! I love hearing someone's soul in their music. I like knowing words come from a deep dark REAL place. A new (to me) artist who has that is Jessica Lea Mayfield. I love her.

MR: You're classified musically as a "singer-songwriter." Is that how you view yourself is there something that category doesn't quite cover?

Meiko: That's a really good question. I think "singer-songwriter" sums it up professionally, but there are so many other layers to me. Guitar player, s**t talker, story teller, lover, fighter, dim-sum eater...

MR: Which song best represents you on Dear You and why?

Meiko: Probably "Sittin' Here". I wrote it in a bar as I was waiting for a boyfriend to show up - who never did. I wrote it on a bunch of napkins as I threw myself a pity party. I feel sometimes like I'm always waiting for people or for things to happen. I'm trying to get over that.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

Meiko: Trust your gut. If anything feels icky or wrong, it probably is. Play as many shows as possible. Be humble--and NEVER be a dick to the sound guy.

MR: Is this advice you would have taken and did anyone ever offer you advice that you either took or dismissed?

Meiko: YES! I'd take ALL of it. The best advice I've ever received was from my Dad. He told me, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls**t." I like his style.

MR: How do you envision a creatively fulfilled Meiko in the future?

Meiko: I love writing songs and singing. As long as I'm doing that, I'll be creatively fulfilled. If it happens in the backyard of a house in London that I'm living in, well, that would just be the cherry on top...

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THE SOUL REBELS' "START IT OFF RIGHT"

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photo credit: Zach Smith

The Soul Rebels have been presenting a song a week with various online outlets, this week being no different. The below is a description of this week's reveal, "Start It Off Right," by the group...

"The Song Of The Week this Wednesday is 'Start It Off Right,' an oldie but goodie. Recorded live in New Orleans in 2013. The idea of offering this Song Of The Week campaign came from wanting to give our fans music every week (each Wednesday) for the duration of our current Fall tour ending in December. Our Fall tour is dynamic, spanning from a show in New York City at Terminal 5 with Trombone Shorty whom we'll be touring with, to shows in China, South Africa and a performance with our friend Joey Badass in home town New Orleans. On this tour, we're all over the map musically and geographically. So it seemed right to offer music in support of the tour from our On-The-Road archive, all live songs from the road."

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A Conversation with Vinyl Theatre's Keegan Calmes

Mike Ragogna: Keegan, your new album is titled Electrogram, but what kind of "Alchemy" brought this group together? See what I did there?

Keegan Calmes: Haha, well it all comes down to the "glue" of the band, Chris. He brought us all together over the years. Josh being his best friend from childhood and Nick sharing classes with Chris in high school. When I met Chris we were at a Cross Country meet in high school. He's an extremely easy to get a long with person and his personality has a particular magnetism to it. The only "Alchemy" to the whole equation has to be within the patience of my band mates. Chris and Nick waited 4 years for me to come home from Adams State University where I was pursuing my track and field endeavors. They all kept music on the back burner until I could no longer stand waiting to pursue music with them. Even Josh painfully sat back when we formed our first band "Alchemy" with a different bassist. When things fell through with the original bassist, Josh immediately asked to be considered. There was no question. Josh was what we were missing.

MR: We know The Killers influenced you guys a wee bit but what kinds of musical influences and strengths make up Vinyl Theatre's talent pool?

KC: That's always such a difficult question to fully answer for my band mates so I will try to explain my personal influences. I grew up on Guns N' Roses, Linkin Park, Metallica, Ratt, and just about any hair band my Dad was into from the '80s. When Milaukee's 102.1 was mostly Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Creed, and the rest of the bands that make up that grunge and post grunge movement I was listening. Some bands fall into fame and some into infamy but I respect the impact they all had/have on me. I didn't find true love for the song writing craft until I discovered The Killers but that's when hunger for writing became insatiable. I found Local Natives and Two Door Cinema Club. I found Panic at the Disco and Fall Out Boy. Over the past 3 years I've been deeply impacted by Young The Giant and Twenty One Pilots. To answer your question on influence, it's never-ending.

Our biggest strength as a band has to be how we write. I believe that even if I write an entire song and then bring it to the band that it's their song as much as it is mine. When they know that and they believe it to the core of their being then their passion for each song can be true and profound. Writing a song alone is hardly ever the case though. We mostly write cumulatively. Every song has four writers, editors, and creative minds.

MR: What's a typical rehearsal for the band like and what break food or snacks calms Vinyl Theatre's savage beast? Favorite beer?

KC: Rehearsals range from 3-6 hours and we usually take a break for some Noodles And Company or some frozen pizza. Most practices are half and half writing and running a specific set list to prepare for an upcoming event. We had a unique experience recently where The Rave was kind enough to open their doors to us before the Quiet Is Violent Tour. We had about 10 rehearsals in their space and it made all the difference in the world considering our other option was staying in the basement of it Nick's house. Favorite beer for myself is probably Moon Man, a New Glarus beer.

MR: Through what social medias do you interact with your fans best and what's it like when you have to ditch the electronics and meet fans in real time?

KC: I think the best way to get us to hear a message is Twitter. We are extremely active on Instagram and Twitter but it seems to be easier to reply on Twitter. Interacting with fans in person is a much different experience for us. Many times it gives us the ability to really put face to name and thank them for all they have done for us both online and at concerts. Many of the fans we have been meeting lately are die-hard Twenty One Pilots fans and they are probably the most accepting and inviting people we have had the pleasure of playing for.

MR: What is it about American music that you think is running on all cylinders right now?

KC: Maybe its prolific-ness? There is a lot of noise out there right now. It's possible that all of this noise is what makes fans like Twenty One Pilots' so die hard. When these concert goers finally find that diamond in the rough they hold onto it for dear life because it holds substance. I trust the listener out there to distinguish songs with fervor from songs without.

MR: What would "success" mean for Vinyl Theatre?

KC: I always think about this question. Ambition is such a crazy beast that has always propelled me through life. When I was a runner my only goal was to get an All-American and then it was to win a team title and then it was to try and win individually. There was never a point that I saw myself as successful because the end goal kept changing. Transversely I saw myself as incomplete and hoping that the next hurdle would fill the void. I think for the band as a whole we will feel accomplished when this record is as influential to others as our favorite album was to us. For myself The Killers' Hot Fuss will always be home.

MR: Considering your name, what are the band members' histories and current opinions about vinyl?

KG: Vinyl records are relevant again and that's a great thing for the music world. The concert industry is also booming. When a person loves a band enough to grab their Vinyl that says something on a deeper level to us. We want to connect with fans like we connected with our inspirations. The "Theatre" aspect of our names speaks to the theatric nature of our performances. We always write songs with the intention of playing them live so the performance aspect is considered from the beginning.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

KC: Write without the intention of being like anyone else. Don't write in a certain genre just because it's popular. If the passion is true and profound it will be undeniable. When people tell you, "You have a better chance of getting hit from outer space by a satellite crashing to the earth out of its orbit than being a rockstar," keep going. When all you have is family and two friends coming to shows. Keep going. Surround yourself with people who believe in your project it will make all the difference.

MR: If you could choose any amazing living musician to be part of your group--anyone--who would that be?

KC: Probably Sia. Absolutely in love with her new record and her voice.

MR: Should I reach out to Sia for you?

KC: I'd probably have a bit of a fan boy moment if she responded. Ask her to check yes or no!

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A Conversation with Zak Smith

Mike Ragogna: Zak, on your latest album, Signs Of Life, you record acoustic versions of your past works. Why did you revisit your catalog in this way?

Zak Smith: I felt like there were some songs of mine that worked just as good or better if they were really stripped down. I've always been suspicious of songs that don't sound good if you're just playing them alone in a room with an acoustic guitar. That's a preconception I picked up somewhere and I'm sure that contributed to wanting to do an album this way.

MR: Can you take us on a tour of the tracks that appear on Signs Of Life?

ZS: There are a bunch of politically influenced tracks, "Have You Looked Outside," "Signs of Life," "Brand New Party," and "Traitor's Way." "Traitor's Way" is kind of a condemnation of people sitting on the sidelines and saying there's no point in getting involved or caring about what's going on. "Signs of Life," "Brand New Party" and "Have You Looked Outside" are songs about revolution advancing. The other songs on the album, like "Raise the Moon" and "The House You Haunt," are about relationships, failed or ongoing, and about living with the presence or absence of the someone you love. "No Plan B" I wrote when I decided being a musician is all I wanted to do with my life, "Minstrel Show" is about fake, or overly posturing, bands I've run into in the past, and "Alamo" and the "Universe is Bigger" are about feeling like you're up against overwhelming odds and trying to retain your sanity and make sense of everything.

MR: You've been recording a while now and have toured the East Coast often. What is it about making music that's most satisfying for you?

ZS: When I'm able to write something that I'm really proud of. I love playing on stage and playing with the band, and I really love recording, but when I'm by myself and writing and I come up with something I think is good, it is a very fulfilling feeling.

MR: How does your creative process work?

ZS: It's different with each song. Some of them come quickly, some I work on for months or even years at a time. I've always got a large number of songs in various stages of completion that I always try to chip away at.

MR: You're well read, how did you come across some of your favorite writers?

ZS: My parents would read to me growing up and I had a great love for reading at an early age. When I got a little older I wanted to read the classics, I didn't want to read anything contemporary, there was a quote from the writer Samuel Johnson that goes something like "read the best books first or you may never have time to read them at all." Of course there are contemporary books that may also be classified with "the best," so it was shortsighted to only read old stuff. But figuring out what to read was like figuring out what records to listen to, I would start with someone and work my way back through his or her influences. And then there were the big names that Id always heard of because everyone knows them, War and Peace, stuff like that.

MR: When you're writing, are you still influenced by them?

ZS: Yeah, definitely. I think 99% of great lyrics wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny that great poems would if simply written out and compared to each other. Great lyrics have the extra component of the music behind it to give it depth and forcefulness. That being said, there are some poets and poems that are more musical and lyrical than others, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman for two examples. Anyway, I think it's hard not to be influenced by stuff that has a very deep resonance and meaning for you, like great literature does for me, even if you're not always conscious of it. One conscious example though is in the song "The Universe Is Bigger", the line "All of us are in the gutter but some are looking in your eyes" is a take-off on the great Oscar Wilde line, "all of us are in the gutter but some are looking at the stars"

MR: What kind of influence would you say growing up in New Jersey had on you as an artist?

ZS: When you're from New Jersey you have these big giant icons to look up to: Springsteen, Sinatra, Frankie Valli...guys like that. It gets in your mind that this is a doable career goal and almost a Jersey tradition. For me at least, that was certainly what it felt like when I was young and first became obsessed with music.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

ZS: Make sure you know what stuff really speaks to you. Make sure you're not playing something a certain way, or writing a certain way, because you're "supposed to." If it doesn't connect with you, and you're not feeling it, you're not on the right path artistically. Have strong opinions about the things that you love.

MR: How fulfilled do you feel as an artist?

ZS: Fulfilled in that I've grown a lot since I started, I'm a way better singer than I used to be, I'm a way better guitar player than I used to be, and I have a lot of songs written.