Ben Smith is a songwriter’s songwriter, adept with the piano and proficient with the pen. Fresh off fronting Philadelphia bands Wise and Foolish Builders and Missing Palmer West, Smith recently released his first solo album, Crooked Earth. The record is a triumph of craft, 12 sturdy songs that, if the world were a just place, would quickly become standards. The arrangements shimmer—Hammond organs swell, strings swirl and Smith’s vocal harmonies soar over rock-solid songs that reveal added depth with every listen. Canny in his ability to turn a phrase and admitted admirer in the power of words, Smith imbues his lyrics with the sort of piety and reverence that recalls masters like Richard Manuel and Gram Parsons, as well as contemporaries Jeff Tweedy, David Berman and Bill Callahan. This album, his most accomplished work, demands attention; like a spike in the vein, Crooked Earth is a main line to the heart.
I recently caught up with Ben, or as I was more used to calling him, Mr. Smith—who also happened to be my 10th grade American Literature teacher. We discussed the opportunities a summer break provides, striking out on your own, Crooked Earth’s eye-catching cover art, the last great standard and his ultimate artistic goal, amongst other topics.
Splice Today: Did you do most of the writing and recording of Crooked Earth over the summer?
Ben Smith: Yeah, a lot of these songs I wrote over last summer and fall. I wanted to start writing songs on guitar, so I ended up spending a lot of last summer playing guitar. I’ve spent so many years writing on piano—I just needed to write on a different instrument because you get in a lot of familiar traps on the piano. That was a fruitful time, lots of ideas—it was good and summer allowed that. It doesn’t always have to be the summer, but in this case it was.
ST: Did you write these songs intending for them to be your solo debut?
BS: I think so. There were many loveable things about playing in Missing Palmer West. Besides playing with great friends, there were lots of possibilities with six and sometimes seven people on stage. The last record, Shoveling Smoke, had some chamber rock sound to it. We could have a very big sound at times. I don’t know if it’s age or what, but I was tired of competing with a lot of electric guitars. I like listening to that, but I don’t like the physical aspect of that. Plus other specific things, like I wanted to sing lower in volume and pitch and you can’t do that, especially in a live setting. The music that I like is a lot more stripped-down, folksy things, and for someone like me who is really into words, I want them to be heard; I want to sing lower, and not work so hard.
Not only that, but recording is such a challenge too. I love recording, I really do, the whole process of it, but with the band, there were a lot of people involved. We’re all adults with jobs and families so it was hard to get together. And when we’re together, are we just coming up with a part for someone because they’re in the band? Does it really fit the song? I mean, for every song Dave Matthews writes he has to write a part for that violinist? I mean give me a break already! God bless Clarence (Clemons) he was essential to the E-Street Band, but he learned to play the cowbell when the saxophone wasn’t needed. He played tambourine well, which isn’t as easy as it looks. Just writing for a song’s sake and not writing for a band is a lot easier.
ST: Did you write the arrangements, or were they a result of collaborating in the studio?
BS: I’d say they came out of collaboration. Matt Magarahan is my long time collaborator—he was the drummer in Wise and Foolish Builders and Missing Palmer West, and before that we met and played together in a band called The Gilroys. He’s a great musician and producer and he suggested lots of things. To answer your question, most of the arrangements did happen in the studio with Matt and me. Most of the time there, it was us, our engineer and mixer Joel, and Karl—also a former student and now an intern at Milkboy Studios. He was there many nights, and for the most part it felt like the four of us were in a band. Karl played the role of angry dissident with skinny jeans, and it was nice to have him around.
ST: I love the cover art, its beautiful, but I want to know how daunting it is to put your name and face on the cover of an album?
BS: I’m glad for it. I’ve always put out records that had an elaborate or abstract design and with stuff like that—you show it to your Dad, and he’s like “What is this? Why don’t you have a picture of yourself?” He’s used to picking up a jazz record and there’s Stan Getz or Chet Baker, and that’s what he looks like. The whole contrivance of coming up with a band name is so funny, its hilarious, the funniest thing in the world. It’s so meaningless and stupid: they only become good or manageable after some use. My friend Marc, who played in Missing Palmer West, would always say, “The only thing stupider than a band name is the story behind it.” I’ve had enough of pretending it’s something else. It’s me sitting around writing songs, why would I call it something other than my name?
I like the cover art too, I’m glad you like it. It’s sort of a compromise. It’s an artist’s rendering of my face. I don’t think I could take myself seriously enough to just use a picture of me. If it was a floating Phil Collins head, that’d be weird. The other thing to think about is, how many singer songwriter album covers are horrible? The guy with the guitar case on the side of the road, or the guy hugging his saxophone are just terrible. I like this because it was mixed media, it looks enough like me, but it’s not exactly me.
ST: Is there a significance to the fact your eyes are the only actual representation of you?
BS: You’d have to ask the designer, Kristin Solecki, that was her idea.
ST: I thought it was interesting, because your vision of the world seems very broad. The songs can be very observational, while still seeming anthemic.
BS: That’s what songwriters do. But maybe there’s something to what you’re saying, because I got a couple designs and that was the one that seemed right. I can’t smile in photos; I haven’t been able to since even as a kid. These two girls made fun of me for a class photo so I made a red construction paper smile and taped it to my face. All of my smiles still come out insincere or sarcastic. I prefer the straight line of a mouth. What the hell am I talking about?
ST: Back to the songwriting. A lot of your songs are referential, or based on the turning of a phrase. Do you begin songs with lyrics?
BS: I start with words; words get me excited about ideas. When I hang out with friends, most of what we say is ridiculous and we spend most of our time miscommunicating. We leave a conversation and we wish we’d said something else, but occasionally in the little silences that fill up conversation someone will just sort of sigh and say something profound. I’ll write it down on whatever I have in front of me, and that gets me excited.
Or If I’m watching TV, like that An Idiot Abroad show, with Ricky Gervais, about all the wonders of the world, which was fantastic. Watching that show I was struck by all the things man has made on this Earth. Then I’m on to Google, Wikipedia, books, finding phrases I like to help me finish ideas for a song about the Seven Wonders of the World. But I’ve been thinking lately that as much as I say that’s all true, there’s a lot of noodling around on instruments to find progressions I like. The music’s got to take it somewhere but I don’t get excited about a song until there are words though. If I write a pretty melody it wouldn’t mean anything to me until there were words to it.
ST: Do you feel like there is a thematic thread throughout the record, or is it just a collection of songs?
BS: It’s a collection of songs, but there are some connecting motifs. There are lots of stones, rocks, lots of weight. I think there are things you find later—they say you only use 10 percent of your brain but I always like to think the other 90 percent is working on something. Something about my experiences in a particular stretch of time brought me to write these songs and they’re probably connected in ways I haven’t really thought about.
ST: It appealed to me because it sounded soulful and timeless, which leads me to the question, do you feel like you belong to the contemporary music scene in Philadelphia?
BS: Rarely. When XPN has been kind enough to lend support and play some songs, it’s nice to feel a part of that community. I plan on playing more, but at this point, I don’t play out enough to be part of a scene. That doesn’t drive me or excite me about music. I’d be happier to have written standards. If I wrote a great standard of our day, or if my song was to get covered by some folks, that would excite me. Writing something that has something to say and says it quickly and well. I would like to be able to write a song that you could conceivably sit at the piano and sing with a bunch of friends.
I don’t think we live in a world where there are standards anymore. I’m not sure that’s possible; I don’t know what the last standard was. There are many songs I love that are standards to me, but they don’t have the same impact globally or nationally that they used to. There are fleeting, catchy and great pop songs—but they don’t stick around. That’s the vain part of writing songs—wanting to leave something behind. I have little interest in scenes, only in songs. The Beatles, remember them? What was their scene? You never knew what you were going to get. Every song was different.
ST: It doesn’t seem like you’re aiming for the Pitchfork crowd…
BS: What young person knows what a standard is, or gives a shit. I still like the excitement of music that inspires young people, but I’d rather listen to Nick Lowe’s new album. There was a time last summer when I went to three shows in a row and all the artists were senior citizens. I saw Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe and Levon Helm—to quote High Fidelity, “sad bastard music.” But I’ve always liked something traditional about songs and that’s where I see myself.
Take a guy like Leonard Cohen, who has written so many great songs even though he’s not a great singer. He wrote that song “Tower of Song,” where he talks about all the different songwriters in this great tower, and he’s 100 floors below Hank Williams. I’d be happy to be the doorman, or the street sweeper. I’d like to be near the tower. I’d be more excited to know other songwriters like what I’ve written.
ST: Now that you mention it, “Hallelujah” might be the last great standard.
BS: There you go; you nailed it. Though think about the unlikely success of that song. It’s mostly due to Jeff Buckley’s performance of it, but I want to know how that hit the tipping point with people. The song had been around for a long time before it was popularized with Shrek and Rufus Wainwright and bunch of other covers. I also like ballads a lot, and ballads aren’t so big with the kids. Though growing up I loved a good Chicago ballad, I have to admit it.
ST: You were probably in the marching band?
BS: That’s true, I played saxophone.
ST: That’s okay, not all of us can be cool enough to cover Wilco with our English teachers—after which you vowed to never again perform with students.
BS: Did I actually say that! What song did we do?
ST: We did “War on War.”
BS: What did I play, piano?
ST: Yeah, with no rehearsal.
BS: Was that the same performance you guys played the Ryan Adams’ song?
ST: Yeah, we did “To Be Young (Is to be High),” Big Star’s “Thirteen,” and then we played “War on War.”
Last question, how is Crooked Earth being released? Do you have a label? Are you going to do vinyl?
BS: No label, and I’m only selling online right now. I’m going to make CD’s but that’s only really for selling at shows. The other night I played a show and I had postcards made up with download codes. I was like “You can go over and grab these post cards for free” and it was just the lamest thing to announce—“You can grab these postcards and download a virtual thing that doesn’t exist.” I would love to make a vinyl of it. I’ve been reading about how mastering for vinyl is different, and that could be another expense. I’m not doing any of this to make money though, maybe to break even. Once you give up on that expectation it gets a lot easier.
You can listen to Crooked Earth, download a couple free tracks and buy the album here: http://bensmithsongs.bandcamp.com/album/crooked-earth