When the history books are written, the year 2020 will be a year to remember and, unfortunately, not all for the right reasons. That sense of challenge and the human drive to triumph over tragedy is tastefully captured and brought to life by singer / songwriter Matt Smith on his 2020 album Being Human. Brought to the attention of mwe3.com way back in 2011 thanks to the release of Matt Smith’s World, Matt’s musical expertise has truly grown and matured while in recent years, he has gone into music production and studio recording with his world acclaimed recording studio 6 String Ranch, based in beautiful Austin, Texas. Another fitting example of ‘you can’t get too much of a good thing’, in a good way, Matt has upped the ante with a musical release schedule that will amaze music fans far and wide. With eight new songs, and clocking in at 33 minutes, Being Human may be the flagship release and his new for 2020 studio album, yet this year Matt has in fact released 8 new albums at the same time, including Being Human, Parlor (a solo acoustic instrumental album recorded on an 1890’s Thompson & Odell parlor guitar), Chop Shop – Live At Strange Brew (featuring Matt with Ed Freidland (bass) and Bryan Austin (drums), Matt Smith’s World – Live At The Saxon Pub (featuring Matt with Ernie Durawa (drums), David Webb (keys,vocals), Joe Morales (sax, flute, vocals), Aaron Lack (steel pan, percussion, vocals) and Mark Epstein (bass), as well as Matt Smith 1988-2020 Vol. 1-4 (a four CD collection curated from his 10 previous albums that have been released since the start of Matt’s solo career.) In addition to the 8 CDs listed above, 11 of Matt Smith’s albums are also digitally re-released for the first time in 2020. As good as this news is for Matt Smith fans worldwide, he explains that another reason for such a major undertaking of his new music and catalog overhaul, is his hope that it will shine a light on 6 String Ranch, his multi-faceted recording studio, catering to songwriters and recording artists, both new and seasoned. Having worked as an inspiration to artists and songwriters, providing songwriting mentorships, instructional lessons, in person and over the internet though his 6 String Ranch YouTube channel, Matt is also giving back to his community with the Austin at-risk youth home, Phoenix Academy, which also features its own recording studio, where the residents can compose and record music under Matt’s guidance. Perhaps this is a case of too much of a good thing, but at the very least fans of catchy pop-rock songs and smart songwriting are advised to check out Being Human, while fans of instrumental acoustic guitar playing in the spirit of Americana masters like Leo Kottke and Stefan Grossman are recommended to listen to Parlor. With his 8 new CDs and 11 newly released digital albums of his vast back catalog, Austin’s vital rock guitar tastemaker, Matt Smith takes his place among America’s leading 21st century recording artists. www.6stringranch.com
mwe3.com presents a new interview with
mwe3: I remember featuring your album Matt Smith’s World on mwe3.com way back in 2011. What were some of the events that led to the writing, recording and production of your 2020 album Being Human, which is actually part of a series of albums you have planned for release this month? It seems like a prophetic album title considering what the world is going through especially in 2020. You also call it your flagship release.
Matt Smith: The album is my response to the huge changes in the world around us. I try to have a reason to make a new album, and there is so much fear, anger and righteousness in the air, largely brought on and inflamed by the normalization of being completely self-involved, that I felt the need to express my observations. I had several other projects in various stages, and have finally gotten around to digitally releasing all my old albums that hadn’t been available for streaming until now.
Because of the dead stop in work when the pandemic hit, it seemed like a good way to support Being Human. You release a new album, that’s one thing. Release multiple albums at once, it becomes a more notable event. The career retrospective albums 1988-2020 was a chance to release a career retrospective with my favorite songs from my previous 10 releases.
mwe3: Did you set out to make a social statement with the lead-off track on Being Human, called “Sanctuary”? Why do you think it’s become such a volatile issue in the age of Trump? The video you made for “Sanctuary” is also quite effective. Tell us about your sentiments behind the song and tell us about working on the videos for Being Human. Each of the videos is wonderful to watch.
Matt Smith: We are, and have always been, a nation of immigrants. Unless you’re of 'First Nation' descent, your families came as immigrants to this country. Every wave of immigrants to the US has been persecuted by the preceding wave who had established. That’s nothing new. What’s new is the criminalization of asylum seekers, separation of families, and stopping the processing of applications for asylum and naturalization. This has to stop!
All the first round of videos were done using stock footage libraries by a genius film maker who’s worked with us on our guitar instructional videos, Ben Root. You’re gonna see great things from him. It’s an easy way to tell a very important story.
Matt Smith: 6 String Ranch was conceived as an evolutionary recording studio and a teaching / video / master class facility. It’s a place where you can learn to play, write and record your songs with my assistance. We have a lot of artists come in for one day master classes. I record about 10 albums a year for all level of artists. My only criteria as that you should want to evolve. I’m not a push record and shut up kind of guy.
mwe3: Can you tell us the lineup of musicians you are supported by on the Being Human album? You describe it as an “international cast of 18 all-star musicians”. They sound great indeed and they add so much to your album.
Matt Smith: Sure! Ed Gerhard, who plays Weissenborn on “I’d Do Anything For You” is one of the finest acoustic finger style guitarists in the world. Weissenborn is a hollow, acoustic lap style slide guitar.
Ed Friedland, who plays bass on a great deal of the album is also featured on Chop Shop, is the touring bassist for the Grammy-winning Mavericks. Ernie Durawa, who plays drums on “God Is Watching Over You” and “I’d Do Anything For You” is a member of the Texas Tornados and was in Delbert McClinton’s band and The Sir Douglas Quintet. Philip Moehrke is a truly brilliant pianist arranger from Germany who produced and arranged my album What I Feel For You, cuts of which are featured on Vol 1-4 of my 1988-2020 compilation.
Brian Mendes is a top-shelf pro drummer here in Austin as is Charles “Swift” Phillips. Both are great musicians and producers in their own right. David Webb is a top-call keyboardist here in town who is also featured on Matt Smith’s World Live. Ange Kogutz is a phenomenally talented singer that I hire any chance I can get. She should be a star! Guy Forsyth is an internationally renowned blues singer/guitarist/harmonica player who I’ve had the honor of producing a few albums for. Guy and his talented wife Jeska sing the harmonies on “Sanctuary”. Several songs were written with a long-time friend and co-writer Mark Epstein, who’s toured with Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa and is a great producer as well!
mwe3: The title track “Being Human” is a great song. I thought it had a kind of Beatles type vibe on it. Did you want to capture the human experience on the track? Also, your slide guitar sound is kind of George Harrison-inspired.
Matt Smith: I became much more interested in writing songs from vocal melodies rather than coming up with the chords first, as I had in the past. The subject matter of the song reflects the complexity of the human condition, with all its strengths and weaknesses. I have been producing other artists for a long time, and I’ve finally gotten to the place where I can produce the sounds I hear in my head. The process is very stream of consciousness. I try and trust my musical instincts such as what / where the hooks should be. The Harrison-inspired dual slide guitar hook came from there. I’ve always been inspired by the Beatles!
mwe3: “Everybody Wanna Do The Don’t” was quite surprising to hear the first time, but now I find it’s very cool. Are you saying humans are sometimes their own worst enemy? Is the song a kind of a quasi-funk-disco song with a social message?
Matt Smith: It started as a social commentary about our inability to adhere to rules. Wear a mask, do it to protect your grandparents and vulnerable members of our society. Then it became much more than that. I think of my own little cheats that happen every day. We are still highly individualistic and have a hard time being told what to do. The feel was inspired by pre-disco funk, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, early Bowie, Shuggie Otis…
mwe3: “I Got The Girl” is a very upbeat song. Is that song about your wife? It takes you into a wonderful kind of mood.
Matt Smith: Based on a true story about a rivalry for the affections of my now wife. I love to rock! I don’t have a plan when I start an album. I write what comes to me. This song I’d had for a few years, so I recorded it. As the song collection came together, I realized I was writing about the various aspects of the human condition, pride being one of them.
mwe3: The CD-closer “I’d Do Anything For You” sounds influenced by mid ‘70s nightclub music. Also, sounds like Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael could have wrote it in the 1940s.
Matt Smith: My wife Shonna and I co-wrote that one. She’s an amazing writer with her own album as well, and that’s her singing harmonies. I envisioned that song as a duet with her, but I wrote it in the wrong key for her, so I had to settle for her singing harmony. I’d become fascinated with the I to IVm chord progression and the rest came naturally around the beautiful lyric. I’m a huge fan of the jazz ballad.
mwe3: Is “How We Got To Here” autobiographical? It sounds like a mix between Phil Ochs and bossa nova music. Who else plays on that track? Is it a kind of modern-day protest music or Paul Simon style ‘60s pop? Some of these tracks underscore your New York lineage.
Matt Smith: I’m a lifelong Democrat, with close friends on both sides of the aisle. When the current administration was elected I was horrified at the ethics of our president. We have normalized being a narcissist. It’s become normal to be outraged every time we read or watch news. This song is an observation of how fundamentally we have been changed as a nation. As a musician who travels internationally, the way the world sees our country has changed so much. The world used to look to us for inspiration. Now we are feared. That’s terrible and needs to change. So yes, that’s very much a protest song. Vote!
mwe3: “God Is Watching Over You” echoes that early 1970s era of rock. The video is particularly effective. So, who is that track dedicated to?
Matt Smith: I’ve been diagnosed twice with Lymphoma and successfully treated. My dad had passed a few years before and he came to me in a dream and told me “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, God is watching over you”. I meant it to be a song of hope when you need it most. I had just watched Brian Wilson’s documentary and had just listened to Madman Across The Water and wanted to write a more ambitious chord and harmony arrangement for this song, to honor my father.
mwe3: “Down In The Hole” has some memorable lead guitar on it. I thought Buddy Holly would like this track. I guess living in Texas has done good things for your songwriting. Does this song bring to light your work at Phoenix Academy, helping young kids with problems? These days it seems like an epidemic of trouble with all the guns and massive unemployment, so sadly people are turning to addictions and violence.
Matt Smith: “Down In The Hole” was about my problems with drugs and the despair that comes from that. Depression and addiction are massive problems in our country today. I know what it’s like down there. I was fortunate to overcome mine. I wrote and recorded the first iteration on that song while I was deep in the hole. The guitar solo on that song was recorded while I was down there and I kept it on the record to remind me to never ever go down there again!
I’ve been working with at risk teens, aged 13-17 at Phoenix Academy in Austin since 2011. We’ve recorded hundreds of songs about dealing with the issues they face. It changed the way I look at life profoundly. It’s the most powerful, real collection of music I’ve ever been involved with. Because they’re minors, and in therapy, the music can’t be shared publicly. Music is such a healing force. It saved me when I was I kid.
mwe3: You have several co-writers on Being Human including Mark Epstein, and other players too. Can you tell us who these writers are and how you co-write songs with writers? Do you like co-writing or writing mostly on your own?
Matt Smith: Mike Lanahan, Joe Montoya and my wife, Shonna Skarda. Sure! I love collaboration. It really needs to be with the right person. Mike and Joe are good friends. Shonna is the love of my life. Mark Epstein is one of my most cherished collaborators. We always seem to write something worthwhile pretty effortlessly. Sometimes, I know exactly what I want to say, or the song is extremely personal and I write those solo.
mwe3: The Parlor album, also just released, is brilliant. When did you write and record it? It would be great if you would also be recognized as a top-notch instrumental artist too. I was playing the Chop Shop album and a lot of it is instrumental jazz-rock and funky guitar fusion too. By contrast Being Human sounds like a long-lost McCartney meets Crenshaw pop-rock. As you told me, you didn’t want to say here’s my new album and then 3 months later, hey here’s my new album… Taken as a collection, it’s almost like a box set in the making. So, everything at once to dissect and peruse and choose from the albums seems like a great idea.
Matt Smith: I never put myself in a musical box. I’ve always admired those who have an identifiable style, but my style is to not have one style. It comes from a deep curiosity of all things musical, from the many instruments I love, to all styles of music, as long as it’s well executed. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1970’s when anything was fair game for the radio. All of it fascinated me. All my life music industry folks have told me I can’t do that, but I always have. I find stylistic adherence to confining for my ADD brain! I’m just a big little boy, who loves his toys. Every time I learn a new instrument, I try and absorb the music of the masters of that instrument before starting to try and learn it. Songwriting is the same way. I’m not very prolific. My good friend Mark Rubin explains it this way: “Every morning, you wake up with a certain amount of creativity. When you use your daily allotment, that’s it! The good news is that tomorrow morning, you get a new allotment of creativity.” I spend a lot of time teaching, and helping others with their music, and that uses my creativity. I love it very much, but I won’t be writing a song that day. I need time to dream!
mwe3: So along with Being Human you have Parlor. So, you grew up with this guitar, the 1890’s era Thompson & Odell parlor guitar. How did you play it and how do you till today take care of this guitar? Your great grandfather bought this guitar and did you find out how much he paid for it and what became of Thompson & Odell?
Matt Smith: My great grandfather purchased the guitar in Boston I believe, where Thompson & Odell were located. It was passed down to my grandfather and then my father. When I was very young, my mother had the guitar strung with nylon strings for playing classical guitar and I used to lay my head on her knee and listen to her practice. I learned to play on that guitar and a 1916 Dyer model 4 Harp Guitar which I also still own and play at home.
The guitar ended up hanging over the family mantel in the living room of my parent’s house. I knew it was very old and made of Brazilian rosewood but it had no markings so I didn’t know how old or what brand it was.
After my dad passed, my mother gave the guitar to me and I had it restored by Ben Allison at Austin Vintage Guitar and they told me what it was. I had Ben set it up for steel strings and when I took it to my studio and played it, I could feel the years of family history inside the beautiful tone of the instrument. So, I pressed record. Parlor is what came out. Improvisations, and pieces I’d written over the years, along with an interpretation of Michael Hedges version of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”... Lots of different tunings and capo positions. One Man, One Guitar, One take..... warts and all!
mwe3: So, who is the gentleman on the back of the Parlor CD cover art? Is that your great grandfather?
Matt Smith: That’s a picture of my great grandfather holding the guitar! My mother had it in the family albums.
mwe3: Who would you say influenced this style in your playing? Ragtime is a true artform that was overlooked back in the 1960s when rock took over. Also, your instrumental cover of Neil Young's “After The Goldrush” is moving. That song was always so influential and peaceful.
Matt Smith: Fingerstyle guitar has been a fascination of mine ever since I first heard 6 & 12 String Guitar by Leo Kottke. I got the gig to do guitar clinics for Ovation and Takamine guitars for Kaman Music in 1990. Pretty soon I found myself at the NAMM show trading sets with Al DiMeola, Adrian Legg and Preston Reed. I got my butt kicked! So, I practiced very hard for years. I did clinics for Kaman for over 20 years. Bill Kaman, who ran the company, is my business partner at 6 String Ranch.
Because I grew up with the harp guitar, I was amazed to see Michael Hedges playing the exact same model and became fascinated with his creative, visionary style. His version of “After The Gold Rush” inspired my version of that song.
mwe3: Tell me more about your family. Four generations of Smith’s have played that Parlor guitar and clearly, on Parlor it still sounds very cool. That’s wonderful.
Matt Smith: I was fortunate to be born to amazing parents. My mother has PhD’s in American and English Literature and my father was a research chemist for GE Silicone with over 50 patents. They were very loving with us 5 kids. We put them through a lot!
Matt Smith: I’ve had my own studio for about 12 years now and have been involved in producing albums for about 20 years. Eventually, you start to figure it out. The studio is truly its own instrument. Once you figure out how to make the sounds you hear in your head, you start to understand how things are supposed to sound. It’s constant learning! Always new concepts, techniques, new software to learn. The learning never stops and I’m certainly never bored.
mwe3: Track 11 on the Parlor album is “Desert Meditation”. Is that one of the more experimental tracks on the album? For a one-take track, that one sounds excellent. I noticed a slight Jimmy Page influence on that track.
Matt Smith: That song is in DADGAD - a tuning many great UK and European players have used for years.
I also used D Tuning- D A D F# A D
mwe3: The Chop Shop Live! album is brilliant too. Tell us when the Chop Shop recordings were made. Is Chop Shop still an ongoing venture? Tell us how you chose the music for Chop Shop to play as there’s a great mix of instrumentals and vocals with covers and originals.
Matt Smith: Chop Shop Live was recorded at a great South Austin Club called Strange Brew on Sunday afternoons over a 3 month period around 2013 I believe. It was always meant to be a song-based improvisational trio. It’s like driving a sports car. With a smaller band you can take quick musical turns. Both Ed Friedland and Bryan Austin are monster musicians who are really creative and inspiring to play with. The club has a great sound system and a really cool vibe. Austin has a very deep musical history and a great community of musicians. There are clubs like this in every city that need to be preserved.
mwe3: How about the Matt Smith’s World Live At Saxon Pub. I think it’s my favorite album of all of them. I didn’t know you wrote “Simple Song” and “Dance With Me”. I still have my Matt Smith’s World CD that mwe3.com reviewed back in 2011! Tell us about the Matt Smith’s World live album and is that band still recording these days?
Matt Smith: This album was recorded at a residency every Tuesday night at the Saxon Pub in Austin. This band was a blast to play with but 6 people is a big band to pay in this town. Sadly, the band isn’t playing at the moment, because of the pandemic and because I’ve moved away from that doing musically. I’m sure we’ll do some shows to promote the live album when it’s safe. I’m still close and do projects with each of the musicians in the band.
mwe3: How and when did you curate and compile the four volumes of the 1988-2020 archival albums? They take the listener through your years in N.Y. through to the Austin years. I haven’t made it through all the four albums yet they sound great. You must have kept a pretty thorough archive to recording your music from back then!
Matt Smith: Along with the current crop of albums, I’ve recently re-released my first 10 albums digitally, some for the first time. I curated a collection of my favorite songs from those releases and put together a retrospective of the formation of where I’ve arrived to. The 10 albums contained on Matt Smith 1-3 are:
Vol 4 is a collection of songs from
Vol 4 is a taster of the other new releases, all supporting Being Human.
mwe3: Of course, as you say, one of the highlights of such a huge undertaking of music releases is not only to shine a light on your vast musical output, as defined with these albums, but also to highlight you as co-owner with Bill Kaman of 6 String Ranch. Sounds like recording at 6 String Ranch studios would be a dream. Tell us how you differentiate between being a recording artist and a music producer. How do you and Bill work together?
Matt Smith: The bulk of my work over the last 5 years has been 6 String Ranch. This is a dream come true for me. I work pretty much every single day at the studio, teaching, and I have many instructional books out, producing other artists, creating instructional video for our YouTube channels and all the day to day operations keeping the studio maintained and clean.
When we first started this business, Bill made it clear this was my ship to steer. The only advice he gave me was: “Try it, and if it doesn’t work, don’t do that anymore!” It’s the ideal working situation. I have the best business partner I could hope for and I truly love and care about all aspects of what I do here…
mwe3: So, let’s move into the future. Where do you see yourself and everyone else a year from today? What are you hoping for in 2021, a year that could be a new start I pray?
Matt Smith: After the plague comes the Renaissance! There is so much creative energy out there… Even now, most artists are working on new material to release. We don’t stop, we adapt. Musicians, artists, writers all need to create. It’s what we do! There will be a vaccine and some form of return to performing. It won’t be what it was for a few years while we adapt to this new reality, but humans are social creatures. We don’t isolate well. Look for a huge swell in new music, films, video, theater and books as we emerge from what I describe as a “bad clam” of a year. Let’s hope we learn from all of this.