So! Looks like we’ll be starting work on a new video for the next single off the album this week, which is pretty exciting. We’re looking to get it out as soon as possible so I will post news on the progress as it comes in. On the gig front, we’re also putting an East Coast tour together which should take in the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Byron Bay, Yamba, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. This will be happening in June, so once those dates are confirmed I’ll post them up here also. Thanks to everyone who turned up at Crosstown last Friday for the show with Rattlehand. It was an intimate little gig, and I hope you all enjoyed the music. Phil Smith.
The Courier Mail’s Noel Mengel gave Year Of The Dog 4 stars out of a possible 5.
Read on for his review of the album
YEAR OF THE DOG
“YOUR dreams turn to dust so fast/Rust like an old car that’s out in the field,’’ Brisbane songwriter Phil Smith observes on Memories, one of the key tracks on his third album, where the music is stripped lean and emotions run at high intensity. The song, with its waltz time and country fiddle, sits somewhere between Neil Young and more recent keepers of the flame like Gillian Welch and Will Oldham. Wisps of pedal steel and bluesy guitar wind through opener Calling Home, a song that feels as lonesome as the wind through the wheat. Broken Rivers, with its haunted female backing vocal and rustic banjo, finds solace in melancholy. Avenue Girl, El Corazon and The Ballad of Joseph Henry are superb folk songs, the kind that might have once appeared on a Nick Drake album, with acoustic guitar, piano and cello. And The Train, the story of attending a funeral, somehow cuts deep and lifts us up at the same time. The message here is the one we get from all the art that speaks personally to us. Sure life can be tough — the album is called Year of the Dog after all — but not so tough that songs as good as these won’t help us through.
So the lovely folks from 612ABC here in Brisbane have invited me to be part of their Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue show this Friday night (28th March). Hosted by Rebecca Levingston, we’ll be playing some songs in the studio and chatting about the new album Year Of The Dog. The premise behind the show is to pick 4 songs, 2 of which will be played live in the studio. 3 songs from other artists which have been an influence, and an original song of mine which is new. The interview will be airing from 8–9pm.
Huge thanks to everyone who turned up to the Old Museum on Saturday the 8th of March and helped to make the album launch so memorable. We all had a ball up on stage, and by all accounts so did everybody who attended.
There will be some more gig dates coming up very soon, as well as some media reviews of the new album Year Of The Dog, so keep your eyes on this space. In the meantime I’m attaching a link to the video released last week of the second single–Homeward Bound–from the new album.
Phil Smith has just released his third long player Year Of The Dog. Cemented in Phil’s unique Americana feel, the record’s instrumentation has been stripped back to create a collection of songs that are centred around Phil’s haunting vocal and superbly crafted songwriting. Drawn from deeply personal experiences, the bareness of the album correlates with the lyrics, bordering on melancholy but rich in texture and substance. I caught up with Phil to find out more –
Spirefocus – The album contains a wide range of stories. What was the songwriting process like?
Phil – It was pretty steady. The songs just came over a period of a couple of years until I realised what this album was going to be about, then I started to focus on it a little more. For the first time I wasn’t consciously influenced by other artists when writing. These were deeply personal songs and they just needed to be written I guess. It was pretty painless.
SF – Do you methodically write your songs or is it more spontaneous?
Phil – Generally spontaneity rules. It pays to be methodical sometimes, but I’ve never been in the position where I’ve had to write something that maybe doesn’t come naturally, like a ‘hit’ single; so the songs usually write themselves.
SF – Is Year Of The Dog a direct reference to something?
Phil – Well, it is a play on words in a way. The years this record covers were not very pleasant ones. I lost 3 family members. That really made me question a lot of stuff which up until that point I’d taken for granted. I guess you could say they were dog’s of a year……And the album was also, due to it’s nature, going to be self titled, but I was born in 1970, which was the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar, so I decided that was a little more interesting.
SF – Your lyrics are powerful and touch on some personal stuff. How difficult is it to put that stuff out there?
Phil – The songs are personal, but I think they touch on situations that most people will be able to relate to, which kind of makes them public property. I believe that if you’re going to contribute something to the already over saturated music market then it better be something that someone else can’t sing about. Your personal experiences, and the way these shape your views on the world around you, is one of the few things that no one else can do better.
SF – The album is devoid of drums and bass. What was the reasoning for this? Was that planned from the outset?
Phil – I didn’t want this album to be dependent on a band. The last album I did, Second Hand Heart, was a full band album, which made touring it a bit of a logistical nightmare. I made a promise to myself that the next album, I would be able to tour with maybe 1 or 2 people max, and still be able to present the songs well. Plus, as I realised what this album was going to be about, I wanted the stories to be front and centre without the distraction of a rhythm section.
SF – The nylon string guitar makes plenty of appearances, something a bit different from your past records. Is this you experimenting?
Phil – Yeah, it’s funny how that happened. I shared a place with a guy who played one, and on the way to the studio one day I picked it up on my way out the door, to try on El Corazon. The way the vocals sat with the nylon string was completely different compared to the steel string, which I wasn’t expecting. It kind of drew the voice in, and also made me sing softer. I experimented with it on a lot of songs after that, and it ended up on 5 out of 10. It’s definitely something I’m going to keep on doing. If it’s good enough for Willie Nelson………
SF – The songs are complemented with splashes of pedal steel, piano, fiddle etc. Did you give the players free reign over their parts?
Phil – Man, that was the hardest part of the process. I spent probably nearly 2 years, on and off, trying out nearly every instrument you can think of. What I didn’t want to happen was have anything that would take the listener away from the story, and it was a painful process that kept me awake at night for a long time. I tried a lot of local players out, all of them great, and their parts were well played, but they just didn’t seem to enhance the stories. As soon as I became aware of the need for this, it was a little easier. I would add something, then listen back for a couple of days, and if I felt it didn’t help to bring the message across then I would remove it and start again. As a result, and so as to not keep pissing people off, I ended up doing all of the instrument overdubs (minus fiddle, mando and 1 piano take) myself. The steel player was used to country music played with a rhythm section, and he really struggled with the arrangements, so what we did was keep whatever landed properly, but we treated it as an ambience. Loaded it up with reverb and kept the volume down; and THEN it really worked, and really added to the song.
SF – Is Megan Cooper doing the backing vocals? How did this collaboration come about?
Phil – I can’t remember where Megan and I met, but Sue Ray had been doing all the bv’s. She sang on the previous album, and we got to know each other pretty well, and did a lot of shows together. There was one song, the last one in fact Sometimes You Cry which wasn’t quite working. Megan agreed to have a go at it, and while she was there, she ended up singing on a couple more. Her and Sue have really different voices, so it was kind of nice to be able to have the luxury of 2 great singers on bv’s.
SF – How important was producer Marly Luske to the final product?
Phil – Pretty important I guess. I had initially started the record with Scott Mullane, who had mixed both my previous albums, and recorded parts of them. I had really wanted to do a record with Scott, but when the time came to do it, I wasn’t really ready. I thought I was, but my singing voice wasn’t in the right place to do it. I went away and worked on the songs, and how I was singing them, for probably close to a year before I found Marly. He had great gear, but no real knowledge of the genre (folk/alt country/ Americana) and in the end this was good because he had no preconceived notions about how the album was going to be done; and I knew exactly what I was going for. We spent a long time initially experimenting with various mics and where to position them; mainly for the guitar sound. I did a fair bit of research on artists and producers who I thought were nailing it, and we kind of met in the middle. I have a fear of working with a producer who has a great track record of the genre because they tend to have very definite ideas about how things should be done, and they railroad you into doing it their way. And then you end up sounding like everything they’ve done before you, in terms of how they treat sounds. There was a lot of freedom working with Marly. Freedom, and no ego. Happy days!
SF – Were there parts of the recording process that you will do differently next time?
Phil – I’m not sure. I think, were I to be touring with a band, and playing a lot, and working on new material, then it would be nice to do a record like this where all the overdubs were already worked out, and recorded in real time. That can add a lot of energy to the recording. I recorded an album with a full band in the middle of doing Year Of The Dog. We did the whole album in 2 days. But there are drawbacks to that as well I guess. Year Of The Dog was a huge learning curve mainly for realising how to best use my voice, and developing the confidence in my abilities–songwriting and recording. That will definitely carry through to the next recording process.
SF – What’s the plans for the rest of the year?
Phil – There’s a few in the pipeline, nothing huge yet, but it’s early days in terms of this new record. I would love to be able to play some supports to bigger crowds, and I’ve applied to a couple of festivals. I’m planning on heading to the States to catch up with Sue Ray in Nashville and hopefully play a couple of short tours…and do a lot of driving. I love Australian music, but a lot of my influences are American and I would love to take that back over there and play it back to them. See how it’s received.
There’s a hangdog modesty to Phil Smith’s style that might make you think this is…somehow less than it is. His mournful Americana moseys along, a lost character, walking slowly but steadily through the dust. It might not impose itself on you, but if you pay attention, around the acoustic strumming there are subtle licks of banjo, mandolin, piano, steel guitar and fiddle, fine production and – the key ingredient – classic songwriting by a bloke who knows how to write.
Year Of The Dog is Phil’s third album and – if you couldn’t tell just by listening to it – his press release will somberly inform you that he had a pretty crap year, last year. You can see him there on the cover, looking like Steve McQueen, but a humbler one, more worn down by life. Whatever sadnesses he’s carrying he ably puts them to work here, beginning with the Americana twang of Calling Home and putting a brave face on life’s long-haul. He even has the bravado to throw in a few cheeky blues chords at the end; I’m not really sure they fit, it’s sorta like someone who’s made a lifetime habit of frowning trying to crack a smile: it’s just a bit off.
Musing on the ephemeral nature of love and the sad truths of things which are more permanent, the breezy but wistful Broken Rivers is an excellent song. Whoever decided to throw in the girl oohing on the fifth probably deserves a golden-guitar by themselves. I could only have enjoyed the song more if it had been extended by a guitar solo before a final chorus – it’s worth it.
The bittersweet mandolin, fiddle and acoustic combo of Homeward Bound is probably the most easy-going version of the oft repeated theme of the journey from catastrophe, back to salvation. Another one of my favourite songs on the album, Avenue Girl, starts to move away from Americana, into a folk that – at least in this song – sounds much more European, with piano accompaniment and a slinky quality that isn’t always a part of Smith’s work, but reminds me of, say, Serge Gainsbourg?
Nightwinds steps back from such Euro-decadence, turning to steel guitar, whiskey and a woman that’s leaving, it doesn’t come much more American than that. Still, there are others which eschew the overtly rootsy gestures, almost like they lack the will to belabor the sad folk warmth of a song like The Ballad Of Joseph Henry.
In a truly country gesture The Year Of The Dog closes with Sometimes You Laugh, taking an even-handed approach, even finding the upside in a bloke drinking himself to death. Only recently I was talking about roots music and notions of ‘authenticity’, a troubling proposition at the best of times. At the end of the conversation, it was hesitantly agreed that – in the absence of any other licence – deep sadness is one of the best reasons to strum lonesomely in the back of a trucker’s bar. Phil Smith may never find the home he so often pines for in his music, but he’s making some fine music along the way.
Courier Mail Life Magazine, Revolver, March 1st, 2014
BY HIS own admission, Brisbane songwriter Phil Smith took his time to find his groove.
For a long time, he drifted. Moved from Sydney to Darwin at 15, wound up working on the wharves in the tropical heat, unloading prawn trawlers.
He moved on. To Cairns, to Brisbane, to London, then Devon, putting up sheds and horse stables. Along the way he picked up a guitar, studied jazz, played lead guitar for others. But then he heard the intricate acoustic guitar fingerpicking and haunting voice of Nick Drake and started writing his own songs.
Next came Ryan Adams and a new world of music opened up to him. He went exploring, back through Gillian Welch to Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
“It was Adams who turned me on to that whole world of Americana, that beautiful, intimate delivery of songs,’’ Smith says.
Great songwriters, he could see, invested so much of themselves in their songs. They didn’t flinch at how much they revealed. And people responded to that.
“I was living in London when my father got cancer and I came home to spend time with him,’ Smith says. “That was a huge wake-up call.’’
Just how huge can be heard on Smith’s new album, Year of the Dog, a beautifully understated example of Americana songcraft. One of its key tracks, The Train, tells the story of his father’s funeral.
“Basically, I spent a lot of time travelling in my 20s and 30s and I pissed around for 20 years. In my 40s, life started getting serious.’’
He pours all of that into Year of the Dog, the meaning of which can be read in two ways. He was born in 1970, the Year of the Dog, and the songs come out of the experiences of not just one but several tough years.
The album is spare, focused around Smith’s voice and impressive acoustic guitarwork, and brushstrokes of banjo, piano or pedal steel across the canvas.
The atmosphere can be meditative on songs such as Broken Rivers, sometimes with echoes of the greats of English folk like Drake and Ralph McTell on a tune such as Avenue Girl.
The album was recorded to a strict regime, with Smith nailing a complete vocal and guitar take before other instruments were added.
“It took a long time to get those takes right. Funnily enough the versions chosen usually came from the first two sessions so I wasted about eight days in the studio trying to better them and never did. Knowing that I should be able to save myself some money next time!’’
At the heart of the music are the personal stories Smith tells in his songs, all drawn from life. “Your dreams turn to dust so fast/Rust like an old car out in the field,’’ he sings in Memories.
But as all writers discover sooner or later, your story always turns out to be someone else’s story too.
“Growing up and seeing people start dying around you gives you a wider viewpoint on life. As you get older you start to understand why people do the things they do. I found myself looking back at people who had died, at relationships, and being able to look at them more philosophically,’’ he says.
“With all the best songwriters you learn something from their songs. I’d love people to be able to walk away and take something more than having a few beers and a good time. If you can offer an insight, get someone to be able to look at something a little bit differently, then that is great.
“Story-telling is a lifelong thing, you are only going to become a better observer of life. I was reading the Neil Young autobiography Shakey where someone was quoted as saying that Neil came out fully formed.
“But most people take a long of time to flower and I’m one of those.’’ Phil Smith launches Year of the Dog at The Old Museum, Brisbane, on March 8, with support from Megan Cooper, oldmuseum.org
Folk artist PHIL SMITH releases ‘YEAR OF THE DOG’ – an album that pays tribute to the melancholy and mad moments of his life.
Music with stripped-back soul, songs that speak to the inner stillness and sadness, an album that echoes after you stop playing it. This is how you could describe folk-country artist Phil Smith’s latest offering ‘Year Of The Dog’ — his 3rd full-length album, following 2008’s ‘Goldmine’, and 2010’s live studio album ‘Second Hand Heart’ which was produced by Scott Horscroft (Birds of Tokyo/ The Sleepy Jackson/The Panics/ Silverchair).
The album launches at the Old Museum on March 8 for those ready for a first listen of a beautifully balanced musical journey that lays bare the bones of the artist’s soul.
‘Year Of The Dog’ is without an emotional filter and speaks the truth as Smith sees it. Stripped bare on every level, and in the great tradition of albums like Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ and Ryan Adam’s ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Year Of The Dog’ delivers 10 songs born not from broken hearts, but from living in the world without closing down and shutting off.
Phil originally hails from Sydney, where he started playing the guitar at the relatively late age of 15, before moving to Darwin to finish high school. Studying jazz for the better part of a decade, it was in Bristol, UK, that Phil started writing and performing his own material. With an EP under his belt, and being courted by Sony, Phil returned to Brisbane in 2003 to attend to urgent family business. Along the way, he seems to have shared his life with people that always seemed to be running away from something, and it was these experiences that shaped him as a songwriter.
“The album is a tribute to a faith of sorts. Death, loss, love are all inescapable parts of life and along the way, I’ve learnt a lot about people and why they act the way they do. And I’ve learnt a lot about myself. This album is a summary of all of that.”
2013 was unquestionably a long, hard, lousy year for PHIL SMITH and ‘Year Of The Dog’ is it’s brutally honest musical journal. But inside, there will be unexpected pockets of song-writing sunshine, a glimpse into hope and a sweet appreciation of all the melancholy and mad moments.
PHIL SMITH – YEAR OF THE DOG
Barcode Artwork for this album supplied by Barcode Savers.
Phil Smith gives us 11 songs on his debut album, in a style we can describe as Americana inspired country and folk songs. Being a Nick Drake, Ryan Adams, Neil Young and James Taylor fan, he decided to dedicate himself to this style of music. Just like his idol Ryan Adams, he too wants to make lovely, melodious songs telling an enchanting story. The lyrics give us an insight into the things he’s been through in his turbulent life, and those things he’s still suffering from. They explain stories of love and losing love, drink, drugs and their consequences, traveling and the longing to find a home.
The album was recorded in a remote house in northern New South Wales and is mainly based upon acoustic guitar, but with the subtle addition of other instruments like piano, pedal steel, organ and violin. Most of the songs that made the album are melancholic contemplations, like the country ballad ‘(I’ll Walk The Line) One More Time’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Everybody’s Going Somewhere’, Where Does It Go?’ with the lovely backing vocals of Roz Pappalardo, the sad ‘The Grave Of Margaritis’, ‘Home Around Three’ and ‘Mary’. Fortunately Smith gives us an up tempo song now and then, like ‘Annie’ and ‘Baby Doll’. In ‘One More For The Road’ we can find both tempos, starting with the slow beginning and altered with the swinging pedal steel solo and outro chorus. Sara Tindley provides the amazingly beautiful backing vocals for this one.
If Phil Smith was trying to make a record creating the same sort of melancholy vibe that has won Ryan Adams so many fans, then he has succeeded gloriously. And with Adams recently announcing his (supposed) retirement, his successor may well have arrived, in Phil Smith, looking for his own ‘Goldmine’.
Today we take a look at a CD from down under that is good for 50 minutes of pure Americana listening. The maker of the music is singer songwriter Phil Smith, who grew up in Sydney, where he has learned, like many others, the skills of the trade while playing in rock – metal orientated bands. Eventually this brought his journey to England. It was there of all places that he started playing the Americana style music. This initially resulted in the EP “Desire”, which was produced shortly after his return to his homeland. Three years later the album “Goldmine” was produced which is the first mature full album. And that is a record that very much did justice to its name and has rewarded listeners with beautiful thoroughbred Americana music. The most eye catching of those songs are the ones that include the dobro and mandolin played by Bill Chambers in “Baby Doll”, or in the thickly melancholic “Ill Walk The Line (One More Time)”, or “Where Does It Go?” a waltz duet with Roz Pappalardo from Women in Docs or “One More For The Road”. Each one of these songs will be ideal for oncoming Autumn nights that we will be playing on radio Alternative Country. We instantly fell for the warm melancholic voice of Smith with the acoustic guitar tunes, harmonica, and songs crafted with piano tunes. All of this is quite beautiful!