Noel Mengel Interviews Brisbane Musician Phil Smith

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,

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