SpireFocus ‘Year Of The Dog’ Q & A by Matt Schrader

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.

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