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TBTS Interviews Singer-Songwriter Jonah Smith

August 19, 2009

These days, the words “indie” and “indie rock” get thrown around a lot, sometimes improperly, sometimes accurately.  The way I understand it, the term describes music that is created, recorded and distributed outside of the major label system.  I’m not sure that all the music that we listen to (and even cover on this blog) fits that criteria exactly — sometimes “indie” describes an attitude or style as much as it describes the manner in which the music is made.  Those that truly deserve the “indie” label should be respected and celebrated, if for no other reason that they have purposely given up a certain level of financial and marketing support in exchange for making music on their own terms.  Not many of us are courageous enough to do something similar in our own professions.

With this in mind, dear readers, I bring you Jonah Smith.  Some of you may be familiar with Jonah’s work, if you are fortunate.  I was introduced to Jonah through a 2006 appearance on the World Cafe, where he was promoting his self-titled album.  Jonah Smith (the album) was released on Relix Records following two self-produced independent releases.  It is a warm, inviting record that is a riveting mixture of pop and soul with some country tendencies thrown in.  I listened to Jonah Smith many times over and over time it has become like an old friend to me, one of those albums that defines a particular time in your personal history.  On the music front, the album was a successful label debut, garnering 3.5/5 stars from and providing Smith the opportunity to play Bonnaroo in 2007.  He also snagged a 2007 Independent Music Award for Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Song for “My Morning Scene.”

At the end of 2007 Smith decided to leave Relix to make his next album on his own.  In an exclusive TBTS interview, he explains the decision:

I left my label at the end of 2007. I decided that I needed to control my own destiny and work on my own time table. I worked really hard on a bunch of songs then found a producer that was interested in working with me and sensitive to my Independent status (even though he’s usually working on label records). I spent all of my savings and borrowed the rest. I was able to get the record just about finished with that but then I ran out. I turned to my fans to help me finish the record and get it released and they came through in a big way. I raised over 16K in under two months. It was an amazing experience and has brought me a lot closer to my fans.

The resulting album, released on CD yesterday, is titled Lights On.  It is a continuation and expansion of the sound that Smith created on Jonah Smith.  Lights On was produced by Malcolm Burn, who has produced Iggy Pop and Emmylou Harris, among others.   The thread running through the album is a sort of yin-and-yang with songs that contrast each other in terms of subject matter and style but are all anchored by Smith’s distinctive vocals.

Although much of his band is the same as on the 2006 release, Smith notes that he added some new folks to expand the sound:

On this album, I utilized not only my band members but a lot of really talented friends that helped me expand the scope of the sounds on the album. Michael Leonhart from Steely Dan plays horns, Charlie Burnham is playing fiddle and Carrie Rodriguez contributes vocals. Also Aaron Comess and Joe Russo both contribute stellar drums.

These new personnel help to give the album breadth, which coupled with Smith’s obvious maturation as a songwriter and crafter make Lights On a journey in contrasts rather than meditations on a theme.  Smith explains:

This record has a lot more variety.  The last record that came out on Relix Records in 2006 was really about a band that had been road testing songs and was really tight playing together in a room. That gave the album a certain feel and consistency.

The new record seems more geared toward crafting solid pop songs that utilize a number of different instrumentations and arrangements.

Smith pays homage to his influences throughout the album, as evidenced by the the cascading backing vocals on “Misguided”, which hearken back to the Beatles.  The solo acoustic guitar and songwriting on “Lights On” certainly bring Dylan to mind, while the storytelling style of “Mrs. Cooper” has Randy Newman written all over it.  But these aren’t the only artists that inform Smith’s music.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are two that I keep coming back to.  John Prine, Malcolm Holcombe, Randy Newman and Tom Waits are also favorites. But I pull from a lot of different areas of music. I love the Beatles, old soul music like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and classic country and alt country like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.

One of Smith’s talents is to be able to pay homage to his influences without simply copying them.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Smith’s cover of the Blind Faith classic “Can’t Find My Way Home”.  In this track, he effectively channels Steve Winwood and Sam Cooke at the same time, no small feat but one that he pulls off with the help of a soft piano and steel guitar in the background.  Other songs have a familiar feel without being rip-offs, like the simple country of “Built for Two” and the soul-inflected closer “I Know What You’re Talking About.”

All in all, Lights On is an excellent album that grows on you with each listen.  Jonah Smith has the rare ability to work within multiple genres to craft a sound that truly is his own and artists of this caliber deserve to be celebrated and supported.  You can download the lead single “Love Get Lost” for free as well as the entire album at  Also, Smith will be opening for the Bodeans and headlining his own shows in September 2009.  He embarks on a national club tour in October.  Performance details can be found at his website

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