After releasing two successful LPs, Steve Smyth left Australia for Barcelona in 2016. The Catalonian capital remains home for the songwriter, and it’s where he recorded his new EP Blood.
It’s nearly six years since Smyth’s previous release, 2014’s junkyard blues gambol Exits. Blood is a comparatively quiet affair, which carries the influence of Smyth’s new surroundings. The record’s first single, ‘Stages’, announced this adjustment, putting the focus on nylon string guitar and Smyth’s powerful vocals.
Anyone who’s witnessed Smyth live can attest to his utterly transfixing vocal faculty. A deep, cigarette-stained bellow sets his voice apart, taking cues from Tom Waits and Howlin’ Wolf. But Smyth can also slide into a nimble high register akin to Neil Young or Augie March’s Glenn Richards.
Both sides of the coin are in force on Blood, which was recorded live in one of Barcelona’s stunning cathedrals. A group of local musicians join Smyth, providing dramatic horn parts across the release. These swaying, elegiac refrains provide apt support for Smyth’s soul-baring songwriting.
Check out ‘Stages’ by Steve Smyth:
Smyth describes Blood as the first chapter in a four-part novella; the four stylistically diverse EPs will eventually be packaged into a double-LP. But while Blood may surprise fans of the rockier Exits, it’s not hyperbolic to describe it as Smyth’s best work to date.
After relocating and re-evaluating, Smyth resolved to prioritise things with qualitative merit rather than simply following directions. Tone Deaf spoke to him about this journey.
Tone Deaf: Six years separate Exits and Blood. There’s always a lot of pressure on musicians to generate content and stay in the minds of listeners. Have your priorities shifted in the last five or six years?
Steve Smyth: Obviously there’s a lot of changes through that time, and also what I wanted to create and sticking to that when there was many people saying to do it in other ways. There was a lot of moments where I had to question myself, but eventually I’m happy that I persevered and have got to this point and that it’s finally unravelling, it’s finally being released.
TD: When did you start working on Blood?
SS: I recorded that some years ago, but I couldn’t actually release it. It wasn’t the time for it emotionally. I guess being a little bit older you understand the element of what it entails to deliver. Obviously your work wasn’t created for a chart or for a radio station so you understand that you have a responsibility to the recording once you put it out there.
And I just really couldn’t emotionally commit to it, and that was OK. Obviously it’s seen as dropping off the face of the earth a bit, but [I learned] to understand that time has its own story and I just had to listen to it.
TD: What changed to finally give you the confidence to release Blood, and the rest of the EPs this year?
SS: With the four separate recordings it was important for me to really to finish them as a complete piece. They intertwine together and when I got close to seeing that as a whole, that was definitely one part that gave me confidence. And well, time cures all wounds, right?
TD: In what sense do the four EPs work together – how closely related they are in terms of production, arrangements and stylistic make-up?
SS: I think the element of them weaving together is more in a sense of an emotional [journey]. So it’s about catastrophe and redemption. In a way they’re kind of the five steps of grief or of acceptance or change of a pivotal point in each and everybody’s life that can happen.
Lyrically they have [a lot in common]. I call them little chapters; a little novella is how I see it. I guess the five steps of grief they can be anger, sombre until reaching acceptance.
Check out ‘Yours Sincerely’ by Steve Smyth:
TD: Nylon string guitar tends to create a feeling of homespun intimacy. This is especially true on Blood – there are no drums, it’s just your voice, guitar, horns and bass. Were you trying to make something really intimate?
SS: It was a very fast process. I so randomly just walked into this place thinking there’d be no chance [to record there], but was given permission so I quickly gathered some friends and we picked up microphones from studios in Barcelona.
We got together and I called in these players and it was all recorded live. That was something that was really important for me as well – that it wasn’t specifically meant to be perfect. It was meant to be more … I’m hoping that people will hear some sort of sincerity.
TD: The sincerity shines through, and I think Blood is your best work to date. Do you think about your music in those terms? Do you think you’ve made a progression on the four releases coming out this year?
SS: Yeah. I’ve given myself permission to be able to do that, for better or worse. And I’m content with if it doesn’t come off because I’ll just continue with music always in some state or form. I guess that gives you a lot of freedom to take some chances. There was always this aspect of, “you need to define your sound because it’s too confusing for people.” And I don’t ever want to dumb down the listener.
Life’s not easy so why should music be? Some things can take time and I’m trying to make something that people will be able to be with. The music that’s changed my life has been really important to me as I had to dig a little bit deeper into it. If things are not as straightforward or cookie cutter I feel like I’m on the right track.
Blood by Steve Smyth is available now.