Charlie Smyth talks about his upcoming album, The Way I Feel, and gives an exclusive first listen to the track “Thunderstorm.”
Since breaking with the ’90s punk scene, Charlie Smyth’s rugged vocals and dark storytelling have evolved into bluesy Americana tunes with a traditional country twang.
His latest album, The Way I Feel, out July 13, follows an extended furlough. After spending time away from music in his art studio, Smyth felt the urge to play again. The result is songs with lyrics and storytelling as colorful, creative, and compelling as Smyth’s abstract expressionism paintings.
His new song “Thunderstorm” is scattered with bluesy steel guitar and piano and layered with harmonies. It’s a moody but relatable track that’s pleasing to the ears.
We recently caught up with Smyth for a conversation about his new music and got an exclusive first listen to “Thunderstorm” (below).
Cowboys & Indians: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting the new album from concept to actual release?
Charlie Smyth: After deciding to take an extended sabbatical from performing and recording music, I secluded myself in my painting studio for a few months (works from this period are available on my website). Eventually, I got the urge to play again but strictly on my own terms — those terms being just playing songs with friends in my living room, once a week or so, not doing shows, and just having a nice time. I did that for a few months, and one day my wife, Kalee, suggested that it was sounding good enough that I would be making a mistake not to get some recording done.
I settled on nine originals and four covers and got the rhythm tracks cut. Andy Gibson, the engineer/instrumentalist/producer, liked the feel right away and that gave me the faith to turn the album into a bigger production, bringing in the horns and strings.
One of the cool things that happened in the studio was when Billy Contreras was preparing to lay down some violin tracks and went through his tuning procedure. Some element of the tones reminded me of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on a whim, I asked him to take a shot at it off-the-cuff. Andy recorded it and Billy did a stunning, poignant, and beautiful rendition on the first time through and I just had to put it on the album.
C&I: What do you hope your fans will get out of the new LP?
Smyth: The Way I Feel is an album that I hope will arouse the listener’s curiosity on a lyrical as well as musical level. The arrangements are accessible, using basic but sometimes untraditional chord progressions. The instrumentation includes sounds familiar to fans of country and Americana — such as fiddle, pedal steel, and harmonica — while veering off the usual path in the ways they are combined and adding elements such as horns and densely layered harmonies that are more unusual. The lyric also tends more toward the abstract on several of the songs, creating a more mysterious and subjective experience for the listener. There is a subtle sense of confrontation that has the effect of drawing you in to find out what is going on. What is found there undoubtedly varies from person to person. My hope is that the investigation is rewarding.
C&I: What was the writing and recording process like? Where did you draw inspiration from?
Smyth: The writing side was just the usual lying-on-the-couch-with-a-notepad kind of thing. A couple of the songs were worked up on a very quietly released album called Thunderstorm that Kalee and I put out a few years ago. The sound itself was inspired by a healthy combination of circumstance, the combination of players involved (who were all just asked to do what came naturally), and listening to ’70s albums on my turntable.
C&I: What inspired the track “Thunderstorm”?
Smyth: “Thunderstorm” was written with the hopes of having the experience of getting shaken up by something awe-inspiring and beautiful and being brought to a place where the clouds start to part and the air tastes fresh and life seems worth living. I met Kalee not long after.
C&I: What’s something that fans might not know about you?
Smyth: I once saw John Denver walking down the middle of the sidewalk in downtown Chicago. It was just me and him (and his four security guys, who were spaced around him in a 10-foot radius). I was walking toward him and he was looking up at the skyscrapers and turning in slow circles as he was walking as if he were gazing from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He had his arms open wide and elbow patches on his sports coat and the whole bit. I was about two yards away and he still hadn’t seen me. He was just turning and walking and staring up in amazement. Then one of the fellows gently took hold of his arm and said, “The hotel’s right here John” and ushered him away. That made an impression on me for sure.
For more information on Charlie Smyth, his album The Way I Feel, and upcoming tour dates, visit his website. Photography by Kalee Smyth.