THE LIVING KIND: JOHN SMITH
He was dubbed the future of folk music by Pentangle’s John Renbourn, but singer-songwriter John Smith’s unique synthesis of styles puts him halfway across the Atlantic. The Living Kind is his masterpiece in American atmospherics: a true musician’s record, produced by Joe Henry, the man responsible for some of the subtlest Americana of recent times.
At the start of 2022 they cooked up the idea for an intimate record – “an acoustic album that sounded like Spirit of Eden”, Smith explains, referencing Talk Talk’s 1988 classic. Along with John Martyn’s Solid Air and Joni Mitchell’s electro-acoustic odyssey Hejira, it was one of the three creative inspirations for The Living Kind.
Like Hejira, the new album is a cohesive song-cycle that seems to be cast in one rich tone-colour. In 2020, Smith’s family suffered a cluster of personal crises in the space of three months. After that and the resultant rebuild, as he sings in The World Turns, Smith had to ‘find a new way to feel.
“The Living Kind is about responsibility and being very keenly aware of your place within a family dynamic,” he explains. “When I started writing these songs, I knew what was happening; in the space of three years, I had essentially become a different person.”
The album was cut over just four days in February 2023, in Joe Henry’s remote home in Harpswell, Maine. With temperatures dropping to -25 outside, the band – consisting of Henry’s son Levon and bassist Ross Gallagher – didn’t leave the house at all. You can hear the darkness and warmth in the new songs. Smith adored the spontaneity of recording live, “moving air around, making eye contact, dancing and weaving” with his core musicians. Gallagher, a jazz player, could intuit his next moves effortlessly. Drums were shared between Jay Bellerose (Robert Plant) and Joshua Van Tessel (Bahamas); Henry’s regular keyboardist Patrick Warren, who composed the music to True Detective, can be heard adding keyboards, strings and unmistakeable gothic vibrations to many songs.
Milestones is an exquisite account of trying to balance family with making a career as a musician. Silver Mine, co-written with Henry, is about Smith’s daughter, now seven: the image of her as “the light by which to find another morning” captures that sense of one’s existing child as the clearest embodiment of love, after the loss of another. He wrote the ruminative Horizons in one burst of inspiration on a drive through freezing Albany, New York State, in January 2022, and Trick Of The Light, a jewel of a song, also came quickly: like classic James Taylor, its warm melody winds its way round a descending baroque chord structure. On the tender Dividing Line, Levon Henry’s sax dances around Smith’s resonant guitar with delicious subtlety, as mature as Courtney Pine’s playing on Joni’s jazz records.
“I got immersed in the slipstream,” Smith recalls. “Joe upfront as captain, Ross and Levon at the engines, myself tumbling around on deck singing my guts out and driving the whole thing with my right hand. It was as though I’d finally got out of my own way. It might be the first record I’ve made that really sounds like me, and what I’m trying to do. I tend to think, I hope this is good… With The Living Kind, I know it.”