Friday, April 19 2024

Welcome back to The Indie Grid! Today, we’re thrilled to have Andy Smythe joining us for an exclusive interview. Hailing from London, Andy has quickly become a regular featured artist on our music blog, captivating both us and listeners alike with his unique blend of vintage pop/rock inspired by the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Nick Drake, and Rufus Wainwright. His latest album, ‘Poetry in Exile,’ featuring thirteen meticulously crafted songs, has been making serious waves in the music scene. With Andy’s masterful songwriting and musicianship, the album is a journey through themes of identity, resilience, and social commentary. Join us as we delve into the inspiration behind the album and Andy’s creative process.

Hi Andy, thanks for joining us and congratulations on the release of the new album. Can you share with us the inspiration behind the title ‘Poetry in Exile’ and how it relates to the themes explored in the album?

The inspiration comes from the title track ‘Poetry in Exile’. In the Summer I read a great book about Dylan called ‘Why Dylan Matters’, it explored how he is influenced by the Roman poets in his writing. I subsequently investigated and read the poetry of Ovid who was exiled from Rome by emperor Augustus for being too liberal in his beliefs. This made me think how increasingly people are being marginalised and effectively exiled by capitalism in the West as we move towards a high-tech society where AI dominates. All the other songs came together from this perspective. ‘Ghost in the Machine’ is about the unregulated danger of AI, ‘Dear Landlord’ is about exploited tennants, ‘Leaves to Burn’ about a widowed, isolated farm worker, ‘Power is a Drug’ about corrupted leadership… it’s almost like a modern ‘Nebraska’, the album is about trying to find social cohesion in a world becoming darker and more oppressive for the average person, where the riches are harvested by an elite.

Your previous album, ‘Hard to be Human,’ was critically acclaimed. How do you feel your approach or style has evolved with ‘Poetry in Exile’?

‘Hard to be Human’ was recorded in Covid, largely in a shed at the back of the house. I felt close to the birds, the fox family, the trees and the album has that spirit of nature re-emerging as the human race retreats temporarily. It’s the first album that I’ve engineered, so I was learning how to use microphones and record vocals. As a result, it’s crude and naive in a lovely kind of way, the production standard isn’t modern, it’s brutally honest, I play all of the instruments, there’s only one piece of collaboration, it’s a folk/punk record, it’s in your face, a record of the times. Songs like ‘Hard to be Human’, ‘Life Goes On’, ‘Loves my Saviour’ are all essentially recorded live. It’s timeless like a Buddy Holly album.

Andy Smythe Musician 2

In the reviews people loved the songs, but some inevitable criticism was levelled at how crude and bare the production was. With ‘Poetry in Exile’, I’ve grown as an arranger and producer, the songs were developed gradually and I wanted to collaborate more, the songs needed a more cinematic approach, they are more ambitious and are making bigger statements. They are more about the direction of the human race, rather than the panorama of an individual looking out across a desolate Covid landscape. Hence, I sketched out arrangement ideas, and my friend Chris Payne made huge contributions with ‘Prodigal Son’, ‘Riverman’ and ‘Out of My Mind’ in terms of developing these ideas into full string and brass arrangements. On the other tracks I layered my ideas carefully like a painter on a canvass and was lucky enough to find a talented producer called Dave Palmer, who was able to help me find ‘the sonic space’ for each song, whether that was a West End theatre, a desert, or a concert venue. In that sense, the album is almost a ‘rock opera’, it evolves like a play, I can imagine the songs on a West End stage.

The album features songs inspired by various underdogs and marginalised voices. How do you see music as a tool for amplifying these stories and voices?

The best music should compliment the lyrics, it should resonate with every line. If you take a song like ‘Prodigal Son’, you’ll hear how in the last verse with the lyric, “desert ghosts where sun meets sky, make you dream and wonder why,” how my friend Chris plays a desert flute, which floats above the melody. Similarly in ‘Don’t be a Fool’, there was a need for a second voice, to be the ‘questioning one’, almost the ‘parrot on the shoulder’, the voice needed to be female, but I pushed myself to the very top of my falsetto range to do it. I think that ‘you need to be an extreme version of yourself’ as an artist, you need to find fresh ways to push yourself into new territory. I love the way the Beatles and particularly McCartney did this on a regular basis, he can sing ‘tongue in cheek’ like on ‘Rocky Racoon’ with a sweet voice on his ballds, or like a hard-edged Little Richard like on ‘Oh Darling’. For me, an album should be multi-genre, there’s a huge repsonsibility for the vocalist to maintain the interest of the listener, and that involves taking risks and like an actor becoming the character.

Andy Smythe Musician

On this album the opening and closing tracks represented very different challenges, with ‘Ghost in The Machine’ I felt the need to be Sinatra, where every word has its own character, and on the final track ‘Everything’s a Bit Broken’, I sang it down an octave in an attempt to encompass the darkness of depression as Leonard Cohen would, whereas the backing vocals needed to be higher and to soothe like his muse. Hence, if anything I’ve really developed my singing on this record, all in all the range of the singing is almost 4 octaves… it was a journey of discovery into what my voice could do if pushed it to the limit.

Could you tell us about your creative process for the tracks on ‘Poetry in Exile’ and how did the collaborations play a part in this.

Generally, the songs were mostly written on acoustic guitar, with a couple of exceptions. ‘Leaves to Burn’ is based more around a Rolling Stone stype guitar progression, with the music composed first, and, ‘No Pasaran’ was written as a Chopin-like piano piece which cycles through many key modulations. However, the general pattern would be to lay down a demo with drum pattern, acoustic guitar and bass and to leave space for riffs and motifs to be added on organ, piano and electric guitar. These ideas often came late at night when I was immersed in the song, they are precious gifts the riffs, it’s difficult to say where they come from but I think you have limited time to capture them. When they arrive you need to be open to them and let them dictate proceedings.

In terms of collaborations, Chris Payne is a brilliant arranger and I trusted him explicitly to capture the spirit of the songs he worked on. He does this so brilliantly, ‘Riverman’ is a tribute to Nick Drake and the dichotomy of an introverted creative person trying to be a performer, he captures that brilliantly by embellishing the chords and adding dissonance. His solo on ‘Riverman’ also reminds me of an almost Eastern way of playing the violin, it sounds Tibetan, on ‘Angus Dei’ by Rufus Wainwright you’ll hear something similar – his playing is otherworldly.

The other important collaborations were with violinists Beatrice Limonti and Jimmy Van Lin who both play in my live band and accrdionist Pietro Chiodi. I am so grateful to them all for capturing the emotion of the tracks, Pietro and Bea came round on a really hot summers day and literally nailed three tracks in an hour, the immediacy of their playing was breathtaking. Jimmy Van Lin also plays beautifully in Db on ‘No Pasaran’, I gave him the worst possible key and he smashed it, he sounds like a revolutionary marching against the fascists on Cable Street in 1936!

Is there a track you’re particularly proud of on the album and why?

From a personal perspective, I am proud of my guitar and bass playing on ‘Leaves to Burn’. The guitar riff is very Keith Richards, although it’s a bit buried in the mix and the bass playing is out of the McCartney rock ‘n’ roll handbook. I was thinking of his high octane playing on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. It hurt my hands and my fingers, but I did it all in one take on my Hofner bass and the personality of it makes the track!

With the release of ‘Poetry in Exile,’ what are your plans for the future? Are there any specific goals or milestones you hope to achieve with your music in the coming years?

The aim is to build an online following on social media and Spotify to compliment my performances on the UK acoustic grassroots circuit. I feel that my strength lies in an enigmatic and quirky approach, my music is never going to be mainstream pop, but there is an audience out there that appreciate great songwriting. Modern pop music is just too unquestioining, mudane, uniform and perfect – it sounds like it’s ‘half machine, half human,’ and, I want to inject some personality and celebrate the greatness of ‘whats come before’ with The Beatles, Nick Drake, Britpop and build upon ‘the shoulders of giants’ – the essence of what it means to be British and make music that celebrates this quirky island!

Andy Smythe Singer Songwriter

If I can build an online presence, then perhaps I can persuade bigger festivals to book me with a bigger band, and bring the music to a bigger audience. I want people to question the decisions of leaders and the direction of societal change and come together to make the world a better place. If my music can help achieve that then I will be very happy.

And now, for the fun question… If you could transport yourself back in time to witness (or even take part in) the recording sessions of any album in history, which one would it be and why?

I would like to see the Beatles when they were ‘at their creative peak’, bouncing off each other with acoustic guitars. I love ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’, I’d like to see how songs like ‘In My Life’ were crafted and arranged. I’d also like to be in the playback room, when McCartney hears the strings on ‘Elenanor Rigby’, the lyric alone on that song is pure unadulterated genius! Imagine hearing the solitude and starkness of those strings for the first time!

Thanks Andy, a fascinating insight into the making of ‘Poetry in Exile’ and the creative mind behind it all. We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to Andy Smythe for sharing his time and stories with us today. Be sure to check out his album and follow his journey as he continues to push boundaries. Until next time, keep supporting independent artists and keep discovering great music. This is The Indie Grid, signing off.

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About Author

Matt Warren

Matt Warren is a Cheshire based musician who studied contemporary music and composition. When not writing for The Indie Grid he enjoys watching 'Breaking Bad' on continuous loop and going to gigs. Since a youngster his fave band have been 'The Beatles' (with 'Cardiacs' in at a close second)... and this still applies to this day.

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