The examined life: that's the one worth living, but it's tough when life doesn't imply that you're going to be happy or comfortable all the time.Beautiful Songwriting Canada - Published: 3rd October 2016 - - Words & Questions: A Lonely Ghost Burning -
To talk with Beautiful Songwriting Vol. 3 alumni Jesse Daniel Smith is to talk with a friendly, easygoing and engaging individual: one who is, in many ways, a dichotomy, of sorts. The Montreal singer-songwriter, a proponent of lively guitar work and mellifluous, heartfelt tunes, admits himself that he can overthink things. Whether it be the tug-of-war between romanticised artistry and the more robust motivation of practical industry, or the wish to present an already enlightened avatar whilst intently seeking and demonstrating personal improvement, there is the sense that, beyond his concrete conviction on the benefits of maintaining low costs and self-sufficiency, the self-taught musician's outlook on his own art, and indeed, art in general, does not reflect a position nor staticity that lends itself to succinct summation. Unsurprising then, that this interview is a lengthy and insightful one: Jesse discussing the pros and cons of his unusually late start as a musician, his desire to be fully defined by the music he makes, and the many joys and difficulties of being a continuously developing songwriter and human.
Jesse: It’s a funny thing. When I was sixteen, seventeen years old, all I wanted to do was be a professional skateboarder. I was into extreme sports: hurling myself off of high places and moving quickly. I randomly picked up a job — a friend of mine was like, “We need someone to clean up an industrial warehouse for two weeks, and if you do it, we’ll give you x-amount of money and you can go and buy whatever with it.” At this point, I wasn’t working; I was skateboarding full-time — I was really going for that. I walked into a pawn shop in the hopes of buying another skateboard, and ended up finding a guitar instead. What was particular about this guitar was that it was left-handed, which I’d never seen before. Everyone in my family played music, and they were handing me these right-handed instruments — I just wasn’t capable of holding them. So, when I found this left-handed guitar, and I picked it up and it felt natural, I was like “I just have to buy this.”
So, I started playing this guitar and I was off-setting my extreme activities with it — winter was coming in, so I was stuck inside the whole time — and, eventually, I ended up having a tonne of teenage angst, what with finishing high school, starting college and me deciding not to go so I could pursue being… I don’t know… an artist or a skateboarder. I was just a real bohemian dude, and I just happened to play music at the right time that I was feeling stuff. I wrote a bunch of tunes that were not very good, but were the beginnings of me expressing myself. It was a totally not-sexy, very practical thing. I was just like, “I want to express myself”, and playing guitar was the only way I could really do it.
Jesse: Man, that’s the whole trip about it. I only started listening to music when I was nineteen years old. So I was playing guitar, and it was based on nothing — I didn’t listen to music. I was learning what I thought you had to learn. I went through the stereotypical guitar riffs that you learn, even though I wasn’t that motivated by it. I was learning ACDC, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and I’m like, “This is what you’re supposed to do when you play guitar.” Then I started noticing that I’d spent a decade learning how to skateboard and no-one cared, it was expensive, and it hurts your body, but if I could play these crappy, classic rock riffs, suddenly people were giving me attention. And I think, at seventeen, being a little socially uncomfortable and stuff, I really needed that. So, it was just this fluke. I had no musical ability; I had no ability to sing, no ability to play music — it was really rough going for a long time, you know. But it’s one of those things where, I think, it was the sheer persistence of it. You can learn how to listen to music better, you can learn how to write songs better, and if you learn and listen to really good songwriters, you can take from them and figure out what they’re doing.
Yeah, the whole thing is kind of a trip. It’s pretty crazy that you think that, but I’m so happy. I wanted to make it look natural and easy, so I’m glad it’s coming off that way.
Jesse: That actually makes really happy to hear, because for me, I’m still just trying to figure it out: just trying to listen to music and see if I can write something that’s worth listening to.
Jesse: That’s the thing that’s curious about it: I think coming to it late was, ultimately, my most outlying quality. The recording industry was just about to change when I got into it. I got into the mind-set of: I’m not very good at this, and I’m coming to it really late in the game, so instead of making CDs and trying to sell them, I’m just going to put stuff out for free to try and make up for lost time. It ended up being really invaluable for my career: that I started to get everything done in-house — the recording, the production, the videos, the photos. I got into a mind-set early on of: I should just do it myself, because I can’t afford to hire other people to do it, and there’s no reason why I would — I’m not good enough yet to do anything.
So, all I started doing was becoming this prolific artist who was just writing, recording and releasing material all the time, and that ended up being super convenient, because now my internet presence is what separates me from the pack enough to get ahead a little bit. Now people are getting wise to it, but thankfully I was at it early enough because I was this overly logical artist who was like, “Okay, how do I cut myself from the pack, right now?” It didn’t matter if I was very good at singing or guitar or anything, because I was just putting out a free song every day. That’s all that it took to start getting a fan base, and then SoundCloud, Spotify, YouTube: all these things showed up, but I was already way ahead of the curve; everything was online already.
Anyway, being a seventeen-year-old and coming into it with no experience was actually amazing, because I was able to break away from an industry standard, and it’s been the single thing that has allowed me to do anything: that initial, “I don’t know how this works, so I’m going to do it a new way.”
Jesse: That’s a great question. It is different. When you first start out, there’s this really thoughtless aspect to it that I miss tremendously. You are literally nobody, and no-one cares about what you’re doing. There were no metrics to compare anybody before, so when I first started doing music, it was just like, “Oh. I’m the only person I know who releases songs.” I knew other bands that were playing shows, but I didn’t know anyone who was releasing material and getting this really tangible rippling effect. I would put stuff on the internet, and people would listen to it on the bus or at work or whatever, and they’d come home at the end of the day and tell me about it. That was just so motivating to continue going with it. But now, everyone is putting stuff out every day; there’s this constant stream of really good, really fresh, really invigorating content on the internet, and although that is good in a lot of ways, it’s not as cool as the secret club, where I could make a song in two hours and put it out. I wasn’t competing with anybody.
Now it’s more fun because there are more players in the game, and so the game has gotten better. Home production has gotten really good. Home distribution has gotten really good. But it’s less instantaneously rewarding. You can sit on a tune for a long time, and when you put something out, you really have to put out something that you feel is special, because there’s a lot of competition, and there’s a lot of people who are doing it so well. You end up with a much more satisfying end result, because now I can make a living off of it; I can do this for a full-time job. But there is an element of: as soon as something becomes your job, and as soon as you start accepting income, you also have to accept the biases that go with that, because now you’re like, “Okay, I want to continue making money, so I should kinda do what I’ve already done.” You can’t help but over-think it a little bit, because now you’re like, “My livelihood depends on this.” So, that changes.
Jesse: When I play things differently, it’s usually because I’ve gotten better at music in that time. I’m really coming at music from such a disadvantage. The only thing I had going for me was a sense of rhythm, so my timing was good, and that was a good place to start from. But my chops weren’t very good, my ear was not good at all — if you played two tones, I couldn’t tell you the distance between them or what interval they were occupying. It was really, really tough. Even to this day, I’m learning all the time, but I’m coming at it from no natural ability. There are some people who pick up music, who just kind of have it, and I seemed to lack this inherent quality that makes people good at music; maybe it’s just a more advanced ear, in the same way that someone who’s good at cooking might have a better palette. Some musicians are just like that: they hear a song and they can just pick apart what the tonal quality is and what the stacking harmonies are.
Normally, when I stop playing tunes, it’s because I’ve become aware of what the tune is now, and I no longer play it because I’ve become musically sensitive to the fact that maybe it’s too similar to something else that I’ve written or something that already exists. Also, it’s totally in my own head, but usually there’s some element of: this song doesn’t represent me, what I want to say, or what my values are, anymore.
The tunes that I still play but have changed quite a bit – I have a tune called Half a Man, for example, that has changed completely in feel and tone – it’s more because my tastes have varied. Sometimes I consider putting out the same song every year, just so that can people can track what my progress has been. The last two or three years I’ve put out a version of First Day of My Life, by Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), and I was thinking about doing another one just to be like: This is where I’m at right now. You can tell by the way I’m playing it and the way I’m singing it who I’ve been inspired by and what techniques I’ve picked up since I played it last. So, really, it’s this ongoing journey; I’m showing all my work, essentially. I’m assuming that a lot of people do this on the road. Normally, people pay their dues, get better on the road and then release their first album. But I was the opposite — I’ve been releasing music since day one — so you could see me getting better and changing. I think it has more to do with the fact that I’m not holding my cards to my chest at all; I’m showing my audience everything that I’m doing. That’s a huge part of it.
Jesse: Yeah, it’ll probably happen. The only thing I get concerned about is the people who don’t notice the changes in the tune. Some people might just look at me and go, “This is the same words or the same melody, therefore it’s the same song. Why do you keep retracing your steps?” That’s the whole thing that’s tough about it: as I get better at music, as I listen to more complicated music and get into more interesting things, I worry that the audience will not pick up on it, and then I’ll accidentally alienate myself from my audience who like this very simple guitar and vocal thing. Meanwhile, I’m listening to Andrew Bird, let’s say, and now suddenly I just want to play all these weird classical song formations and instrumentations. I’m concerned that the audience will be disconnected. I am still changing and transitioning, and I’m worried that I might lose people along the way. So, there is an element of overthinking it, I think… as you can tell.
Jesse: These are good, thoughtful questions.
The most important element in any tune that I write is… I hope that people realise that I’m writing from experience, and that I’m also trying to fit a very specific idea into a melody and a rhyme scheme. What I mean by that is that all the choices and words are very deliberate. I probably overthink it, but the most important thing is that I’m singing from a place of truth. Even more than that, when I have to write a bunch of songs, I force myself to go out and do things that are very uncomfortable.
Right before I wrote my first album, I went on a month-long backpacking trip into Europe. That’s the most gringo thing to do, but I was really a homebody; I’d never been on a plane before, I’d never travelled. I was really trying to put myself into it a hundred percent so that I could be really uncomfortable, which would make me feel stuff, which would then make me write stuff. My second album, I capitalised on a pretty traumatic break-up; I was like, “Okay, I’m feeling things; I should write some of it down.” And then the new record is just me getting into music for the first time: really listening to music all the time and meeting other musicians and having them exchange albums with me. You listen to it and it’s so good that it makes you so self-conscious about your own product. Then you start to be uncomfortable, and then you start to get better, and then you write more tunes.
All that being said, I think the most important element of the songs is that they’re all based in truth, and they’re all a product of being pretty uncomfortable: trying to put myself in situations that I’ve never been in before so I can feel new things. Which is tough, because I just want to not grow, ever, and be the same person; never develop, don’t become more interesting. [laughs] I don’t want to be more challenged by the universe and life. I don’t want any of that. Ignorance really is bliss, and I just want to live a blissful life, so that’s the thing: I have to go and force myself to be miserable so I can put out some good art. [laughs]
Jesse: Yeah, sadly you just can’t sit in your house all the time, and expect to make really captivating art — it just doesn’t happen. Unless your art is representational of you being a homebody. But yeah, for me, it’s that thing of forcing myself to go and do the legwork necessary to write something, feel what someone else is feeling and represent that in a three minute pop tune.
Jesse: Yeah, that’s been the hardest thing of my whole life. I am the most stubborn and most set-in-my-ways person in the world. I think it has something to do with not going to college; it was choosing to be done with school at high school. You’re essentially an adult now, and every decision you make you have to really be committed and lean into it. There’s no-one else that can do it for you. Who can I look to to be like, “Hey, I’m a singer-songwriter in an industry that’s about to have an entire paradigm shift” ? How do I become successful?
The way that it’s gone… This probably isn’t the best case scenario — I probably could have made moves somewhere in the last ten years that would have furthered me — but the way I’ve done it has worked for me. Which has given me a sense of, “Okay, your instincts are correct; you’ve had some success in this and you have to trust your gut.” But, in trusting your gut, you will often not listen to what other people are telling you. For example, I didn’t drink until I was 23 — I’m 26 — and people were like, “You should probably drink; drinking is pretty great.” I was really sure; I was like, “No, I don’t want to drink.” At some point, I had to challenge my own belief system, have a drink, try and sincerely have fun. I did, so now I’m a casual drinker. It’s been the same thing with travel, it’s been the same thing with eating. When all you can do is trust your own instinct, it’s very difficult to then do things that go completely against what you think you should do.
So it’s been very tough to get out of my shell, because the shell by definition is what’s gotten me anything that I have. It’s tough to wander out and take from other people and their experience, while also still being able to trust in what your natural instinct is. This whole industry is virgin territory at this point; no-one really knows what anyone is doing. We all know that social media is a huge part of it, and streaming, Spotify, Apple Music; sync placement in movies and television — this is where the monetisation of music is headed, so we’re all going in that direction. But, for the most part, all you have is your instinct, and trying to figure out: What is a new, fresh approach on this thing?
Jesse: Yeah, this is a new thing, and it absolutely is an exchange of ideas. I could, theoretically, sit at a piano and try and come up with every take on a song that I could imagine. Song composition, arranging and making it interesting is this gentle dance. For me, anyway, it’s this really delicate thing: you have all these preconceived ideas of what a song is, and what you’re trying to do is a fresh take on it: not sounding like anything that’s ever been made before and especially nothing that you’ve ever made before. But, in order to do that, you have to listen to a lot of music, and hear how other people are very cleverly putting their own twist on what is a normal, three-minute love song. I’ve been listening to a lot of Andrew Bird lately, and he does a lot of these really interesting time changes that sound really natural but are kinda out there. These tunes will have one bar that’s a little bit shorter so that the next one feels like it lurches, kind of; I’ve been inspired to maybe throw a few of those into my own tunes, because that would give me a new variant on the ‘intro, verse, chorus’ thing. In listening to a lot of new artists, I’m getting all these new takes on this thing that I’ve been doing for the past ten years, and probably will continue to do for another ten years.
And this is a new thing; that’s what’s crazy. I probably only started listening to music in the last year, like, really becoming a fan of just listening to music and being able to separate it from my job. I can listen to music now and just appreciate how good it is, whereas before, I was always listening to music in order to see what my competition was doing in a market. Lately, it’s been a lot more of a romantic idea of music. I’ve been leaning on people who are better than me to show me what they’ve found. They’re already ahead of me in the journey, so they’re like, “Hey, look: here’s this cool thing I’ve found.” So, by listening to the records and appreciating them and just really falling in love with them, you get to internalise these lessons that they’ve already learned. That’s kind of the secret of how they’re so far ahead: they’ve been doing that for so long, probably. It’s listening to the greats and being like, “What is great about this?” And accepting it. Not trying to lessen it. Not listening to it and going like, “This is pretty good, but it’s not that good, and here’s why.” Being able to put my insecurity down, just listen to it, and be like, “This is so great”, has been really healthy. I’ve been able to participate in this communal thing where we’re all sharing and taking from each other. It’s been fun. It’s been a trip. The music I’m writing now represents that; it’s more interesting, I think.
Jesse: [laughs] Yeah, there really is. I wish that there wasn’t. I’d love it if I was more of the like, “No, I just get up and I write for five hours every morning.” I’m trying to get to a place where I write every day and do it more from a place of: this is my job, and I put in X amount of hours per day. But normally, when I write, it’s two in the morning. It’s always on a nylon guitar, and it’s almost exclusively at two in the morning, accompanied by coffee, good lighting and a room that has a carpet so it’s not too reverb-y — it’s got to be a nice, quiet, dead room. It’s like your typical, romantic songwriting situation. It’s when the world has gone to bed. It’s when I can’t get emails anymore, and no-one’s on Facebook or Instagram. It’s got to be when the world has stopped functioning, and I can’t be distracted by people doing stuff; that’s when I can realise, “Oh, I’m actually really affected by this friendship, or a break-up.” That’s when you feel it. That’s when the muse shows up and you’re able to channel what I hope is a collective consciousness. So yeah: super late at night, super good lighting.
Jesse: It is. And I don’t know about you, but there’s been so many instances where I’ve been like, “I don’t know if I should play guitar or not. It’s a little late; I should probably settle down.” Because I know it’s a whole thing. I know if I pick up a guitar, it’s a whole thing now. I’m engaging in an emotional activity; it’s going to be draining. But there are so many times when I’m so thankful that I did, because I’m like, “This song probably wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done it this second.” It’s such a culmination of like, “Oh, it’s super late at night, so I’m going to listen to this artist, and that gets me playing in this key on the guitar, and I’m in this kinda mood so I play these notes in succession — and now I have a little melody going.” It’s so crazy: this product of this random moment. You just happen to pluck a few strings in a row, and you’re like, “Oh! There’s a little thing here”, and then that sprawls into something else. And sometimes those tunes define your career, and you’re just like, “I’m so happy I did that, because that got me 30,000 views on YouTube, which I know got me this person, because they said this is their favourite song, and then that person tweeted out my album and that was a big deal.” If you ever think: maybe I shouldn’t play guitar right now, it’s totally worth it to do it. It’s always worth it. Because even if you come up with one little thing, you don’t know if that seed could eventually end up being the thing that gives you all the shade that you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life.
Jesse: Right now, I’m really stressed and anxious all the time, because I can’t pick up a guitar without writing a new song. It’s annoying. I can’t work on any of this material, because every time I pick up a guitar, within five seconds I’m playing a new thing. I’m like, “Oh, this could be something really cool.” But you end up with fifteen to twenty ideas, and that’s the issue. Even the songs that I originally wrote in this period — the great emotional purge that I’m going through right now — are just being totally abandoned, because I’m like, “These aren’t good, they’re not representational of what I’m doing right now.”
But that’s not good. I had this tune called You Are Made of Stars that I put on the internet a few years ago — it’s been really good to me — but I put it up because I was sick of the song. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to play it anymore, so I figured I would record a copy and put it on the internet. That way, if someone is into it, they can enjoy it, but I’m not going to look at it ever again. At least it’s out there, and who knows? People could like it… And they did like it, and then it’s back in my set and I’m playing it again because now it’s the reverse thing of people asking me to play it. It’s not the song that I didn’t like, it was the fact that I didn’t think people would get it. I was like, “This song is stupid. It’s too artsy, it’s too heady.”
Now what’s happening is that I’m not giving myself an opportunity to record and put out this material. It’s sitting too long. Almost to the point where it’s like I’m leaving it in the fridge too long and it’s going bad because I’m not doing anything with it. So, that’s the one thing that’s frustrating; I pick up a guitar, and I don’t want to let this song that’s coming out of me go to waste, so I write it down, but in that time, I’m not letting the songs at the top get used for anything. It’s this bitter-sweet thing of, like: it’s so great to be recording all this material, but at the same time, I’m conflicted, because I’ve never written a lot at once; I’ve always done one song, recorded it, produced it, released it, and then started another song. So, to have this many songs that I’m juggling at once is tough. Some songs are getting broken apart, and I’m using the verse, here, and the chorus, here, and the bridge, here. It’s this interesting thing of letting it all sit together, and they’re starting to blend into each other.
Again: very long winded. But all that being said: I’m a little anxious and a little stressed out. Because I have all this great material, but I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t stop writing.
Jesse: Yeah, and I was in the reverse for roughly a year after I wrote my second record. It was kind of a pain to stop writing for a year and not know what to do, but it was also fun to play guitar. All I did was play guitar for the year. I couldn’t write a song to save my life. I think this backlog that was stuck in the pipeline is now coming out at full speed, and I just can’t control it. I think that’s what’s happening. So, I guess it’s a good problem to have, but at the same time, it’s still a problem. I have to figure out a way to capitalise on this energy that’s coming out of me. I wanna bottle it and save it so it can last me for the rest of the year — so I can release more material and not just be like, “Here are the seven best songs that I wrote”, and abandon twenty that could also have been great.
‘Could have been.’ That’s the whole thing: you don’t know. You put it on the internet and you let them take over. They will decide what is a good song and what is not. All you can do is get it ready and be like, “This is the best that I could do with it.”
And even more than that, you’re like, “Okay, should this be a song where I play acoustic guitar and vocal — one take, one microphone, just hit record and do it? Or is this a multi-track?” All my friends are amazing musicians; should I get clarinet and classical guitar, upright bass and cello? You’re never sure. And then you release the one that’s guitar and vocal, and maybe it doesn’t get as many plays as you want, so you’re like, “Oh, I should fully release this now.” We’re in an age where there are no restrictions; I can release as much as I want. I can do all acoustic albums, all electric albums, or both or none. It’s a tough thing. It’s definitely a source of anxiety. You just want to do a good job, and you just want people to enjoy it. You want to deliver to them in a way that will make the most people the happiest that you can. But at the end of the day, you have no control over that; you just have to make what you think sounds cool, put it out, and hope people get it.
Jesse: I don’t know that people even have that much of an opinion about me. I think the biggest misconception is that I’m very serious; people meet me and they’re surprised by how casual I am. They’re surprised that I’m just a goofy guy. Sometimes they’ll be surprised that I’m not very romantic about art; I’m more like, “Your art is valuable if people give it value by purchasing it and appreciating it. Otherwise, your art doesn’t have value.” But that’s okay; there’s nothing wrong with that. Not being commercially viable is not that big of a deal. You can just do it for yourself and really enjoy it. But that’s not my motivation. My motivation is not to make something and then not show it to people — the whole point is to show it to people; to participate in this collective creation. Because at the end of the day, that’s all it is: it’s just a bunch of humans who want to be like, “Hey, look — I made something! Isn’t this cool?” I feel like that’s the primary motivation for anything.
I think that art should exist in a market that wants it. So, right now, there are a lot of people making music. There are a lot of people making really good music. Therefore, if you’re going to participate in it, you’re going to have to really try, and really go for it. There is money, but there’s not a lot of it, so it’s this thing of: just because you do music, it doesn’t mean that you are necessarily supposed to be given anything. Don’t expect people just to come to your shows, listen to your music or sign up to your mailing list, if you’re not offering them any value. I think that’s a preconceived notion about me as well: that I’m this traditional singer-songwriter guy — I think it’s because I play this niche, artisanal, acoustic thing that I do — that I’m train-hopping: going from city to city and playing guitar. It’s more like market evaluation. [laughs]
But it might be that no-one has an opinion about me — that’s also very possible. [laughs]
Jesse: Yeah, I consider myself a storyteller, but it’s not in the traditional sense where it’s like, “I’m going to take you through: here’s the setup, here’s the situation and friction, and here’s the release.” Rather, it’s just trying to tell anyone’s story. I’m hoping that I can release material that brings people together, or on a similar page for a moment. I’m trying to figure out a glue that will stick people together, just because I think the human experience is really dependent on us interacting with other humans. I think that writing a really good break-up song, love song or whatever: it’s a matter of choosing the right words, and having it be specific enough that people are like, “I can relate to this”, and obscure enough that they can put their own information into it. I’m just trying to provide people with a fill-in-the-blank situation for their own scenario so that they can feel as though I’m relating to them.
Jesse: [laughs] Yeah! All the time. That’s my whole life. It leaves me in a constant state of existentialism. Does any of this matter? Everything is so complicated and there are so many variables and so many things that I don’t understand about it. I’ll get into these really long conversations with people who I believe are much smarter than me, and I’ll try and get their impression about it so that they can kind of inform my opinion. It’s just part of it. I’ve opted to make a living by writing about the human experience, so I have to participate in that. It challenges everything that I know about the world, which is an exhausting gig. The examined life: that’s the one worth living, but it’s tough when life doesn’t imply that you’re going to be happy or comfortable all the time.
Jesse: The things that make me smile are the eureka or breakthrough moments that make me understand what another human is saying. When I go from being like, “I don’t understand what you mean”, to them paving a way for me to go, “Oh, that’s why! That is why they feel this way. That is why they’re so passionate about something that I don’t understand.” Those are the things that make me smile most: the kind of smiling where I can’t control it, where I’m grinning from ear to ear. It’s usually when something is explained to me and I understand it. Because I’m such a slow learner. It takes me so long to figure out what other people seem to understand, and so when I feel as though I can participate in the conversation, and I can understand why people are saying certain things, it makes me super happy. Because now I’m that much close to being relatable to other people. Again: so much of the happiness in my life revolves around just interacting with people — like this; what we’re doing now — and discussing stuff. That’s my favourite thing — when we figure out the Rosetta stone that allows me to speak someone else’s language, I’m in heaven.
Jesse: I gain an ability to express myself — which is critical. I can’t believe there are people who don’t make art or aren’t creative in some way. It’s like your body has a release valve, and it needs to get rid of feelings and stuff — move past stress and anxiety and all these things — and I can’t believe that there are people who don’t have an avenue to do it. And I’m not even saying be really good at singing or songwriting or guitar playing; I’m talking more about just having a way to express yourself. A lot of people, I feel like, can’t even talk. This is a really big conversation, but… I’m imagining someone who was born in a small town, who has a path that’s set out for them, like, “My father does this. His father did that. His father before him did that. We’re a blue-collar family. If you try and get away from the pack, if you try and become an artist or anything that expresses yourself, we’re gonna demasculinise you; we’re gonna associate what you’re doing with femininity.” If you feel like you wanna go to therapy because you have these bottled up issues, people will shame you for that: going and seeking out an avenue for expressing yourself.
So, it’s the ability to express myself, the ability to work through things, the ability to have one opinion, unpack it, and be like, “Oh, I have this much better feeling afterwards, and also, I don’t feel stressed or anxious.” Ultimately, the stress and anxiety that comes from second-guessing yourself and doubting things — the fact that I can live free of that, is unbelievable. I think being artistically inclined, or being inclined to want to do art, offers me this method of breaking through what is otherwise an impenetrable thing, which is your opinion. It’s like this thing that’s harder than diamonds that no-one can shift or break because you’re so worried about being exposed for not knowing something, or exposed for not being smart enough yet. It softens that, and it gives you an ability to reshape your opinions or shatter them entirely, and be able to have a better outlook on the other side of it. I really think that artistic expression is the fastest way to enlightenment, in the true sense of just being happy and present: not feeling stressed or anxious about circumstances that are out of your control. Just being able to go with the flow, and be happy with very little.
Jesse: A lot. Because the way I define myself as a person will never change; there’s nothing that can compromise that. But how my art defines me: that’s huge. I just want to be whatever my audience member needs me to be at that time. I don’t actually want to be ‘Jesse Daniel Smith: guy who’s putting olives on everything right now because he loves olives’. That’s too human. So, I want my art to define me one-hundred-percent. Because, sadly, if people meet me, I’m just a guy. But through the interpretation of art and the way I make tunes, if I can be something that they need then that’s great. That’s all I want to do for them: just offer them, not even the music or anything, but offer them this idea of me. Which is why, on social media, I try and keep it as close as I can, without exposing too much about my personal life, because I think that it ruins the mystique. I think interviews are a little different, because it’s a conversation about a subject specifically. But I see a lot of artists who go on Facebook and are like, “I’m having the worst week, and I got a ticket — my life is shitty and I can’t get a break.” You just become like a human to people. And they’re like, “Oh, you’re just a guy. I need someone who’s more than a guy; I’m looking for someone who has it figured out so that I can listen to their music and feel inspired, or feel cool or hopeful about something.” So yeah, I really want to be defined by my art. Quite a bit. Ideally: entirely.
Jesse: Yeah, that question — more than any of the others — must be the one that really separates people into groups in terms of, fundamentally, what kind of artist they are. I understand people being really uptight about being defined by their art, but I think I feel confident in that I know who I am. Good and bad. I’m just trying to do better than I did before: to show that I’m growing. And art is this thing I’m making that’s going to be interpreted in a million ways, and I can’t control that. As soon as you give it to people, you have to accept that one guy is going to think I’m just like a crappy hipster who’s a nobody, and someone else might be like, “This person is like a prophet, speaking exactly how I’m feeling right now.” And both of those are true, and both of them exist at the same time.
Because of that, trying to be like, “I’m gonna release an album that gets a million purchases — but don’t define me by my art.” It’s like: well, which is it? All you probably know about them is their music. You’re like, “Oh, I guess my opinion about Bruce Springsteen is that he’s an all-American, blue-collar guy”, but if Bruce Springsteen went, “No, I don’t want to be associated with that” it’s like: well, don’t sing about it all the time. The only thing we can do is put you in a box, because we’re going to do that no matter what. Anyone I meet I’m going to put them in a box; I’m going to try and file them. That’s just the way the human brain does stuff. So, if you don’t want to be defined by your music, you really have to provide a lot of reading material so that people can have an informed opinion about you.
Jesse: [laughs] You see the music stuff, but on the other side of the room I just have an elaborate prison system…
Jesse: I hope I brought more to my community than I took from it. That’s all. If I can get one artist to not purchase physical CDs, I’ll feel like I’ve done something: to not only help the environment, but also introduce the idea that, if you keep your overheads very low — by not having a lot of cost — it’s much easier to be profitable and to be cash-flow-positive early on. If I can convince artists to abandon the old system and have a low cost operation, that, to me, is me giving back to my community. I’m trying to be the change that I want to see, by going like, “My next album is going to be solar-panel-powered, and have a completely carbon-emission-free recording experience.” Releasing it digitally, not having physical merchandise, and trying to keep travel and touring down. What I’m talking about is avoiding the milk-run, where I’m doing like seventy-five dates in sixty days. You don’t have to do it that way. There are ways of doing it where the whole process isn’t you going into debt — you can make art, and live comfortably, also.
I’m hoping people will follow me in exactly the way I’m doing it, and do it better. Show me ways that I could do it better. I really want to participate in this community of people who are about making art that doesn’t affect the environment, that doesn’t affect anybody else, and makes money; you can live off of it, be comfortable, do cool things and participate in the human experience, travel and meet new people. Do all the stuff that makes life and art worth doing. Otherwise, what’s the point of it? If your art is your whole life and it’s where all your money is going to for some great payday somewhere down the road — when you become John Mayor or whoever — man, that’s not life at all. You’ve bought into the people who make the CDs, the people who are in the music industry. You’ve bought into this illusion that this is the way you have to do it.
In the long run, if people can look back at my body of work and go, “That guy really gave back to this community of people”, that would be amazing; that would be all I ask: to give more than I took. That sounds like a bullshit answer, but I want other people to have the same quality of life and the same vigour for the day-to-day experience that I have.Jesse Daniel Smith featured onBeautiful Songwriting 3
You can keep up with Jesse via his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, and download both of his records -- 'The World Doesn't Need Another Record' and 'Pretty Breakup Songs' -- on name-your-price terms over at Bandcamp.
If you enjoyed reading this interview and happen to think we're doing something right, please consider sharing the link -- whether on social media, or just with a friend, it'd really help us out! We're also on Facebook, Instagram (@alonelyghostburning) and Twitter, so if you'd like to keep up-to-date with the publication of new content, and also provide us with a whole heap of motivation, please do give us a like or follow.