Home on the road: Interview with Austin artist Dwight Smith

Last week I had the privilege of talking in person with ‘indie-folk’ singer & songwriter Dwight Smith. He was playing that night at the cool venue Stay Gold on East Caesar Chavez, and we chatted in Stay Gold’s outdoor courtyard. I got to see him play afterwards and he’s one quality artist, with an album under his belt and one more arriving soon (hopefully). Talking to him was lots of fun and he’s one of the friendliest dudes I’ve spoken with. It’s not often I interview an artist who has pedal biked from Connecticut to California, had a Beatles listening party for his birthday, and felt the American anti-climax of seeing a bald eagle at the dump.

Hi there Dwight, simply put, how long have you been here in Austin?

I’ve been here just over 5 years, and it’s really flown by. It’s the place I’ve lived the longest since I left Connecticut, which is where I grew up. A moved around a lot in my 20s so Austin feels like home, which is cool.

When I looked into your bio it said you’ve traveled around most of America, and were writing songs along the way. How long was your epic journey?

It’s been a number of journeys, but a lot of it has been through touring on and off over the last 3 or 4 years. Also, several years ago with a friend of mine from high school, we rode our bikes from our hometown in Connecticut to California one summer. And that was definitely my more substantial, detailed experience of traveling.

Bicycles or motorbikes?

Bicycles.

Wow, that’s quite a journey man!

[Laughs] Yeah

Were you were playing gigs at all on your travels?

On the bike trip no. Some friends have proposed it, “Hey do you wanna do that again and play shows?”, and I would consider it, I enjoy performing; but a long bike trip is kind of exhausting and stressful enough as it is [laughs]. It seems like adding days of hard journey between shows would be an experience worth having, but not something I would undertake without some consideration.

On these trips of yours, what was the most rewarding experience you had?

One thing I think applies to everything, that bike trip especially, is to be repeatedly surprised by the generosity of strangers. And I expected that our experiences with strangers would break down evenly between some bad, some good, and a lot fairly neutral. People just being indifferent. And I was amazed that the vast majority were extremely positive and people everywhere were just so helpful and giving. I feel like it was very affirming as a perspective on humanity. To be put in that position of being vulnerable, and obviously there are much more dire situations to be in, but to be in unknown places and needing guidance, I experienced help that was overflowing with kindness. It was pretty exciting. And it was cool to see that from other people.

As I did some investigating of your bio, I saw that you’ve been working on album that’s taken nearly 4 years to release. Is there any simple reason for the delay?

I guess the simplest is that I’m incredibly slow. I don’t have a very efficient process I guess. The last time I put out a full-length album was 2012, and I had it in my mind since then to put out the next full length album…. but it has been this continuing process of having an idea of what the timeline should be, having to always re-calibrate and learn patience again, and try not to rush it. Of course other things come up, relationships and side adventures that distract me for some time.

I kind of have to laugh at myself, but it is reaching the final stages. And there’s also been a lot of internal debate about how to do it, what the circumstances of the release should be, how it should be recorded. I’ve gone back and forth with that time and again, which would delay the process. But I did ultimately decide to use the recordings that I made at home, which was not my initial intention for recording. But once I started sharing those with musical friends and people I’ve recorded with, it was affirmed and got a lot of positive reactions to that, and I had more confidence in it again. It will sound a little bit raw but that can be a part of the charm and character to it.

I know that feeling myself, where I was recording my own album in New Zealand and it’s still currently un-released. I recorded most of it myself and had that same inner dialogue of “I should really get this done at some point.” When there’s no set deadline you suddenly see years go by!

Also, I find that process of recording rather exhausting and I kind of hate it [laughs]. I always have to motivate myself and it’s a bit of a torture, hate to say but it’s totally true. I like to write and I like to play, but I guess it’s because I’m so obsessive that when I’m recording it I’m never satisfied. I just do it again and again and it’s never really how I want it to be, but at some point I have to accept it and know it’s close enough. It’s kind of painful [laughs].

Totally dude, isn’t recording vocals the absolute worst? You record something good one day, but then listen the next day and hate them…

Oh my god yes, like “I got it yeah!” and then “No this is terrible!” And then I’ll go back and forth from day to day and then think “actually the first one I did was good!”

With this new album, will there be any new sounds and instruments that are any different from the last album?

I think that the palette of instruments is very similar, the core is still voice and acoustic guitar rooted, but has some horns and more voices. What’s new is some electric guitar and some different keyboard tones which are kind of more synthy that I’ve used in the past. There is a deviation from earlier stuff, but some substantial overlap too.

Do you play live more with a backing band or mostly solo?

Over the past few years in Austin I’ve played with a more ensemble set, and it’s kind of a rotating class as some people have other more substantial commitments [laughs], with other bands and families and such. I try to be super flexible about how I try to approach the live set for that reason. I’m prepared to play solo when it’s necessary but I’m super grateful and excited whenever these folks are able to play. Lately, more and more it’s been a band show, which is cool. But when I’m on the road it’s almost always a solo set, mostly because of resources. I’d love to bring a band on the road but working up to that still.

What lead you to signing with Punctum records? How did you fall in with that team?

I can’t remember exactly how it initiated, but I met Dan Rudman who is the director. He does a lot of cool musical, academic, and otherwise creative orchestrating in Austin. I met him through friends at some event I’m sure. We’re in the same pool and bumped into each other. I established a relationship with him at the same time I was befriending a lot of Austin bands and musicians that were involved in Punctum. I was really drawn to their whole spirit and ambition and also the whole catalogue of bands that they have.

And some of the folks who have releases with Punctum have played with on stage with me, like Liz Baker who plays in a band called Young Tongue. And Claire Pluckett and Matt Krolick who are playing with me tonight are from another band called Mother Falcon. Both of them have released with Punctum as well. And also my friend Nathan Wilkins, who performs solo as Monté, he also has an amazing band called Hikes. He and I have released a split EP on Punctum. He was very enthusiastic to working with Punctum for that release and helped push me in that direction. We gravitated toward the whole creative community and that approach. I’m friends with at least one of each band on the roster, in many cases the entire band.

Any particular music you listened to the most while growing up?

I listened to a lot of stuff, listened to a lot of Little Richard, and The Beatles were enormous for me as a kid. I don’t remember how old I was, I’m not sure if it was entirely my idea, but I had a birthday party that was just simply listening to The Beatles.

That is the coolest kids party I have ever heard of

Yeah, it may have taken in me in a different direction [laughs]. Also New Kids on the Block, I must admit they featured predominately in my early listening. A clear trajectory of my musical heritage there [laughs].

What are some of your favorite Austin venues that you’ve played at?

I do really like Stay Gold, I’ve always just enjoyed the space when watching shows, and when I’ve got to play. I’ve played here more than once in other bands, but with my own songs this is my second time here. And I also love playing at Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk, rounding out that cherished group.

Will you be doing anymore touring in the future?

Yes. I’m finishing off the mixing for the new album and there’s so much mystery of how that will be ultimately presented, but I’m more on the verge of it than ever before. Though I’m still hitting the road in a couple of weeks. It was conceived as the release tour and it’s now the ‘pre-release tour’ [laughs]. It’ll cover my bases and plant some seeds. I’m really excited about that. I’ve been doing a lot of work to rig out my station-wagon as a tiny house that’s a little more comfortable and livable than in the past when I have sometimes slept in the back, tangled around my gear. I’ve now built a little platform where I can sleep on top and store stuff underneath, hand sown some curtains to make it a little more homey, I’m really getting into it, getting crafty. I’m excited to break that in and see how it works out.

Dwight car

To wrap this interview up, when you hear the term ‘kiwi’, do you first think of the bird or the fruit?

Definitely the fruit. What do most people say?

They usually say fruit here in the states. In New Zealand we still have the fruit but label it as ‘Kiwi Fruit’. That’s why it’s funny coming here where I’ll see the fruit in the supermarket labelled simply ‘kiwi’

“That’s not a kiwi! That’s a kiwi fruit!”

Exactly

Are there any kiwi birds in the states? As exotic pets I wonder?

Haha, I highly doubt it. Kiwis are endangered in New Zealand. To see one in the wild would be like an American seeing a bald eagle. You’d probably feel like a ‘real American’ or something. My dad stumbled upon a kiwi when hiking around Stewart Island in New Zealand, so I think he now qualifies as a real New Zealander.

The fantasy of observing a bald eagle in the wild, say seeing one land on a rugged peak; that’s so funny as it reminds me of when I personally saw a bald eagle in Alaska… at the dump. It’s a big thing in Alaska where bald eagles will go and scavenge at the dump, and that’s where you can go and see them. Which complicates the poetic imagery of the noble bird. It’s very symbolic. “America today!!! What have we done?!”

 

You can next catch Dwight play on Wednesday April 19th @ Cactus Café, University of Texas. He’ll then be touring around the US from late April to late May. Check out all the deets on his Facebook Concerts page

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