Interview: John Smith (UK) talks new album Hummingbird and working with Sam Lakeman

Since the release of his debut album The Fox and the Monk in 2006, British folk musician John Smith has built a reputation as one of the UK’s finest songwriters and guitar players. With five albums to his name, and with another set for release tomorrow, he is an artist that is not only well versed in the folk tradition, but also pushes at its boundaries. He’s also toured extensively, playing to audiences around the world, including here in Australia, and has opened for, and guested with a diverse range of artists, from folk greats John Martyn and Davy Graham, to Jarvis Cocker and Tinariwen.

His new record Hummingbird, an album of traditional folk songs, sees Smith once again working with producer Sam Lakeman, and features a few guest appearances from friends, including Cara Dillon. Ahead of the album’s release tomorrow we sat down with Smith to find out a bit more about the record, what makes the perfect folk song, and whether we might see him back in Australia again soon.

What is the primary motivation behind your new record, Hummingbird?

It’s an album of traditional folk songs and original songs. I wanted to present the folk music I’ve grown up with, in a way that feels like my own.

Was there a criteria for deciding which traditional songs to include on the new album? Where did you first hear those songs?

Some of them, like “Lord Franklin”, I’ve known since I was a boy. Others were new to me. “Hares On The Mountain”, for instance, I only heard a few months ago for the first time.

What are the ingredients that make a perfect folk song for you?

A good story and a good tune. Personally, I enjoy darker elements, a good murder ballad… but I’ll settle for a love song.

Hummingbird is your sixth record, how do you feel your approach has changed or developed since your first?

You change a lot in thirteen years as a person, and that influences all the creative decisions. I feel like I know a lot more about how things should sound, but I still run on instinct.

How was it working with Sam Lakeman again?

Really good fun. Sam and I have to go to some effort not to just sit around making each other laugh. The great thing about Sam is that when he focuses on a track, he won’t stop working until it sounds absolutely right.

You have a couple of friends join you on this record, how did you decide who to invite, and which songs to have them feature on?

I’ve been touring with Ben Nicholls and John McCusker on and off for a few years, and they are two of the best musicians I know. I had to ask Cara Dillon to duet with me. I’ve played on her last few records and it felt like absolutely the right move to have that wonderful voice on the record.

On “Unquiet Grave” we layered her voice to sound like some otherworldly, disjointed narrator – she’d never tried it before and was thrilled with the results. We had to resist the urge to put twenty-five Caras on the track.

How do you approach the writing process?

It’s the same as anything, you can’t push it too hard because it will break. I usually wait for a notion to come my way and then grab onto it before it disappears. It’s a melody, a simple sentence or a guitar riff. These days I always know if it’s going to turn into something, but I spent years pursuing dead ends.

You were just in Nashville for Americanafest, how do you feel those shows went?

Really good thanks. Nashville is a very inspiring scene. Everyone there seems to be very good at what they do, and they work double-hard to keep it going. I felt invigorated getting on the plane home.

You’re about to head out on a pretty extensive tour of the UK and Europe, how do you pass the time on tour? Are you able to write when on the road?

There’s not a lot of free time on tour. I get up, get in the car, drive to the next place, load in, soundcheck, eat, play the show, sleep, repeat. Maybe I’ll make some notes on the road if I have a day off. One day I might have a tour bus and all that, but mostly I do my writing when I get home, sitting still.

It’s been a couple of years since you were last in Australia touring (as a solo artist), how did you enjoy the experience, and when can we get you back this side of the world?

I’d love to come back! I got a kick out of the audiences in Australia. Played some pretty amazing shows my first time there. I’m working on something for next year, fingers crossed it comes together.

Hummingbird is released tomorrow, October 5th, through Commoner / Thirty Tigers. You can keep up to date with John Smith via Facebook, Twitter and his Offical Site. He’s just set out on an extensive tour of the UK, Ireland and Europe and will be on the road until December, for more information and tickets click HERE

Header Image by Rose Cousins 

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.