JOHN SMITH plays a rumbling fingerstyle. Sometimes he uses a slide. Sometimes he plays the guitar on his lap. Sometimes he even detunes mid-song. His guitar work and honey-on-gravel vocals have brought crowds to pin-drop silence and rapturous applause.
The acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso makes a welcome return to the Róisín Dubh on Friday,September 15 at 8pm, where he will be showcase his latest album, Headlong.
John first made his name on the folk circuit, opening for folk greats John Martyn, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. He has guested with artists such as Jackson Browne, Martin Carthy, and Glen Hansard, and played guitar for artists such as David Gray, Lisa Hannigan, Joe Henry, and Joan Baez. As a solo artist, Smith has been lavishly praised for his talents as a songwriter and guitarist, with The Sun hailing him as "a guitar genius"; The Sunday Times describing him as "the guitarists' guitarist"; while Headlong was given a 4-star review by MOJO, which called the album "gorgeous".
It is not by chance that Headlong comes bearing a title implying impulsive, breakneck motion - written as it was, during various touring stints in North America - with a view ahead, to new horizons and new songs, to new opportunities, and new audiences. Over an afternoon phone call last week John spoke with me about his music and Headlong.
First though, I asked him about the album cover, a black and white photo of Smith’s profiled, bearded face, with eyes upraised. I remark that in the photo he looks like some medieval monk or saint and ask was there any such mystical or spiritual intent in composing the image. “That is a completely unexpected suggestion I have to say,” he replies with a warm laugh. “Then again, having a career in music is a form of self-flagellation,” he quips.
Headlong acknowledges the indelible loss of John’s friend and guitar hero John Renbourn, who called Smith “the future of folk music”, and to whose memory the album is dedicated. “He was one of my favourite guitar players and I was then very fortunate to get to know him a little bit,” he says. “I opened for him a few times, and went on the road with him a few times, and it hit me hard when he was gone, as it does when you lose people you know. I realised just how much of an influence he had had on my guitar playing so it seemed only right to dedicate the album to him.”
Smith recorded Headlong after completing a lengthy tour as a sideman for David Gray. He describes the contrasting impacts of being a session musician and a solo artist. “If you are playing with other people you are in the amazing position of being able to play a lot on the road," he says, "because when you are touring solo the thing you do least is play your songs, because you spend all the time driving, thinking about the next meal, getting to the gig.
"As a session musician you have time on your hands to play so you can cultivate lots of new ideas. When I got home after those couple of years away I had a notebook full of ideas and all kinds of riffs under my fingers. I’m in a different place now as a guitar player than where I was; I feel like I’ve been able to get that out and record it in a meaningful way. I’m playing a lot more electric now and that feels really positive. That’s the direction I was going in with all the session work and I decided to get all my electric ideas on the new record and it felt really natural.”
There is an upbeat and buoyant mood to many of the songs on Headlong. “I was aware it was going that way and was a much happier record and I just went with it,” Smith admits. “It felt natural to be writing in a lighter mood; it felt good. I was writing what I was feeling at the time and what I was feeling was very positive.”
One such track is the beguiling ‘Joanna’, a love song in which the singer is away from his beloved but knows that their feelings for each other are undiminished and strong. “That song is about my wife, but Joanna isn’t her actual name. She’d be mortified if I used her real name!” Smith notes wryly.
Headlong is Smith’s fifth album, all of which have been self-released. I ask was it hard forging his way without established label support. “It never stops being uphill,” he declares. “I knew from the beginning that if I was going to do anything meaningful with the music, it was going to be hard and it hasn’t ever been any easier but there’s never been anything else that I wanted to do so I have never questioned it.”
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.