ANDY SMYTHE: "I'm a huge Beatles fan and I had to visit Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills"
Born from the depths of his soul-stirring sojourn in the mystic lands of India, new single "Prodigal Son" by Andy Smythe embodies a profound love for a foreign realm and the ineffable experience of finding solace upon returning home.
Andy Smythe, a luminary renowned for his mesmerizing melodies and soulful poetry, has embarked once more on a transformative sonic odyssey that defies the limitations of borders and resonates deep within the hearts of the audiences. With "Prodigal Son," he beckons us to join him on an ethereal expedition, where the allure of an exotic land intertwines with the inexplicable yearning for the embrace of familiar shores. As we delve into the beguiling narrative that weaves through this poignant composition, we unravel the intricate story of Andy Smythe's transformative encounters in India—a land where the seeds of inspiration were sown. Through the lyrical alchemy of his evocative verses and the ethereal melodies that cascade like whispered secrets, Smythe guides us through a kaleidoscope of emotions, capturing the vibrant hues, profound spirituality, and profound human connections that permeated his sojourn in that mystical realm. "Prodigal Son" stands as an impassioned testament to the profound love Smythe cultivated for India—a love that gleams through each lyrical verse and resonates within the very fabric of every note. Indie Boulevard was granted the extraordinary privilege of engaging in a captivating dialogue with the enigmatic Andy Smythe, as he unveiled the kaleidoscope of his experiences in India, his mesmerizing new single, and the ethereal visions that shape his future endeavors.
INDIE BOULEVARD: Hello, Andy! It's truly a pleasure to reconnect with you, and congratulations on your latest single. I wanted to dive deeper into the theme of returning home and reflecting on one's life that you explore in your music and especially in the new single "Prodigal Son". How does this theme resonate with your own personal experiences and artistic journey? I'd love to hear your insights on how it has shaped your creative path and influenced your perspective on life.
ANDY SMYTHE: Travelling was a big part of my life between the ages of 20-30. I went straight to university in England after school and had just had enough of academia. I knew that music would play a big part in my life but I didn't have much to write about. I landed a couple of jobs in San Francisco on Columbus Ave and worked 16 hours a day for months to earn enough money to fund the rest of a round the world trip. it was a huge eye opener, across the street was the famous City Lights Bookstore and I started reading the Beats - Kerouac and Ginsberg and also some of the English greats like DH Lawrence and Laurie Lee. It gave me a chance to reflect on childhood and write poetically about a country upbringing in England, those pastoral thoughts formed the basis of my first album 'Love Unspoken'. The more far out beat writing just fuelled a travelling gene and a wanderlust to see the National Parks of the USA. I joined a hippie bus tour called 'Green Tortoise' and we visited places like Mono Lake and the Grand Canyon. Great evenings under the stars passing the guitar around the campfire. Seeing first hand some of the more extreme landscapes on Earth gave my symbolic writing more depth.
IB: I wanted to delve into the significance of the deserted Jain temple in Ragasthan, India, and its connection to the themes explored in your song and album. Could you share what this temple symbolizes for you personally and how it intertwines with the larger narrative you're conveying through your music?
AS: I was working my way through India on the way home and have never seen such extreme poverty yet such happy people. It kind of confirmed for me that money isn't really important, you need enough in life but you need to do what your heart tells you to do. For me, those two things have always been teaching and music. I had a degree in chemistry and could have worked in finance like university friends ended up doing in London and earning vast sums of money, but I felt the calling to give something back. I wanted to help inner-city schoolchildren and give them better opportunities, so I started a teaching career which I've always been very happy with.
On the trip in Rajasthan, there were 3 of us with a guide on a camel trek. We went into the desert by the India/Pakistan border. It was pretty gruelling and camels are pretty grumpy companions. At night you just hear them blowing wind!! But, it was such an amazing experience, my best memory was stopping at a desert nomads hut and he milked his goats on the spot and made us rice pudding. The generosity of people that have nothing to give was heart-warming. We came across the Jain temple by accident, it was just a ruin in the middle of nowhere. Thousands of years of culture, people caught in sculpture like they'd been frozen in time. Makes you realise that humanity is a huge chain reaching back into the past and that we're all just a tiny piece of sand in the cosmos, pretty insignificant really. I think, that I'm trying to convey a sense of humanity through my music, I think that we all need to find more time to be spiritual and share quality time with each other. The hippie ideal from the 60's still means something to me. I think that in my next album that I'll be quietly rebelling about themes of power, ecological degradation and the treatment of young people by the gatekeepers of neoliberalism.
IB: Beyond the deserted Jain temple, did any other aspects of your time in India contribute to the overall direction or themes of your music? Are there any other specific locations, cultural encounters, or personal experiences in India that left a lasting impression on your creative process?
AS: There were two other locations that I spent time in. I'm a huge Beatles fan and I had to visit Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills. The Ganges pours through the valley, I remember it looking dark green and spiritual, full of snow melt from the peaks as I was there in April. I tried to find the Maharishi who I think was still alive at the time but to no avail! Strangely, it's like an Indian Blackpool and people travel there to hike and go on various pilgrimages. I thought that The Beatles had probably missed out on India if they'd only gone there as it was one of the least interesting places that I visited and a bit of a tourist trap.
Dharamsala was a much more interesting destination, it's much higher up and is the place in exile of the Dalai Lama. It took a couple of days to get there and I completely messed up, I arrived at 2am in the wrong village, all of the backpacker places were 10 miles up a steep mountain road. The bus was full of Buddhist Tibetan monks and they were so incredibly fit, they had no shoes on and it was close to freezing but they just shot up the road, I couldn't keep up! Again, possibly the happiest most content people I've ever met, their bodies and minds seemed to be in complete equilibrium and they all loved each other so much. I remember the imagery of a halo of light that seemed to follow them in their dark red Tibetan robes in the starlight. I think that the creative process is like being in a similar 'free state', the best words and music come when you're open to the universe and not trying too hard. It's like there's a crack that the light falls through - these people just seemed to be swimming in it. I think that it's really important to not sometimes ask too much of yourself and in times of reflection the moments of inspiration will reveal themselves when they're ready to.
IB: As a self-produced artist, how does the process of creating and performing your music contribute to your understanding of what it means to be human?
AS: I think that being creative is the most important gift that we have after the gift to love and care for others. I'm fortunate in that my day job involves developing young adults and helping them achieve their dreams and I also have this wonderful opportunity to create and perform. Bob Dylan doesn't reveal much, but I watched the Martin Scorsese documentary about him and he said 'life isn't about owning things or anything like that, life's about creating yourself'. Probably the most important sentence I've ever heard anyone say. I think the essence of being human s being inquisitive and discovering, making mistakes and reflecting and improving on your relationships with others and with yourself.
On a personal level I've been through a tough time over the past 3 years, firstly a freakish sudden medical issue where a surgeon saved my life - it was pretty close and secondly some difficult professional moments. My last album 'Hard to be Human' was very much a therapeutic exercise, I exorcised the pain of those events through song-writing. So I think music is about honesty and also imperfection. As human beings, we can't create perfect recordings, many of the mistakes we make in the creative process should be celebrated as they lead to bigger and better things. Performing for me is about emotion and being open to both the audience and the other musicians. My band would tell you that I never play songs the same way or never stick to a set list, every evening is a relationship with a different set of human beings and you need to embrace them and give them the show that they want to see. So I guess, performance is an inclusive, social happening to be enjoyed by all and that's probably the best part of being human. We're social creatures.
IB: In what ways do you draw inspiration from artists like Nick Drake, and how do you infuse your own unique style into your music?
AS: Nick Drake is a huge influence in that he was an introverted man who created such beautiful music. His 3 albums encapsulate all of what it's like to be human. I love 'Five Leaves Left', is there a better song anywhere, ever written than 'Riverman'? The 5/4 time, the arpeggiated guitar, the soft cello like voice and the gorgeous string arrangement. His music is so beautiful, he achieves so much by not stating the obvious. I think that that's what I've learned from Nick, you can say more by 'saying less' with the lyrics. I am also inspired by the string arrangements. On my latest single, Chris Payne does a wonderful arrangement, an arrangement should enhance the lyrics as well as the melody. I love other artists like Leonard Cohen and his album 'The Future', today I listened to 'Black Star' by David Bowie and loved both the way he varied his voice almost like a saxophone and the way in which he duetted with the instruments. If you listen to the great artists they have 'many different voices' that can take on different characters. That's something I'm trying to do more and more, I've been trialling a bass voice recently and recorded a track in a bass voice for the first time. I think that you need to be radical and push yourself to the limits of what you can physically do.
I'm also learning that my own unique style of music involves 'painting different layers on a canvas'. I often start with an idea on the piano or an acoustic guitar but I might eventually wipe the original layer away. In my home recording set-up I add the layers one by one as riffs and counter melodies appear to me. 'Prodigal Son' started as a solo piano track with acoustic guitars, but the piano is eventually almost entirely wiped from site apart from the last chorus. The acoustic guitars were replaced with a more atmospheric shimmering electric guitar. I think that this is how my music will continue to develop, I'm excited by learning more about playing different instruments and getting better at the ones I play. I'm becoming braver and more confident, the other day I surprised myself by creating a ghostly sound on a slide guitar for a song about AI. I'm definitely finding that I'm now listening to bass parts to as my own bass playing develops - I was really honoured when a blogger complimented my bass playing on 'Prodigal Son' - the first time yet!!
"MUSIC IS A REFLECTION
OF THE TIMES WE LIVE IN"
IB: How do you navigate the tension between the desire to travel and experience new places and the longing for a sense of belonging and stability, as expressed in your song "Prodigal Son"?
AS: Belonging and stability form the core of who you are. I'm lucky that I have a lovely partner who's very supportive of my music and two sons that have developed into good people. In a way Prodigal Son was inspired by one of my sons who's returned home to work after being at university for 4 years. Things are so much harder for young people now, I feel that they've been exploited by the older generation who make up the 'landlords', they can't just go out and rent easily or their entire salary will just go on their rent. Perhaps they've been overpriced out of the more carefree lifestyle that I was fortunate to experience, when I just slept on floors in San Francisco and Sydney, Australia and then returned to London to rent and have lots of parties! So, Prodigal Son is not really just about me but also the struggles of young people to establish themselves and as Bob Dylan says 'create themselves'.
IB: As an artist, what role do you believe music plays in society, and how do you see your music contributing to the cultural landscape or impacting your listeners?
AS: Music is a reflection of the times we live in. My last album 'Hard to be Human' was recorded in lock down and described a number of lockdown experiences. 'Car Wash Tuesday' was about the routines people developed to survive for example. If you look back at musical history Dylan started off by referencing the ideas of the Civil Rights Movement, the music of the Specials in the late 70's, early 80's the harsh economic landscape of a recession and a Tory government at war with the unions. I hope to continue that tradition.
IB: As you perform at various venues and festivals, how do you connect with your audience and convey the emotions and messages embedded in your music?
AS: I love to listen to their vibe and be responsive. I played a gig on Wednesday night and got the message from them after 4 songs to be brave and play this upright piano on the stage. It made the evening! We established a bond and it went from strength to strength. I think that an audience loves to see an artist when they're a bit vulnerable and human! I'm notorious for never sticking to a set list... I find it impossible, the shows a journey and you don't know where it's gonna end up. At this gig it was really hot and I'd had a cold, so after an hour I felt my voice wobbling a bit so again just calmed down and sat at the piano again. I played a song I hadn't rehearsed that has about 15 chords in it, I forgot one in the sequence and just kept singing acapella... the violin player had never played the song, but between us, it happened and felt really special.... then the missing chord came back to me as if it was a divine gift for being brave!
IB: What role does live performance play in your artistic expression, and how does it compare to the process of recording in the studio?
AS: Performance is about showcasing your soul and being honest. I think that people respect that. I'm a quiet person in everyday life but my being comes into equilibrium when I'm on stage and I find it easier to express myself than I would in a formal work meeting where I'd feel really awkward. Recording is a different beast, you are trying to capture a moment somehow and I think that the key is to write the arrangement quickly if you're multi-tracking. It has to feel like it was created simultaneously. The vocals have to be done within 4 or 5 takes too. I think that it mustn't sound too contrived, it has to be real. I think that the human ear can almost spot over elaboration. It's also like painting a blank canvas, the layers have to be added and then mixed to achieve the right blend. It's also a case of keeping the detail and human expression in the voice and the acoustic instruments - sometimes if you add too much that can be lost and sometimes 'less can be more' if that makes sense!
IB: And the final question. As you look towards your next album, envisioning its evolution from the foundation you've laid with "Hard to be Human" and your recent single "Prodigal Son," how do you see it building upon the artistic groundwork you've established so far?
AS: I hope that I'm improving artistically on all fronts. 'Hard to be human' was a real 'sugar rush' to make. I recorded in quickly and intuitively, sometimes a little bit roughly in Covid. Some of the vocals were recorded in a 'lean-to' I have at the back of the house, just staring at the wildlife in the garden, capturing some bird noise sometimes. It was very organic but the songs are very strong and I'm proud of them! With 'Prodigal Son', I took my time more and ensured that I gave enough time to reflect on the performances. It's time-consuming, because I have to play everything, in a way it might be interesting to find a studio to also do some 'band tracks' in with the musicians I play live with. I'm open to trying songs with different arrangements to find the 'magic'. I think that's what you're searching for, you're looking for 'a magic performance' where the instruments reflect the lyrics and the emotion. I've also now got several songs that have been arranged orchestrally with my friend Chris Payne in America. It's a big challenge to ask him to contribute towards a whole album, but his arrangements are superb and we've put down some strings, brass and female backing vocals. So, a new album, hopefully in the new year with more a greater palette of sound and more collaboration with a wide range of musicians. I can't wait to share it!