Images of love, war, natural disaster and political awakening weave through Jonah Smith’s new album, Lights On. Its stories travel from country to city as we are taken from a lone man ice fishing in “Cabin Fever” to a New Year’s Eve celebration in Brooklyn for the song “Mrs. Cooper.” The peripatetic nature of these songs makes sense, considering that many were written while Smith was in motion, traveling the country to promote his then current release, Jonah Smith.
Like his earlier albums, Smith’s latest work defies easy categorization; he pulls from the deep well of American blues and many of its offshoots, including soul, country, and folk. Still, his raw talents as a writer and performer shine on stage irrespective of his unclassifiable style. Smith is essentially a songwriter with the voice of a soul singer.
Jonah Smith embraced his industry outsider status when he decided to leave his label, Relix, at the end of 2007. “Not having to seek approval for my songs or my direction as an artist became too tempting for me. It was great to work with people who were so passionate about my music, but I needed to forge my own path. For me, it has become about creating a tribe and a deeper connection with my audience.”
Smith turned to his audience for help and utilized fan funding to bypass the need for a label. “I was very nervous about doing this,” he says, “but what I found was endless encouragement.” In addition to the generous donations that poured in from Jonah’s website, fans in D.C. organized a fundraising concert which netted thousands more. Other fans donated goods and services to the cause from web services to road cases for Smith’s equipment.
His innovative approach didn’t stop there. “My last record was about a band playing together in a room, which created a certain consistency. This time around I was really thinking about contrasts like light and dark, dense versus stark,” he explains. “I also had a desire to include a wider range of musicians. Living in New York, I’ve met and worked with so many talented people that I found myself pairing them in my mind with specific songs.”
Seeking an aesthetic consistency for his songs, Smith traveled to Kingston, NY to meet with producer Malcolm Burn. Burn’s idea was to make a record where every song contrasted the one preceding, resulting in an album with great breadth that gains its continuity from Smith’s woody, rich voice and Burn’s compelling production aesthetic. After an intense week of recording, Smith took the tracks back to New York to flesh out the songs with strings and horns. Most notably, they cascade through the epic rocker “Misguided.” Contrasting this is the stark “Lights On,” which begins with the sound of an acoustic guitar and Smith’s voice recorded by a room microphone. The track conjures memories of 1960s protest songs and reveals some of Smith’s many influences. “I find deep inspiration in the songs of Bob Dylan,” says Smith. To others, though, powerful voices come to mind like John Hiatt and Lowell George.
The album continues to pull in diverging directions, finding the tension between hope and cynicism, the beauty of both blitheness and despair. From the opening song “Love Gets Lost,” which slowly fades in with a repeating guitar motif, we have the feeling that we’ve wandered midway into someone else’s dream. This is all further colored by the unique contributions of musicians like Carrie Rodriguez, who delivers a haunting vocal on the album’s closer â€œI Know What You’re Talking About,” a song which deals with the dream state of routine and was inspired by a scene in Milan Kundera’s masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
In the chorus of “World Without Love,” a catchy rocker that Smith calls his post-apocalyptic love song, he sings, “Angels are ideas stuck inside my head / Love was just a dream I had when I was in your bed.” Cynical? Yes, definitely. But like most of the other songs on this record it is laced with hope. And these days Smith has a lot to be hopeful about.
– Carrie-Sinclair Katz