On Monday 30 July the guest of Folk Holidays in Náměšť nad Oslavou will be the English singer-songwriter John Smith. The organisers speak of him as a “hidden treasure of exquisite folk singing” and emphasise his album from last year Headlong with its personal confessions to his wife Joanne. We spoke with Smith, who his guitar idol and model John Renbourn called “the future of folk”, by telephone.
Originally you played the guitar and composed instrumental music. How did it happen that you started to write and perform your own songs?
Yes, I have already been playing the guitar for some twenty-five years. And earlier I really did play mainly my own instrumental music and also songs by other writers. That was sometime in 2003 and 2004. Once though I wrote a song from which I had a really good feeling. At first I only sang something, and then I could see that it made sense. I then began to write more. When I included these pieces into the programmes of my concerts, people reacted to them and so all at once I realised that I was a songwriter. Since that time I have been much more interested in songs than in instrumental works.
What or who do you write about? Yourself? People around you?
Many of my songs are about people who I meet or know. Mostly when writing I work from my own experience. But in some of my songs there are certain mystical elements.
Do you see yourself currently more as a guitarist or as a singer?
Just as for a dance two people are needed so for my songs I need a guitar and a voice. One needs the other. Of course it depends on each individual piece which of the two will be more prominent. There are works in which the guitar has the dominant role and in others the lyrics of the song are more important.
Aside from writing your own songs, in the past you worked with a range of significant musicians not only from the English scene – with the group Waterson:Carthy, with Glen Hansard, Joan Baez, David Gray and others. Looking back which of these was most important for you?
All these were important for me. For example I got a lot from being a guest at the concerts of the singer Lisa Hannigan. At her side I learned how to sing accompanying vocals and especially how to use the higher registers of my voice. I learned a great deal about performing on a big stage from David Gray, who I see as a major concert artist. If you have the chance to see him up close then you become aware of how well he knows what to do on the stage. But I have gained something important from everyone I worked with.
You also appeared as a support act to the group Tinariwen, which is made up of members of the Tuareg nation. Does African music also inspire you?
Yes, African music is highly inspiring when it comes to guitar playing. It is complex and rich and from African masters such as Boubacar Traoré (note: another guest at this year’s Folk Holidays) you always learn something new. Their playing style is completely different to our Western approach. You only need to listen to these players and it will enrich you. In the same way currently I am listening to a lot of Cuban music, as the Latin syncopated rhythms fascinate me.
I assume though that despite all these musical tastes traditional English music still occupies one of the top places for you …
Yes, British traditional music is still very important to me – I grew up with it. The great figures in British folk music are my major heroes – people like John Renbourn, Martin Carthy and John Martin. Their music surrounded me from childhood and I don’t think there is anything closer to my heart. I like American music, other genres are close to me but in the first place I am an interpreter of traditional British folk and I am proud that I can continue this tradition.
Does folk music appeal at all to young people today?
I think that at least for some young people traditional music is interesting. My songs are not directly traditional but I stick to folk fundamentals, I stand by them. I go to various festivals, play my songs and people react to them. From that I would judge that his musical style is still interesting for many people.
Since you lay claim to folk roots, what is there from folk music that can be heard in your songs?
I mainly draw on tradition in the writing of lyrics. Understandably I also use certain musical approaches, but one approaches folk music rather in inducing a certain atmosphere or feeling. I play with various tunings, more or less traditional, I also use my own approaches, but I evoke folk music in how I sing and in what I sing about. Often these are almost mystical moments or something which goes beyond our everyday life. All that can be found in folk music.
The Folk Holidays festival in Náměšť nad Oslavou, where you will be appearing has over a long period systematically covered the English and more generally the British folk scene. Despite this I think this scene is still not sufficiently known here. You are appearing in the Czech Republic as an “ambassador” for English folk. Is that how you feel?
It is my job to travel and offer people music. I like to travel and enjoy playing to new audiences. I do not see myself as an “ambassador”, but I certainly like to offer my songs to people who have not heard them before. I believe that music can speak to everyone, and so I try to address the greatest possible number of people. So I happily use opportunities and visit new countries and places where I have not previously been.