Andy Smythe is a British singer/songwriter who has been active on the London folk scene since the ‘90s. London, however, isn’t Smythe’s home town; he is originally from Shropshire, England. But London is where Smythe developed a small but enthusiastic following. Known for his reflective, contemplative lyrics, Smythe has a variety of influences — some British, some American, some neither British nor American. In the British media, Smythe has often been compared to the late Nick Drake, and other valid comparisons have included Donovan, Tim Buckley, and Van Morrison (who is neither British nor American but rather, Irish). At times, Smythe incorporates Celtic elements, which explains why he has enjoyed some favorable coverage in the Irish media. Indie Boulevard got the opportunity to know more about Andy’s brand new song ‘The Riverman’, his inspirations and upcoming plans.
IB: Hi Andy, glad to see you on Indie Boulevard. Your new single “The Riverman” came out today. As far as I know this is a tribute song to Nick Drake, with an excellent string arrangement from Chris Payne. What can you tell us about the song?
ANDY: I have an old BBC documentary on Nick Drake – I hadn’t looked at it for many years. I love his album ‘Five Leaves Left’ and myself and my partner, Karen had been walking in some woods south of London talking about life in general and how we are both a bit introverted and how it’s so much harder to progress in life when you’re reluctant to push yourselves forwards. It made me think of Nick again too, he barely toured because he found it difficult to command a stage, tuning his guitar so intricately and having to also deal with the ‘banter’ from rowdy 60’s, 70’s folk club audiences. The ones that made it at the time like Roy Harper or John Martin tended to be quite outrageous and extrovert.
So … the song is for the introvert inside all of us. It’s a song about ‘the beauty of the mind’ and the pictures it paints. I started it on the acoustic guitar, but crafted the words very carefully, there’s also a nice chord progression, it goes from Bm to F and then through a classical cycle of 4th’s back to A. Straight away that’s very Baroque, so I thought of strings after putting down the bass, guitars, drums and piano. My friend, Chris lives in New Jersey and we’ve always been in touch after he helped me out hugely on my debut album ‘Love Unspoken’ some 20 years ago. I sent him the recording and he wove his magic, I love his glissando phrases and he also plays a mean mandolin a la REM!
IB: I confess that I am a huge fan of Roy Orbison, his voice is incredible. It’s a shame that today’s generation knows very little about him. When I listened to your new single, it reminded me of Roy songs in places. Are there any artists that inspire you?
ANDY: My influences are a hybrid of folk/acoustic and rock n’roll. I love Roy’s voice too, not many artists have such a great vibrato without sounding twee. I loved ‘the Travelling Wilbury’s’ in the 80’s with Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy. Even they were in awe of him when he started singing!
I did have some classical training on my voice 25 years ago from an Italian opera singer. I was suffering from sore throats a lot and he taught me to sing from the diaphragm. I can sing anywhere now and sometimes in a small venue choose not to use a mic. Rufus wainwright is another big influence, I do a set of piano songs that are influenced by his playing style, I love ‘The Art Teacher’ by Rufus and have seen him many times.
My biggest heroes though remain the Beatles, I love Lennon’s attitude and McCartney’s musicianship. My album ‘Hard to be Human’ from earlier this year was completely a one-man project. I hadn’t played the bass much, but ordered a Hofner violin bass from Germany during Covid lockdown. It took 4 months to get here because of Brexit, but I love it, picking out countermelodies, trying to emulate Mr McCartney!
IB: You are a very experienced musician, you have been making music and performing constantly for 20 years. But can you remember how you got into music?
ANDY: I was lucky, my Dad was a music teacher. I rebelled against classical music and formed a band at 16, playing church halls and discos much I guess like the Beatles would have done once upon a time. It led to a blind alley but when I went to university, I met a kindred soul called Paul Lyttle and he was a great lyricist. I used to put his words to music and perform them around the folk clubs of Birmingham. Then, I went travelling around the world and started reading all the classics in between busking and working in bars in San Francisco and Sydney. Reading Ginsburg/Kerouac/DH Lawrence and many more gave me the confidence to finally write my own songs, so that when I came back to London I joined a folk/rock band playing Irish pubs and gradually made the transition to performing my own material. I got some good breaks playing at the Borderline singer/songwriter festival and a bunch of good festivals and it’s taken off from here really. A big moment was the time that Mike Scott of The Waterboys said he loved a CD and came to watch me perform in a small basement bar. That was like Dylan walking in, a big moment for me. I love his music and ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ was a huge influence on my songwriting.
IB: You tour quite a bit, and touring is an endless journey from point A to point B. What do you enjoy most about touring?
ANDY: I like the journey on the road, I love putting CD’s I love on in the car. The UK is a beautiful country and I’ve played seaside towns, outside festivals and some of the country’s biggest folk clubs. I’ve been fortunate enough to share a stage with several legends including Peggy Seeger and Martin Carthy, as well as more contemporary stars such as Seth Lakeman. I love trying to work an audience and meeting new people, I rarely keep to a set list but just try and gauge the audience. So, I guess the beauty is that every gig’s different.
IB: I have been carefully preparing for this interview by listening to your album, ‘Hard to be Humanэ’. It sounds very 80’s. What was the most difficult thing about recording this album?
ANDY: The album is my first attempt at being completely solo. I’ve always recorded with a band, but because of Covid bought a Mac and tried out GarageBand. Then I moved onto Logic and then hey presto ‘Hard to be Human’ was born. I had a bunch of songs that I was really proud of and the biggest challenge was literally trying to record them in a house with three other locked down people! Much of time, I was in a ‘lean-to’, basically a ‘shack at the back’. The acoustics weren’t the greatest and I decided in the end to record the acoustic tracks completely live with two AKG mics (a bit like Springsteen’s Nebraska) simply because the more expensive mic was picking up everything including the neighbours and my son’s computer gaming exploits! So, it was all about trying to balance the need to record ‘live’ against the ‘downside’ of sound quality as no matter how directional your mics, there is always some ‘bleed’ from the guitar onto the vocal and vice-versa.
IB: Let us get back to the new single “The Riverman.” How did you approach the production?
ANDY: I start off by using a drum track to keep tempo and recording an acoustic guitar, then a guide vocal. I find that I’m most effective ‘when I’m in the zone’. When you are multi-tracking you are essentially trying to mimic a band playing live. I try and do this by not thinking too much but trying to lay down the bass and guitars quickly. I had a really nice electric rhythm guitar track on the song that used a heavy echo, this gave the song its ‘feel’. Then, I found a piano riff, kind of staccato that filled in at the end of the phrases. The initial rough mix sounded like a good sketch to send to Chris in the USA to work on with his string arrangement. He gave the song it’s distinctive mandolin and laid down violin/viola and cello parts, followed by flute and mellotron.
When he sent the mix back to me, I laid down a definitive vocal. I prefer not to do too many takes. In general, I think that the 2nd or 3rd try is usually the one and I try to capture the whole take in one go. Without being precious, it just doesn’t seem real to me if you put together multiple takes of the vocal like a jig-saw, recording for me is about capturing moments of the story. I then added a double tracked vocal in places, just so that the vocal cut through a symphonic arrangement! I also added an octave backing vocal which was at the very top of my range, again doing such a thing is time-limited!!
I don’t like trying to mix a song myself so sent the track to Gary Brady in Dorset to mix. Gary recorded my first album on analogue tape in Greenwich and he’s always a great person to work with. he has bags of enthusiasm and brings out the best in you. Chris EQ’d the strings himself and Gary added some lovely touches such as the Beatle-inspired question/answer double tracking in the introduction. It’s very subtle and barely perceptible but it just adds a layer of mystery to the mix. I’d be lying if I said the whole song was easy to record, it was my ‘Born to Run’ moment, this song took a huge amount of work to ‘get right’, it was a real journey that at times tested all three of us involved!
IB: Today’s technology has reached a whole different level. Where before, to record a drum kit, you had to hire a drummer, drag the drum kit to the studio and do a thousand takes, today it’s enough to download the program. How do you feel about that?
ANDY: I miss playing with a band. When I started out we’d record drums/bass/guitar in the studio onto analogue tape pretty much as The Beatles would have done. If someone made a mistake we’d go again! It might take as you say 10 attempts. Studio time also costs a lot of money and you have to pay the musicians. So, I have absolutely no regrets I can now record a whole album at my own pace and can perform at my own pace too. Sometimes in a studio I’d be there at 10am on the coffee trying to get psyched up to do the lead vocal after a few beers the night before! Now, when the time feels right, I can just go for it. So from an arranging and singing perspective, the modern way is much better and it has it’s own personal spontaneity. However, I miss the camaraderie of a band, helping each other, encouraging each other. I listened to ‘Revolver 2022’ by the Beatles the other day and I love the banter and the ideas flying off each other. Please listen to my albums ‘Love Unspoken’ and ‘Nation of the Free’ to get the analogue tape band vibe!
IB: The life of a musician is incredibly hard and sometimes stressful and creatively dubious. Artistically, what challenges has the last year held for you?
ANDY: I feel that I’ve grown enormously as a musician and producer of my own music over the past 12 months. If anyone had asked me if I could have produced ‘Hard to be Human’ two years ago it would have seemed impossible. So I’m immensely proud of that achievement, to have played all of the instruments and produced something popular that’s been played on the radio, sold CD’s and has had some great reviews.
I’ve tried to develop as a songwriter and a singer and keep on learning. Karen has told me to ‘use different voices’ and I’ve moved away from using the familiar vibrato voice at times to something harder with harsher timbres. I feel that I can rock now with ‘Rosalita’ or ‘Car Wash Tuesday’ or sing like Johnny Cash on ‘Love’s My Saviour’. I feel that my writing’s developed so that I can now express the darker things in human existence as well as the happier more poetic experiences. Covid has taught me how complex human being’s are and I feel that I can now write about the whole ‘rainbow of existence’. I also feel that I’ve found a deeper range on my voice, all in all ‘The Riverman’ covers two and a half octaves with the backing vocals, with a lowest note of a B.
So the challenges are always to keep developing and pushing yourself to occupy ‘areas of the room’ you might not have previously explored.
IB: What’s next for your fans? The new single is already available on all platforms. Will there be another one? Or maybe a new album?
ANDY: I hope that my fans enjoy the new single and can also take the time to enjoy the associated video on YouTube. The video was a collaboration between myself and Gary Brady. Gary did a great job with my mobile phone green screen footage and stylistically is matches my single ‘Car Wash Tuesday’ beautifully. I’ve been recording a number of new songs and have half of a new album ‘in the bag’. Again expect surprises, I’ve been working on my blues harp playing! Lyrically I’ve been writing songs about Global Warming and the Ukraine crisis from a Ginsberg-like perspective, I love the way he captures a moment of world-wide existence in a poem. I hope to be able to persuade Chris Payne to add some strings to a few more songs. But overall, the new songs will be ‘more universal’ and trying to capture what it’s like to be human post-Covid in an era of new challenges for the human race… I do want to keep promoting ‘Hard to be Human’ though, I feel that it has a certain charm and I’m learning to use Spotify and promote myself better! If you’re reading his, please give the album a listen.
IB: And the last question. If you had the chance, who would you play live with, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
ANDY: I’d like to have played with the Beatles in Hamburg and to have pounded on a honkey tonk piano a la Jerry Lee Lewis. I’d have liked to have worn the black leather jacket, had the haircut and had my photo taken by Astrid. They are clever and fun, I would have got on with them I think. The closest I’ve got to date is playing ‘Hey Jude’ to a bunch of Japanese tourists in Paul McCartney’s old house on his old piano on a National Trust minibus tour (Oh we’re so British you know.. no Graceland experience here!). A tribute song I wrote for Lennon called ‘Song for Sean’ has also been played in the hallowed walls of Mendips. There used to be a custodian of the house who was also a music journalist and he wrote to me saying he’d given the song a spin, that meant a lot to me… I come from Shropshire some 60 miles from Liverpool, so I’ve always felt close to them geographically and spiritually. By the way Bob Dylan was on the mini-bus the week before I was! he played the Liverpool Empire and the only way he could see John’s house was to take the tour. Apparently he was very enigmatic in a long black coat and wide brimmed hat!
My only claim to fame with the Stones, is that my electric violin player had a job in London as a delivery motorcyclist and he delivered a pair of very short designer trousers to the lovely Ronnie Wood. He said he was very nice! I’ve played the Mick Jagger centre in Dartford and I know the music journalist Paul Trynka who’s written a book about Brian Jones and the Stones.
But for me, The Beatles had it all…
Single ‘The Riverman’ by Andy Smythe available on all digital platforms.
Click on this link and read our «The Riverman» review.
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