Friday, December 09, 2005

Interview with Levi Smith

Levi Smith Band

Levi Smith looks fifteen, sounds forty, and is twenty-one. Just old enough to redeem his drink tickets, he’s mature enough to write lyrics that span the gap from teenage angst to mid-life crisis. Smith finds the pith of emotions and zeros in without wasting words. His show-ending song, “Bitterness is Sexy,” is classic, destined for breakup mix-tape glory: “We can still be friends; that’s the consolation prize you gave me in hushed tones over gourmet coffee… I am lonely, but I need another friend like you need another compliment.” He’s a writer at heart, and chose songwriting as his creative outlet because it was immediately gratifying. As he puts it, “What are pancakes other than an excuse to eat syrup?” For Smith, lyrics are the pancakes to convey the syrup of his thoughts. What inspires a universal song like “Bitterness”? “It was my first break-up not because of me doing something wrong, being apathetic, but because of her. Before, honestly, I didn’t care. But this time, I had exhausted all the tricks in my 19-year-old book. I was younger and she just wasn’t interested.”

Taller than he seems, older than he looks, Smith is still awkward on stage. Toes turned in, boots scuffed, and cartoon shirt rumpled, he is mussed just right for the front row of smiling groupies. Evidencing his “god-given ladykiller” skills (per his MySpace and website) he plays up the emotions in the songs to good effect. More rocker than singer-songwriter, Smith’s set is consistant and backed by the bass and drums duely noted in the album title, The One with Bass and Drums. “Young emo chicks seem to like the music, and old men love our bass player- something about his tone...and his high cheekbones. I want to put myself in the place of old men, to write from experience,” Smith says.

Smith has tatoos on one arm only. “Feel.” (with the period) is written in script along his inner arm where he can see it as he plays. “When you play mainly in coffee shops you can't depend on dancing or distortion to cover mistakes,” Smith says. The tatoo is there to remind him of what’s important to his audience. A modified Mexican flag with the Lone Star instead of a Golden eagle in the center is on his upper arm, and a Stephen Crane poem over a music staff encircles his wrist. "If I ever lose the other arm, people will either assume it had just as much ink as this one. If I lose this one, I’ll be instantly clean-cut,” Smith explains about his unadorned other arm.

He began composing at age sixteen, but “began writing decent songs at eighteen.” He’s a prolific songwriter and stays up all night. “I love it when no one but cops are out at 3am, and that’s OK, ‘cause I’m a speed limit kind of guy.” Smith is from the Rio Grande Valley and calls Lubbock home, because likes the small-town feel of the city. “I’ve never been in a traffic jam there.” He has lived briefly in Denver, North Richland Hills, Roswell, Abilene, Wichita Falls, and Corpus Cristi, which was the inspiration for “What Are You Waiting For?” “I’m the ‘you’ in the song. It’s my potential talking to me.” His songs are literal expressions of his emotions, in the tradition of Country artists. “I like the straightforward honesty (of Country). You have to admire them for not being subtle--there ain't much guesswork,” explains Smith, “Even if you don’t like the song, you know what they’re singing about.” Smith says he’s mostly influenced by Ryan Adams, Cory Branan, Dave Matthews, and Tonic. He laughs. “Yeah, Tonic, because...I'm not sure. I suppose they're just one of those inexplicable habits like watching The Weather Channel for comfort.” Simon and Garfunkel were also an early influence. Paul Simon wrote the first line of 'The Sound of Silence' in the bathroom as a kid and finished it when he was a grown man. I go through multiple drafts, and most of the time go back to the first draft because it was the best.”

Levi Smith has a new album out. He describes it as a departure from The One with Bass and Drums: “This upcoming CD is much more realistic, both thematically and musically. We've already played all the songs live as they are on the CD, minus a few guitar layers and harmonies. I seriously doubt we can ever accurately re-produce on stage the songs on the other album without a big budget and even bigger delusions. Lyrically speaking, The Songs That Might Take Us Somewhere is a more self-centered record. It's mostly self-loathing, but that's still narcissistic, it just looks better from an audience's perspective. Aggression and desperation are two main adjectives that cross my mind when thinking of the melodies and instrumentation. You never know when a CD might become my legacy; if I die, I want the last songs I recorded to sound like I knew it was coming. The lyrics are less playful, they may be come off more vague than I intended, but I know in my heart that I put more thought into them.”

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