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Smitty West: News

Interview with Zoe Murdock re: To Leonard With Love - February 27, 2013

 

To Smitty and Julija, With Love

by Zoe Murdock

 

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the great pleasure of listening to Smitty West and Julija Zonic’s new CD, To Leonard, With Love: Seven Songs from Leonard Cohen.

 

I’ve listened to the songs of Leonard Cohen for years, and have always been struck by the way they open my heart and mind to something deeply human and authentic. The seven songs on this tribute album from Smitty West and Julija Zonic are some of his most powerful songs in terms of that effect.

 

Cohen’s songs are never easy; he can’t seem to rest until he has reached a point of perfect equilibrium. The play of opposites continues back and forth until all sides of the emotional equation have been explored and laid out in a perfect tenuous balance. When I listen to Cohen sing his songs, it feels like I have entered the sacred interior space of a mind engaged in a critical internal dialogue. It is a fragile mind that forces itself to continue down through the layers, no matter how painful it is, no matter how hard, until it reaches the core of compassion and understanding.

 

What fascinates me about this album from Smitty and Julija, is the way they bring that internal dialogue out into the space of the world, enacting the conversation, as if it were a play, a tragedy, perhaps. The story proceeds from one song to the next, from beginning to end, moving through a whole spectrum of human emotions. The script belongs to Leonard Cohen, but Smitty and Julija understand their parts. They know what the songs are about, and it is evident that they have lived life fully and know how it feels to love, to suffer, to feel joy and compassion. Smitty’s expression comes vibrantly through his voice, which is deep and resonant and fine, but it also comes through his hands on the keyboard and from his anticipation and love of what is to come when his own voice retreats: Julija’s voice. She soars. She expresses every nuance of every emotion, perfectly. The movement between the two of them is sublime. It’s balanced. It’s rich. Neither one demands too much, neither retreats. It is just as the songs require. The album is a great tribute to Leonard Cohen.

 

Last week, I met with Smitty and Julija at Euterpe Studio to talk about their singing relationship and the process involved in creating the album.

 

Zoe: Can you tell me a something about your musical backgrounds and when you started performing together as a duet?

 

Julija:  It’s funny that we both love singing dark music, because we first met at a funeral in March 2007. A friend of mine asked if I would sing for her father’s funeral, and I agreed to do it if she would provide an accompanist. Smitty was that accompanist. I used to sing professionally in Croatia, but then the war came, and I hadn’t sung in the seven years since I arrived in the United States.  I wanted to sing again, and after the funeral, I contacted Smitty and he invited me to a rehearsal with his old rock and roll band,  Myridian. The first song I sang with them was Bob Dylan’s, Forever Young.

 

Zoe: I remember that song. It was the first song I ever heard you sing. It had a powerful affect on me, because I associated it with my mother, who died very young. That was the first time you made me cry.  Smitty, what about your musical history. When did you start playing the piano and singing?

 

Smitty: I’ve been playing piano since I was six,  but I didn’t start singing in public until 2004. Julija, who had formal voice training in Croatia and teaches voice at schools throughout the Ojai Valley, has coached me over the five years we’ve worked together. She worked with me to make the songs my own, especially our Leonard Cohen songs.  I’ve never sung without playing, so my interpretation of a song is expressed through the lyrics and the music. In a Leonard Cohen song, the lyrics, the phrasing, and the progression of the chords are inextricably linked. When I feel certain chords coming, it makes my mouth water in anticipation. And every chord has a color, for example, B minor is a blue chord.

 

Zoe: I understand you recorded the album here at Euterpe Studio. How did that go?

 

Smitty: Yes, we tracked all the vocals here. It was a much more-relaxed atmosphere than working in a formal professional studio, like the places where we tracked some of the other instrumentation and mixing. If we were in the right mood, we could just keep going. If we weren’t in the mood, we could stop and take a break, do some chores,  or make a run for a burrito, and not worry about having the meter running. I think that helped capture an authentic vibe on the album. Incidentally, we have a lot of really funny stuff in the can, joking around between the two of us, sound effects, laughter …haha! Maybe that stuff will become a collector’s item one day.

 

Julija:  Not having to deal with a clock made everything that much easier. We could experiment, change, add, subtract elements along the way. At the same time, we tried to stay as raw as possible, making sure we didn’t over think things.

 

Zoe: You have a great diversity of songs in your repertoire, with all of that music to choose from, what drew you to produce this tribute album to Leonard Cohen?

 

Julija: If a song can make me cry, it's a song for me, and I'm not a big crier. Yes, I get misty here and there, and yes there was a war in the place I came from, with the loss of life and loved ones, but I don't necessarily think of those experiences while I’m singing. It's more that these songs evoke emotions in me that let me feel how human I am. There are many people with uncried emotions, and these songs allow them to release their emotions through the safety of a song, where it’s not so painfully personal. There is comfort in that.

 

Smitty: You can see the emotion in people when we perform. They’re not just listening to Leonard’s songs, they’re listening to their own hearts, and it takes on a personal element for each listener. Like a perfume that smells different on every woman, Leonard’s songs evoke different feelings in every heart.

 

Zoe: You seem to choose songs that mean something to you. Songs that move you in a particular way. Can you talk about that?

 

Julija: Leonard Cohen songs speak to me in a profound way. There is a kind of bond between a songwriter, a performer, and the audience. In the perfect situation, each participant in the equation is actively involved in the interpretation of meaning. When a singer cares deeply about the song they are performing, and the audience is responsive, a communication takes place at a very deep level. It’s like talking to a lover; if they are listening, it makes it so much easier to convey what’s in your heart.

 

Smitty: Leonard Cohen’s songs are complex and emotionally rich. It takes passion and focus to communicate his message to an audience. That’s a challenge that interests us both.

 

Zoe: Dance Me to the End of Love is a great choice for the first song. It establishes the dialogue between the two of you that continues through all the songs on the album. It is a wonderful production, with Bob Ryman’s captivating fiddle adding richness. And it has a great rhythm that makes me want to move in time with it. Can you tell me about how you worked on that song?

 

Smitty:  I worked with Scott Luedke, the sound engineer, to visually set the mood for each song. He is a very talented engineer, and I’ve learned that he loves visual clues to the musical vibe. So I try to create that for him, sometimes describing the position on the stage where I see the performers and musicians, or the lighting color and effects, or even a setting like a music video. The way I saw Dance Me to the End of Love was as a street scene in some old European city, I don’t know, maybe Seville in Bizet’s Carmen. The violinist is walking and playing a narrow street and the sound  is echoing off the buildings as he moves toward a tavern where people are starting to stir. It’s not dark yet, but the night has promise. Then people start dancing. Sultry, sexy dancing.

 

Julija: Leonard Cohen’s songs are like paintings. Each one has a color and a quality that evokes a particular emotion. Joan of Arc, for example, references a real person that we all know, but Leonard Cohen has taken her story, and in an impressionistic way, he has made it his own. Then, Smitty and I, and the audience, interact with the impressionistic image and make it our own.

 

Smitty: Tempo is important too. It can effect an audience in a particular way. Nine out of ten songs are written in 4-4 time. 4-4 is a tempo audiences are used to, and it has a particular effect. On this album, more than half of the songs are not 4-4. The unusual tempos create a kind of imbalance or tension, which contributes to the emotions that will be evoked.

 

Zoe: What does The Letters represent to you, and why were you inspired to use it as the theme for the cover?

 

Smitty:  The Letters is musically very interesting, and certainly the most obscure of our choices for this collection. As you can see, we chose artwork for the CD that tries to evoke the tension and darkness of this song.

 

Julija: It was the song of his that was most unfamiliar to us, so the challenge was there. And it was already a duet. It’s a song about that crazy moment when you love a person and hate them at the same time, a song about having something to say to someone, wanting to tell them, but never sending that letter. There is a lot of subtext, both in the lyrics and the music. It is written in two different keys: G and G sharp. The man sings in the first key, and then the woman’s voice is modulated up a half a step. It has an effect like they are each in their own living room going over the loss of their relationship. Some songs are pretty, or evoke nostalgia, but this one is filled with anguish, and it's very authentic. Also, it's kind of our letter to Leonard.

 

Smitty:  Meter is important in The Letters, too. It can affect an audience in a particular way. Almost all songs now are written in 4-4 time, a tempo audiences are used to. Interestingly, and without intent, I see that on our album, more than half of the songs are not 4-4, but 6/8 or in 3. I guess we like the emotional tension, the slight drunkenness, or sensuality elicited by the meter sets in the middle songs of the CD: Hallelujah, Anthem, Joan of Arc, and Bird on a Wire.

 

Zoe: There is a sense that a drama being played out when you perform these songs. Neither of you sing backup for the other. It is more a conversation that moves back and forth between you, carrying us ever deeper into the emotional realm that Leonard Cohen has so powerfully created with his lyrics and music. Do you see it that way?

 

Julija: I see it as any piece of art, trying not to make that one line too many that’s going to make it sound forced or kitsch. We sing it as a conversation-between us, someone else-real or unreal, between us and Leonard, between us and the emotion that produces in us. So, I do not want to say that one word that is going to dilute it-just to have the last word

 

Smitty: That’s a neat observation. With these, and all of the songs we perform live as duets, we spend a lot of time arranging “who sings what.” We want to create a statement that takes the meaning deeper. There’s always musical structure and poetry in a song, but in our arrangements we try to further interpret and script each song for two voices: a man and women in a complex relationship. There are lot’s of songs we love that we’ve tried to work into a duet, but it doesn’t always work out. We either dump those songs, or just have Julija sing them as solos. For instance, she sings all the Eva Cassidy-covered songs we do, and Angel. But most of Leonard’s songs speak to both of us as passionate love, or hate duets.

 

Zoe: Are there other songs on the album that were a particular challenge to produce?

 

Smitty: Whenever I hear Anthem or Bird On The Wire, I always envision angels or a choir singing with a pipe organ in the background, so I wanted real organ for these two songs. I learned about a beautiful Manuel Rosalez-built organ here in the Ojai Valley. The thing is a work of art: all wood, manual stops, sixteen-foot redwood pipes, and a struggling wind system to keep up the air flow. All these things contribute to that slightly-imperfect organic sound that I knew would be perfect for the mixes. A friend instructed us on finding the sweet spot in the sanctuary, and setting the mics to get the best sound. We had to fit sessions in between weed-wackers and blowers, but we got some beautiful “tape” for the sound engineers to work with. Also, the choir voices in these tracks were assembled from individual tracks of Julija and I singing, so it’s a choir of angels, that are just us.

 

Zoe: Is there anything else you want to say about the album?

 

Julija: We have done our work, and now it is up to each listener to respond to the songs in whatever way they will. We poured our energy and love into the album, what it touches in each person, we can’t know. My hope is that people will enjoy the songs. That they will feel deep emotions. That they will dance and cry and laugh.

 

Smitty:  It’s really a neat collaboration of people we love and respect from all over the world. Julija is a Balkan war refugee. I’m a part-Lebanese white boy from Western Pennsylvania. Leonard is a Canadian Jew who touched us both with his songs. Our engineer, Scott Luedke, from Cabin Trax Studios in Thousand Oaks, California, is a long-hair 80s rocker from LA. Our photographer, Mariana Schulze, is a German Argentine immigrant. Our album artists, Ben and Zdenka Blumensheid, are living in Croatia, and our sound engineer, Sean Ingoldsby, is from Real Time Studios in Ojai. Our bass player Dave Hutchison is an Okie, and somehow the wonderful Texas mentsh fiddler, Bob Ryman waltzed into our life. We did much of the collaboration over the internet, but  in the end, we did what we love with who we love, and I think we did a pretty good job of recreating our live, acoustic experience in this album.

 

Da Blues! - June 12, 2009

Smitty releases his latest song "Persistant Vegetative Blues"....here it on the MUSIC section

Coyote Moon - May 14, 2009

Coyote Night
by
Zoe Murdock


It was late when Scott awoke to the sound of coyotes yipping. They were usually in the river basin behind the house, but tonight they sounded closer, and there were more of them, making a real raucous about something. He decided he’d better check it out.

He pulled on his pants, grabbed his sandals, and slipped quietly out of the bedroom trying not to wake Betsy. When he got downstairs, the coyotes were so loud he wondered if they were out by the coop where he kept his prize chickens. “Oh, man. How did they get in there?”

He hurried outside, but when he closed the door, the coyotes must have heard him because they stopped yipping. He wasn’t sure where they were. He stood perfectly still, listening, but the night was suddenly silent.

A full moon, high above the twirling windmill, spilled blue-white light across the yard, casting eerie shadows beneath the oak trees. He thought he saw something move through the orchard, but it might have just been the wind, which had cooled and freshened since the afternoon. Although it wasn’t all that cold, he felt a sudden chill.

He moved quietly toward the chicken coup, wondering if it was a smart idea to confront a pack of coyotes with their kill. One coyote was no problem, and he could probably handle two or three, but a whole pack might be trouble. He stooped and picked up a thick stick and held it out before him as he went slowly down the path. The coyotes were still keeping their silence. He couldn’t see them, but maybe they were on the far side of the coup. Or maybe they had somehow gotten inside.

He hurried his pace until he got to the chicken coop. He looked through the wire that covered the windows. The chickens clucked softly, and shifted on their perch, but everything seemed fine. So where were the coyotes and what had they been so excited about?

He braced himself against the chicken coop, barely breathing. If he didn’t make a sound, maybe the coyotes would reveal themselves. He stayed like that for quite some time, becoming more sensitive to the sounds of the night: the whirling chatter of the windmill, the rustling of leaves in the trees, a few sleepless crickets keeping track of the temperature. There was a smell of crushed sage and lilac. Then he heard it; one little yip, and then another. Soon the whole pack was going again. They were close, out by the pool.

He took off his sandals and walked bare-footed, stepping carefully so as not to step on anything that would make a sound. The coyotes were going crazy. As he got closer, he realized they were on the far side of the pool, beneath the oak trees. Hurrying forward, he stepped on something that stuck into his foot, and he said, “Damn,” before he could stop himself

The coyotes may have heard him, but for some reason they didn’t seem to care. They were in a frenzy, and now he could see them leaping wildly beneath one of the oak trees. There must be something up there, he thought. A cat? A possum? A squirrel?

It seemed like a lot of effort for something that small. It wouldn’t make much of a meal for so many coyotes. There must have been six or seven coyotes around the base of the tree, all jumping and yowling.

He didn’t know what to do, or if he should do anything. They deserved to have their food, didn’t they? But he was curious. He wanted to know what they had treed. Maybe it was the neighbor’s cat. They wouldn’t be happy if the coyotes killed their cat. Maybe he’d better scare them off. He stepped forward, waving his stick and shouting, “Hey, get out of here.”

The coyotes stood their ground. He wondered if they were thinking of exchanging him for what was in the tree. He stepped closer, and shouted again, louder. This time, they scattered and took up positions some distance away.

It was dark beneath the oak tree, and, at first, he couldn’t see anything in the branches. Then adjusted to the dark, and he saw the flash of yellow eyes. They were large and far apart. He couldn’t stop looking at them. Finally, as the wind rustled the leaves, letting moonlight through, he saw what it was. A mountain lion. And oh man, it was big.

He felt the hair stand up on his arms, and suddenly he could hear the sound of his own heart beating loudly in his ears. He knew better than to run. Stand your ground. Show your size. He glanced over to where the coyotes were. They were still there, watching, and maybe even a little closer now. That’s all he needed.

His attention was drawn back to the lion when he heard it shift in the branches. Was it coming down? Would it pounce? Maybe the coyotes had scared it so much it would attack anything.

He kept his attention on the shadow in the branches. What to do? Back away? Make more noise? He decided on a different tact. He began to hum, then to sing,


Oh, Sayulita, mi senorita
Te encanta cantar


The yellow eyes flickered and then he thought he saw them glisten. He sang a little louder, and the coyotes joined in the chorus with their mournful cries.


Oh, Sayulita, mi senorita
Te encanta cantar


The days melt away and the evening, I pray, will go on and on
Into the hours when only your voice fills the night
“Te Amo,” I plead, as your song goes higher and higher
But in your dark eyes there burns an unreachable light.


He finished the song in a whisper, and the voices of the coyotes died out. Then, for some reason, they turned and trotted away towards ridge of the river basin. As they disappeared over the edge, Scott looked back up into the tree and thought he heard the mountain lion sigh. Scott decided it was time to back away and leave her in peace.

As he came out from under the trees, he saw Betsy standing in the backyard, the white fabric of her nightgown fluttering in the breeze beneath the translucent moonlight.

When he got to her, she said, “Since when have you been sneaking out to sing with the coyotes.”

Scott just smiled. He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked slowly back up to the house.
Zoe Murdock - My Birthday Story (May 14, 2009)

SMITTY WEST—3 SONGS NOMINATED FOR MAVRIC MUSIC AWARD - December 28, 2008

SMITTY WEST—3 SONGS NOMINATED FOR MAVRIC MUSIC AWARD

I returned from a wonderful tour of the beautiful country of Lebanon to hear that three of my songs had been nominated for the 2008 MAVRIC awards.

In case you haven’t heard of them, MAVRIC awards “Music Awards for Ventura and Independent Creations” recognize Ventura County creative music talent in an awards ceremony held at the Thousand Oaks Civic Center. This year’s awards night is Sunday, February 22nd, 2009.

Online voting counts for 20% of the selection process, so PLEASE GO TAKE A LISTEN HERE and vote for whomever you think deserves it! 

The Smitty West songs nominated from over 1500 songs reviewed and 139 artists:

Lady Of The Aisle Song of the Year: Comedy/Humor (category SOY08)
Sequoia Song of the Year: Folk (SOY13)
Sandman Song of the Year: Foreign (SOY14)

Again, to vote, click HERE You can only vote once and you’ll be sent a confirmation email that you need to respond to in order for your vote to count.

You can also buy a ticket to the awards ceremony….you know I’ll be there!

CD Release Concert and Landmine Victim Benefit - October 19, 2008

I'm really happy to be announcing my CD Release Concert. I'm even happier that the producer, Shane Butler of Ojai Concert Series, has agreed to stage this show as a benefit for a cause I hold close to my
heart: the support of landmine victims.

Here's the scoop:
Tuesday Oct 28th
7pm
TICKET Costs: $10 advance, $12 @ door, or $20 including pre-show dinner Smitty West "CD Release Concert" and Benefit for Landmine Victims

PLEASE GET YOUR TICKETS SOON. THE SHOW IS ALREADY 1/2 SOLD FROM ADVANCE SALES. The club only holds about 100 seats. I wish everyone could fit, but they just can't. This may be the only time that these musicians, who played on my CD, will be performing together live.

Here's the producer's press release with all the details:

Announcing the release of his first solo CD, "Your World,"
songwriter-pianist-singer Smitty West performs a concert of the original music from his CD as well as a few favorite covers, backed up by some of Southern California's finest musicians.
Smitty West (stage name for Scott Smith) has just released this eclectic solo collection of 12 original songs, spanning genres of folk, rock, metal, and country.

Backing Smitty are some of Southern California's finest musicians:
Legendary bass guitarist Jim Monahan, drummer/percussionist Bob Nichols, Scott Luedke on guitar, and vocalist Julija Zonic. This is a first time assembly of this band for a live performance.

Smitty will be returning from Washington DC, where he is performing his new song, "The Apple Tree Stands and Waits," a ballad written in support of landmine action. He was commissioned to write this song for the Marshall Legacy Institute's "Clearing the Path Gala" and is singing it live on Tuesday, 10/21st at the Fairmont Hotel Ballroom. This benefit is attended by world leaders, diplomats, congressmen, and supporters of landmine action. Smitty has been a strong advocate of mine action since he inadvertently walked into a minefield in Lebanon in 2004 while visiting his grandfather's home village.

Smitty will perform a multimedia rendition of "The Apple Tree Stands and Waits," and a donation will be made to the Marshall Legacy Institute for every ticket and CD sold at the CD Release Concert.

Smitty (www.smittywest.com) is the founder of Ojai Songwriters Anonymous, a collaborative support group of local songwriters. He has recently completed the scoring of Christopher Devine's, Fighting With Sticks, a high-definition movie shot in Ojai. Just this month, Smitty produced and recorded Jim Monahan's political satire Wasilla Girl, which has received national radio play and is a YouTube favorite with over 10,000 views in three weeks.

He owns and operates Euterpe Farms, a California native plant farm:
http://www.geocities.com/surfohi/euterpe.html
All profits from Smitty's music and farm are donated to supporting "Landmine Action"...helping bring hope to people in war-torn countries.

This show will be held at the beautiful Ojai Valley Woman's Club, 441 E. Ojai Avenue, Ojai, California. Show starts at 7:00 PM, with doors open at 6:30 for will-call and at 6:45 for ticket buyers. All seating is first come, first served. Ticket prices for kids under 14, are 1/2 of the parents' ticket price.

If you want to meet Smitty and the band for a bite before the show, join us at Il Giardino Restaurant for a special Italian buffet at 5:45pm. It's just a one-minute walk to the Woman's Club from the restaurant at 401 E. Ojai Ave. ONLY $20 INCLUDES THE DELICIOUS ITALIAN BUFFET AND A TICKET TO THE SHOW! (drinks, dessert, etc. are extra) Please call ahead for a reservation 805.640.7381. Ramiro Santana, the owner of Il Giardino's, is a strong supporter of local music and landmine action as well, and he was happy to support this show with this great deal on some delicious food. If you already have a ticket to the show, they'll knock $10 off the $20 price.

Purchase Advance Tickets at these Ojai locations:
Ojai Creates 606 E. Ojai Ave, Serendipity Toys 221 E. Matilija, and Cardinali Brothers Music 139 W. El Roblar (Meiners Oaks)

Wasilla Girl on National Radio - September 25, 2008

Astonishing!

All the work I do on serious music and "Wasilla Girl" has more hits than everything I've done combined!

Don't get worried about my politics....I'd do a video about Biden, but he's not very funny!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iejC7NAtTzQ

Smitty Interview on Radio Ojai - August 29, 2008

Smitty Interviewed by Radio Ojai's Lisa Snider on his new album, his ranch, and landmine action.

http://radioojai.com/2008/08/29/lisa-interviews-scott-smith-aka-smitty-west.aspx

"Sandman" chosen as Indie Rock Top Ten! - August 21, 2008

The biting lyrical commentary in Smitty West's tirade at ignorance and prejudice in his song "Sandman" has led to a listing in The 'Top 10' in Indie Rock at a leading review site.

Each month, Music Critic Mike Cameo publishes the top ten Independent music songs....In his words, "The Top 10 represents what we consider the best Independent Music sites available for artists and bands. These are sites that have a great standing with Indie musicians and do well in tracking who's being listened to, allowing these sites to create and maintain "charts". These charts are what we use to create the Indies' Top 10 shows, bringing you the best artists from these charts including news and exclusive interviews."

The Top ten is not solicited music, rather a gathering of the top songs from the leading independent sites. "Sandman," by virtue of its list-topping performance on SongPlanet.com, received the honors of the presence on the August Top-10.

You can hear Sandman and the other 9 songs at http://www.indiestop10.com/

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