Sunshone Still’s Chris Smith on his forthcoming album, ThewaytheworldDies
In 2007, Columbia, S.C.’s Chris Smith — a.k.a., Sunshone Still — released his sophomore record, the ambitious Ten Cent American Novels, based on the life and death of Kit Carson and inspired by Hampton Sides biography, Blood & Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson & the Conquest of the American West. The dusky music channeled the story’s lawless era and its grand panoramas and desolate landscapes, while also capturing the intimate and often contradictory moments of Caron’s personal life.
For his third release, ThewaytheworldDies, Smith had to confront another life and death, but this one was no well-chronicled, century-old history examined at arm’s length. The 10 tracks here deal head-on with the suicide of Smith’s brother in the summer of 2010. The music retains some of the same open spaces, only here the deep reverb, muted trumpets, baritone guitar lines and lonely soundscapes strike tragic, if ultimately redemptive, notes.
As if that process weren’t difficult enough, when the album was set to release Smith had to absorb the death of his friend and fellow musician, Rodney Lanier, whose guitar, accordion and pedal steel grace Sunshone Still’s last two records.
Shuffle‘s John Schacht spoke with Smith about the new record via e-mail.
Shuffle: It’s been a long wait since 2007′s Ten Cent American Novels — obviously your brother’s death factored into that, but in what real-time ways? Were there any other delays involved? Did you consider hanging it up at any point?
Chris Smith: I wasn’t ready to write. I knew at some point I would be. I think I just needed to live a little more before I could write and record another album. And I tried to do just that. I got married (sorry, ladies), we had a son, and the restaurant business I have with a friend just continued to expand. I made the choice to hang out and be close to home as much as possible. I’ve played or sung music ever since I was young, so I’ve always felt like it will be there for me when I’m ready. So no, I never considered quitting.
I had hoped to release the album in the summer of 2011, but I am always a bit aggressive on timelines when I start a project. We started recording last February, and we finished mastering in September. Between the band [Stowe Barber, Jason Hausman, Rodney Lanier, and Flavio Mangione] and Chris Garges (the engineer), we were all pretty careful with making sure we did this record right. We could have released it in that weird October-to-December timeframe, but you’re just competing against all that Christmas and Best of 2011 crap. Patience prevailed, so here we are releasing it a year after we started basic tracking.
Shuffle: When did you decide you had to write about your brother’s passing and life? Was there some hesitation there initially?
CS: It was a few months after he passed away (Editor’s Note: July 1, 2011). I took a week off and went by myself to the mountains of N.C. My intention was to just get away, wrap my head around my brother’s suicide and maybe write some songs about whatever bubbled up out of me. Once I started writing these songs though, I was really able to process his death. This record was my therapy. But once I realized I was writing a whole record cataloging his last years, I hesitated. My first concern was to keep private what needed to stay private. Then I had to take into account the feelings of those family and friends that were close to him. Would I be opening up old wounds? Then, last was just my own issue — writing about something so close to the bone. I didn’t want to come across as that woe-is-me songwriter, but I hope everyone can still identify in their own way to these songs.
Shuffle: What were the pros/cons of that process? Tracks like “I Would Kill” and especially “Old Snakes” certainly feel very cathartic…
CS: They were all cathartic to write, especially the two you mentioned. “Old Snakes” was just such a short and simple story, but damn, it just killed me when I finished the first draft of it. The story just completely sums up the diverging paths we took from boyhood to manhood. I felt grateful, yet sad, that I stumbled upon it. Recording and performing it is just as cathartic.
The toughest part of the process was trying to imagine what was going on inside the mind of my brother before and at the time of his death. You can’t tell the stories in this album and then try to dance around why you’re writing it. So when I got to the point of describing some details in the title track, well, let’s just say it was not pleasurable, but the lyrics in the chorus provide the payoff or meaning.
Shuffle: The record plays with some of the same dusky sonic themes you did on the last one, but there are some new ones as well (like the rap in “Boot”) — how did they come about?
CS: With each record, I hope to grow and challenge myself as a songwriter. I try to leave room for a little risk-taking. “Se Escapara El Lobo” is a good example from Ten Cent American Novels. I took a little leap there by trying to make an indie-pop kind-of-song.
When working on this record, I had been listening to The Black Keys’ Brothers album, and I just oh so desperately wanted to write a blues song like them. The Arab Spring had just started, and I had this idea for an angry, anti-authoritarian song and figured this ["Boot"] was the song where I could take some risks. But as I got inside the tune, I saw other interesting possibilities to meld with it. I thought, “What about audio from an old speech here? What about a rap in this section?” The song is about rising up against what’s expected of you, so I figured why concern myself too much with veering from an Americana sound as long as I still felt good about the song.
Shuffle: You played with the talented Rodney Lanier before, and he played a central role on this record; what did he bring to the table?
CS: He brought the butter to the table. When working on his parts in the studio, we sat around listening to him and the word-of-the-day that Jason coined was “tasty.” We would pretend to hand each other napkins and tell each other to wipe our chins off. He put a lot of his heart into these songs. You can really hear it in the crucial baritone guitar leads that he wrote on “Someone to Call Home” and “ThewaytheworldDies.”
One moment I won’t forget is hearing him create the lead guitar part for “Can’t Hold On to a Ghost.” I had re-worked the song that morning because we wanted to slow the tempo down. It had a pop-feel before we slowed it down to the way I originally wrote it. Without much preparation, he and I sat in the iso-booth, and he quickly created a delicately beautiful lead melody. At that moment, I think I hated him because he was so damn good. But of course, I loved him. We all did. I’ve been told he was really proud of this record.
And of course, he brought great comic relief to those sessions. There’s a rough mix with a funny one-sided recording of him talking to Chris Garges right before a take. All he said was, “What?? OoooKaaaay,” but it was in how he said it that was so hilarious — you would have thought it was some grandma trying to talk to you through a bathroom door.
Shuffle: Finally, what’s behind the name of your record label, Potato Eater Records?
CS: Thanks for asking. You are the first to ever ask that question. It is a reference to a Vincent van Gogh painting called “The Potato Eaters.” I got a chance to see it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam many years ago. He’s widely known for all the vibrant and striking colors he used, but before that stage of his painting, he painted in very dark tones. Most, if not all, of his early paintings were done with dark tones. What can I say? I like dark tones.