Acclaimed singer and guitarist John Smith announces an Irish tour following the release of his fifth album, Headlong and it’s lead single Living In Disgrace. Produced by Sam Lakeman and featuring Cara Dillon on BVs, Headlong comes dedicated to the memory of John Renbourn and is the follow up to Great Lakes, John’s Joe Henry produced release of 2013 which featured Salty & Sweet, a duet with Lisa Hannigan that became somewhat of a radio hit in Ireland. Headlong has already been an RTE Radio 1 album of the week in Ireland.
Headlong is the fifth album in a hard-working, under-the-radar career that has earned the Devon-born Smith a dedicated following and secured the respect and admiration of his peers. The late Renbourn called him “the future of folk music”, and Smith has opened shows for artists as diverse as Iron and Wine, John Martyn, Tinariwen and Gil Scott-Heron. He has also played on sessions for Joan Baez, Cara Dillon and Joe Henry among others, with Lianne La Havas and Lisa Hannigan both recruiting him to play lead guitar in their bands.
And so not by chance is it that John’s new record comes bearing a title implying impulsive, breakneck motion- written as it was, across various touring stints playing guitar for the likes of La Havas and Hannigan (who fittingly lends a co-write to Headlong, on ‘Coming Home’), across the U.S. Having wound up his own successful 2 year stint touring Great Lakes round the UK & across Europe (taking in sold out shows at Union Chapel, London and Unitarian Church, Dublin. In early 2016 John was finally afforded a chance to come off the road, settle in one place for a while. An opportunity which, for better or worse, Smith elected to decline. Says John; “When I finished touring Great Lakes I felt like I had time on my hands, and I thought rather than go home and try to write where it just didn’t feel natural, I wanted to keep on touring. It felt right”.
And so in stark contrast to the agonising 24 month period of writer’s block which frustrated the arrival of Great Lakes – the songs that would eventually become Headlong came together at nimble pace, during woodshedding in the isolated lulls afforded to touring musicians.
Many of the songs here are inspired by John’s wife and newborn baby- together they form a magnetic north of sorts for Headlong. His wife is the source of the redemptive, unconditional love to which ‘Save My Life’ is indebted – she’s also the ‘Joanna’ of the track that bears the same title, spurring Smith through the humdrum niggles which invariably pepper lengthy stints on the road, from clearance issues on the Oregon country border to inter-band squabbles. Yet for all that Headlong is informed in part by separation, it is also an album full of hope and trembling promise for the future. “Open the door into my time,” John sings on the joyously surging “Threshold”, inspired by the rite of passage of becoming a father for the first time
Headlong also bears the indelible loss of John’s close friend Renbourn. The death of the Pentangle legend took a particularly strong toll; “His death really hit me hard” says Smith; “He was so much more to me than someone I’d played with, and who had encouraged me. He was a friend as well, so I wanted to reference him on this album- that’s why I’ve dedicated it to his memory”.
Renbourn’s presence is particularly palpable in Smith’s equally sparing and striking electric guitar work, which weaves through Headlong, marking a break of sorts from the lush string orchestration that characterised Great Lakes. “I learnt a lot about guitars on those big U.S. tours” says John, “Finding the best tone, getting a big guitar sound for a big room. Bringing that back to my studio, and playing that kind of electric guitar on my songs, felt really good.” And so the remit for John and producer Sam Lakeman (brother of Seth & Sean) – when they eventually repaired to Lakeman’s Somerset studios – became aligning the glistening Petty and Clapton guitar lines of which Smith was so in awe, with the paired-back world inhabited by Headlong.
The success of this distillation is borne out in spades- particularly on the freewheeling outro to ‘Joanna’, galvanised by sparing blasts of Smith’s telecaster & the silken backing vocals of Cara Dillon (who also lends vocals to John’s homage to belt-tightening, ‘Living In Disgrace’). John and Lakeman’s labours were smoothed by the easy creative shorthand the two friends enjoy; “We’re really direct with each other, but it actually makes for a friendly working relationship. If we disagree, we can have a raging argument about it, but 5 minutes later we’ll be recording again and everything’s fine. For Headlong I really wanted someone who could challenge me, dare me to chop out that part of a song, or add in an extra chorus.”
Whilst John Smith has stood still just long enough to commit this new album to record, there’s yet little danger of moss gathering. Currently gearing up for a 3 month autumn tour of the UK & Europe, Smith has also been tapped to play guitar on the forthcoming album from Joan Baez (with an appearance on the forthcoming Martin Simpson album also in the works), alongside his Great Lakes’ collaborator, Joe Henry.
It’s rare these days to find an audience so wrapped up in a performance as this one **** The Independent
John Smith has captured something special Acoustic
Far from the connotations his name brings, John Smith is one of a kind Wonderland
This is the sound of a hugely underrated songwriter revealing more of himself, and it’s resulted in a wonderful record 9/10 Guitarist
Should see him reach the bigger audience his talents most definitely deserve **** Total Guitar
The searing thrum of ‘Undone’ is testament to how powerful his music can be Uncut