Greg Smith of Ontario creats stunningly simple acoustic gems. He’s a supporter of music in its most minimal form but his storytelling and songwriting ability set him apart. Below we chat about how music and songwriting became important parts of his life, his album art and even his organic vegetable garden!
BEFORE I GO ON! You can catch Greg Smith live at Kimberly Hall in Kimberly on the 18th of March and hosting the Barn Open Mic in Meaford on the 19th of March!
MFL: Your knack for storytelling is clear. Were you a writer or a musician first or did they occur simultaneously?
GS: It really was a simultaneous thing. Growing up I always enjoyed telling stories. I think that’s because as a kid, if you tell a story well you can garner the attention of adults in a way that puts you on their level. Music very quickly became my main creative outlet once I entered my teen years. The first songs I wrote were metaphor laden and really just a means of expressing myself. The problem with this was I could only write when I myself was experiencing something emotionally. This eventually led me to create characters, I could use them as facades for my own feelings or create situations for them and empathize with how they would feel. This meant that I could write whenever I wanted to, regardless of how I may have been feeling. I began to get the same escapism in writing stories that some people feel in reading them. I’m still not sure I would call myself a writer, I have a long way to go in that regard.
MFL: You make very minimalist music. It’s stunning but very different compared to a lot of over produced music out there. Is that something you feel makes you unique or is it a result of resources?
GS: I saw Justin Townes Earle live when I was 14 and he said that he told his band to “play as little as possible!” That idea of minimalism was very appealing to me, space in music was important.
I grew up on a farm. I spent the majority of my time outside of school alone because I lived so far away from everyone I knew. I became accustom to playing music alone too. This of course, impacted my writing. I wrote songs to feel fleshed-out with just a voice and guitar, that was about all I could do. When it came time to recording it only ever made sense to have the recordings reflect the live performance. So it was a lack of resources that created this mentality for minimalism but the unique result that has kept me going forward with it.
MFL: What is different conceptually and musically between your current release, Morning Coffee, and your previous release, Iris?
GS: There isn’t a lot of difference in concept, they’re both short stories featuring female characters and their relationships. The main difference would be that Iris was the first story-based piece I’d written. In the beginning I had no idea what it would eventually become. I was writing the story as a I wrote the songs. With Morning Coffee I knew what I was trying to create as soon as I came up with the first lyric “She slams her mug down on the veneer”. It should be known that Morning Coffee is actually my third piece in this style. I have written but not recorded a sequel to Iris called Michael. Michael is more aggressive, this came as a result of the story it tells but also from my experiences playing live in Hungary, I wanted something raw. Something that would appeal to the emotions of those who might not understand the lyrics due to the language barriers. I sometimes joke that in Budapest if you weren’t loud, you weren’t anything. As a result of this change, I felt the need to return to my roots and write something similar to Iris, and so we have Morning Coffee.
MFL: I really enjoy asking people about their album artwork. Sometimes it has no meaning, it’s completely random. But, sometimes it carries the meaning of the entire EP or record. What is the meaning of the album art for Morning Coffee and who created it?
GS: The artwork was created by Daniel Micsoda of Lone Waltz Records, or as he is better known Zanzinger. Daniel says my songs work on him like a detective novel. He says they have a literary vibe without having a classic literary beauty. He wanted to create something unexpected and a bit mysterious. At first I was a little apprehensive to the design but the more I looked at it the more it intrigued me as well. It does not look like anything else I’ve seen. It feels chaotic, which I think is fitting.
MFL: What is the music scene like where you live and how does it add or take away from your music?
GS: Right now I’m living in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario Canada. The scene here is incredibly developed given the small populations of the towns that it’s based on. There are a lot of arts spaces and groups dedicated to music. From the perspective of developing your artistry it’s great, a very supportive and involved community. However it can be tough to get enough gigs here to sustain yourself, I’ve been very lucky though. You definitely have to go elsewhere to expand your audience and grow, but it works great as a home base. The larger Ontario/Canadian scene has been a bit of a challenge for me to adjust to after coming up through Budapest. Things in Canada are more established, this has a lot of benefits but there is definitely a learning curve.
MFL: How did your upbringing contribute to your abilities as an artist?
GS: I grew up without much pressure to be creative or practice an instrument. That came naturally and was then encouraged, I started playing guitar around 7 and had quit by the time I was 8. Later around 12 I picked it up again. I think that kind of freedom from structure has allowed me to be more open to my creativity. It wasn’t hard to find my own sound in music because that’s all I’d really ever done. The lack of pressure mixed with support and encouragement also helped me perform without much fear, I was only really doing it for myself. The first show I ever played was opening for Wilderness of Manitoba at the Gayety Theater in Collingwood Ontario, I was 15. It didn’t feel like a very big deal at the time, I was just doing something I enjoyed but looking back it was pretty monumental for me.
MFL: Who do you have to thank musician-wise for inspiration and motivation to write, create and put yourself out there as a musician and why?
GS: If I follow the development of my taste in music back to its root there is one band that really changed things for me, although I haven’t listened to them for some time and they were always a bit generic, Mumford and Sons had a dramatic effect on my taste in music. I was 13 when I first heard them, before that I had mainly been listening to classic rock:The Beatles, The Who, CCR, stuff like that. They were my first connection to anything resembling folk music. While learning their songs I discovered alternate guitar tunings which have become an integral part of my sound. Through them I found the artists that would later inspire me to become a musician. The most important of these being The Tallest Man on Earth. His music expanded my guitar technique, enriched my love of lyrics and made me seek out the captivation of whole audiences with only a guitar and a microphone.
MFL: Do you have plans to write a full length or do you prefer to release singles and short EPs?
GS: As I said before I still have to record and release Michael, I would like to do something full length eventually. If my sound does change into something bigger, I would like to rerecord Iris and Michael into a full length instead of two Eps. I may also step away from the concept work at some point and release some of the other stuff I do. I often write songs that don’t end up being performed or recorded. For me one good song writes another, this is how the stories come about. When they don’t lead to another I often let them fall to the wayside, however there are a few songs that I’m too fond of to forget.
MFL: How have shows been going since the release of Morning Coffee? Give me some highlights!
GS:Shows have been pretty good, on the night of the release, Marshall Veroni, Pat Maloney and I did an after hours show at a cafe in Owen Sound Ontario and it was sold out. It’s always very gratifying to play for an audience who specifically came for the music. The bar and restaurant gigs can get you by, but shows like that keep me in it.
MFL: Finally, what is your life outside of music?
GS: These days I am working on an organic vegetable farm, this works well with my music as the schedule is pretty open for me to book shows and working outside is wonderful. I’m also moving into and renovating an old farmhouse which will hopefully serve as my base of operation while I’m touring over the next few years.
Thanks to Greg Smith for doing the interview and Lone Waltz Recors for connecting us! You can find Greg Smith’s music, including Morning Coffee, on his Bandcamp page and follow him Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.