Dan Smith is set be a talent to watch in 2009 as the 22-year-old releases his debut double A-side single in February with an album to follow later in the year. Armed with a loop pedal with which to layer a backing of hand claps, percussion and piano to a pop voice which sways into an operatic powerhouse, I caught up with Dan to find out more about his arrival on the music scene.
Mike: First off, tell us a little about your background… where are you from?
Dan: I grew up in Wimbledon and moved to Leeds for a few years while studying English Literature at University.
What first got you into making music?
I’ve always played and learned instruments and stuff. And my family were quite musical – my mum sang folk music to pay her way through university.
Who were your first influences and who are your current influences? Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire?
I don’t really know who my first influences were. Nothing cool though. I remember liking The Fugees version of “Killing Me Softly”. I got really into Regina Spektor when I was in my last year of school and have loved her ever since, so she definitely informs a lot of what I write and how I sing and play the piano. Like everyone else I went through an obsessive Beatles phase. And I love Antony and the Johnsons as well.
You play piano, MicroKorg, percussion and more — what did you learn first and what led you to expand your playing abilities?
I can’t really play any of those things all that well, I just use them as best as I can to try and get different sounds. I started playing the piano when I was five, but I never really practised enough.
Was there a single turning point for you which led to wanting to write and perform your own music?
I started doing covers of cheesy songs like Elton John’s “Your Song” when I was about 15 and then realised I wanted to write my own stuff. I used poems written by my friends and my Dad and turned them into songs because I didn’t think I could write lyrics.
It wasn’t until I was at university and a lot of my friends were in bands and making music that I thought about performing. I did some terribly embarrassing open mic nights; I’d be a quivering wreck before playing. Anyway, I entered this competition which my friends’ band had won the year before without telling anyone. I won and had to play a gig at quite a big venue. It made me get my shit together and it’s the reason I bought a loop pedal.
What kind of journey has it been to get your debut double A-side single “Alchemy”/”Words are Words” released?
It has been quite a full on year since I moved back to London and started gigging and stuff. Playing some of the gigs has been really fun, and I love recording so much. At the end of last year I met these guys who run a studio in Acton called MI7. I recorded a bit there and we got on well, so when I was thinking of putting out a single they offered to put it out on their new label.
Can you tell me a bit about the thinking behind the two tracks and the direction they take?
Most of my songs start relatively simply and grow and grow. Probably because of the loop pedal and the ability it affords to keep adding layers to a track. And also I just love songs to build and climax. So both of the songs, especially Alchemy, expand and change direction. I’m obsessed with strings in pop music and so wanted to give them quite a bit of prominence in Words are Words.
“Alchemy” is about what you end up producing when people try and make you be creative in a certain way. And I guess it is a bit of a mish mash of sounds that I like and that are fun to make.
“Words are Words” was inspired by something a lecturer said in a really boring lecture, but that phrase made me sit up and listen. It’s also about a girl I used to sit with in those lectures who took herself way too seriously.
What can we expect from your album?
Lots of piano and strings, but quite a lot of other sounds as well. Choosing the songs to go on the album has been quite tricky, but I’m hoping they will fall together and feel cohesive.
Who would you compare yourself to or be proud to be compared to?
I’d be really happy to be compared to someone like Regina Spektor, or someone as diverse as David Bowie, but I guess most artists would like to be compared to him. He’s amazing.
Where have you played out so far?
I’ve played a lot of shows around London; club nights, shit pubs, and some all right venues supporting various people. I also played quite a bit in Leeds, Brighton and Portsmouth. I’m doing a little tour in March so I’ll be getting around a bit more then and I can’t wait.
How do you reproduce your music live? Do you make many changes for a live audience?
The loop pedal allows me to achieve a lot of the layering for the live sound. I layer different keyboard sounds and lots of harmonies and vocal parts, and percussion too. I’m lucky to play with a drummer and bassist who are both awesome, and I’m sometimes joined by strings / brass players at bigger gigs.
How have the crowds responded to your music?
Err..you’d have to ask them, but they seem to enjoy it.
Are you playing any festivals this summer?
I think I’m playing at a few festivals, but its not 100 percent yet. Man, I’m so excited about the prospect. I’ll be going to quite a few anyway, so if I get to play that would just be an amazing bonus.
Where would you like to be this time next year?
I’d love to be living off playing music and touring, and working on my second album.
Lastly, if you were stuck on a desert island, what book, CD, movie and piece of art would you want to have with you?
Book: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt
CD: Regina Spektor, “Soviet Kitsch”
Movie: The Scream Trilogy
Piece of Art: The shed made by that bloke who won the Turner Prize a few years back.
For more information about Dan Smith and to hear his music, visit his MySpace.