“Shawn was hooked, he knew that music was going to be his life.”
“I was in a Sunset Strip hotel room with a guy who I had been listening to for almost 20 years.”
From that day on I have followed Shawn Smith and all of his different bands and solo work. So, when I had the chance to interview him in Las Angeles and then see him perform with Brad at the Troubadour I was beyond excited.
So here I was in a Sunset Strip hotel room with a guy who I had been listening to for almost 20 years. Shawn sat up on one of the two twin beds with a small four-track recorder, drum machine and microphone on the nightstand next to him. I tried to act natural as I fumbled through my bag for my recorder. I pulled over a chair from the corner of the room and rambled about why I started the magazine and what an honor it was to be interviewing him. I must have sounded like a complete idiot. But somehow I could sense that he was just as uncomfortable as I was.
Shawn started off by telling me how David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” had contacted him about using one of his songs for the first episode. And how that had turned to them using several of his songs, which turned into a nice payday for him. He lit up when telling me about the payday, and it showed me that he wasn’t rolling in the dough as I would have assumed from his years of making great music.
At around 10 years old, Shawn heard “Ballroom Blitz” and he and his friends wanted to start a band. His dad went out and bought Shawn an electric guitar, but he didn’t get him an amp. It’s sort of hard to rock without the sound. But Shawn was on his way. A few years later he saw the movie “Purple Rain.” Game over, please stop calling, we have a winner. Shawn was hooked. He knew that music was going to be his life. The first song he learned to play on the piano was “Purple Rain.” He learned it by watching the basement scene from the movie where Prince played it. He would watch it over and over again until he had it. This blues style became the basis for all of his future playing.After heartbreak struck at age 21, Shawn packed up his few belongings and moved to be near his grandparents in Seattle. The year was 1987 and besides the late Jimi Hendrix, Seattle wasn’t known as a hot music scene. Shawn had a plan: get a job at a music store, meet some other musicians, and form a band. He was digging Guns N’ Roses and Jane’s Addiction at the time, as was I. Although Queensryche wasn’t his thing, they were the first local band to hit it big and Shawn figured if they could do it, then so could he.
He got a job at Tower Records and started playing with a fellow employee, drummer Regan Hagar. Regan introduced Shawn to several other musicians including Stone Gossard. Shawn was living his dream, playing music with his new friends, and listening to great local bands, like Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone. The Seattle scene was about to explode on the world and grunge was born.
Shawn told me how he played piano on one of Mother Love Bone’s songs recorded at Sub Pop on the same mixing board that recorded the first Nirvana record, “Bleach.” He watched as Alice In Chains transformed from a glam band into a soul-filled headliner. For him it was great to be playing with the bands that he also loved listening to. We continued through the history of Pearl Jam, Brad, his other projects, and his solo work. I could have sat there for hours listening.
The conversation had definitely opened up, and we had found common ground on music. It’s something that has happened for years and over many cultural divides. I didn’t ask about the meaning of his songs, as I told him that they had a certain meaning to me and I didn’t want the actual meaning screwing that up for me. He laughed and told me that was good, because he didn’t know what most of his songs were about anyway. He told me how he liked the randomness of his songs and wasn’t much of a storyteller. He went on to tell me how that was probably why he was so big in Italy and Spain, which I had no idea. “They love the tone and emotion of my voice,” Shawn said. Which was the same thing I love about his songs.We talked about our mutual love for basketball, our shyness around girls at 18, and how we both experienced personal awakenings doing mushrooms and reading Krishnamurti. He told me about Krishnamurti videos on YouTube and I told him about documentaries I thought he would dig. I told him about one doc in particular, “I Am, “which my sister had produced and was a huge inspiration for starting our magazine. To my amazement, he had just watched it a few weeks ago, and was telling all of his friends that they needed to see it.
At the end of the interview I turned off my tape recorder and thanked him for his time. As I snapped off a few pics, Shawn played some of the music he had recorded the night before. It was his soft yet powerful voice over the top of some heavy bass beats. The smile on his face shined from the light peaking through the blinds as I told him how killer the new stuff was.
Shawn has this dark, heartbroken, lonely side that shows through his songs, such as “Buttercup,” “Full Moon Over Dallas” and “Suffering.” He told me he has never had a long-term relationship, but counts it as a blessing, not a curse. If at 21 he had stayed in Bakersfield, Calif., he never would have been so involved in music, his true love.The next evening I went to the Troubadour to see Shawn play live for the first time. He performed with his band, Brad. The Troubadour is a place that Elton John had performed years ago, and another young musician, my father, had also graced the stage. Shawn put on a hell of a performance and toward the end he said hi to me from the stage. For me it was an acknowledgement that I hadn’t made a complete fool of myself the day before.