Lehmann B Smith: ?I Can?t Stop Really
ALEC MARSHALL (Hot Palms, Why Don’t You Believe Me?) is such a fan of super-prolific songwriter Lehmann B Smith that he was moved to interview him, even though he’s not a journalist and had never done anything like it before.
Lehmann B Smith is a songwriter based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a multi-instrumentalist and sings in a sometimes funny but mostly beautiful high-register voice. He has been writing songs for 10 years and released four albums last year – [Little Milk](http://specialawardrecords.bandcamp.com/album/little-milk)*, *[Split](http://specialawardrecords.bandcamp.com/album/split)*, *[Girlfriends](/releases/2001106)* and most recently *[Roominations](/news/4551208). Each one is in some way conceptual and a clear departure from the last. He plans to release another couple this year.
I’ve never interviewed anyone before; I can’t believe I even did this. I met Lehmann from being a fan, and we got to know each other a little better from playing shows together. We emailed each other back and forth and here it is.
Hi Lehmann, I’m in NSW at the moment and everyone’s talking about the big heatwave! Where are you?
Hey Al. I’m indoors in Melbourne. I’ve had to break out the sweat rag intermittently, but that’s about as dramatic as it’s gotten. I’ve actually just had to put on a big woollen jacket. Freezing for some reason.
At my [band’s tape launch](/galleries/4535342) you sang ?Happy Birthday? to me during your soundcheck. It was very funny to me. Do you often sing around the house? Only recently have I begun to wish I could sing. So that I could confidently sing for fun and sing songs with my friends. I got a big void in my life, Lehmann.
Argh, everyone can sing! I think it’s one of those things that is innate in people, like drawing. I mean, I’m definitely not a great singer by any stretch. And to think of myself as a singer and other people as not-singers seems strange to me. I guess it’s about confidence, or a certain amount of obliviousness. You wouldn’t get embarrassed about the sound of your whisper or your yell, and I think of singing being not that different – just a type of communication that everyone has up their sleeves.
You can get away with a lot of things when you sing. I’ve found I’ve sort of unconsciously made a habit of saying embarrassing things in my songs, things that I could never say to a friend or a doctor, much less a room full of strangers. I hate to quote Voltaire, but I think on his grave he has this inscription that goes ?Whatever is too stupid to be said is sung.? something like that. I think I’ve accidentally taken that to heart.
My parents are staying with me at the moment and they’ve brought our family dog. He’s a growler. I’ve been singing to him while he’s trying to sleep, about how he’s such a good boy, you know, trying to get him growling. I wrote most of the songs on Little Milk when I was walking around North Melbourne, driving to the video store, showering. I’d just sing into a Dictaphone, making it up on the spot. One of these demos made it on the album (?Lollipop Man Demo?) and you can hear kids in the background getting out of school. That’s the kind of singing I do mostly, just sort of goofing around. Love your tape, by the way!
?I tried to do something different with each album, have some underlying concept to make it a bit more challenging.?
Can you tell me about the albums you released last year? I know four of them. I admire your work ethic.
Yep, just the four. I know it seems like I must have been hard at work getting all these albums out in the one year, but there was just a bit of a delay in putting some of them out. It was nice, though, to release them all in one year. Coincidentally 2012 was my 10th anniversary of writing songs and so it was good to have some proof that I was doing it for a reason. I tried to do something different with each album, have some underlying concept to make it a bit more challenging but also help inform the process of getting them together. I found that if they had some [MacGuffin](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin), some purpose, it made the albums a lot easier to make, helped me to map them out. With Split, the whole time I was thinking of it as a sort of big vague narrative, from primordial soup to apocalypse. That sounds sort of prog and embarrassing, but it helped to think about each song as being some part of the story, and what the next chapter would sound like, etc.
For Little Milk I had the idea of having heaps of short songs. Originally I was just going to do 10 and put out a 7?. But I was having fun doing it, and I wanted to see how long I could do it for so I just kept going writing these little looney tunes. When I had about 38 of them, I asked my girlfriend if I should go to 50 or 60 and she said I should probably just stop at 40. I’m glad I did too, ?cause when I listened to it for the first time I was mortified. I thought it was the most schizophrenic, draining album. But now I sort of admire its footlooseness.
Girlfriends was an album I recorded with [James Cecil](/articles/4060670). I got this grant to record an album properly and it was the first time I’d done that. It was an interesting experience for me, having someone else to work with, who was hacking away at these songs with me. I’d been squirrelling away songs for about three years; whenever I got a good, upbeat, Beatles-y song, I’d put it on this album. So when it came to actually recording it, I had a lot of expectations about how it was going to turn out. It ended up a little different to what I was expecting. It’d be a very smooth album if it didn’t have my crazy singing over the top. I was trying to make a classic album, you know, with 12 songs, guitar solos and choruses, no segues, nothing too abstract. I haven’t really listened to it yet, but I’ve heard it on the radio a couple times. It sounded OK!
?It’s like a jigsaw puzzle for your ears. You keep putting pieces together, trying to make an image, but you don’t really know what you’re looking at a lot of the time.?
Roominations I made at my friend Marty’s farm, about an hour out of Melbourne. I had these acoustic songs and I was going to make a pretty straight folk album, but that sounded a bit boring so I came up with this idea of having a two-sided album: one side just nylon-string guitar and singing and the other just pump organ and singing, and I’d record it in two separate rooms. After the other three albums, I thought I’d try limiting myself a bit more. I have a tendency to put too many instruments on songs, to clutter them with instruments. I ended up cluttering this one too, but it was different only having the one instrument to play with.
I love making albums. I love the process. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle for your ears. You keep putting pieces together, trying to make an image, but you don’t really know what you’re looking at a lot of the time. It’s the best feeling when you listen to your own music, something that’s fresh, and you like it. The next day it might not sound so great, but for a little while there was a song that you felt like listening to but that didn’t exist, so you made it. It’s great fun and some anguish making albums but I can’t stop really. It feels like my default position.
In ?I Was Younger Once?, I liked how you lyrically referenced another Roominations song, ?Follows Sea?. And ghosts seem to come up a lot in your songs. Self-references or recurring themes are so nice. Just like how [Lucrecia Martel](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucrecia_Martel) has a lot of swimming pool scenes in her films, a real focus on the pools themselves – they become a new language a character or something that travels through someone’s filmography or discography, which you can get attached to. The pools and ghosts hold important meaning!
I didn’t realise I’m such a Ghostbuster! Yeah, I tend to use the same words a lot. I got in trouble from Liz [Mitchell] (from my band) for using the word ?brine? twice on an album. I tend to say ?body? and ?stone? a lot too, but I’m kind of reining myself in now. I notice that in songwriters sometimes. I heard Nick Drake recently and it reminded me how often he says ?in your way? or some variant on that. Writing lyrics is different for me than writing anything else, because you’re sort of limited to a metre and rhythm and rhyme maybe, but then also it’s the sound of a word that’s so important too. Some vowel sounds will fit a melody, will sound right on a note, and some will sound very wrong. So the music itself sort of dictates what you can or can’t say, or at least how you can say it. I’m trying to get around that with my songwriting at the moment, changing the phrasing so I can say more in my lyrics. I end up sort of ranting, though.
It’s hard to know what there is to say, how to say it and why you should bother. Sometimes the lyrics come more or less complete with the song, and that’s usually when I have recurring themes I guess, because the words are coming automatically and I think things like ?ghost,? ?body,? ?stone? – these things are pretty basic concepts that are in the bottom of your brain. I like albums that know themselves. It’s a better experience for me listening to an album that’s been made holistically, with some sort of continuity to it, either in the sound or the lyrics or both. It’s more like a movie than a skit show.
I was going to ask you about that, because each of your albums stands alone as an album – you can argue that they’re all in some way conceptual albums, lyrically or musically. If you took a song from Girlfriends* and put it on *Roominations, it wouldn’t make sense.
Yeah, that’s part of the reason I’ve always got a few on the boil. Songs will sort of steer themselves in certain directions depending on the way I’ve approached them. And yeah, it would definitely be a bit strange if you made a mix tape of my music. Most of my songs come out pretty clear where they want to go, and I try to make sure they’re part of the fabric of their album.
?You’re more likely to lose excitement and get mopey if you’re working on one thing and it’s a bit of a slog.?
At the moment I’m hoping to release three or four albums this year, and they’re all pretty different. So if I get bored I can always dart to one of the others and start working on that, kind of keeping my approach a little fresher, since it’s so easy when you’re making an album to get bogged down and myopic. You’re more likely to lose excitement and get mopey if you’re working on one thing and it’s a bit of a slog.
It’s rewarding following an artist who finds making albums so satisfying. I think the only way to get better at making records is to make lots of records. People like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard released so many quality albums in the ?70s – two or three a year at times, concept albums and all. You get to follow them and hear how they change and develop from record to record. Bonnie ?Prince? Billy is another one of these prolific songwriters. Did you enjoy supporting him in Castlemaine last year?
Castlemaine was a bit of a disaster. There were maybe 500 people and every one of them was having great energetic conversations during our set. We could barely hear ourselves, and the theatre were projecting ads for other gigs behind us while we played. We had a great show the previous night at the National Theatre in St Kilda though, people clapping along and everything. I was surprised because people have come to see this soulful, velvety-voiced guy and they had me squealing in their faces. But they took it on the chin and we had a great time. If I could play theatres for the rest of my life, I’d be floating.
But yeah, I’ve always been a big fan of anyone who threw themselves into it. I like the idea of a regimen as well. You’re bound to get a bunch of albums if you’re working on songs and if you’re a songwriter. What else would you be doing? I was trying to find out which was a good Duke Ellington album recently, so I looked up his discography and he made like five albums a year for 50 years or something like that. It was astounding, I wanted to be like Duke.
And I think it’s worth the work. I think I’m getting better, or at least I think my best songs and albums are ahead of me. I just want to make something great. I don’t think I’ve made it yet, but I’m still optimistic that I’m on the right trajectory. I’m sort of sharpening my tools with these albums. That’s kind of why I like to have these strictures or concepts or whatever.
What’s your relationship with live performance? For me the purpose of making records and the purpose of playing live are so different. Playing live is really based in community – it’s about forming relationships with everyone in the room. I’d be pretty clueless about meeting people and forming relationships that I really value if it wasn’t for music.
I like playing live. I think anyone who knows me would say that’s a lie though, ?cause I get very testy and manic and sick before shows. I like it when I’m doing it, most of the time, but it’s the waiting around, the countdown to the show that kills me. I’ve had a semi-permanent band for the last year or so and it’s great having them there with me, weathering the highs and the lows. And I’ve just started doing solo shows again: no pedals, loops, etc. Just acoustic guitar and singing. Which is fun and probably good for me. I can concentrate on the affect of my singing a bit more, and it’s interesting playing with such limited resources, nothing behind you.
I find when I play with the band, I’m playing with them. The audience is sort of peripheral. I’m more trying to impress the band or make them laugh, that sort of thing. But playing solo, it’s almost like you’re playing with the audience. You’ve got to be a bit more intuitive and read them almost like they’re another instrument. That’s if it’s a good crowd; otherwise you just try and have fun by yourself or make horrible noises to spite them. I don’t know how I feel about playing gigs, actually. It’s a bit of a chore for me, but it’s the only real straightforward way you can tell if people like what you’re doing. So it’s useful for that. And I love riders.
And yeah it’s good for meeting people. I’ve met some great people over the years, including yourself, nice people, people that help you out. But I don’t really go to gigs that much myself. I don’t like the standing!
And it’s also not just about meeting people. If a stranger walks into the room and you’re singing, you automatically have some sort of relationship with them. You’re bouncing off them. I feel like that anyway. No need for small talk.
Yeah, and hopefully it’s a good relationship! Music is unique in that way. It’s more or less instantaneous, relative to other forms of self-expression. You usually know pretty instantly if you like something or not. And I know I’ve been drawn to music, I could hear someone playing upstairs and it’s like Wile E. Coyote smelling a roast, I go floating off by the nose to the source.
?I do try to make a character to some degree, where it’s fun to say weird things, to be creepy, bombastic, meditative, misogynistic, romantic, sleazy, elliptical, whatever.?
I guess we’re getting a little philosophical but it’s true, the contract between the performer and the listener runs so deep and it’s really mutual. I was listening to a talking-book a little while ago and it was that old koan, ?If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?? and this guy was saying no, it doesn’t. Sound isn’t actually a thing till it’s heard by someone, till it goes into their ears and is translated in their brain into ?sound.? It can be a struggle to get people to come to my gigs most of the time, and I don’t really mind, but it’s nice to have someone there to hear me chopping down all my trees.
Do you ever think about singing the same way an actor might think about playing a character? I get a lot from separating singer from song, but there are so many autobiographers out there so it’s not always easy.
I do occasionally. I’ll usually use real experiences as a base and then embellish on them, say things I couldn’t say or necessarily mean, elevate things. I think it’s easy to use songs like a diary, but it can get pretty boring that way. I mean, you wouldn’t go to a pub and read passages from your diary about how shit you are or how you like this girl or whatever, and sometimes – not that often, luckily – I find myself sort of disgusted or embarrassed by lyrics of mine that are too confessional. I’ll sing them at a gig and think ?Geez, what an idiot? to myself, which can obviously take you out of the song.
So I do try to make a character to some degree, where it’s fun to say weird things, to be creepy, bombastic, meditative, misogynistic, romantic, sleazy, elliptical, whatever. I mean, as a person I live a pretty quiet life and not overly energetic or dramatic, so I kind of have to dig up these characters out of myself and if the lyrics are good I’ll always be a little surprised by what I’m saying. Probably all my songs are character songs to a degree. I just don’t make up names for them like [?Mean Mr. Mustard?](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MeanMr.Mustard), so they could seem like they’re autobiographical.
##Alec Marshall runs the label/collective [Why Don’t You Believe Me?](http://wdybm.blogspot.com.au). His band Hot Palms launch their ?J.C.? EP on Saturday, April 13 at Pearl Oyster (113 Miller St, Preston) with Bleach Boys and Laura Soulio. Upcoming Lehmann B Smith gigs below.
Wed, April 17 – Studio 19, Wollongong, NSW
Thurs, April 18 – 107 Projects, Redfern, NSW
Sat, May 17 – The Empress, Melbourne, VIC [‘Roominations’ launch, afternoon show]