I had the chance to see Bethany Saint Smith perform at the Fontana's (NYC) last month. This is definitely an artist that you need to discover and follow, and I would like to thank her personally for taking the time and answering 5 for us, especially since this is my first interview for SlowdiveMusic Blog.
1. What are your musical and non-musical influences?
My musical influences… it’s an interesting subject, because growing up, I wasn’t too familiar with the tunes of Muddy Waters or Johnny Cash. The first time I heard a Muddy song was because my bass player here in NY, Jon Fallin grew up learning guitar on Muddy’s accord. When I heard “Champagne and Reefer,” I thought, “How did I not know about this man?” Susaye Greene of The Supremes wrote my first review and she noted, “Bethany has the instincts of an aged American Blues Singer, makes you wonder what she’s lived through…” and that I sounded of “early sixty’s Odetta.” At this point, I’ve never heard of Odetta, but I’ve heard this reference before, so I took up parading around her tunes, hearing such a big sound of wisdom, it drove me to question my existence in songwriting. When I really started to listen to Johnny Cash, I thought, “Now how can I get that dollar bill, chugging train sound in my blues?” I wanted to sing like Muddy, and play like Johnny. I like to collect my musical influences, and savor their words and notes, the blues and country that people nowadays fear to embody. To me, it was a new bible of rights and wrongs, something I’d never had the chance to read until I could appreciate it, had I come to hear of it in my childhood years. I certainly was living in the blues, but had no time to reflect on it with such a young mind.
2. Sadly, the bluesman/woman is a dying breed; there are very few prominent blues players performing live these days. As opposed to repackaging and re-labeling the blues, you speak from its core. One always hears of artists being inspired by Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, yet your performance takes listeners right to that period. As a blueswoman, do you feel a certain responsibility to keep that heritage alive; and, do you think there could be a possible renaissance for the blues?
When you wrote that bit about closing your eyes and hearing the ghosts of Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash, you sparked a damn good flame in me. After meeting Odetta a few times in New York, and after speaking to her about her movement in the blues and folk world, I was more inspired than ever to take blues back to the level that it was real at. When someone says, “twelve bar”, I think, “go time.” Nina Simone said it well, “You’re pushing, you’re pushing, just relax, you’re pushing it, it will go up by itself, don’t put nothing in it unless you feel it…” in her recording of “I Shall Be Released.” I relate well to that phrase at the core. The blues will take you, and you cannot push it, if it doesn’t come naturally, it won’t, by God and please, don’t push it. I met The Black Oil Brothers (Tony Manno, Anthony Maietta, Timmy Ryan) of Chicago when they were on tour in 2007, followed them around until they let me sing some tunes with them at their last show. I gave them my chords, they played it, I felt a core of me that had been buried for some time. Then we became The Black Oil Family. A year later, we recorded an album in one weekend at Manno’s apartment, with Maietta engineering (the Tony's). That whole weekend was filled with extended Black Oil Family, several other names contributed on what will be called, "American Honey." Then the Tony's flew here to NYC where we sat in my Brooklyn apartment, working on the tunes we’d not played for several months, then to Fontana’s that night for the first gig ever. The blues was unleashed and provocative. Something about the blues you and I can talk about has moved so far beyond what the ghosts could call the Blues. Music and its core value has nearly disappeared, ask anyone who’s a musician under the age of thirty who’s making more than a million bucks a year. It’s my duty to call it and keep it how it is and should be. I feel it, it’s real, not taught or read. It’s something I sing and write, something I can call “ours.” If and when there is a renaissance for the blues woman, I swear, it would take many more men and women like you to make it rattle and shake.
3. Don't think we missed the 70's funk and disco influence in some tracks: how did they manage to find their place on a blues record?
My New York City band, (Bethany Saint Smith & The Gun Show) has a wide variety of sounds, lots of blues, soul, country, surf and funk. When we formed a few years back, I was new to the band aspect. My songs were mostly written in three count, with dark, melodic Country undertones, but these guys took me to another level. I own a sequin dress, so why the hell not? My drummer, Daniel and I have the same dirty, dark ideas of what my songs can turn into, motivating a lot of the old soul feel. Let’s talk to Aretha and James, see what they think. I love those legends, their ability to make people move got really under my skin and I started to funk around with those big sounds.
4. On a cold wintry night in the city (much like we're experiencing now), where can one find comfort from the elements as well as comfort for the soul; what are some of your favorite clubs/venues to relax and/or perform at?
I’ve been in New York for almost four years now, coming from San Francisco, California. Each year we lose some of the best clubs and venues. Mo’Pitkin’s in Manhattan on Avenue A was my first love, now I put all my trust into venues such as Lakeside Lounge, Banjo Jim’s, Ace of Clubs and Terra Blues, depending on my craving. Lakeside Lounge has one killer bank, every night of the week (and the best jukebox with everything from John Lee Hooker to Waylon Jennings). Banjo Jim’s is a perfect winter spot, because who doesn’t like to go hear a good night of honky tonk, full of life and somber smiles. Ace of Clubs is under ACME, a Cajun restaurant…. ‘nuff said. Terra Blues will welcome you at the bottom of their entry staircase, belting out the infamous Blues player of the evening… you really feel like you’re in for something evil and delicious, which you are. I have performed at all these spots, and love them all.
5. Any famous last words for our readers?
There are two types of music, good and bad. The first type was mastered by names you don’t often see on billboards in the past couple of decades. The second type of music is made by people that couldn’t tell you who those artists even are. Good, solid, down home blues is measured by the craving people have to hear it. Perfection is only a skill and playing, loving the blues is something you’re born into.
Keep up with Bethany Saint Smith & The Gun Show at their MySpace site. Also, Bethany Saint Smith has her own MySpace. She can also be found on Reverb Nation, Sonic Bids, and Avenue A Records.