Photo by Gerard Hudson
Fred Smith has been forging an impressive reputation and body of work for many years in Canberra, nationally and overseas, drawing on some fairly disparate experiences. From personal stories about soldiers in war-torn Afghanistan, to the minutiae of how to fill in the time as a Washington house-husband, Fred does it all with a trademark laconic style and some wonderful collaborations.
Ahead of a couple of gigs in Sydney and Canberra, Fred took some time out from his government day job on a cool wintry Canberra day to chat over lunch, battling plane noises and kamikaze magpies to share some thoughts on albums, touring and the upcoming gigs.
Bill Quinn: Fred Smith, the last time I interviewed you, it was about the time you’d just released Texas. That would put it at about two thousand and … nine?
Fred Smith: Eight.
BQ: 2008. Wow. It’s fair to say a fair bit’s gone under the bridge since then?
FS: Yeah, well, there’s been the urban sea shanties extravaganza.
BQ: Tell us how that all came about, the collaboration with The Spooky Men’s Chorale.
FS: Well, it was the National Folk Festival in 2008. They were there. I was there. Me and (Stephen) Taberner had been watching each other for a while, and identified a like-mindedness. We were having a drink in the Session Bar and said, “Let’s play a gig”, so we organised a gig for the following night in the [Merry] Muse tent. Taberner got us together about an hour beforehand, we rehearsed with the guys, we went on stage with a lot of nervous energy and just sort of went off.
BQ: And it struck a chord.
FS: Yeah, it was chockers and people just went off. And I said to Stephen, “Let’s make an album”. We really tried to jam it out for the next year. And it was an intense year between there [the Budawang gig at the National in 2009] and then [the release of the album].
The project earned the collaborators a richly-deserved award as winners of the National Film and Sound Archives National Folk Recording Award 2009.
BQ: Not that it’s the ultimate test of how successful you are, but how many CDs did you sell after that gig?
FS: I don’t know, but we sold about 450 across the whole festival.
BQ: So while that was going on you’d only just recently released Texas. Do you find that happens, that you’ve just released something and you’re getting into something else?
FS: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. There’s always the promotional stuff is the hard work, and the next project is the fun stuff. I find I have to sustain myself doing both, in a sense. Maybe I should just take it easy and do one thing first. I probably underdo the promotional stuff. I mean, I’ve toured the shit out of [Dust of] Uruzgan. I’m still touring the album here and there, but I’m writing again.
BQ: With the Dust of Uruzgan, which came out last year, it came out to great critical acclaim. Were you surprised how much notice it got in the mainstream?
(That’s the sound of a singer-songwriter having a magpie swoop in for a landing in the DFAT building courtyard and only missing the top of his head by millimetres.)
FS: Well, I’m happy that it’s a really good record. Secondly, it’s a record that expresses a deep and intense experience. The other thing about it is that Afghanistan is interesting to the press, which opened up a whole bunch of doors in terms of media responses. Normally my albums get good reviews but this opened up to the mainstream because they’re fascinated with Afghanistan.
BQ: Does that lead to any other opportunities with the Australian Defence Force taking any interest in it?
FS: Ah, no. Which is annoying.
BQ: So you’re still touring with the album. How has touring gone in the last little while?
FS: Well, there was the autumn festival season, and the album got me into most of those festivals: Port Fairy, Blue Mountains, the National. Since then I’ve just been doing bits and pieces. For example, I went out to Young, Yass and Goulburn last weekend, which was cool. I’m starting to go out to these smaller towns, because playing in these smaller communities galvanises around a gig. Because they’re not always much else going on and they appreciate me coming to town. Then Canberra and Sydney this weekend. And apart from that I’m trying to turn out a theatre show and tour that to regional theatres.
BQ: When you go to a small town, like Yass for instance, do you find that sometimes your reputation’s gone before you and they’re aware of you, or that it’s a case of, “There’s someone coming to town; I’ll go and see him”?
FS: Yeah, absolutely. Radio National gets listened to a lot in the country towns. Radio National has been a great supporter of my stuff all along. So I have these pockets of support out there. And also people in small towns don’t always go to the festivals. So for instance, at Yass there must have been 20-25 people who knew my stuff fairly well and a whole bunch of people who had no idea! It’s delightful, because you get the support from the people who know you, and the people who don’t know you are watching them to get their cues.
BQ: How does it go, between the big festivals and packing out a couple of thousand seats to being at the top of an artist’s studio with 30/40/50 people?
FS: Oh, I don’t mind that at all. I cut my teeth doing small theatre shows in Canberra, you know, friends doing theatre and doing opening gigs for their shows. Sometimes you might three, four people. And it is harder to play to three or four people because there’s nowhere to hide! So small doesn’t scare me. And these old country towns usually have lovely wooden floorboards, and older venues with high ceilings, so acoustically and atmospherically it’s always nice.
BQ: So you’ve got the gigs coming up in Sydney and Canberra. Saturday 11th August in Canberra at The Lobby.
FS: Yeah, we’ve been meaning to have a go at The Lobby for a while. Shortis and Simpson have played there and say it’s great. It’s my first time there, so a bit of an experiment. I’ve always liked the room – it’s very central.
BQ: There’s a lot of glass there; it’ll be interesting acoustically.
FS: We’ll damp that down; we’ve got some blacks to put up. We’re doing all the production ourselves, so it should be alright.
BQ: And who’s on the bill? Who’s playing?
FS: Me, Liz Frencham, and a Few Good Spooky Men. With the Spooks, the business of wheeling out 20-25 of them proved to be impractical, but there’s a core of them who are very enthusiastic about doing this stuff who don’t mind travelling. So a smaller elite squad has formed called A Few Good Spooky Men – eight, nine, ten of them. So we’ll do these gigs this weekend, then in October we’ve got the Blue Mountains and Canowindra.
BQ: When you’re doing a gig that incorporates lots of elements: Frencham/Smith, Fred Smith, The Spooky Men, and some of your themed stuff – are there issues sifting and shifting through that material?
FS: Hmmmm. Good question. We’ll find out, hey?!
BQ: That’s an answer!
FS: We may invent some spurious segues between various songs.
If you’re in Newtown or Canberra on the following dates, you can get to see what all of this will look like.