GETTING TO KNOW: FRED SMITH

Fred Smith is an acclaimed Australian alternative singer/songwriter who writes about love and war zones. In 2008, Sydney Morning Herald critic Bruce Elder wrote “It is about time Australia caught up with Fred Smith. This remarkable singer-songwriter – who at various times reveals influences that range from Paul Kelly via Lou Reed to Loudon Wainwright III to Leonard Cohen – keeps releasing amazingly accomplished albums.”

Fred Smith has been a favourite on the Australian festival circuit for years, much loved for his gentle wit, gift for story and melody, and sublime collaborations with Liz Frencham and The Spooky Men’s Chorale. He was the subject of an Australian Story feature about his work in Afghanistan and on peace keeping operations in the war-torn islands of the South Pacific. The title track from his acclaimed album, Dust of Uruzgan, has been covered by country music star Lee Kernaghan. Fred also wrote a book, The Dust of Uruzgan.

Fred Smith and Canberra all-stars band will be performing a special Anzac Eve concert at the Street Theatre to mark the release of his new CD, Warries.

The Street talks to Fred Smith about music, diplomacy and his new CD, Warries, launch at a special Anzac eve concert in The Street Theatre.

Fred Smith in Tarin Kowt Image Credit: Ben Bohane

The Street talks to Fred Smith about music, diplomacy and his new CD, Warries, launch at a special Anzac eve concert in The Street Theatre.

DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH MUSIC AND DIPLOMACY.

Well I started working for the Foreign Affairs Department in 1996 which was also the year I started writing songs. The relationship between the two pursuits initially felt competitive, and I resented having to go to work as I felt like it was standing between me and artistic growth. But as the years went by that changed. Foreign Affairs sent me to work in places like Bougainville and Solomon Islands following conflicts in those places, and later to Afghanistan – fascinating environments that got under my skin and shifted my songwriting away from comedy and drinking songs to more compelling narratives – telling stories I was uniquely placed to tell. So in short, the relationship has become symbiotic. And having a proper job, paradoxically, has given me the artistic freedom to write, play and record the songs I driven to play without being overly fixated on commercial imperatives.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF WRITING VERSE FOR YOU?

The possibilities of writing verse originate in the constraints of writing verse, to wit, you have to make it rhyme, and this necessity becomes the mother of invention.

YOU HAVE SAID THAT WARRIES IS SOMETHING OF A RETROSPECTIVE, DOCUMENTING A FERTILE PHASE IN YOUR LIFE AS WELL AS A REMARKABLE PERIOD FOR AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS DEPLOYED INTO CONFLICT ZONES. TELL US MORE.

Yes it covers songs I wrote under the influence of antimalarial medication in Bougainville and Solomon Islands, and more recently Afghanistan. It has been five years since I’ve done that kind of work and I have matured a lot since having a daughter – I needed to – yet the writing I did back then looks really good in the light of day – vivid descriptions of places and people that moved me. And the songs tell a broader story of a remarkable phase in Australian foreign policy when our soldiers and public servants extended themselves beyond their usual zones of comfort and through sincere personal engagement helped restore peace and normalcy to some very traumatised societies. Many of these soldiers and civilians live here in Canberra now, and of course their lives have moved on, but it feels worthwhile to be telling these stories both to them and their families.

WARRIES IS A SEQUEL TO YOUR ACCLAIMED DUST OF URUZGAN ALBUM DESCRIBED BY ONE JOURNALIST AS CONTINUING A TRADITION OF PROFOUNDLY AFFECTING AUSTRALIANS-AT-WAR BALLADS. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

It’s a tradition that has always moved me. The songs of Eric Bogle, John Schumann and Don Walker’s Khe San most obviously, but for me it all began with Henry Lawson’s ‘Scots of the Riverina’, a setting of which I’ve recorded on this new album. ‘Scots’ is a remarkable piece of writing that covers a difficult marriage, and Oedipal struggle between father and son, the impact of a faraway war on a small Riverina town, and the thin consolations of the Scottish Presbyterian Church all in two minutes of verse! Ruthless economy – Lawson was surely the master, and the grandfather of this tradition. Perhaps this tradition is particularly important to me because, through working in these environments, I’ve got to know these soldiers personally, and I know they struggle to relate their experiences to friends and family back in Australia, and I know this is a source of frustration and a sense of alienation. So I like to sing these story songs because they make for compelling art but also because it’s important for us to understand the experiences of the 53,000 Australians who have served in these missions in recent years so they don’t walk the land as strangers in a way that a generation of Vietnam veterans did.

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU HAVE PERFORMED WITH A BAND? WHO ARE THEY AND WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?

I’ve been performing with various bands over the years, but this new one I’m particularly enjoying. Drummer Mitch Preston is active in the jazz and blues scene in several bands including Key Grip. Ginger bearded Matt Nightingale is Canberra’s go to bass man particularly in the Bluegrass scene with the Black Mountain String Band. And the notorious gunslinger Dave O’Neill on electric guitar, violin and mandolin is the master sideman having toured for years, inter alia with Eric Bogle. 

They bring a wealth of experience and sensibility to the stage and are good guys to hang around with. And they live in Canberra! And they are all rangas! Four rangas on a stage-what could go wrong!?

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLABORATION WITH OTHER MUSICIANS?

I keep my hands pretty loose on the reins. I like to give them the flexibility to interpret these songs through the filter of their own tastes and skills, so long as they understand that the star of the show here is the story, and all they do must serve the purpose of getting that story across.

HOW HAS YOUR AUSTRALIAN HERITAGE INFORMED YOUR CREATIVE LIFE INCLUDING SONGWRITING AND PERFORMING?

I tell some pretty serious stories in my songs but managed to take the piss while doing so. The Australian proclivity for taking the piss out of ourselves is the essence of our sensibility, and something I trust as a key to self-awareness. The dangerous people in the world are the ones who take themselves too seriously.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU?

The great song writers of the 60s and 70s mainly, but also authors like LeCarre and Graham Greene who told ripping yarns about frail characters in complex situations.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

Helen Garner.

 WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

Helen Garner.

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