If you’re looking for the kind of music you would play when you wake up, prepare your morning coffee and slowly start your day, you can find it in a lovely folk tune by Jesse Daniel Smith. His deep and enchanting voice will surely put you in the calmest state of mind as you truly listen to stories and perspectives through his music. We had the chance to interview the Montréal-based singer-songwriter, where he went in-depth about his career as an online musician, his favourite Montréal coffee shops and the influence of mental health and narcotics in his creative process.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What motivated you to make music and pick up that camera to start your YouTube channel?
Music was far too subtle for me until I was about 15 years old. Around that time I serendipitously walked into a pawnshop and found the first left-handed guitar I had ever seen. Needless to say, rather than walking about with a see-through OG Xbox (crystal special edition only sold in Europe and later Canada) I bought that sparkling red Strat clone and promptly left it to collect dust for over a year, playing tiny amounts despite my chasms of extreme apathy for it. One day, I booted up the comically old computer in my room and started to mess around with the Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’. Somehow, the accumulation of my directionless noodling had developed into basic guitar fundamentals. The chords came relatively easy and I felt inspired to continue learning.
That’s when the anxiety kicked in. “Was I good enough? Who was the best in the world? Could I play like them? Could I be better than them? Would I be happy with any other outcome?” My youthful naivety screamed out, urging my conscious mind to ‘win’ at a game I had only just learned existed. Step one, I sure as heck wasn’t going to be making any money any time soon as I was pretty unremarkable at music while also being extremely late to the party. I needed to figure out how to make lots of product without having any costs. Although the age of ‘free’ information has made that mentality commonplace, being armed with a mediocre ability to run blues pentatonic scales and a weird patchy beard in 2007 was not a very good place to be competing with Daughtry and Unk. While a single photoshoot was quoted to me at 300$ a Canon Rebel XS (and the ability to have infinite photoshoots) was only 250$. The choice for me was obvious. Fast forward to 2010 and I realized that playing songs on YouTube was much more cost-efficient than the expensive & disheartening live circuit that only catered to musicians who were already famous, regularly played lots of covers or had large social networks.
It’s clear you spend a lot of time on your YouTube content and social media and it has definitely amped up your exposure. What advice would you give to other “online musicians” who are looking to get their name out there?
I would recommend that everyone immediately stop whatever they are doing in their careers and pivot over to trying to provide value to your future listener base while not trying to sell them anything. I know this seems counter-intuitive but people do not want to be invited to every concert you’re attending, every music video you need them to be in, or every crowdfunding goal you need met in order to make them albums they did not ask for/care about. I get this question quite a bit and I truly believe that what others see as social media I see as writing and producing 10x the material. The very nature of recording forces countless hours of playing to a metronome, exploring multiple instruments and listening back to yourself critically. I live by the Steve Martin creed “be so good they can’t ignore you” and it’s never lead me wrong.
If you’re looking to get your name out there, do something that people want to talk about. My exposure is due to 1) working for exposure (this should be obvious but there’s a nonsensical, moral high-ground about working for exposure from entitled artists who don’t like to work) and 2) having a product that people enjoy. They enjoy it because I’ve spent a decade refining it to be appealing to a demographic I’ve valued above all else.
What are some of your fondest music memories?
My whole life is now a series of musical milestones with personal development orbiting around them. The above mentioned exploration of the Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’ is definitely up there. In retrospect that was the moment I dedicated my life to seeing how far I could take that sense of accomplishment. Otherwise, my fondest memories are all when I had a meta-realization about music that I was otherwise too small-minded to appreciate. For example, the first time I listened to Andy Shauf’s ‘The Party’ I was also on mushrooms and the combination enabled me to completely turn off my critical ear, allowing me to enjoy music without any comparison or over-intellectualization for the first time in my adult life. Similarly, my first acid experience was a beautiful confirmation that the process of writing albums was my life, rather than my life being about writing albums. My brain feels binary sometime and the switch from 0 to 1 can be pretty moving.
Actually, it’s 100% the time that Roger O’Donnell (Synth player for ‘The Cure’) told me that “I would never be Avril Lavigne” in his Toronto loft while my bass player was in his bathroom cleaning vomit off of his shoes from bad sausage he insisted on eating.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about writing an album? Where do you find the most inspiration?
The creative process has just been staying alive for me, honestly. I know that must read as impossibly derivative and insincere but I swear I’ve been living that Van Gogh ‘cut off your ear and die alone burning your paintings life’ despite the fact that I’ve had a uniquely engaged audience for the better part of the last 3 years. I was deeply depressed and overwhelmed by a constant anxiety that gave me incredibly real ‘muse’ moments that the romantic music community can’t get enough of. Through the slowest self-destruction you’ve ever seen I would somehow have lucid 4 hour pockets where I would write, produce, record, and shoot videos for in the dead of night just hoping beyond hope that it would be the one that saved me. My albums are still like that; a constant, literal continuation of whatever I’m experiencing. Even my covers are chosen through my own life experiences as I still need songs that represent what I’m currently going through when I have no motivation to write original material.
In greater detail: the first album “The World Doesn’t Need Another Record” was just 10 out of some 100 songs I had written and recorded for Soundcloud, Tumblr and YouTube. “Pretty Breakup Songs” was just my short-lived folk duo “Bride & Groom”’s second album, repurposed as personal therapy and an excuse to keep busy during my first experience living alone. My new album that’s being released slowly over the year, ‘I Almost Went to College and Got A Job’ is a contractual obligation. I write what I’m feeling into tunes and when a record is due I rope the last 8-10 of them together (I produce 99% of the songs I write) and hope that other people understand whatever I was going through while getting the comfort that they’re definitely not alone in experiencing it.
You write pretty breakup songs but you also play other people’s music and still make it totally unique. How do you decide what songs you want to cover and how do you go about making it your own?
Other people’s tunes are just people telling stories and everything is someones story, right? When I am too weak and too critical of myself, I turn to my rule about “the objectivity of The Masters” to make music. I just try to find something that directly relates to my scenario and I listen to it on repeat, letting my imagination go wild. Then I apply my second rule about “Shitting on The Masters” to trust that Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobaine and Jimi Hendrix didn’t feel it necessary to pay direct homage to any artist, no matter how untouchable they were. My third rule and final rule is about learning the song by ear on acoustic guitar in order to guarantee that I get at least 30% of the chords wrong and make room for my own instinctual re-harmonizations (chords that can be swapped because they carry similar harmonic & musical tension).
Music is our thing but so is food! So we have to ask if you can throw down in the kitchen and if so, what’s the best recipe you’ve ever made?
I can throw down in the kitchen but I’m real rustic! My favourite thing to make is a homemade gnocchi pasta dish that has a rosé ‘sauce’ consisting of tomatoes, cream, orange/red bell peppers, the go-to italian seasonings, mushroom, sausage, kidney beans, spinach, onion and garlic. You can eye-ball out 10 portions worth and it all gets better as it sits together. Real handy for your studio obsessed homebody.
Describe the music scene in Montréal and of course, we’d love to know, what are your favourite Montreal restaurants and cafés?
The music scene in Montréal is really incredible if you fit into it and are willing to participate. The venues, the good sound people, the best bands, they’re all really in it for legit, artistic reasons and it makes for an intimidating and intense environment. That being said, I’ve only ever been inspired to play shows that others have asked me to play. I believe in providing the market with a good product and meeting the demand that the supply is asking for because I’m a weird robot that was also programmed to feel and write love songs apparently.
If you’re drinking coffee, I’m your guy. Dispatch on St-Laurent/Duluth for the best Filter/Cold Brew, Replika on Rachel for Americanos and Nevé right across the straight if you’d prefer a straight up, rainy day latté. Tunnel Espresso bar in PVM has the best straight Espresso, Cappuccino, and Cortados though if you happen to be walking through and want a no-sitting pickup.
For Montréal specific restaurants I would say go to the Main on St-Laurent instead of ‘Schwartz’ and go to ‘La Belle Province’ instead of La Banquise. Too much is lost in translation when you’re in line and the whole experience feels like your on some sort of tourist conveyer belt.
What can we expect from you in the near future? What are your goals for your music career?
Big picture: I plan on releasing a bunch of really good albums that catapult me to super-stardom and play with Bruce Springsteen if possible. Short term: I’m penning a book about real, practical steps everyone can start doing immediately to get out of their heads and into living life at 100% potential. I’m going to pair that up with my next album titled either “I didn’t realize I had depression” or “I love doing drugs” that examines my relationship with narcotics (from sugar and coffee to LSD) and my mental health. It’s an arch that covers a decade of transformation from an extremely anxious martyr for straight-edgedom to a very happy person drug user who is happy, balanced and being asked to interviews about a career as an internet renaissance man!
Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
You are what you do, not what you think. Similarly, artists make art. If you’re thinking about that doing something bigger than you’ve ever done, you owe it to yourself to start yesterday and to treat it as though it is your job or else it will never get done. If you’re playing the same 4 venues with the same 10 bands to the same 20 people, you are that person. If you’re providing free, thought-provoking content that is well-packaged and widely available for people looking to take a chance on new records, then you’re that person. Everybody loves that person. Please, be that person for the sake of your career and all the teenagers in Portugal who like western music but can’t be at Le Cagibi in the middle of February in Montréal at 10:00pm.
Listen to Jesse Daniel Smith on Spotify