Great songwriting can be revealed through infinite musical forms. From McCartney’s infectious, sappy piano ditties to the simple-child’s-song-run-through-a-Burroughs-filter appeal of Kurt Cobain’s stanzas and the activism-fueled bars of Chuck D, there is no standard sonic delivery system for moving words or arrangements. There’s still just something about the intimacy of stripped-down acoustic folk music. The format somehow lays bare the fundamental essence of a song. There’s a reason those heralded as some of the greatest songwriters ever (Bob Dylan, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, many others) favored the medium. It’s as if all the methods artists may use to move a listener — to evoke emotion — are distilled into their most basic elements, concentrated and highlighted by the nearly naked verses. All you need is a voice and simple accompaniment — “good bones,” as Cameron Smith calls it.
“It’s just the bones,” he said of the genre. “I love the intimacy of it, like someone is in the room with you. If you’re someone who’s into the sentiment of music — the human element of it — you like that stripped-down sound. They talk about how a house has ‘good bones.’ It’s the same. There’s something structural about it, and you can kind of build it to whatever you want it to be on top.”
With the recent release of his latest single, “There Is a Price,” Smith seems to have fully embraced this aesthetic. The solemn track begins with a Leonard Cohen-esque acoustic waltz and subtle glockenspiel before Smith employs the haunting melody of a medieval ballad. Violin, acoustic bass, and bowed saw blades carry the funereal “ooh”s over the bridge until lifting into a bright chorus. The captivating song was a collaboration with Curtis Heath (Theater Fire), whose day job as a film/podcast composer helped lend the track its lush melancholia.
“He’s got this really cool home studio with all these fun weird instruments,” Smith said of working with Heath. “It’s all the stuff people would use for Hans Zimmer scores or whatever. After the first session, he sent me home with a bow and a saw to learn to play. That’s characteristic of working with Curtis. He’s deliberate and thoughtful and really wants to catch the vibe of what something is, which is the way I want to do things going forward. ‘What is the feeling?’ ”
“There Is a Price” is the first music Smith has released as a solo artist since 2019’s arresting A Good Way to Say Goodbye and points to a continuation of the warm and confessional sound developed on that album. Although he’s still juggling the last bit of material for the sophomore release of Sur Duda, his full indie rock band, and plans on continuing as a guitar player for Hot Knife, as far as the material he’s interested in writing as a solo artist, he feels his direction is fairly set for now.
“All those things still have their places,” he said, “but when I’m working on my own stuff, it’s always more of what you might call traditional singer-songwriter — definitely folky. That was the stuff that I was first into. That’s not to say I won’t ever do anything [different] again, but for now, it’s definitely singer-songwriter-centric and probably will be for a while.”
With the “freedom” that lockdown afforded many people, Smith has seen a recent explosion of productivity. There’s the forthcoming Sur Duda record from which he’s released three singles already, a covers album he’s working on with his wife, Steevie Smith, a sort of “the Smiths covering the Smiths” project featuring songs by the likes of The Smiths (naturally), Elliott Smith, and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Cameron Smith also has contributed to an upcoming track by Katie Robertson (Chucho) as well as lyrics and vocals for two songs on the upcoming 50-song O. Deletron collaboration album. (Disclosure: I am a member of O. Deletron.) But it’s the next solo album he’s currently finishing that he’s most excited about. Tentatively titled Shine, the eight originals and two covers maintain the songwriter’s songwriting in which Smith has immersed himself in recent years. If “There Is a Price” is any indication of what’s in store, the album — due out late spring/early summer — will likely see Smith’s continuing development into the exemplar confessional songwriters who are his heroes.
From lead-screamer in hardcore bands as a teen to fronting blithesome garage-rockers War Party in his 20s to now a mature and developed solo artist, Smith hasn’t experienced a linear evolution, necessarily, but the arc has been certainly bent in one direction — one that is to the benefit of those looking to build upon “good bones.” As an artist, his only concern now is doing what’s “on my heart.” The only pressure he feels now is the pressure to get it all off his chest.
“As I’ve gotten older, the things I want have slowly changed,” he said. “It happens while you’re sleeping. You don’t even realize it. You wake up one day, and you’re somebody else with a whole different set of goals. When you’re younger, you have these big dreams. You have only this one big thing in mind back when you’re sure your life is like a movie or whatever, but then you realize you don’t have to do it that way. Things can be separate and compartmentalized. You don’t have to make money. You don’t need to be famous. Maybe you don’t even want those things and aren’t prepared for them anyway. I just do this now because I feel I have to do this work.”