There’s something that happens in that window defined by the turn from your late 20s into your early 30s. It’s a seemingly profound milestone that carries a self-important grandeur that it perhaps doesn’t really warrant. Nonetheless, whether you’re paying attention or not, that’s when real adulthood supposedly begins. With any luck, you’ve experienced some maturation, developed a broader sense of self-actualization, and witnessed an almost surprising shifting of priorities. All the things your parents warned you of and hoped for you. For singer-songwriter Cameron Smith, the crossing of that threshold has certainly seemed to bring with it a certain clarity.
“For me, I can really feel it,” he said. “I can feel how my mind changes — what it is I want. I can tell what’s working for what actually I want out of my life and the difference [between that and] that kind of groove you get in when you’re still sort of fucking around, when you’re young and still trying to hang out with friends and get rowdy. I’m in my 30s now. I’m tired and don’t like scheduling things,” he joked.
This realization makes up the theme on the appropriately titled “What I Want,” the latest single by Sur Duda, the vehicle Smith uses for his full band-oriented songwriting. Debuting last Friday, the tender, self-reflective ballad represents the fifth track released from Sur Duda’s forthcoming sophomore full-length, Total Distortion.
Due out Nov. 19, the 15-song collection seems to inadvertently expand on the theme of growth and maturity addressed on “What I Want.” Work on the record actually began as long ago as 2018. As such, the songwriting straddles that critical threshold into “real” adulthood mentioned above. Smith, now 33, is in a much different place as a songwriter than when many of Distortion’s songs were initially written. Over the last couple of years, he’s trended more toward Dylan- and Cohen-esque solo acoustic fare. In fact, Smith’s 2019 album, A Good Way to Say Goodbye, is a sort of companion piece to Total Distortion. The stripped-down eight-song work was recorded in a single day during the sessions for Distortion as a way for Smith to exorcise some of his built-up drive to do that kind of work.
“I think you’re just at where you’re at when you need to be there,” Smith said about the evolution of songwriting.
Some of the material on Distortion sounds like it could have been included on Sur Duda’s 2017 debut, Paper Knife. The bouncy love song “Sashimi” and the album opener “No Sleep” are two such tracks. On “No Sleep,” pulsing synths give way to guitarist Peter Marsh’s hooky single-note runs, a few elements that are essential to the group’s collective aesthetic. Though Sur Duda was originally a de facto solo project begun during the last few years of Smith’s tenure with the now-defunct garage-punk band War Party, Smith is quick to give his band members credit for their personal touches and individual contributions to how the project’s music sounds.
“For a little while I was like, ‘Oh, Sur Duda is kind of this solo thing of mine because I’m like this dictator of it,’ ” he said, “but then it occurred to me, especially on these sessions, if it wasn’t for this group of people, it wouldn’t sound this way.”
Some of the other tracks, like the folkier “Nurikabe” and “Nobody Knows,” hint at Smith’s ongoing development into a more “traditional” acoustic-style singer-songwriter. Ironically, some of Distortion’s songs in this vein are so old they actually predate Smith’s time in War Party. Hooked on Dylan at an early age, trying work like that was among Smith’s first efforts at songwriting. Frustration with his guitar playing and a broken wrist from skateboarding would give way to Smith abandoning the instrument and fronting a hardcore band for a number of years, but as he began to relearn to play during the War Party years, and with his rapid development since, he said he now has the confidence to reattempt some of those initial efforts and give them the attention they deserve.
With an album nearly four years in the making just over the horizon, Smith says he’s unsure of what’s next for Sur Duda.
“Usually by this time in an album, I’m already thinking about what the next album will be,” he said, “but I really don’t have anything planned, and I have no idea what another album would even be like if I did. If all we did was play the songs from these two albums for the next few years, it would still be really fun.”
Smith is currently working on another proper solo record. A single, “There Is a Place,” was released earlier this year and points to his songwriting’s continuing evolution.
About his music, Smith is poignant with his motives. “It’s just like here’s this thing, and I’ve put a lot of care into it, and I’m going to leave it here for whoever might find it, and hopefully it does something for them. I remember so many times in my life when music was there for me when nothing else was, and there’s something about trying to carry on that tradition.”