Darden Smith Takes The Time To Discover ‘Western Skies’
When Darden Smith began regularly driving hundreds of miles through West Texas during the pandemic period, a project gradually crept up on him, reaching out through jotted words, musical fragments, polaroid photographs, and more. This was artistic ephemera that he believed at first to be unrelated, but important to him. Coalescing in a kind of eureka moment for the songwriter, musician, author, and visual artist was the project Western Skies. The book Western Skies, featuring Smith’s photographs and essays, arrived in shops in early March 2022. The musical album Western Skies arrived on March 25th. More will follow via a spoken-word album featuring Smith reading his essays along with musical scoring, and a related video project.
For Darden Smith, this multi-media project only really came about because of his willingness to take the time to respond to his artistic instincts in the various forms that they took rather than assuming what form they should take. I spoke with him about the evolution of Western Skies, how the music draws inspiration from the initial landscape that inspired him, and what he’s learned as an artist from working on such a wide-ranging project.
Americana Highways: This is by far the most unusual project I’ve talked about in a long while with an artist. I know that you have written a book before, but was this the first time that you incorporated photography with music in this way?
Darden Smith: The book I wrote was called The Habit of Noticing. That was the first time I put my photos and art out there in the world, but it wasn’t tied to an album. It was a freestanding project. This was the first time that I brought a photography book together with music, and I actually didn’t intend for it to be a book or even a record. I didn’t intend anything. I was just taking pictures on these drives I was doing in West Texas during the middle of the pandemic.
I was also at home for the first time in a long time and was going up to the studio every day. As soon as the shutdown happened, I committed myself to that. I didn’t want to drift off into doing nothing and I work better when I had a schedule. I went to work every morning at 9AM. I was writing songs and playing piano a lot more. Then when I was doing these drives, I started taking pictures and writing these essays. It was only when I was in the studio recording these demos at Sonic Ranch in El Paso, on the second night of recording, that I realized that these three disparate pieces of work were actually the same thing that hung together. They hung together as a book with an accompanying album. Instead of a book accompanying an album, this is really an album accompanying a book. That’s a shift for me. I wondered how to make these pieces stand together but also on their own as well, because there are people who may never hear the record, but may just buy the book.
AH: I was surprised to realize that the book was being released ahead of the record and that suggested that it had autonomy to it.
DS: It has autonomy and it’s a separate piece of work, but they fit together. If you want the whole of it, it’s the book and the album. That’s broader than any project I’ve done before. I’m also putting out a spoken word album in September. It’s called Western Skies: The Essays. It’s the audio version, but we scored it, and there will be a series of videos around it. Western Skies will keep rolling. It’s so much fun.
I feel blessed to be at this point in my work-life where I’m really excited. I want to stay excited so I’m looking around for new ways to do what I do. I want to push the envelope. This is album number sixteen for me in 35 years of making records and stuff. That’s a long time! But as opposed to relaxing, I don’t really want to do that. I want to take what I do that works and push that. It’s really a luxury in life to get to that place.
AH: Even the smallest part of what you’ve talked about is undoubtedly a lot of work.
DS: Putting a book out is a lot of work! When you’re just dealing with words, you’re looking for the million places where the comma can be in the wrong place, but then when you add images to that, it ramps it up. Then when you bring music to that, it ramps it up even more. There are a lot of pieces to it, but it’s really enjoyable as a creative process. It took 18 months to get here.
AH: I’m really curious about the photography of these landscapes. It sounds like you took even more polaroid photos than we see in the book.
DS: Just like with recording music, you have to create more than you actually use. I took a lot of photos. It started with me finding this polaroid camera in my garage that I bought 25 to 30 years ago, in one of those boxes you take from place to place when you move. I found some black and white film and started taking pictures. I was just driving and seeing. There was no goal. There was a whole process that I used on these drives where I’d see something, pull over, take one or two pictures, put them in a box, get back in my car, and drive away.
The polaroid takes five to ten minutes to develop, so when I would drive away, I wouldn’t know if the photo really worked or not. It forced me to slow down and be in the moment. There’s no editing. It is what it is with a polaroid. It forced me to see in a different way. It’s also expensive taking pictures with a polaroid, so with each picture costing roughly the same amount as an espresso, I would ask, “Is this worth an espresso?” And if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t take the picture. I would ask, “Is there a story here, or is this just something that caught my eye?”
When it came to making the book, I didn’t pair the pictures with the essays. I let the designer start. I like collaborating with people and when I do that, I don’t tell them what I’m thinking first. I don’t want to cloud their view or steer it. Some of the choices that they made were so much better than I would have made. But the essays are laid out in a geographical way. They start just West of Austin and they end in El Paso.
AH: How did the music come into this driving experience and how was it impacted by this experience?
DS: When I was driving, I was listening to Cormack McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, and Bob Dylan’s latest record at the time, Rough and Rowdy Ways. I was listening to old J.J. Cale records and taking these pictures. Then at night, I was writing these essays in a hotel room, or sometimes speaking them into my phone while driving. I only realized this the other day, but there was no expectation of songs since I didn’t know if I’d ever make another record after my last one. And that made it fun. It reminded me of being a child, there was a playfulness I was able to access. Being alone in that landscape during a time when you couldn’t really hang out with people anyway was really interesting.
But the big influence on this was the J.J. Cale Naturally record. It came out in the 70s. There are drum machines on it and a lot of openness and space. There’s also a lot of openness and space I the west so I wanted this album to have openness and space. Also, I’ve been playing the piano for years, but during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time playing the piano, so a lot of the songs were written on the piano. Then I played piano on the record. Because this was all done in 2020 or 2021, it was impossible to get a lot of people into a studio.
So it started with just me at Sonic Ranch with an engineer. I asked him to turn on the drum machine and a simple loop, and I played to it. That was my drum track. I wanted to keep that feel. We built it up from the piano or acoustic guitar. The sound is also influenced by the people you bring in. I would show them pictures in the session and said, “This is the vibe. I’m not going to tell you how to play, but here are the pictures.”
The pedal steel is integral in how I hear music, so that’s there. I’m still informed by Neil Young’s Harvest, one of the first records I got when I was nine or ten. The bass and drums on this record, and the way that they interact with guitar and piano, are the same. Listen to “Out on the Weekend,” then listen to “Miles Between.” It’s the same. So the photos and the drives influenced the music and the feeling that I get out in West Texas. It’s grounded, and calm, and spacious.
AH: I know that you had 25 songs originally. What criteria did you use to decide which ones to work on further and include on this album?
DS: The 25 songs kind of sifted themselves out for me, in that these songs all fit in the same tone. That’s what my criteria was, and it sort of took care of itself.
AH: Some of the songs address internal states that are not often spoken about opening. Even with the song, “Running Out of Time,” there’s an anxiety there you’re open about.
DS: My partner, Hayley, is a very positive person, and I can naturally go the other way. During the pandemic time, I began to really consciously work on gratitude, which may sound trite. But every day, I’d go to my studio and say, “What’s going right?” Because “What’s going wrong?” is always the easiest thing to find. So “Running Out of Time” comes directly from that. “I Can’t Explain” also comes directly from that.
At the same time, my mother was dying, and I was turning 60, so mortality is a big part of all this. West Texas can also be bleak, but it’s easy to look at it, and think its empty or dead. But when you get on its pace, it’s full of life, color, and beauty. In places, it’s also a very degraded landscape that humans have created moving through that valley for thousands of years. So I was dealing with gratitude, the pandemic, a parent nearing the end, and looking at this geographical harshness. There were all these juxtapositions, and I was trying to put those into words. The fun part of being a songwriter is trying to capture the uncapturable.
AH: Do you think all these different parts of the project helped you get to grips with such a complex situation?
DS: It’s life. Life is difficult. But songwriting, as well as making art and music, is a fantastic way to process the world. That’s kind of why I’m able to function. These things that I do help me process the world so I don’t have to carry it around. I can put it in a song. I think that’s why I’m still alive! But you have to take the time. As you get older, there’s always pressure on you to give time to the mundane. So you have to put it on the calendar and make time to do these things. If you wait to find the time, you’ll never find enough of it. Take the time to stop and take that picture, to make that song, to make that video, to make those drawings. All these things are very important.
Thank you for talking to us, Darden Smith!
Find more about the projects of Darden Smith here: https://www.dardensmith.com