Daughter of the revolution
How Jesse Smith became a force in Detroit music
Published: February 22, 2012
Both Walking Beat and Belle Ghoul play the Blowout preparty at the Magic Stick. Jesse Smith also performs with various people at the Beehive Recording Co. showcase at the Polish National Alliance Hall on Friday.
It's never easy nailing a time to meet with the lovely, raven-headed Jesse Paris Smith; she's either here, there or, seemingly, everywhere. She is daughter to Patti Smith and MC5 guitar hero Fred "Sonic" Smith (he died when Jesse was 7), a lineage that's as fascinating, certainly, as it is telling for her and Jackson, her guitarist brother. Perhaps it can't be easy being a child to the grand matriarch of rock 'n' roll — and art and poetry from the New York fringes — who later showed us that the universe is indeed female. But Jesse says her culture-shifting mother was pretty much a regular mom. Indeed, Jesse is her own woman; she's kind, articulate, assured, intellectually and musically curious and empathetic — in many ways a creation of her environment, not a representation. The well-traveled pianist and singer spends much time in New York City and in Detroit, to which she's both fiercely loyal and sympathetic.
At this year's Blowout, Jesse plays with E6's Chris Tait in his new Belle Ghoul band — which is their debut performance and record release — and the Walking Beat with Steve McCauley, which is also a debut show. She'll perform with Kenny Tudrick, Skinny Wrists and Esquire as well. You see, Jesse's here, there and everywhere.
Metro Times: At what age did you start playing music?
Jesse Smith: Music has always been in my life in one form or another, but I didn't start taking piano lessons until I was 13. I played piano in school as a teenager, and with my mom's band I was able to sit in on keyboard occasionally, but was never in a band until I was 18.
MT: You play guitar as well as piano, right?
Smith: I don't play guitar, actually — that's Jackson's thing. I only know a couple of chords. I used to play ukulele, and have a little collection of them. I tried learning guitar, and I have them around the house, but I had my brother remove two of the strings so I could play it like a ukulele. I've tried other instruments — violin, banjo, drums, bass, clarinet. Piano feels most comfortable, but also is extremely overwhelming and intimidating.
MT: Was piano foisted upon you? How about singing?
Smith: Music was never forced upon us, or even encouraged. My brother and I found it on our own; I guess it was just a natural progression. I never even considered being a musician until I was in music class in eighth grade. My teacher played "Maple Leaf Rag" for us, and I was forever changed. ...
MT: And in what manner did your mom or Jackson encourage or nurture that?
Smith: My mom always allowed my brother and I to do whatever we wanted, without pushing us or trying to steer us in any specific direction. It was very much in her life, so it was just there for us to draw from on our own if we chose to. I guess she wanted to make sure we found the paths that were right for us both. Sometimes I wish she would have insisted more forcefully, and put me in some sort of school band or early music lessons. Jackson was in his own world with guitar, and music wasn't really something we discussed together when we were young. We sort of just gave each other space. I was inspired, though, by Jackson and how much he fully dedicated himself to being the best guitarist he could, learning all styles and constantly practicing, sometimes being a bit too hard on himself. Every time I hear him play I'm surprised by how much he has improved.
MT: Are you writing whole songs without collaborations?
Smith: Yes, I write songs. When I was younger I wrote a lot more regularly, and mostly structured songs with words, most of which no one has ever heard. ...
MT: What's the new band Walking Beat all about? Great lineup.
Smith: Steve McCauley and I have been friends for years, and have always talked about playing music together someday. Besides a couple late nights with harmonicas, a guitar, we had never tried it before. A couple months ago, he was starting a new group, and I muscled my way into it, even though I live in New York City. It's been great, and musically we bonded instantly. He is an old-fashioned songwriter, such a nice person, and the music is fun to play. Everyone is really nice. It feels good to be in a band situation like this, I haven't been in one in about seven years. It's just fun.
For the Hamtramck Blowout, I'm also playing with Chris Tait in his new group, Belle Ghoul. He's a dear friend and we have a similar story to that with Steve, always discussing the idea of playing music someday. I guess things just happen when they are meant to. I'm also playing with Esquire, Kenny Tudrick and Skinny Wrists for the Beehive Revue show. Jackson and I were in the house band for the Beehive Ball in November, which was a wonderful experience and a lot of fun. I met some really special people doing this show. The work that Steve Nawara does with the Beehive Recording Company is great, and he's a good friend as well. It should be a fun month of practices and shows.
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