Daughter of the revolution
How Jesse Smith became a force in Detroit music
Published: February 22, 2012
MT: At what point did it begin to sink in that your mother and late dad were "more" than just standard-issue parents? Maybe when you saw a magazine article on Patti or the MC5?
Smith: I actually didn't know anything about what my parents did for a living, or their impact in music until a bit later in life, though I sort of knew music was involved somehow. I remember having an assignment in school at Grosse Pointe Academy, and we had to write what our mom's job was. I remember sitting there and having no idea. I asked my mom and she said to write that she was a singer. Having never heard her sing before, I found this a little bit strange. It wasn't until we moved to New York in 1996, and with the dramatic change of our lifestyle when she started performing again that I realized what was going on. I didn't know about my dad until even later than that. When he passed away in 1994, I remember we were watching MTV, and Kurt Loder announced his passing and they showed a picture of him. I thought [Loder] was just a friend of ours and was being nice. Nothing really made much sense, and I just sort of slowly put the pieces together over the years based on stories from friends and family, and digging for answers on my own. I'm still trying to understand a lot of things when it comes to that subject. But it's just their profession. ...
MT: You played piano on your mom's Trampin' in 2004, and then did backing vocals on Twelve in 2007, right? Before that, Jackson had appeared on Gung Ho in 2000. Was it always a given that your mom would bring the kids into the recording situation with her, or alternatively, how did the matter come up that your mom got you to appear on those albums?
Smith: The recording of Trampin' was the first time I had ever been in the studio. I had been taking piano lessons for only a few years, and occasionally playing keyboards with her band, but this was a new challenge. She had wanted to record a cover of a Marian Anderson gospel, and all she had was a scratchy, slightly inaudible recording of the song. My piano teacher and I sought out to transpose it to sheet music, so I could learn it for the recording. It was a great experience. In terms of why Jackson and I have been on these sessions, it just happened naturally. It's the family business. My mom likes to include friends, family and fellow musicians on her albums, and being that Jackson and I play instruments, it's a nice way for us all to work together sometimes. When she has an idea, she just casually asks us if we'd want to do something. For me, her band is my family, and when they are in the studio, we all just sort of visit and hang out together, and help out in making things come to fruition.
MT: Likewise, you've performed live with Patti and the Patti Smith Group — what were some of those situations, and did you feel comfortable or deer-in-headlights or ...?
Smith: My mom used to tour the U.S. and Europe every summer, and when I was 14, I joined them on a tour and was allowed to help the tour manager as his assistant. I did this again for a couple summers, and then when there was a lineup change, I helped out playing keyboards on songs here and there. This started happening more frequently, which developed into my mom and I performing together on our own, varied lineups, acoustic shows, etc. Jumping into this was very helpful because I quickly had to adapt to an already professional and tight band, and develop a comfort on the stage, for small and quite large audiences, and in local and foreign places. There were many times when I would feel scared or intimidated, but had to just breathe and hide those feelings to fit in. I am grateful for this being my first stage experience, and it's not an opportunity a lot of musicians have in their early careers.
MT: What sorts of things interest you beyond music?
Smith: I love traveling and exploring, in the U.S., locally, and around the world. I have been to some really special places, which is another of the perks of music. ... I also love writing, and someday would possibly like to write a book, maybe a novel, or short stories. Or a history of St. Clair Shores or Belle Isle.
Jesse Smith's 11
My Favorite Things
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Scott Joplin Piano Rags
Notorious Byrd Brothers
Buffalo Springfield Again
Church Street Blues
A Night at the Opera
> Email Brian Smith