Darden Smith is a singer-songwriter based in Austin whose thirty-year career redefines what it means to be a musician. In addition to fifteen critically acclaimed albums, Smith continues to break new ground using the craft of songwriting in education, entrepreneurship, and in service to others. He is the co-founder and creative director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a nonprofit that pairs award-winning songwriters with veterans and service members in retreat settings to craft songs about combat and the return home.
Smith began writing songs the age of ten, and has been recording since 1986. His music remains rooted in the songwriting traditions of his home state of Texas, while reflecting influences of rock, folk, and Americana rhythms and melodies. Described by All Music Guide as “a singer-songwriter blessed with an uncommon degree of intelligence, depth, and compassion,” Smith continues to write songs and tour across the U.S. and Europe. His latest album, “Everything”, was released in April 2017 on Compass Records. About “Everything,” songwriter Mary Gauthier says:
“Darden Smith has made a beautiful new record, filled with hope and love and heartfelt tenderness. These songs are medicine for a world gone wrong. Give a listen, let them wash over you, receive the balm. This music is magic, and who doesn’t need a little magic right now?”
Smith’s career evolved in unexpected directions when he began to explore the creative potential in what he calls “writing songs with people that don’t write songs.” He founded The Be An Artist Program in 2001, encouraging students in the US and Europe to discover their own creativity and passions. After a decade spent tapping the transformational possibilities of collaborative songwriting in a range of contexts—from homeless youth at Covenant House to HIV-affected villagers in South Africa and Botswana—Smith co-founded SongwritingWith:Soldiers in 2012.
The collaborative songwriting process at the heart of SongwritingWith:Soldiers offers veterans “a creative means to cathartic healing” (Anne Marie Dougherty, Executive Director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation). To date, the program has held more than thirty events at locations in Texas, New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland, Florida, Colorado and Virginia, and has expanded to include retreats for military families, military couples and student veterans. The music created during retreats and one-day workshops is shared online and through social media and concerts to raise awareness and help bridge the divide between military and civilian communities.
Smith served as Artist-In-Residence at Oklahoma State University’s Institute for Creativity and Innovation and the Riata School of Entrepreneurship (2011–2013), exploring the connections between art and business thinking with students and faculty. He leads songwriting workshops in the US and the UK, and works with major companies in key areas (conflict resolution, team building, innovative thinking) using songwriting to inspire creativity and collaboration within the traditional work environment. His book, The Habit of Noticing: Using Creativity to Make a Life (and a Living), was released in September of 2018.
No matter the form, when it comes to art, there are a number of different tacks to take. Some artists continually push their work across new horizons. Neil Young, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Joni Mitchell come to mind, in that regard. Others — Claude Monet, Jason Isbell, and Bonnie Raitt, among them — stand a bit more still in order to continually refine the capturing of their vision. Singer/songwriter Peter Bradley Adams falls into the latter category of perfectionists chasing their own perfection. With A Face Like Mine, he may well have caught it.
There’s a confidence, a completeness in the song cycle that listeners have gleaned throughout Adams’ illustrious career, but A Face Like Mine, his sixth solo effort, brings it all into sharp focus. As Adams sees it, “On the long plod of finding my voice as a singer and a writer, the singing has slowly developed from the sound of a scared guy to someone who believes what he’s saying and the writing, I hope, has become less rigid — both in the lyrics and the phrasing.”
Less rigid, indeed. Adams’ brand of Americana nestles his often delicate, always heartfelt voice in the warm embrace of gentle guitar, tasteful dobro, subtle banjo, supportive bass, and unhurried percussion. The result is a sonic scape that, in turn, wraps itself around the listener like a soft blanket on a cold day. With A Face Like Mine, Adams further refines the simple musical sophistication that has become his trademark.
Throughout the self-produced set, Adams tells tales of love and loss, homes and hearts. The territory he mines is a deliberate mix of fact and fantasy. “I feel like I’m, firstly, a storyteller, but it’s inevitable that my own stuff gets in there deep. And it’s funny how, sometimes, I don’t realize it until the song is done,” he offers. “At the same time, there are times where I take very directly from an experience or a relationship, but I try to be very careful when that happens. I don’t want to ever sound like a journal entry.”
Regardless of the details, there’s always a philosophical bent that is often more under than on the surface, firmly grounding Adams’ songs even as they stretch outward. By his own admission, Adams is a seeker who spends considerable time wrestling with matters of faith, though he’s the first to admit he doesn’t have any real answers. “I honestly don’t know what the hell I’m doing… nor do I have the language for any of this stuff,” he says with a laugh. “But there is a constant tug on me in that direction and, the older I get, the more present it becomes. Music can often be the most direct way to step into that river.”
That seeker’s heart is the tie that so often binds these songs together. Whether the search for place and purpose is of a spiritual or geographical nature, few writers capture the journey as thoughtfully as Adams. An Alabama native, Adams says he feels most comfortable in motion and doesn’t have a strong sense of being Southern, even though his music is rooted in that world in so many ways. The first verse of the album’s mesmerizing lead track, “Good Man,” exemplifies his plight: “This old house is falling down. Every step I take makes a hollow sound. Should I walk away? Should I push on through? What in the world can a good man do?”
Even as Adams goes on to sing of “laughing eyes with a touch of grey” and walking “a mile across the kitchen floor” in order to set various scenes, he leaves room for the listener to crawl inside his stories and make them their own. Striking that balance is the songwriter’s eternal struggle, but one Adams seems to have mastered after years of toiling on his own and collaborating with co-writers like Kim Richey, Caitlin Canty, and Todd Lombardo.
“I don’t think I’m very good at co-writing because my process seems so weird and long and tedious to me,” Adams confides. “It’s hard to allow someone into that space, but there a few folks where our sensibilities are aligned and we’re not just trying to bang out a song in a day. I want to feel as close to the songs I co-write as the ones I write alone. Writers like Kim Richey have such an economy and depth to the ideas that come out of their mouths and hands — there’s wisdom there. I want to be more like that.”
In addition to this release, Adams is currently putting his classical composition studies to work on a piece for violin and piano — an aspect of his craft and education that got set aside somewhere along the way to now. “I’ve wondered a lot why I spent all that time studying music in school and how my composer hat fits in with or hinders my songwriting,” he says. “Some of it was definitely useless to me, then and now. But some of it has left its mark on how I listen, and how I think of arranging songs, and how I communicate with players who are playing on them. Also, writing in such an extremely simple and constrained musical language makes all your choices much more delicate, so I spend a lot of time crafting even the simplest melody.”
A Face Like Mine‘s songs were composed all over the world, from Alabama to India, and they dig into topics are disparate as the desperation of addiction (“Lorraine”), the grappling of self-image (“Who Else Could I Be”), the vitriol of politics (“We Are”), and the genetics of suffering (“A Face Like Mine”). “We Are” and “Who Else Could I Be” were originally written for a dance piece that Gina Patterson choreographed for the San Angelo Civic Ballet. Even so, Adams made sure the songs could stand alone in their own world no matter what else was swirling around them — confidence and completeness in action.
As a work of musical art, A Face Like Mine fulfills the promise of Peter Bradley Adams. And rarely has an artist’s standing still sounded so divine.