The White Buffalo
"I've always loved the combination of things that are really beautiful and things that are really dark or heavy. There's a lot of that on this album."
So says Jake Smith, singer, songwriter, guitarist and sole charter member of the White Buffalo. He's assessing his new album Love And The Death of Damnation, the most impressivemanifestation to date of the richly evocative songcraft that's established Smith as a singular creative force.
Over the course of five albums, various EPs, and numerous prominent placements in such high-profile outlets as TV's Sons of Anarchy and Californication, Smith has built a powerful body of work that marks him as a genuine original.
The California-bred artist writes timeless, vividly detailed character studies, tapping into the emotional lives of various misfits, outsiders and troubled souls with insight and compassion.
His songwriting is matched by his rough-hewn, deeply expressive voice, and by his distinctive instrumental arrangements, which are simultaneously intimate and epic. Smith's songs, and the White Buffalo's recordings, have struck a responsivechord with a large and diverse fan base, and won praise from critics across the media spectrum.
NPR's All Songs Considered hailed Smith as an "amazing storyteller," while a recent cover story in the Los Angeles Times' Sunday entertainment section noted, "Smith's baritone echoes with villains and misfits, drunks and philistines.
It curls through loneliness, sets out on crooked highways. It is an American voice cured in recession, war and betrayal, a resonant map where the spectral bleeds into dreams. But in it, like mica in slate, is the glint of redemption, flashing just long enough to allow a man to keep a bead on whatever goodness might dwell in him." Those qualities are prominent throughout Love And The Death of Damnation, whose 11 compelling new Smith compositions build upon the creative achievements of the White Buffalo's 2013 breakthrough release Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways.
The material ranges from the anthemic opener "Dark Days" to the haunting drug-deal-gone-sour scenario of "Chico" to the bittersweet balladry "Radio with No Sound" to the honest uplift of "Home Is In Your Arms" to the hard-bitten acceptance of "Where Is Your Savior" to the rousing gospel-soul of the album-closer "Come On Love, Come On In." The album also features Smith's first-ever duet, "I Got You," a pointed, warts-and-all love song that teams him with up-and-coming songstress Audra Mae, who he met through their mutual work on Sons of Anarchy.
"With this album, I really wanted to get back to songs," Smith states.
"Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways was kind of a concept album, so this time I wanted to get back to writing individual stories, as opposed to an extended narrative. I wanted each song to make you feel something. "In the past, the songs have almost always been pretty dark," he continues. "But this time, I was also able to channel some happier stuff and write a couple of actual feel-good songs. It's also more varied musically. I really made an effort to expand my sound, and to get out of my comfort zone as a songwriter."
Smith recorded Love And The Death of Damnation—whose birth cycle is chronicled in the ten-part web series Ernie Ball presents Capturing The White Buffalo: The Recording of an American Songwriter, which can be viewed at www.ernieball.com—with producers Bruce Witkin and Ryan Dorn, who also run Smith's longtime label Unison Music Group, with Witkin on bass and longtime cohort Matt Lynott on drums.
"This is the first time we did preproduction, instead of just going in blindly with the songs," Smith notes, adding, "I wanted the songs to be as big and dynamic as possible. I want to make records that have some dynamics and some epic moments, rather than just being a singer-songwriter guy with an acoustic guitar."
Love And The Death of Damnation's arresting cover photo, depicting Smith standing chest-deep in a large body of water, is an appropriate one, since the artist has gravitated towards the deep end for most of his musical career.
The son of a college professor and a nurse, he was born in Oregon and raised in Huntington Beach, California. His parents helped to instill an abiding love for country music during his childhood, and he subsequently gravitated towards punk rock and the ambitious songwriting of such troubadours as Bob Dylan and John Prine.
He was just exiting his teen years when he first picked up a guitar and began writing songs that combined country's storytelling tradition with singer-song introspection and punk's visceral immediacy.
Smith adopted the White Buffalo as his performing pseudonym early on. "A couple of guys thought I needed a stage name and threw some names in a hat," he recalls. "I pulled out the White Buffalo, and it seemed to make sense, because I'm a big white motherfucker, and because it created some mystery." Smith's compositions first gained attention via cassettes that he made for family and friends. Those tapes eventually circulated more widely, leading to one of his songs, "Wrong," being featured in the popular surf movie Shelter.
In 2002, he released the White Buffalo's debut album, Hogtied Like A Rodeo (which he rerecorded six years later as Hogtied Revisited). The debut effort was followed by a trio of EPs, The White Buffalo, Prepare for Black and Blue and Lost and Found. The latter disc marked the beginning of Smith's productiverelationship with Unison Music Group, which subsequently released his album Once Upon A Time In The West, followed by the ambitious concept effort Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways, which won widespread acclaim from fans and critics alike. The White Buffalo's public profile has been raised substantially by the inclusion of several of Smith's songs in various films and television shows, most notably TV's Sons of Anarchy, on whose soundtrack his compositions have become a frequent presence.
Smith's raw-nerved lyrical themes and edgy performances have proven to be a good match for Sons of Anarchy's dramatic themes, and the show's success has helped to expand the White Buffalo's fan base. Many of those fans have embraced Smith's work on a deeply personal level.
"I hear all kinds of stories from people who say that the songs helped me get through stuff," Smith says, adding, "I have all these veterans who've come up to me and said that the last album helped them through hard times. As a songwriter who's trying to write stuff that hits people in a real way, it's pretty powerful to hear that kind of thing." Smith plans to support Love And The Death of Damnation's release the old-fashioned way.
"There's definitely gonna be some major touring," he promises. "We're a hard-working band, and we're used to driving 400 miles between gigs. The live show is super-emotional; we just try to bring it in a way that's organic and real and honest, and I try to take people on a ride. We're like a power trio with acoustic guitar.
"I'm not a rock star, and I don't have a huge machine behind me," Smith concludes. "I'm just a guy who's trying to do my job and bring something home for my family. I don't have an agenda. I'm just trying to write good songs that make people feel something."