John Smith was well-known around town about ten years ago. He was the performer who’d sit with his guitar on his knee at open mics and make it talk like it had been restrung with something different to what was on everyone else’s acoustic. Then he was spotted and went on tour with the late, great John Martyn and hasn’t looked back since. He’s five albums in now, too. By Alan O’Hare. 

“This bloke walked in, got on stage and started singing. I thought ‘he sounds just like Jackson Browne’… then he flicked his hair and I realised it was bloody Jackson Browne!” John Smith, the guitar-slinging songwriter who came of age in Liverpool, is telling stories about one of the many people he’s played in a band for, Americana star Joe Henry. “Turns out Jackson and Joe are mates. After the gig, Jackson took us out for Sushi! It’s a strange job sometimes.”

It’s getting better all the time, though, for Smith. He’s toured as a sideman for David Gray, Lisa Hannigan, Lianne La Havas and Joan Baez over the last few years, but is now stepping back into the spotlight with the release of his fifth album, ‘Headlong’. It’s one of the most distinctive records of the year and carries Smith further up the road he travelled following 2013’s (sort of) breakthrough, ‘Great Lakes’. “I had a lot of fun recording this one,” he says.

You can tell. Opener ‘Living In Disgrace’ is as lively as it gets with this thoughtful craftsman, but when the tunes are as open-ended and beautiful as ‘Far Too Good’ and ‘Undone’, pace is irrelevant. “The songs get faster the minute you start touring them, though,” he laughs. “It’s the adrenaline!” He doesn’t need the disclaimer. In town soon to headline the Phil’s Music Room, Smith is a consummate live performer who occupies the same emotional geography as his heroes John Martyn and John Renbourn.

How are the new songs developing now you’re on the road again?
It’s a lovely thing when you find new ways to tell the story each time. It’s always best to avoid playing them the same way twice.

You’ve worked for many successful songwriters. What have you learned?
To stop writing bad songs!

Fair enough! Take us back to the start in Liverpool… 
I was gigging every night: open mics, restaurants, ten band bills; whatever I could find. I’d played a few guitar festivals around the UK, but I wasn’t known much outside of that scene. Then I was invited to play a Nick Drake celebration at FACT in 2006… John Martyn’s agent was there and he invited me on the road with John. That was really the beginning of my touring career and I haven’t stopped since.

We all love John Martyn. Give us a war story, please… 
We were in The Philharmonic Pub after a gig and he got me smashed! He kept handing me rolls of fifties for pints and telling me to keep the change. I had to keep sneaking it back into his pocket. He was everything you’ve heard and more… but we got on really well.

Liverpool is a big part of your background; what does the place mean to you?
I grew up in Liverpool, really. I was a kid when I arrived and I fell in love with the place – all that hardness tempered by wild soulfulness. I still love it.

You’re not living here now, though?
No, I don’t live there anymore… I’ve moved around my whole life. I just moved towns again this year. I can’t sit still for too long.

When you are sitting still, what are you listening to these days?
Loads of Moondog, loads of Derek Trucks. I’m mad about Charlie Rich, Billy Swan, Kris Kristofferson… all those seventies records with beautiful drum sounds. Lately, I’m really in love with Joni Mitchell and ‘Hejira’…

… anything less hip, John?!
There’s this weird satisfaction of being a dad and listening to Dire Straits in the car! I don’t understand it and can’t begin to explain it. But, ‘Dad Rock’ is big for me at the moment.

What songs might we hear on this tour?
The new stuff and whatever old songs don’t make me cringe! I’m my own fiercest critic. I’ve started playing ‘Hands’ again, because it’s really tough and I don’t want to lose any of the little tricks… they still might come in handy!

John Smith
The Music Room, Philharmonic Hall, Hope Street
Saturday 11th November 2017, 8pm
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Pic by Phil Fisk