I’m always weary when people use the term ‘old soul’. I’ve never really known what it means. But I think I’m a little closer to understanding it after meeting Greg Smith and seeing him perform. He looks like your average nineteen year old, but when he speaks, sings, and plays guitar, you think your mind is playing tricks on you. How can someone that young be so insightful and craft narratives that relate to archetypes so clearly?
Well, I think there are a few reasons: one – because he’s an innate storyteller; two – because he’s a confessed people watcher/eavesdropper; and three – because he’s talented and works hard at his craft. Oh and his travels to Budapest probably helped him gain some perspective on culture and entertaining a crowd.
I ask him what he brought back from Hungary and he tells me a change in his sound and how to play to an audience. “If you’re not loud [there] you’re nothing” he says between bites of his lunch at The Bleeding Carrot in Owen Sound. It’s the same place I saw him perform a week prior except instead of on a stage with a mic, now he’s at a table with a sandwich. He doesn’t eat much when he’s working, so he’s taking our interview as a chance to grab some food in between cups of coffee.
And he was loud at times in his set when he played a few from the upcoming album Michael, which he prefaces by saying will be more aggressive than Iris. But mostly he played intricate, minimalist folk songs that showcased a deft picking style and narrative lyrics.
On Hard to Stand he begins the story with “Well she got that certain age/ Start thinking ‘bout kids and a man/ But you take whatever love you can find/ High price, low demand” and then tells the story of a woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship only to find escape on the second song, Morning Coffee.
He hasn’t been home from Hungary for long, and he’s already putting shows together like the Songwriter’s Circle last weekend, where he was humble enough to put himself first on the bill. He enlisted local talent, Marshall Veroni, who gave an equally stunning performance to a crowd of forty at the Bleeding Carrot. And Pat Maloney closed out the night with his well-crafted folk songs about his many Rideshare experiences across Canada.
Greg was celebrating the release of his latest single Morning Coffee, which is available here (Morning Coffee). The two-song release is a short story because Greg is a storyteller. He’ll tell you his songs are like chapters, so his first album, Iris, is like a book, and so will Michael be. The two story arcs are linked by a car accident in which Iris dies, and that’s where the story of Michael begins. The album will address the theme of absent fathers and venture back into Michael’s childhood to explore the father/son dynamic. I mean, what’s more complicated than the relationship between father and son?
Telling stories was a conscious choice for Greg, a choice that began at 2am one night at a friend’s place playing guitar and having drinks. I am interested in the storytellers that he gravitates to and so I get him to divulge his favourites: “I used to really enjoy Hemingway [but] I’m getting further and further away from it. I think I like the idea of it…I love Arthur Miller…Kurt Vonnegut….I’m always slowly reading Grapes of Wrath” he says.
He doesn’t have a lot of time to read, though, between writing, producing and performing; and when you add on a 9-5 job working on an organic farm in Walter’s Falls that will soon begin, there’s going to be even less time.
“I read a lot in my first months in Hungary when I didn’t really have friends or any music going on” he says. But that all changed when he stumbled upon a guy playing guitar on a street-corner one day, who serendipitously turned out to run the only showcase-style open mic and booked Greg for an October set. That was his first introduction to the Budapest music scene where he quickly met the guys from Lone Waltz Records, who have released Morning Coffee under their label. Daniel from Lone Waltz labeled him a ‘post-modern’ artist, likening his music to detective novels.
So, when Greg returned to the Owen Sound area, he was looking to continue the string of gigs he was used to in Budapest and started reaching out to local venues and artists. “I’m nineteen and learning how to run my business” he says. And part of the business is selling himself. He did a great job at the Songwriter’s Circle gig as he wowed the crowd with his talent, and kept things light with his humour and self-deprecating charm. “Once I get a joke, it’s mine, and I always joke that if you go to an open mic more than twice a month, you become a fixture and then you’re no better than an oven” he says and laughs.
Not only does he like to drop jokes, but he’s full of insightful quips. Greg-isms. He’s got a lot to say for a nineteen year old, but unlike most teenagers, much of it has a lot of wisdom behind it. Hence the old soul. I especially like his aphoristic posits that “things happen when you leave the house” and “If you can’t empathize with people, you’re fucked.” Later he tells me that he’s devised some glib lines from time to time but realized that “It’s clever, and I hate clever” so he won’t record it.
One thing that doesn’t make sense to me during our talk, especially after seeing him perform, is something he was told in Hungary. He was instructed his stuff is “literary music, but it doesn’t have classic literary beauty.” I think there is relatable beauty in the characters he creates and in the conflict he places them in. It may not be classic literature, but it’s Stephen Crane meets Stephen Leacock, and that’s pretty cool.
As I close this piece, I’m listening to his album Iris play in the background and Greg is singing melodically in a Tallest Man on Earth inspired tune questioning: “Can these days last forever?” and it reminds me of one of my favourite lines in literature, one I’ve only just read in the last couple years. It’s a similar question from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice where he writes “Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.”
Since Greg Smith’s favourite storytellers were also mine at one point, I hope he goes through a Pynchon phase like I have. It’s post-modern writing, with no hint of classic literary beauty. But damn can he tell a story: and a detective story at that. They already have that in common.
Keep an eye out for Greg Smith playing around Ontario, especially in the Grey/Bruce/Simcoe area. You can catch him at the Summerfolk Youth Discovery Series on March 26 at the Harmony Centre
Written by Jesse Wilkinson
Feature image by Lisa Dyment