No "hits" but plenty of highs: Darden Smith looks back after 25 years
With 25 years of making music behind him, Darden Smith had no lack of choice when it came to finding tracks for a compilation album. Still, he found it a rather odd experience.
“Usually best-ofs are number one hits, and I don’t really have any, so it’s just a collection really,” he says. “They’re my favourites and some that got a lot of airplay. I talked to some journalists and some people in the record business that I’ve known for a long time and we sort of compiled this list that we could put out.”
The album, After All This Time, released on his own label, contains songs from all of Smith’s albums since the first one made in 1984, as well as two new tracks, one of which previews his new album, Marathon, which is due for release in September.
That title refers not to the running race, nor to the classic Greek battle, but to a small town in west Texas.
“It’s out in the desert and it’s a very bizarre, strange place. It’s like the highlands of Scotland – it has the same feel, that sort of openness and emptiness, very, very harsh landscape but very beautiful at the same time,” says Smith.
Smith has used Marathon as the setting for a song cycle, based on a Norwegian myth that he says is about “revenge and family connections”. With a series of monologues weaved between the songs it becomes a play that he hopes to stage in Austin later this year. While he waits for that to happen – he says making theatre happen takes a long time, and what’s more he lost his bass player to a Leonard Cohen tour – he has recorded the songs and is releasing the album.
The theatre project is the latest in a wide range of artistic projects for Smith, who has previously written an orchestral piece for the Austin Symphony, produced a documentary for Radio 2 and written music for experimental dance troupes.
His view that making art, in whatever form, is deeply important, led him to found the Be An Artist programme a few years ago to try to instil in schoolchildren a sense of what they are capable of doing. Smith works in schools across the United States and the UK, and later this year he will taking the programme to Germany and to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
“It’s just going into schools and talking to kids about seeing themselves as artists, seeing themselves as being creative,” he says.
“I don’t really see the results directly, because I do my thing and go away. But what I have found out is that a couple of the kids I worked with have grown up and gone into theatre, and I hear from their parents that it was a part of their thinking, that they could just take what they do, what they liked, and make a life out of it.”
That was basically what Smith, now 47, did when he first started making music more than a quarter of a century ago. He has substantial success and was signed up by Columbia Records. Looking back now on life on a major label and his life in independent music since, Smith can see both benefits and drawbacks to the two ways of working.
“I like music more now than I ever did before. It’s really fun and challenging,” he says, while acknowledging it can be a struggle without the backing of a major label.
“But that’s a struggle too. Things are taken care of for you, like hotels and things like that. There’s a lot of more money flying around. But it’s a struggle to be on a major label because your struggle is within the label. Your record and Bruce Springsteen’s are coming out – well, who do you think they’re going to support? So it’s a different kind of struggle ... Being a musician is a struggle, it just is.