We recently reviewed the Alchemy EP, by Will Lawton & The Alchemists, calling it ” West country wizardry abounds on the lush, alchemical dreamscapes.” Nice! The fusion of Will’s songwriting and his band’s instrumental flair resulted in a series of subtle arrangements – a meeting of worlds that will introduce him to a wider audience. As the promo says – “it seems only a matter of time before the best-kept secret of the West Country becomes a hot new name on the national one.”
Will joins us At The Barrier to expound on one of those musical inspirations – American singer-songwriter, member of Brad and Satchel and icon of the Seattle area who we lost back in 2019 – Shawn Smith.
It was 1993 when I first heard 20th Century by an unknown Seattle band called Brad. The song had briefly entered the UK singles chart, and a friend had taped it off the radio. I bought the album Shame but initially didn’t feel it lived up to the single. However, something about this scruffy collection of piano-based, rock-infused songs stirred in my subconscious and over several months the album grew on me, a lot.
Shawn Smith, Brad’s leader, was an integral part of Seattle’s early and burgeoning grunge scene. A scene that I loved and absorbed. I was fascinated by the web of interwoven musicians and bands, and enjoyed exploring their back stories, many of which went on to become huge rock beasts. Giants like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone and Nirvana all emerged from this grunge arena born out of the west coast of America in the late 80s. The music reached my ears in the early 90s when I was studying and surfing out of the west coast of Wales. The concurrent UK rave scene that engulfed many of my friends passed me by as I slipped into this world of Seattle grunge.
Shawn spent this time on the fringes of this explosive grunge arena. The guitarist and co-songwriter of Brad was Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam. As Pearl Jam caught fire, Stone’s availability was in tight demand, which I sense contributed to the limited exposure and recognition Brad was able to achieve. I imagine it was frustrating to have a guitarist that also played for one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Whilst Shawn established himself as a respected musician, his music remained relatively underground. I meet few people that are aware of him.
A superb singer-songwriter full of flaws, Shawn played simple piano riffs and sang delicately and powerfully from the heart. Many of his releases were unfinished, rough-edged and very hit and miss. His musical independence meant he could do whatever he wanted and he never stuck to a formula. He was voted as one of the best rock vocalists of all time in Mojo magazine.
Whilst Shawn had numerous music projects the two that stood out for me were his bands Brad and Satchel. I used to write to him in the early 2000s asking if he would ever tour in the UK. The reply was always ‘maybe, one day’. My wish was eventually granted and I had the good fortune to see him perform live, twice. Once with Brad at the O2 Islington Academy in 2013 and then very intimately and memorably at the Folk House in Bristol in 2015, where he played solo on the grand piano.
Witnessing his performance at Bristol Folk House helped my confidence as a performer. Sometimes, when I perform live, I get so lost in the music I can’t remember where I am midway through a song, and I need notes and lyric sheets to prompt me. For years I felt this was unprofessional. When I saw Shawn play live, his piano was scattered with pieces of paper and scribblings containing chords and lyrics. The performance was sublime. It was rough and full of holes which made it real and human. He connected with the audience wonderfully and his voice cut through like a diamond-tipped drill. I never questioned the help of prompts during my live performances again. They are a tool of my trade.
Shawn died in 2019. Time will tell whether his music will rise from the ashes posthumously or be lost in the ether as the musical juggernaut marches on into the 21st Century. For the brief moment that Shawn Smith sparkled on this planet, I absorbed his sonic energy and for that, I am forever grateful.
For those interested in exploring the music of Shawn Smith, I recommend the following:
Albums: Shame and Interiors
Song Highlights: Buttercup, 20th Century, Screen, The Day Brings, Sweet Al George
Album: The Family
Song Highlights: Without Love, Time ‘O’ The Year
Our thanks to Will for taking time to introduce us to one of his inspirations and influences.
Meanwhile, here’s Black Bricks from Will Lawton & The Alchemists: