A LONG ROAD: Corey Smith talks latest project, two years in the making

“Having spent so much time on the Carolina coast over the years, [the devastation left in the wake of Florence] has been heartbreaking to watch,” country music artist Corey Smith tells us during a phone interview last week “I know Wilmington was hit hard, and my heart goes to all who have been affected. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be.”

Smith is preparing to return to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Friday with a couple of new singles in tow. “Empty Rooms” (May 2018) and “Halfway Home” (June 2018) are from the forthcoming “The Great Wide Underground,” a project the singer-songwriter has been working tirelessly on for over two years now. In fact, most of the collection was written over the course of a six-week period in 2016 during his West Coast tour.

“Like the song implies, I wrote ‘Halfway Home’ at the midpoint of the tour, after my wife and kids came out to spend a few days with me in California,” he details. “I was very happy they made the trip and sad the day after they flew home. I think writing the song about our experience was my way of working through the sadness and homesickness.”

Smith shared more about his songwriting and ongoing project.

encore (e): Since the latest song is based on your life as a touring artist, what are ways listeners can connect?

Corey Smith (CS): Frankly, I’m not very good when it comes to predicting how others will respond to any particular song. It’s actually something I don’t spend time thinking about during the creative process. All I try to concern myself with is how a song makes me feel. I know that may seem selfish or egotistic, but it’s the only way I know to create.

That said, I’d like to think “Halfway Home” will resonate with anyone who has to spend time away from their kids as part of their career. It makes me think of the Robert Hayden poem “Those Winter Sundays.” For many, whether musician, salesperson, construction worker or a member of the military, having to be away from our kids is one of “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

e: It sounds like touring might be a love/hate relationship?

CS: “Hate” is too strong of a word in that context. I love to perform and feel blessed to be able to make a living doing it. However, it requires sacrifice. Certainly, the toughest sacrifice is time away from my family. The optimist in me realizes “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” We have learned to cope hardships by making the most out of the time we have together.

e: Many musicians say performing live is more necessary in today’s industry, seeing how folks buy/consume music…

CS: As far as industry trends go, nothing has changed much for me. I’ve known from the beginning carving an independent path in the music business would require me to tour relentlessly. I can’t complain about that.

e: Does the song reflect how you feel about the family/professional balance—or is it something you’ve talked about with your family, too?

CS: Like all my songs, it’s really just a snapshot of my inner world at a particular point in time. So I’m not sure it reflects how I feel as much as how I felt at that time. In a way, the song was communicating how I was feeling to my family, and I think they understood it clearly. It made my kids feel uncomfortable, so that means it was probably effective.

e: Tell us about other songs in the works.

CS: I’ve got a ton of material in the pipeline, but I’m taking my time in releasing it … probably too much time, frankly. Although I’ve produced all but one of my previous albums, this is the first project I’ve decided to edit and mix myself as part of the production process. I’ve learned a lot about making records over the years and have come to appreciate how all production elements are really an extension of the songwriting. I’ve worked hard to try to master production techniques I hope to use effectively, to add another layer of expression to whatever songs I release in the future.

It’s also very scary. I’m experimenting a lot, putting out a song at a time, getting feedback, and trying to build my confidence. I have another track that will land in the next month.

From a production standpoint, I hope it shows growth. From a writing standpoint, I think it’s more of what I’ve always done—just try to express myself, be honest, be transparent, and hopefully tell a compelling story.

e: In a recent interview you mused over how quickly 15 or so years have gone by since releasing your first album. What have you learned?

CS: As I mentioned, I have consciously tried not to veer from what got me to where I am. That is writing from the heart, not chasing trends, and not dwelling on what other people might want to hear. I think the minute I stray from that approach, my music will lose meaning for myself and others.

Over the years, I’ve learned to trust the process. There have certainly been ups and downs in my career, in terms of numbers. Ultimately, I’ve found, when it comes to art, success can’t be measured in numbers. It’s why I always tell aspiring artists the number one rule is to find true joy in what you are creating. If one can do that, there is no way to fail.

e: You’ve noted the challenge of finding a balance in playing new and old material live. What enters your thought process when developing sets?

CS: The show is a place where I deviate from the mindset I have when writing. When I’m planning a set list, I truly do think about what people want to hear. I try to put myself in the shoes of a fan. I’m cognizant of the fact people are spending their hard-earned money and taking time out of their lives to come and listen to me play. I appreciate that and try to put on a show that will make them feel good about that decision. I try to choose the songs from my catalogue I think they would enjoy the most. It’s certainly an imperfect science, and I don’t always succeed, but I do try. Some nights I’m better at reading the crowd than others. I’m batting over .500, though.

e: Are there songs continuously developing and taking on new life onstage?

CS: The answer is yes and no. One one hand, I never feel an obligation to make the live version of a particular song sound exactly like an album version. In most cases, the arrangement, instrumentation and individual parts are indeed different. On the other hand, I purposefully tried to avoid messing with the integrity of the song. I want the lyrics to be delivered with the same melody, sentiment and phrasing as they are on the albums. I want people to be able to sing along so I don’t go overboard with making changes. I can’t stand it when I go see an artist and they have changed their songs so much that they are no longer recognizable.

Corey Smith
Friday, Oct.19, 7 p.m.
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheatre Dr.
Tickets: $25-$30

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