John Smith first came to our attention via Lisa Hannigan, performing quiet, nimble-fingered opening sets on her 2011 tour and playing in her band, and has been popping up pretty much all over ever since – on tour and in the studio with David Gray or Joe Henry, frequently featured in the Fylde newsletter, and most recently on tour with Lianne La Havas. Like many guitarists and songwriters, his influences are many and diverse, calling to mind icons of British folk music like Nic Jones, John Martyn and Nick Drake while evoking the legends of American acoustic blues. He’s a masterful fingerpicker, equally adept playing slide or lap steel, displaying a versatility and prowess that suggest an English Blake Mills.
We caught up with John on that aforementioned Lianne La Havas tour. Perhaps inevitably, his work with Lisa Hannigan came up, leading us into the performance of this song, “Salty and Sweet,” which he recorded as a duet with her on his album Great Lakes. It’s an interesting little story of a song, somewhat more than a vignette, invoking myths of selkies (a Scottish mythical creature) and the like.
“I didn’t base it on anything written,” John explained. “I based it on the town where I grew up, which is a little, sort of stony town by the sea – kind of a grim place, very beautiful but with an underlying current of real tension… fishermen’s sons… you spend a lot of time running away from fishermen’s sons. You either leave there or stay there and become a kind of small town stereotype. The song is sort of based on a male selkie, but also, it could be about a girl who is just sick of the town, so she walks into the sea to die.”
“It’s really serendipitous that Lisa ended up singing on that song,” he continued. “It’s the quickest song I’ve ever written. I just wrote it one morning; it took like a minute and a half – which is weird, ‛cause it’s three and a half minutes long – but, she was sort of singing it in this dream. I woke up with this song in my head with her singing it, but I had never met her. So I wrote it down, and then we got to work together and we’ve worked together ever since.”
“I’ve had a lot of stick from people for that ending,” he told us, after playing it. “‘It’s too happy!’ I think of it as the death rattle…”
Just like Nic Jones himself; Smith is a fan of Fylde guitars. In fact, he owns several Fyldes, including an eight-string resonator baritone guitar. The guitar in this video, a Fylde Ariel with California black walnut back & sides and a sinker redwood top, is one we lent to Smith for this session.