Jordan Smart’s ‘Heart Of It All’ Gives Listeners Pause (INTERVIEW)

The essence of folk music is the song and the song is made up of two basic components, lyrics and melody. Boiled down to the very elements it really is that simple a combination. By that logic though we should all be accomplished folk musicians, but we aren’t. Why? Because there is one other thing that makes a folk musician more than just a singer of songs and that’s heart. It is not just words on a page to be sung, it is not just a pretty lick on a beautifully beaten guitar but it’s heart that makes the music resonate in listener’s ears.

The best in this genre have those three elements balanced just right. Jordan Smart is one of those musicians. His songs belie his years (he’s young) and his debut studio release which you very well could have missed this past September, Heart of it All gives the listener pause. While these are Jordan’s songs born of Jordan’s experiences, these are our songs too – Jordan is one of us. These are songs about the basic human condition that we can all call our own. Folk music is our music. Jordan has seen his share of hard times, he has paid his dues with little more than a coin in a cup and song that makes people stop and listen. He’s hitchhiked, he’s slept in the woods and he’s loved, been loved and is loved. And 2017 gave him a beautiful baby girl to prove it. Jordan has spent nights playing in rooms to two people, a few hundred at in a festival crowd and tens of thousands at a rally for Bernie Saunders when hope and the voice of the people seemed so vibrant.

But folk music is not generally the occupation one goes into looking for fame and fortune. If you think about it, those that have gained notoriety in this genre are the exception. Jordan deserves to stand with those folks and if you buy this record and really listen to what he says you will understand why. His songs are timeless. You could hear “Young Man” being sung by Pete Seeger after “If I Had A Hammer”. The title track, “Heart of it All” might be the prettiest little love song you’ve ever heard but there is depth in it that makes it so much more than just a little love song.  “Why I Sing” pinpoints in just four minutes why we love the partner with whom we hope to spend a lifetime. This is beautiful stuff. To buy this record is to support a musician who can articulate so perfectly what many of us may spend an hour trying to explain and ultimately fail.

Jordan is a musician on the margin that can take a raucous crowd and quiet it down to a single thinking and listening organism that hangs on his words with bated breath and utter understanding. The audience listens and cheers him on because with a single guitar and voice it is that kind of visceral – a gut punch of simple honesty. Glide writer and photographer, Andrew Quist sat down with Jordan to talk through the new album and some other topics recently.

2017 claimed a bunch of our favorite musicians, most recently Tom Petty. Where do you turn when we lose these massively influential cross-generational musicians?

It is a bummer that Tom Petty is no longer with us on the physical plane…but I put on his record Wildflowers the other day, and there he was doing just what I always knew him to do. To be honest, there hasn’t been a celebrity death that has really hit me hard. I think it maybe has to do with the fact that when I was growing up, so many of my heroes were already dead. And yet, they made their way into my life, and remain there today. If your art, your voice, your words, or your legacy is still making an impact in the world after you are “gone” then I don’t think you’re really gone at all, in fact those folks might be more alive than a lot of the folks living today. I turn to them.

What do you see is the role of a folk singer today? In your opinion, has that role changed at all from the time of Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie?

I don’t know. I guess I’d say the role remains, for the most part, the same. If anything, the tradition has grown to span genres. Observe the world, observe yourself, take your feelings, take your thoughts, and write. I think it’d be fair to say that there are more rappers than folk-singers out there carrying on that tradition. You wouldn’t think of it as folk, and it may not be singing, but it is as human as it gets. And like Louis Armstrong once said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song” And I ain’t never heard no horse rap, neither.

Can you speak to your message in the title track of your new record, Heart Of It All? What was your inspiration for this song? What is the “heart of it all?”

“Heart of It All”, literally, is the tourism slogan for the state of Ohio, where I was born and raised. Metaphorically, it is whatever is important to you. Maybe its the place you grew up, the people who helped shape you… That’s the cool thing about song and poetry. You get to take those words and apply meaning to them in whatever way you like… I wrote that tune in the living room at my Dad’s apartment in Columbus, Ohio. It was my first day back, after some big changes, and deciding to move back from out west. It was an emotional transition, but a necessary one. Something really special about that song to me is that I prefer to be alone when I write a song…but I wrote most of that song with my Dad in the room. He’s deaf, has been his whole life, and this was the first time I had written a song with him around. Pretty wild.

What are you looking to accomplish with your music? Is it something quantifiable or more ethereal?

My friend Mike Clark has a big old drum that says, “Music is Medicine” on it. Music has the power to save lives, to change lives, to heal broken people. If I can inspire change, bring joy, lift spirits, heal, comfort, or make another person’s existence a little more bearable, that’s it. Creating and listening to music has done just that for me, countless times…and if I am so fortunate to be able to provide for my family by sharing my medicine with the world, even better.

Where do your gain your musical inspiration these days? Who are you listening to? Who leaves you scratching your head and wondering how they can be so talented?

These days? Ah man. I think lately I have been most inspired by everyday people. I live in a small town and there are a lot of interesting characters out and about. One day as I was driving down the street, an old man with a long gray beard slowly walked out into the middle of the street with his cane, bent over and put an apple on the street, turned around and went back and sat on his porch. That dude inspires me.

I’ve been listening to Twain a lot. We played a couple of the same festivals this summer, and hung out a bit. He is a real good dude, with an amazing and powerful voice, and can write like no other. I’ve also always got my good friend Willy Tea Taylor in rotation. He’s been a huge inspiration in songwriting, and in life in general. He’s as legendary as they come. Sometimes hanging out with him makes me feel like a chunky, bearded version of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott following a stout big red-bearded Woody Guthrie around.

Also, Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey, The Haunted Windchimes, The River Arkansas, Valerie June, Hiss Golden Messenger, The Deslondes, Possessed by Paul James, Jake Xerxes Fussell…I could go on and on!

You’re a new dad. How has this experience shaped your musical outlook going forward?

I sure am. I definitely have a lot more will and determination now. I’ve been guilty of being a loafing dreamer, for several years. It is no coincidence that I put out my first album a few months after my daughter was born. I plan to continue to pursue music with everything I’ve got, and hope that someday my kid will see that, and find her passion and chase it.

When you write a song, how does that process go? Melody or lyrics first?

It truly is a process. Sometimes it is humming a tune while driving and hoping I can get home and remember it to put some guitar to it. Sometimes playing a guitar part for days or weeks on end until the lyrics present themselves. Probably once a month I sit down and try to force a song, and it never works. Its an ever-changing process.

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