A long-standing member of the Bay Area songwriter community, Nina Jo Smith is a troubadour in the truest sense of the word: writing, playing and living music no matter what life may be presenting. After running into Nina Jo and her 12-string guitar at a recent Go Girls Music showcase in San Francisco, and hearing about her new "People, Places & Sings" project, I got this fact that much more. It seemed the perfect opportunity to ask more about her process.
DC You've been writing and playing music in SF for a while? Have you lived other places? What do you think is special about being a songwriter/musician in the Bay Area?
Nina Jo: I grew up in Ojai, California, a place of strong beauty and spirit. We raised a lot of our own food, so I grew up with a strong connection to the soil. We lived across the street from the cemetery, so I often sat under one of the great oak trees there and contemplated where the people went when they left their bodies. The cycle of acorns to oaks and back again gave me a sense of how time, life and death might work, and I guess you could say I learned to meditate from the ground up. Ojai’s closeness of mountains, brightness of stars, intensity of summer heat, scent of orange blossoms and roar of bees in springtime gave me a strong sense of place.
There’s a great community of songwriters and musicians in the Bay Area, so I benefit from some great friendships here. We do suffer from an odd kind of provincialism that can lead to complacency in style and craft. There are so many of us that it’s pretty impossible to support yourself as a musician here. Everybody wants music but no one wants to pay musicians a living wage. We have to support ourselves some other way and so most of us effectively pay to play and we have to leave to earn. On the other hand, this is true of musicians all over this country, hence the tour and the dire financial position of most American musicians.
After Hurricane Katrina and after Lee Mallory passed, I was looking for communities of musicians who support each other through hard times. I found a community of folks around Mighty Field of Vision Radio (http://mightyfieldofvision.
DC What keeps you going as an artist? Where do you go for inspiration?
NJ What keeps me going as an artist is all the years I didn't play. After my brother was killed on New Year’s Eve, 1979, I spent twenty years on a music fast, teaching self defense and counseling survivors of violence. I couldn’t even listen to music the first year and I have a lot of lost time to make up for.
I still listen closely to the silence beyond the silence, because that’s where music comes from. It’s the genius of the river of music that it’s always there if you dip your cup into it. So after a gap of twenty years, I could still play guitar and sing, even better than when I’d stopped.
Lee Mallory is a great inspiration for me. I first met him at The Hotel Utah open mic, where I started playing in 2003 when I turned 50. When I heard Lee sing “That’s The Way It’s Gonna Be,” I recognized him as the voice I heard singing the song on radio when I was 13. That song was a youth anthem that helped get me through my parent’s divorce and our move from Ojai to Orange County. As Lee and I got to know and love one another and after we began living together, I noticed that the man was more than a master musician. He was music. Now that is something I aspire to, to become music.
DC You've just launched a new project People, Places & Sings. Can you tell us about how that idea started and where you plan to go?
NJ I’d noticed that a lot of my songs are little memoirs or portraits describing places I’ve been & people I’ve known, like Pomegranate & Tangerine, Cosmic Lady, Buddha at the backdoor (about a cat.) Strong songs have a lot of specific images of people, places and things, so I thought, hmmm…. People Places & Sings.
When I was working on the Obama campaign in Las Vegas last fall, I talked with a lot of people on the phone and at their front doors. I’d often start the conversation by asking “How ya doin’?” and they’d tell me. I came to wish I could simply go across the country knocking on doors and asking people how they’re doing. People Places & Sings is a way of doing that town by town.
I’ll go to a place, stay for about a week with a local host and get to know the place from the perspective of folks who live there. Mainly, I want to listen and learn “What about your town?” and, very importantly, “Where can I get a good piece of pie?”
It’s a slow cookin’ backwards tour. Instead of zipping through towns trying to sell a new album, I’ll stay awhile and create songs out of the experience.
DC How is People, Places & Sings different/similar to your previous work? Is it changing your writing process?
NJ: My “Guitar Songs” were written primarily on one trip from San Francisco through and the Mojave to Big Bear, covering all kinds of California’s magnificent terrain.” People Places & Sings” shares a strong sense of place but moves beyond California, and aspires to be more biographical than autobiographical. The songs are like postcards from one town to another. So I’m mapping some of our country’s lesser-known or erroneously-known places in song. In Lafayette, Alabama, I was hosted by my friend Janice Key-Walding, The Southern Herbalist. Alabama is lush and always surprising. I wrote a song called Snake In The Rafters (true story)… Next stop, Fresno.
You can find out more about Nina Jo's music and life and buy her Cd's at Redwood River Music and CdBaby