‘Nobody knows what is going to happen. I just want to put my music out there’ – singer-songwriter Aaron Smyth
Aaron Smyth eschewed the major labels because he wanted absolute creative control — but with the help of a reality TV show and some celebrity fans, he has deservedly garnered plaudits before the release of his slow-burning first solo album
It was October 2019, a long-ago place where we took gigs for granted and Covid-19 meant nothing. The annual Hard Working Class Heroes festival — showcasing the best of emerging Irish talent — had been renamed Ireland Music Week and among those hoping to get noticed was Dublin singer-songwriter Aaron Smyth.
One of the shows he played was at the Workman’s Club, and Andrea Madden was among the industry attendees. Smyth wasn’t to know it at the time, but she was music supervisor for Made in Chelsea and on the lookout for new songs to use in the hit TV show.
For those who haven’t seen it, the E4 programme — of which there have been 20 seasons to date — is a so-called ‘scripted reality’ show that follows a bunch of wealthy, brash and vacuous young gadflies from London’s most salubrious neighbourhoods.
“She really liked the songs and put one of them on to Made in Chelsea,” Smyth says. “She was saying to me, ‘Send me other songs’ and two further songs have been on the show too. It’s the sort of thing that gets you noticed.
“Made in Chelsea is a certain type of TV show,” he says, diplomatically, “but loads of people got in touch about it. It’s nuts. It has this huge pull.”
Record company executives on the prowl for a new signing liked the Smyth songs that Madden had chosen and a major label expressed an interest. “It wasn’t a route I wanted to go down,” he says, speaking by Zoom from the room in his Dublin home where he makes his music. “I’ve been making music a long time in different bands, and so on. This was my debut solo album and I wanted to have absolute creative control over it.”
Smyth releases that album, Last Animals, this month. It’s a classic slow-burner, the sort of album that will get under the skin. “It’s not like the Fontaines,” he says of the Grammy-nominated Fontaines DC, whom he admires. “Their songs are straight up and in your face. This one takes time.” And it’s been a long time coming.
The singer — who styles himself A Smyth these days — went into the studio in January 2020 and only managed to complete the album in August, when the country was at its least restricted, pandemic-wise.
“We recorded quickly, but the mastering took much longer. Technology is great, but sometimes you just have to be in the same room with someone when it comes to making music and getting it just right,” he says.
This time last year, Smyth imagined the album appearing in May, but Covid changed everything. Now, though, the time is right. “Some people have said to me, ‘Why don’t you wait a few months?’ But nobody knows what’s going to happen in a few months, and I really want to put the music out there.”
Last Animals should find plenty of new listeners, and Smyth’s songs have already had an impact. Cumulatively, they have had more than a million streams on Spotify. It’s not a statistic to yield a decent payday — his barista day job in one of Dublin’s cooler cafés won’t be put on the back-burner any time soon — but achieving seven-figure plays on the streaming giant is not to be sniffed at.
There have been celebrity admirers too. After BBC radio played one of his songs, River, a couple of them got in touch. Badly Drawn Boy expressed his admiration for the song — “he told his fanbase to check out A Smyth and he said really nice things about me”. And the actor Robert Carlyle — famed for his portrayal as the psycho Begbie in Trainspotting — was similarly effusive.
“There are a lot of very talented musicians out there, but getting noticed can be really difficult,” says Smyth. “I mean, I’d come across a song on YouTube, maybe — it’s fantastic, but it only has a small number of plays. It’s always been a case that really great music doesn’t get the attention it deserves. You just have to hope for that bit of luck, those breaks that get you noticed.”
Smyth is not a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer. At 40 — albeit the youngest looking 40-year-old you’re ever likely to see — he has served his apprenticeships, playing every small venue in Dublin and beyond. Most recently, he was frontman of Vann Music, a pop-rock band that burned brightly, but all too briefly. Now solo, he says he has never been as excited about his music.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been in bands before this and there’s always the fact you have to cede a bit of control — it’s the nature of collaborations. But when you go it alone, it’s you and you alone and if the songs are good, great, but if they’re not, they’re on you.
“[Vann Music] was really good fun and it was a super education. It was great to be selling big places out. But I remember walking in with X amount of songs and other people would come in with a very small number of songs. And then you’d have, ‘This guy wants a song on the record’, but it isn’t good enough...” His voice trails off. “Now,” he says, “I don’t have to answer to anybody.”
He counts his partner, Rachel Carey, as his key sounding board. Carey is a film-maker of considerable distinction — her movie Deadly Cuts will have its Irish premier at the Dublin International Film Festival next month. It has also been chosen as the (now virtual) festival’s closing film.
Carey’s constructive criticism has helped Smyth develop as a songwriter. “I think you need to be able to take on board the opinion of someone who wants the best for you, but won’t just tell you what you want to hear. There might be stuff that I really like and then she hears it and it’s like” — he pulls a grimaced expression — “I don’t know about that. And it can make you re-evaluate.”
Despite both working in the creative fields, they have not collaborated together. “I think it’s important to keep a little bit of distance because it would end up being something that consumes our home life as well. I mean, when I’m in the studio, the only thing I’m talking to Darragh (Nolan, Last Animals producer) about is the music. When you get home, you need to be able to switch off — even from something you love doing.”
Smyth has high praise for Nolan, and the album was recorded in his Asta Kalapa studio in Gorey, Co Wexford. “He gets what I’m about, but he pushes me too. It’s not just a case of turning up with songs, pressing ‘record’ and hoping for the best.”
Although Last Animals is a solo album, Smyth says the input of several musicians, including pianist Ryan Hargadon and bassist Dara Higgins, was invaluable. Drummer Dennis Cassidy was especially important to the process, as he helped Smyth arrange the songs.
“He is an excellent musical mind. He’s played in bands for years. He knows how to question in a very constructive way — he knows his stuff inside out.”
Like every working musician in Ireland, Aaron Smyth is itching for the day he can play his songs live again.
“Not being able to play in front of a live audience has been hard — its just this void, now. But not being able to play shows or go to them means we — I — won’t take them for granted ever again. It’s such a special experience and it will feel magical whenever that opportunity comes around again.”
‘Last Animals’ is released on February 19