Traveling Troubadour Pat Dam Smyth
Chris Jones talks with the worldly songwriter about touring with Johnny Borell, burning out and seeing his album The Great Divide reborn
There are many different types of career musician. Some find fame, others fortune, a select few both. And then there are the hustlers – the people who manage to carve out a sustainable career on the fringes, through hard work, determination and no little talent.
Pat Dam Smyth is one of those, and for the last ten years his music has taken him far and wide, from Belfast to Athens to Los Angeles and many points in between.
Now back in Northern Ireland after his latest stint in London, where he is normally based, Smyth speaks to us during a break in sessions for his second solo album, the follow-up to the well-received but little-heard 2011 debut The Great Divide.
That record was a representation of Smyth himself – authentic and honest, but mercurial. But the records are only a fraction of the story. For Pat Dam Smyth has tales to tell.
‘It was insane,’ Smyth smiles as he recalls his recent UK tour supporting the much mocked former Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell, who is now embarking on a solo career. ‘It was basically a luxury tour: tour bus, hotels and everything like that, but it was 'gypsies on tour', in a way. It was amazing, like a circus which was… highly enjoyable.’
Smyth chuckles in the manner of a man who knows much more than he is willing to divulge, but he does reveal that Borrell is, somewhat improbably, ‘a really good boxer’. Weeks spent on tour with the former star have clearly left an impression on him.
‘He's the opposite of the public persona,’ Smyth says. ‘I was really surprised, because I'd been fed all the press stuff about him. When we were actually on tour, he was a top dude.
'He just works really hard, and when I saw his boxing skills, I said, "Okay, there's something about this dude". He's a clever writer, and I think that to spend any time with anyone who's had any success with songwriting, part of you goes, "Well, they've done it, so they've obviously got something".'
Smyth is thoroughly upbeat about the tour, during which he was joined by his new musical partner, former V//Formation drummer Chris McComish, and about the new music they are working on together. But it's been a long and circuitous journey to get to this point, ever since he left Northern Ireland as a teenager in the late 1990s.
‘I went to Dublin, studied there, dropped out and then met buskers,’ he says. ‘It was a case of taking the plunge and going for it, so we went for it and ended up living in loads and loads of different places.’
The 'we' is Pat and one Brian Fergus Nipsy Russell. Together, as Pat & Nipsy, the two friends egged each other on to more and more adventures, busking their way around the UK, Europe and beyond – London, Greece, Italy, Los Angeles. Yes, the two youngsters from Northern Ireland ended up in Hollywood, just for the hell of it.
‘We were in Athens and met these two girls. We went for dinner and each went off with one of them for a walk around the city. They both said to us separately, "You guys should come to LA". They were leaving the next day so we went. We booked the tickets the next day, and when we got there we didn't really see them. We ended up living in LA for three months, hanging out with comedians. That was a bizarre experience.’
Once the American sojourn was finished, Smyth and Nipsy returned to the UK and lived in Liverpool, and then in London, where they formed the band Smokey Angle Shades and made a living through busking while trying to 'make it' in the industry.
‘It was a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young kind of thing – four-part harmonies. We nailed it in London, did really well and then broke up, as all good things do, and that's when I came back to Belfast. I went to the studio at Start Together and met Barrett [Lahey, producer of The Great Divide] and that changed everything in a really positive way. At that point I was thinking of hanging my hat up. I was done. But that gave me another boost.’
Smyth's talents for music and hustling a living out of it have enabled him to be self-sufficient, and to see places he may never otherwise have seen, but at times it has come at a cost. Several years ago, a stay in Berlin took him to a very dark place, and he ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
‘I had a psychotic episode. We'd been busking and touring for about six months non-stop. We were throwing in 30 or 40 gigs every two weeks. It was chaos. It came to a head in Berlin. It was really sad because the music was amazing, and the gigs we were doing in Berlin were going so well. It was really taking off. But I was completely not there. I was looking at everything from an outside perspective. So I had a freak-out and the guys had to take me to hospital.
‘It was terrifying. You can't walk straight or think straight because the medication is so strong, so you can only use about 30% of your brain and muscle power. You can just have a conversation, walk, smoke and eat food. I met some guy and I said, "How long have you been here?" and he said, "Since 1996". So I thought, I'm in the wrong place here.’
In the end, Smyth spent about ten days in the hospital, after which he returned home to recuperate. He says that his breakdown enabled him to re-evaluate things, and that it has had a positive long-term effect.
‘It's amazing,’ he says. ‘Things got twice as good. I've given up all things bad, pretty much, except for coffee. I had to change everything so I'm on this new way of life, literally just trying to keep working as hard as I can, to use every day and keep writing. That's keeping me sane.’
Plans are afoot, too. The Great Divide has been picked up as the basis for a movie soundtrack, with the film due for release later this year. ‘I'm not really allowed to tell you about it, but basically an A-lister wrote the screenplay and he stars in it,’ Smyth reveals.
‘I saw a first cut and it's fantastic. It's mad hearing the songs in it. What we're going to do is re-release The Great Divide alongside that and make it one big push. It's a really interesting film and I'm glad that it's got the same kind of ideas as the album. It's not happy-happy.’
Smyth is clearly in a good place, enthusiastic about his new working relationship with McComish and the prospect of his album finally reaching the audience it deserves. But it hasn't always been easy, and so I ask him what has kept him moving all this time. What's been the driving force behind the last 15 years of music-making?
‘I left Northern Ireland in 1998 and things were just… we were just coming out of something, I guess,’ he says. ‘The music scene was in no way as good as it is now. In those days there was no outlet. I was in bands for years growing up, and I never really saw myself staying [in Belfast]. I just wanted to go and keep going.
‘All through my 20s, it was like running away. And we figured out how to make a lot of money busking, a lot more money than I ever thought you could make. Why would you do anything else?'
The Great Divide is available to download now.