Art Gallery of Ontario Patti Smith knows how to commune with the dead. She…
- Posted on Jun 4th 2012 3:30PM by Dave Steinfeld
This week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer returns with the release of Banga, her first studio album since 2007 and her first disc of new material since 2004's Trampin'. The album was recorded at New York's Electric Lady Studios (where Horses was also recorded) and features the core band of guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist Tony Shanahan. Containing a dozen tunes, Banga is a diverse disc that combines improvisational pieces like "Tarkovsky" and "Constantine's Dream" with the rocking title track and ballads like "This Is the Girl" and "Maria" -- odes to Amy Winehouse and actress Maria Schneider, respectively. The album ends with a haunting cover of the Neil Young classic "After the Gold Rush."
Spinner recently took part in an intimate roundtable interview with Smith in Manhattan. Here are some excerpts.
The title track reminds me of your older material. Could you tell us something about this song?
Well, one of the reasons it reminds you of old songs is 'cause I wrote it. When I write songs myself, they're usually one or two chords. "Banga" has maybe three. I'm very limited as a guitar player. I can only play a handful of chords so all of my songs are very simple and direct.
The song doesn't really have any specific meaning. It's just a happy battle cry. A unification song, you know? "Banga." Love and loyalty between me and my band, between us and the people.
My son is a very energetic guitar player [and he plays] on "Banga." Also Johnny Depp. In fact, in the opening of "Banga," it's all Johnny Depp. He's a friend of mine and he was filming "Rum Diary" [when] I got the idea for [the song] in my head. I told Johnny, "I don't wanna forget this." So he recorded me singing -- like the first minute, I'm just singing a capella. Then Johnny said he would send it to me so I wouldn't forget. So I'm waitin' and waitin' and he didn't send it! I said, "Johnny, where's 'Banga'?" He said, "Oh, you'll get it." And [when] I got it, he'd put drums, guitars, everything [on it]! So the first minute of the song is all me and Johnny Depp. What we did in the recording studio [was] the band listened to Johnny's track and then came in on the chorus.
You've been active artistically in the last few years in other ways. What do you get from making an album that you don't get from drawing or writing a book?
That's a good question. Two things. One is camaraderie. I work [alone] when I draw or write or paint. All these things are endeavors that require my solitude or require my concentration. But making a record is a collaborative experience. You have your technicians, your musicians, the people you write songs with. That's the first reason.
And then the main thing, really, [is that] making records is one of the most direct ways to reach the world. The listening population mostly speaks English or understands [it] and you can reach millions of people. Obviously, I'm not a pop star; I don't sell millions and millions of records. But the potential is there to reach a lot of people. It's exciting.
You close [the new album] with a cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." What led you to choose that as the closing song?
Well, I wanted to write my own song at the end of the album. The last song was [originally] "Constantine's Dream." "Constantine's Dream" ends with a very dark, apocalyptic vision: The destruction of our environment. I didn't want to end a record like that. So I wanted to write one more little song that was like a breath of spring or like the dawn. I was just sitting in a café having coffee and "After the Gold Rush" came on. And I realized that the first two verses of "After the Gold Rush" said everything that I wanted to say. I didn't think I could say it any better. That's why I did it. But I wanted to do it very clean. It's just a simple, live performance with my son and daughter. There's no embellishment.
After all these years, you're still playing with Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty. We hear a lot about Lenny Kaye [but] we don't hear a lot about Jay Dee. I'm curious to know what he means to you and to the band's sound.
Jay Dee Daugherty is a musician's musician. He's the first drummer I've ever had in my life, and the only drummer I've ever had. He's played on all the records. My late husband, who was very discriminating, told me he was one of the best drummers in rock 'n' roll. And it's because Jay is not only a finely tuned drummer but he's highly intelligent. He makes really intelligent, innovative choices. I mean, even now, Jay suffers severe hearing loss. But his ability to adjust to that and find ways to punctuate things are amazing.
He's also such an interesting musician as a composer. He doesn't write a lot of songs but he's written so many unique songs. Like "Don't Say Nothing" [from Peace and Noise]. He wrote the title track from Easter. His music is always set apart from anyone else. On this [album], the song that he wrote is really unique. I love that track. "Mosaic." And he always writes on a different instrument [so] it's always a surprise. He wrote "Easter" on some kind of synthesizer.
I don''t even know what my status is! Status is an illusion. You can seem really big for awhile and then you can walk out the next day and nobody cares. I've been through that so many different times. I've been [thought of as] a fashion icon and then thought of as out of touch. If you live long enough, you'll be in and out many times. If people like the work that I do, I'm really happy.
On the new album there's [also] a song about Amy Winehouse. She had a self-destructive streak that you -- in spite of being surrounded by other people who had that -- didn't ever seem to have yourself. Why do you think you were able to escape?
That's a good question. A lot of people think that because I admire a lot of musicians or artists who did have a self-destructive bent that I romanticize self-destruction. Well, I don't at all. In Amy Winehouse's instance, I really admired her as a singer. That girl was amazing. She sang songs from my generation -- R&B songs and jazz and doo-wop -- with no sixth degree of separation. She really comprehended this music and delivered something extra.
But for myself ... I always wanted to be an artist. I was always just enthralled with the possibilities in life: Books and art and music and architecture and travel and love. There's so much out there. Also, I was a very sickly child. I was sick quite a bit and my mother had to nurse me through everything from tuberculosis to scarlet fever to measles and mumps and influenza. By the time I was a teenager, I was just happy to be alive. I certainly wasn't going to destroy what my mother spent almost two decades preserving. [So] I never really developed any vices -- except coffee!
I guess the simplest answer would be, I love life. I'm very grateful to have the imagination that I have, and the children that I have. I ain't goin' nowhere.