By Noni Doll
From the first second, there’s something incredibly comforting about Look, the new album from Fred Smith. It couldn’t come at a better time, too, given the state of the world – something that quickly comes up both in the material and the conversation – and from the opening track, there’s a strong sense of humour and heart. It feels like a pleasant Australian family gathering guided by a cheeky and colourful patriarch on a battered heirloom guitar, all tied up in a neat 12-track package.
From travelogues to more a down-home sound
While the Smith sound remains strong and steadfast, the content shifts from what more casual fans might expect. Thoughts of Fred Smith conjure images of a diplomatic troubadour documenting stories of far-flung people and places. Look, however, feels distinctly more familiar to the everyday Australian experience.
“Many of my previous albums have been travelogues, but this is a more down-home album,” Fred says. “I think it’s just more personal, a bit more fun…”
But fear not, fixed Fred fans. “There’s a lot of observations about the world too,” he adds.
There’s plenty to reflect on in 2023 and Look touches on each element of these bizarre times with wit, care, and kindness, tinged with a gentle ribbing of those in power and of ourselves as modern Australians. The work has a strong sense of optimism, but that doesn’t mean Smith shies away from the most significant talking points of the current era.
“There’s a song called Crisis…” Smith says, sounding like a wry grin is escaping – and when you hear the song, you can understand why. “[It’s] a bit of my crack at the zeitgeist of the times…”
Fred Smith’s nationwide tour logistical feat!
While most of the material on Lost has been focused on life in the Great Southern Land, Fred Smith wouldn’t be Fred Smith if he wasn’t scratching his itchy feet at least somewhat.
This perhaps explains his sizable album launch tour covering almost every state and territory. Smith says that while some might see that level of touring as a logistical nightmare, he thinks he’s found the suitable model for him.
“I’ve evolved to a situation where I’ve got bands stashed in pretty much every city,” he explains. “I’ve got a band in Perth and one in Albany, in fact… one in Adelaide, one in Melbourne, one in Canberra, and a band up in Bundaberg. And one in Hobart, too. That’s how I roll these days,” he adds dryly.
He adds that developing these half-dozen all-star backing bands wasn’t just about cost and scheduling but also about ensuring that those he plays with aren’t inconvenienced by life on the road.
“I mean, the flights have become expensive, and people have marriages and kids look after,” he says. “That seems to be how it goes these days.”
While some artists might find the prospect of Smith’s multi-band system daunting, he says that Lost as an album strongly leans itself to that model, given how broad it is in scope.
“There was a degree of challenge involved in bringing it into a tidy set,” Fred says. “But we have found ways to make it work. It’s diverse as an album [yet] pulls together as a show, which is gratifying. There’s enough light to accompany the weight,” he says.
How a Tram Sign Inspired an Album Title
One of the biggest challenges of a diverse work like Smith’s is finding a banner to bring it all together.
“I was initially going to call it something inane, like Folk Songs,” Smith admits. “I was racking my brains for weeks trying to think about what to call it.
“And then we got given the answer by the photo shoot.”
A serendipitous moment of public transport-related enlightenment, instigated by CBR photographer Geoffrey Dunn, gave the answer.
“We were on the hunt for an album cover shot, and Jeff suggested we shoot in front of the tram as it passed. We took a shot, and the sign was at my feet. It was the words LOOK: LEFT AND RIGHT…”
Smith says it was that photo that stuck out most in the final editing phase, but altering its text felt like the wrong thing to do.
“We had the album shot, it said LOOK… and there was just no getting rid of the word. Then we thought, well, that’s the album name!”
There was an unexpected parallel in the choice of title that he would go on to realise later.
“One of my favourite songs on the record is called Hel – a tribute to [renowned Australian author] Helen Garner. I love her Everywhere I Look novel. I like Helen Garner for her ability to look at the way she looks at the world, the way she sees the world. And so… it felt like the right answer once it came to us.”
Fred Smith launches his new album Look at The Street Theatre on Saturday, 25 November, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $49 + bf via the venue.
To keep up with Fred, head to fredsmith.com.au