With ten career top 10 songs to date, Smalltown Poets has a track record of writing radio accessible hits. On May 11th, Smalltown Poets is back with their much anticipated eighth studio album titled Say Hello. The album, co-produced by Smalltown Poets and Matt Goldman (Underoath, Third Day, Casting Crowns, Copeland, The Chariot), serves up ten portions of “thinking man’s rock” (as critics have dubbed the Poets’ past works). While longtime fans will recognize the signposts of the familiar Smalltown Poets sound, the band took great pains to explore new textures, such as a Memphis horns section and a Gospel choir. Smalltown Poets recently took some time to talk with us about what listeners can expect from the upcoming release.
Smalltown Poets is set to release an eighth studio album, Say Hello, on May 11th. Congratulations in advance! How long has this record been in the making and what does it feel like to have the finished product ready for download?
After working on our second collection of original and re-arranged Christmas favorites in 2014, we made plans to have a songwriting retreat in May of 2015 thinking we'd come out of that time with two or three songs to release as an EP with a couple of never recorded songs we already had. That time with all of us in the same room together was so inspiring and productive that we left with five songs we were all anxious to record. A quick story is that at the end of our time we gave ourselves 15 minutes to write one more song. Our friend and former manager, Mark Hollingsworth, always encouraged us to just jam every once in a while and we captured something special in those last fifteen minutes. That song ended up being "For The Ones Who Run," one of the last ones I finished lyrics and tracked vocals for in March of 2018. So the short answer is we started writing in May 2015 and finished recording in March 2018.
How would you describe the sound of this record to brand new listeners?
While these ten songs all sound like they should be on the same album, it's hard to pin the sound down to a singular thing. Overall, it's a really nice blend of alt/pop guitars, piano and vintage keys, and a creative rhythm section making a great space for vocal melodies and harmonies you'll want to sing along with.
For this upcoming album, the band went back to its roots at Ardent Studios in Memphis. Can you describe the experience of reuniting as a band at the place where your sound was cultivated?
What a fantastically worded question! Before [releasing] our first album, we had spent a good amount of time and creative energy to get to that point as friends, musicians and songwriters, but it's true that what everyone heard on our debut was cultivated in those few weeks we spent in Studio C. Just as important was getting to know the people of Ardent. It was an inspiring time for us to be back there tracking as a band in the same room like we had experienced before and we couldn't help but miss John Fry, Dana Key and John Hampton who had believed in us and helped refine and shape our creative direction. But, maybe not in the way most would assume. Although Dana trusted Hampton completely as a producer and engineer, he made sure to be there when we were tracking the songs that he thought would be released as singles. One session Dana had left the control room and Hampton had the idea to prank Dana. We were recording drums to analog tape so the only way to edit was to actually cut the tape. There were two takes of Monkeys Paw that Hampton really liked so he decided to cut the tape and splice the back third of the second take to the corresponding spot on the first take, I think it was right before the guitar solo or thereabouts. For the prank, he spliced the other two takes together but cut out about three inches of tape so it would sound like he had made a mistake that would mean we had to rerecord the whole thing. When Dana came back we all had to keep a straight face while Hampton asked him to listen to the edit. I think Skid Mills was helping engineer and hit playback on the tape machine. Just after the section where the edit happened Dana slightly winced and turned his head to the side. He very politely said, "I think I heard something. Can you play that back?" Hampton said, "I didn't hear anything. Are you sure?" Dana insisted so Hampton played it back and tried to convince him that this was the take we were committed to using. Dana started to put his foot down but Hampton couldn't keep it in much longer and let out a big laugh after playing the botched edit one more time. That wasn't the only practical joke during those sessions and we carry that sense of fun and play to this day as a part of our creativity. Although we miss those men we did get to reconnect with Pat and Susan Scholes and Jody Stephens which was great! The best part, though, was experiencing us all together making room for each other's strengths and making something new and fresh in the context of something so familiar.
Say Hello is being co-produced by renowned producer Matt Goldman. What creative influences did he provide in crafting this album?
Matt is a good friend and trusted creative partner for Smalltown Poets. Matt started as a drummer and songwriter but he just gets all aspects of music so well that whatever he is a part of is made better. He respects where we've come from musically so at all points in the process we could trust that he's got the big picture in mind like a record producer should. That gave us confidence to push in different directions because he'll speak up and let us know if something sounds too out of character for us. Yes, we self edit a great deal but Matt can be that strong voice that says, "let's rein that in a bit", often laced with some sarcasm or backhanded compliment that gets a good laugh. He can also keep us from sticking too much in familiar territory. On Say Hello, Matt caught the vision we had and helped keep us focused on it. We all agree this is a very Smalltown Poets collection of songs with a presence that's like a breath of fresh air.
Can you talk a little about the title of the album and why you chose it to represent this new collection?
One of the things an audience can't really get from listening to our recent seasonal recordings is the relationships we have with each other through the high points and hard times of our life experience. We wanted to write and record some songs that unpack some of that and give us the chance to raise our collective hand and say, "Hello! We remember what we said in those other songs a while back and we believe it even more so now!" That was our hope from the onset of this project so it's no big surprise that the phrase say hello ended up in the lyrics of one of the songs. For various reasons we thought of the word picture painted in the book of Hebrews of the faithful people who now cheer on those who have put their hope in Jesus. That inspiration shows up in a couple of places on this album so for us it carries the double meaning of saying hello to our friends old and new while reminding us all to say hello to those who watch with anticipation, cheering us on as we run to finish the race well.
Which track are you most excited for listeners to hear and why?
"Middle Of A First Love" was the last thing we recorded for this album and it came about in part due to a lingering challenge from our former A&R guy at Forefront Records. Eddie DeGarmo was keen to ask bands to write one more song even after the original 10 or 11 master recordings were already turned it. That's part of the story behind "If You'll Let Me Love You" from our first release. We tagged this song idea on to the end of the process and this song is a good example of how on this entire journey each of us was inspired by what the others were creating. For example, the decision to deliver the vocal like a dual lead vocal was influenced by the parts the rest of the band were playing and was especially inspired by the creativity of Kevin on guitar. "Middle Of A First Love" is perhaps more pop than anything we've done previously but we love how it turned out. We think the message is timely and sonically as well; it seems to be a good song for where we are.
Smalltown Poets has been making music together for 20 years now. What has been key to the longevity of the band?
These guys make me want to be a better husband, father and friend. Part of the identity and calling God has given each of the five of us is to make music and we recognized that something special happens when we do that together. We have learned to make room for each other to operate in our strengths and we keep it fun.
Some critics have dubbed your music as “thinking man’s rock.” While there is no doubt the lyrics in your songs are powerful, why do you think some consider it “thinking man’s rock?” and how do you react to that description?
When we named the band Smalltown Poets, we were intentionally framing a context for us to wrestle with ideas without getting out of our depth. We've probably said in every interview that Larry Bussey taught us that good writing is honest writing. We tend to write about the ideas and experiences we are wrestling with or experiences we observe being lived out around us. Hopefully, that honesty resonates with some meaning for many who gravitate to that side of music listening. The opening song on the album is a homage to some of the songwriters whose shoulders we are standing on. We think it's a pretty good part of a description of what we do as a band but if I had to put a finer point on it, we hope it's clear that our thinking is shaped by the Bible which we believe to be the Word of God. We don't want to do people's thinking for them, but we do our best to draw out words that will get people interested in reading and wrestling with the stories, history and poetry of the bible along with us.
What words of hope and encouragement do you hope fans take away from this new album?
We believe they will get the encouragement they need! Rather than a specific message for everyone across the board, we believe our job is to jar memories, evoke senses and paint word pictures that others can bring their own experiences to and find greater hope and trust in Jesus. The song "Until I Met You" taps into the stories of Joseph, Jonah, Mary and Nicodemus to make space to bring our notions of what seems strange to us about God and life and perhaps interpret it in a different way. Our reason for releasing this new collection of songs is that we want people to know that we believe all the essential things about God that we believed when we started out. We don't believe them in spite of the hard things in life we've encountered but the essentials of our faith have been informed, refined and determined by all of our experience - high points and hard times.
Are there any plans to tour with this new release?
We have some limited time but are looking to make the most of opportunities that arise. We have plans to be on the west coast in October and would love to play festivals in 2019 if folks are interested in having us.