Analogue Music | The White Buffalo

The White Buffalo

By Matt Conner

Jake Smith says he's made two straight records without knowing the songs would be there. By now, he's getting confident in his dependence.

Smith, who is musically known as The White Buffalo, worked with producer Shooter Jennings on his latest album, On The Widow's Walk (Snakefarm Records). Smith says he went into the studio with little more than a demo he recorded the night before after waking up with a song idea. From there, Jennings' encouragement served to coax out the rest. Validated once again, Smith says he needed just another week to write a brand new album, his seventh.

To hear Smith talk about his creative process, it's clear that The White Buffalo is more dependent on people than what you might originally believe. With a catalog filled with substantive stories, Smith conjures images of a creative songsmith with a discipline for this important work. Instead, Smith says he's lighthearted with a serious songwriting approach that somehow connects in deeper ways than he ever expected.

On the verge of a new album release, we caught up with Smith in the midst of the quarantine to hear more about the lessons learned thus far and what it's like to make a living when the process is so inexact.

Analogue: I want to start with your fans because you seem to have a very strong connection with this core group, like there's a lot of trust they have for you and maybe vice versa. When were you aware that there was something deeper here than just maybe casual apprecation?

Jake Smith: I don't know. It was early on. I did have people who were fans who were always disappointed that I wasn't a star yet always wanted me to remain a little secret. There was no a-ha moment like "when you've got 'em, you've got 'em". I just try to keep it real honest. I put the time and effort into making every word mean something and every song have a purpose.

The White Buffalo 2
The White Buffalo 2

Sometimes I think about it and think maybe it's my lack of success that has allowed me to do that or my lack of any boundaries or any other entity saying, 'You can't do that, dude. We have to do a country album.' I've never chased the money. I've always chased the emotion—whether it's fear or heartbreak or joy.

You start realizing it quickly when you walk through a crowd and every person who comes up to you is telling you some heartbreaking story of how you helped this time in their life, when they just got divorced or their spouse just died. I wasn't expecting that because I'm quite lighthearted in the way I carry myself outside of this, but I do end up writing heavy songs that impact people. It's nice. I love that I can affect people. It was just never really my intention.

Analogue: You mentioned a couple things I want to chase. First, you said you're lighthearted in the way you carry yourself. Is that because there's a catharsis in the music or is that natural?

Jake: I've just always been like that. I've always been kind of light and silly and like to have fun and then there's this other side. Someone asked me what my very first song was. I couldn't pin it down, but there were two. One was about suicide and the other was about war veterans coming back and getting pissed on. When you're 19 and playing guitar for six months, why are you writing those songs? Granted, there's angst, but I was always trying to hit this deeper, darker heart of things but was still quite light and silly when I was younger, too. That's always been my thing. Maybe it's because I can switch modes and go into that darker space. I'm not sure.

Analogue: When you hear those stories from fans, does that become fodder for songs? How many songs have you written because fans tell you these things?

Jake: Nah, probably none. Or at least hardly any. Inspiration is a strange thing and creativity is a strange thing too, in that you don't know where some of your ideas come from, but I don't think I've ever taken any direct story from someone. But I think that's a good thing. I didn't mean to be that person for those people but I'm happy to be that. It's amazing.

That's the beautiful thing about music, even in these strange times, it's one of the few things you can escape into. I mean, you can into a movie but then you watch it one time and you're done with it. With music, you can continue to go back to it and it doesn't seem tiresome. And often you're learning new messages about the song or there might be different or deeper meanings depending on when you're listening. I think it's a helpful thing and a healing thing, almost like nothing else.

Analogue: The last time music healed you in some way?

Jake: I don't know. I've been listening to a lot of stuff that feels real good but the lyrical content's not amazing. I used to be opposed to it. I wondered why someone would want to throw away the lyrics when it's half the battle or half of your responsibility to make it, but there's something about ELO. It just feels so good. There's not a whole lot going on lyrically. It's not there to break your heart or give an epiphany, but it just feels good. That has its merits, too. Not sure if it heals me, but I go up and down. I can get dark and go in little holes and stuff and a little Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra can bring you out and make you want to shake your ass a little bit. [Laughs]

Analogue: You said earlier that you trim the fat and pore over the lyrics and songs. Has that always been the M.O. for you or was that learned along the way?

Jake: I think initially I would write stuff and it would be looser. Some of the earlier songs I wrote, it's like, 'What was I even saying right there?' Early on, like my first EP or even maybe parts of other things, I don't even know what I was talking about. I could interpret it kind of, but as a craftsman or songwriter, do you need to interpret those things? It's fine to a point, but it's something I've learned. Just as you do it more and more and write more songs, inadvertently you'll get better at it and you'll be fine tuning it. You can say things in so many different ways, but I've always thought to say things in simple ways but not in a way anyone else has said it is a gift.

My process is that I just make shit up at the beginning. It's gibberish. And then things will just spill out out of the silence. In that time you're making something up, I think my gift is to go back and listen or, as I'm singing or making stuff up, which is just stream of consciousness, something will come out. It could be a whole verse or two lines, but to go back and realize and say, 'This is the moment I need to start from.' It might not be the beginning, but at least it's a place you can jump from and take your story here or there. I always think I'm very lucky but it's something I've done for a long time. That's how I've always done it.

"I don't feel confident at all. With this last album in particular and the one before, I felt like I went kind of dry for a while."

Analogue: How confident is it possible to feel at your craft when the process remains so mysterious?

Jake: I don't feel confident at all. [Laughs] With this last album in particular and the one before, I felt like I went kind of dry for a while. I hit a spell of not writing at all or just a few things here and there not thinking any of it had any worth. This time, it wasn't until hanging out with Shooter Jennings... I went to his house with what I thought was zero ideas. The night before I woke up out of a sleep and this song idea came to me. I sang it into my phone and thought we'd work on that tomorrow. At least I had something to bring to him that was fresh or could be cool.

I had him sit down at the piano and I sang the melody and words and then we worked it out super fast, like in 20 or 30 minutes. Then in my mind, it was all very realized. I knew exactly what to do or where to go with it. Then he asked me, 'What else do you have?' I was like, 'Well, I have this idea.' He said, 'Oh, that's amazing. Let's explore that.' I had all these ideas, but I just didn't think they had much worth. You don't really know what will impact someone until they hear it.

For him, I thought he's validated me. From there, I took all the songs and wrote them in a week or week and a half. In the last five or six years, that's been more of my way. I get these crazy prolific times where in a week or so, I'll write the bulk of something. I think my songs come from a different place that I don't totally understand. These explosive times of being very prolific will come. I don't know when they will come, but I'm glad they keep coming. [Laughs]

On the last album, I had a similar thing. I didn't have that many ideas, or I didn't think that I did, and then I just get a real hot streak. Sometimes it is out of that desperation. Dude, we have to record. We have to make an album, so you have to produce things. That gives me a little nudge as well.

Analogue: What a funny way to make a living, to rely on something you don't understand to give you something you don't feel you can produce.

Jake: I know. I'm sure people are like, 'No, he just sits around and writes songs all day. It's very calculated.' But it's not. It always just comes out at once and then I think, 'Oh, that's a good idea,' even when I don't think it's my idea entirely.

Analogue: I love that posture.

Jake: I do think that is part of the honesty and keeping things pretty pure and raw.

VISIT: The White Buffalo