Ad Astra Per Aspera. Shevy Smith knows this saying by heart; after all, she recited this Sunflower-State motto countless times as a child growing up on her family’s remote Kansas farm. To the stars through difficulty. That’s what the saying translates to. It was a rallying cry for hope; a summation of the struggles of Kansan’s westward expansion. For Smith however, only recently did it take on a much more personal meaning: after enduring years of turmoil–both physical and emotional– the 28-year-old singer/songwriter, who felt it only natural to title her latest album– a stunning collection of country-rock charmers tempered by a bluesy aftertaste– after this age-old phrase, has finally cooked up a batch of songs she always knew was deep within her. That it took the pain and sacrifice life often throws at one to bring these songs to the surface was a burden that Smith, now looking back, was more than willing to bear. Says the singer of her expansive new album, “It brought me back to life as an artist.”
Recorded and produced with her husband over an 18-month period in their Topanga Canyon- home studio, Ad Astra reconciles all of Smith’s musical passions into a taut set of free-flowing melodic nuggets: There’s the rough-and-tumble backroads-honesty of Lucinda Williams; Tom Petty’s down-home rock vibe; Bonnie Raitt’s blues-drenched womanly grit. “Narrow in the North” finds Smith at her most free-form, throwing caution to the wind and evading standard song structure; “Chemical Church” sees her at her most vulnerable But above all, there’s the voice of Smith– warm like fleece– spilling tales of pain, confusion, and ultimately love. Things that Smith knows all too well.
As a young girl growing up on a central-Kansas farm, 20 minutes away from any scrap of established civilization, music was all Shevy Smith knew. Well, that plus chickens and horses running around the Smith family home. Piano came at four; guitar at 11. Smith started writing because she “was too young to know it was supposed to be complicated.” Making songs on her clock radio, Smith quickly attracted the attention of a local woman who passed Smith’s raw recordings to her music-producer-of-a-son-in-law in New York City who promptly began flying out to Wichita to collaborate with the then-14-year-old Smith. As far as the young girl knew, this was how things went in the music world: you made songs, got discovered, and success came knocking. Smith soon had a deal with an independent publishing house in Nashville. “It all moved pretty fast,” she says in reflection. “I was the most buzzed about artist in town.”
After high school, Smith decided to move to Nashville to fully pursue her music career. But it quickly became apparent to her that those with whom she was working–oftentimes including some of the most respected managers and songwriters in the country music world– had a different vision of what or who she should be as an artist. “What I got really quickly was that I wasn’t really ready-made pop country even though I had grown up probably more country than a lot of the people who were embracing the idea of what it means to be country,” Smith says. “I wanted to be a little rougher.” Smith found herself struggling to decide what was the right musical path to take. “It was a struggle and a fight to temper who I really was,” she says. “You have managers saying ‘If you play ball on this first one, then you get to do whatever you want on the second.’ It wasn’t right for me. I could never swallow the pill.”
At 24, after enduring inner-battles and a broken relationship, Smith cut ties with Nashville and headed westward to Los Angeles. Things were looking good: she had a new band and met her now-husband on the first day she arrived. But only three months after settling down in LA, Smith was brutally attacked outside a Sunset-Boulevard laundromat. Everything changed. “I went into fetal position survival mode,” Smith says of the time after her unconscionable attack. “I didn’t’ want to be seen.” The songwriting flame that once burned so bright within her was also temporarily extinguished. Smith retreated to a small beach town in Orange County, dyed her blonde locks brown, had multiple facial reconstruction surgeries and hid out for over a year.
But in the fall of 2009, after deciding to teach young girls guitar lessons as a means by which to accumulate rent money, the songwriting spark Smith always knew she possessed– but one that been temporarily squashed out of fear– quickly returned. Smith specifically found herself inspired by the unadulterated excitement these young women had for songwriting. “It brought me back to life as an artist,” she says. It also planted the seeds for Girls with Guitars, now a multi-location Southern California-based school of guitar headed by Smith. And unlike many traditionalists’ approach to teaching, Smith’s school– spurred by its lead instructor’s revelation that young women are naturally so keen on songwriting– preaches the art of creativity over theory.
With her students as her inspiration, songs began pouring back out of Smith. She and her husband moved to their current home in Topanga Canyon and began recording their “faces off” for over a year. The result is Ad Astra, which finds Smith and her husband, who produced her album, playing every instrument–from guitars to drums and even an accordion. “It was really experimental,” Smith says of the album she always knew she could write. “Nothing was out of the question.”
Smith hopes to take Ad Astra‘s songs on a full-fledged tour. But her immediate desires are much simpler: she just wants to be heard. Because, for Smith, a naturally-gifted artist, who once lost the will to unleash her God-given talent, nothing is more rewarding than finally returning to her roots. “I never even thought of doing anything else besides music,” she says looking back at the funny way life can throw one off course from their true calling. Smith gazes out the window of her Topanga Canyon home, at last reveling in life’s simplicity. “There’s magic floating in the air,” she says with a smile.