Putting Words to Music with Naked Blue’s Jennifer Ferguson Smith

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Jennifer Ferguson Smith - Photo by Stuart Dahne

Collaborations between recording artists are frequent and even expected, but it’s not every day that a band partners with a favorite author to write an album based on a literary character. That’s what happened when Americana rock-roots duo Naked Blue — the singer/songwriter/musician/husband-and-wife team of Scott Smith and Jennifer Ferguson Smith — got together with best-selling novelist Lee Child to create Just The Clothes On My Back, a collection of songs based on Child’s Jack Reacher character. The album was released last November, in tandem with Child’s 23rd Reacher book, Past Tense.

The Baltimore-based couple were longtime fans of Child’s work, and as fans sometimes do, Scott Smith sent the author a letter. What they never anticipated was that the admiration was mutual: Child, a musician and lifelong audiophile, knew their work from “Closing My Eyes,” the track they contributed to Rattlesnake Guitar: The Music of Peter Green, and from there had added their albums to his collection.

Lee Child and Naked Blue – photo courtesy of Jennifer Ferguson Smith

They kept in touch, with Child attending one of Naked Blue’s New York shows, and the three always discussing writing a song together “someday,” says Jennifer Ferguson Smith. “Finally, in 2017, we suggested getting together, selecting a theme, and seeing if we could come up with an album’s worth of good songs. We said, ‘If we do, you can take them to your favorite artists, and we can project-manage a compilation album.’” Child suggested they write about Jack Reacher.

“That was exciting to us,” she says. “Exploring one of your favorite characters with the creator was so much fun. We were working on the fourth song when Lee said, ‘I want you guys to perform, record, and produce the album.’” The prospect was “a little bit intimidating,” she says, what with the Reacher character being described in Child’s works as “a huge and pretty scary guy. My first thought when he said, ‘I want you to sing it,’ was, Oh, great. His fans are going to love me singing Jack Reacher in the first person… . But as it turned out, one of the common threads in many of the reviews is, ‘We wondered how it would work with a female singing this, but it was a perfect choice.’”

What were some of the challenges of writing music to someone else’s story versus writing and telling your own stories?

Usually that’s tough, but in this case, it was really liberating. As an original artist, whenever you’re writing a new record, you’re thinking, What am I going to be? How am I going to show that I have evolved in some way since the last record? It needs to be different, it should be fresh. Who am I right now? You start with the introspective stuff. With this, we knew the character and we were in the room with his creator. It went so fast — I think we were starting on our third song on the first day, which never happens. Lee is brilliant and writes thousands of words a day, so he’s used to that volume, and he tells a story in thousands of words, while we have to tell a story in three minutes, so combining those approaches was a lot of fun.

We spent roughly six days with him, and there was some video shooting mixed in with that. Then we brought the songs back to our studio [The Wood and Stone Room: www.thewoodandstoneroom.com]. My thought was, “This should be a bluesy-rock kind of thing,” and Scott’s thought was, “This should be cinematic and big because of the potential for film or television coming up for Lee and the book.” We combined those two things in our choices of what we were going to play and how to produce it. We did rough mixes, sent them to Lee, and lucky for us he was really happy with them.

Other than the Naked Blue website and a few online articles, there’s not much background about you. When did music become part of your life? Also, you play several instruments in addition to guitar. 

I play guitar – acoustic, electric, and resonator — and cello. I can pick a few things out on piano, I played flute in elementary school, and hope to not have to do that again, learned a bit of harmonica, and tracked accordion on a song once, but really, guitar and cello.

My dad was a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards and a very good guitar player. He had the opportunity to study with Segovia in Vienna after he started his career as a scientist, but he chose to go the family and career route instead. He loved Appalachian and folk music and blues — Flatt and Scruggs, Lead Belly, Bob Dylan — and there was a lot of sitting and listening to vinyl in our house. When I was 5, he started teaching me to play guitar. I was never as disciplined as he wanted me to be, especially with reading music, but playing was always part of my life.

When I was 13, I got my first two guitars, a Gibson SG, and for my birthday, my parents got me a Gibson 12-string. My brother played loud rock records and I loved them, and it led me to guitar bands like Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, and Led Zeppelin. The Isley Brothers’ Go For Your Guns — Ernie Isley — I loved that record so much, and that’s what I dug into, playing guitar.

It never occurred to me that I would be a professional musician, but I loved playing, and in college, my friend Angie Miller and I started getting together, singing and playing songs. We had a duo called Two Skirts. We were walking into a bar one night for a gig and somebody said, “Oh, it’s a couple of skirts with guitars,” so there we had our name.

I met Scott in 1988. We started writing together, he started recording my songs, and I sang on his demos, like a barter thing. We ended up gigging together, and by 1991, we were playing so much that we didn’t have time for our real jobs, so we quit our day jobs together and started doing music full time.

In Two Skirts, I played some lead and I worked on it a lot. When I started working with Scott, he is a virtuoso and such a beautiful player that it made sense for me to lay back and let him make that magic. I stopped expanding what I did until the last few years or so when I wanted to be a better player. If we’re not growing and learning all the time, we’re not happy and the fans aren’t happy. With that, I put together a plan to do a solo record and did some writing last year. I wrote seven or eight tunes that really pushed me on guitar.

For decades, Scott and I worked out this nice, seamless guitar partnership where we’re never playing the same thing at any given time, and often neither of our solo parts would carry the song. It’s the combination that makes it whole. So it was challenging and fun for me to write this new batch of songs with a new perspective on the guitar, where I didn’t want to just strum through things. I wanted it to have melody lines and be interesting on its own on guitar, as well as lyrically and vocally. Once the new album starts to slow down a little bit, I’ll get back to that.

Just The Clothes On My Back is your seventh album. What do you see when you look at that timeline?

Gosh, a lot of fun! It’s interesting because when Scott and I started working together, we were both in relationships, and so our working relationship was just that for the first four years. A couple of those years we were madly in love with each other, but we were excited about what we were working on, and we were willing to try to ignore the attraction. So the first album [Treasure and the Pearl, 1994] is a lot about unrequited love, attraction, and frustration.

The next album [Wish, 1998] was celebratory and fun. We were playing bars five or six nights a week with a full band, which is kind of a jam situation, so that’s reflected. The third record [Shaving Lucky, 2000], we started to borrow other people’s stories because we were settling into our own space, getting a little older, and life was evening out a bit with less personal drama. I think our songwriting continued to get better, but I was starting to lose my voice.

I love all of our albums, and a lot of the songs are deeply personal, so by default, they reflect where Scott or I was, or where we were together at that time. Being a couple and working so closely together, if you write about something that’s on your mind, it can very well be about each other. It might be something we’ve avoided discussing that ends up creeping into a song, and after it’s done and been alive for a little while, I go, “Oh yeah, that’s where that was coming from.”

Did you completely lose your voice?

I shouldn’t say “lost my voice,” but it started to be not so great. Singing over a band for so many years and never having any training, I was fit from gigging a lot in bars, so I could kind of blow through stuff and make it all work. But when we started doing more concert-type shows, we weren’t playing five or six nights anymore, and nobody ever told me that I should practice. I’d always thought you just sing. Obviously, I practiced guitar, but singing … I assumed, like a lot of people do, that it’s just something we do, like speaking, but with melody. So that spiraled over a decade into really bad habits and not being able to sing what I wanted to sing, or sound very good doing it.

When did your voice teacher, Peter Strobl, come into the picture?

Oh, Pete! My savior. I was going to a lot of different voice teachers around Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, trying to figure it out and not figuring it out.

We were working on the title song for the album Weightless. We’d spend four hours tracking the vocal, I’d live with it for a couple of days, and I’d want to do it again. We probably did it ten times, and Scott was really frustrated. He’d say, “This is great,” and I’d say, “No, it’s not,” but I didn’t know why. I said to him, “I wonder if I should even do this [sing] anymore, because it’s not good.”

In 2013, Scott read an interview with Pete, where he talked about working with Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen, and he said, “This guy sounds interesting. Maybe he can help you.” I wrote to Pete about what was going on, and he wrote right back and asked for videos. I sent him what I thought was good and bad, and he wrote back and said, “I can help you, but I’m on the West Coast and I don’t do Skype. Is there a way we can get together?” Scott and I had a business trip planned to L.A., so we met with Pete and I did some work with him. It was obvious from the get-go that he knew how to help me, and he was able to help me immediately.

His son lived a few hours from us, and twice a year he would visit his son and I would book a voice workshop for him here in our studio. We’d get ten to twenty people in for a daylong workshop with Pete. He’d spend the night and then a day or two more working with me. He’s kind of a wizard — you spend 15 minutes in a room with him and you’re already singing better. I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours with him, and it’s a process, but he gave my voice back to me. He extended my music career. I think it would have been over had I not met him. And then he moved to Baltimore, so score one for the mid-Atlantic!

What are some of the techniques you’ve learned from working with him, and how has vocal training tied in with playing guitar?

One big aspect for me is awareness. When you’re singing or playing a song, when you’ve done it 500 times, you stop being aware of the fine detail that separates it from being good and being great, whether it’s the duration of a phrase, nailing the last word of a line, really being aware of your mechanics, timing and breathing.

Breathing translates directly to the guitar. Repetitive exercises with a click track, breathing in time, picking up the guitar and being aware of what I’m playing, and joining it with what I’m singing, it’s being aware of the space in between — are you coming in right on the note, or are you going to come in a little late or a little early. The space you leave in between changes the feel, and all those little things, that awareness, bleed over to the guitar. And the discipline. Finally understanding the discipline and the work that is involved in singing made me understand that I can apply all that to my guitar playing, too.

Jennifer Ferguson Smith – photo by Arnie Goodman

Let’s talk about your gear — what you use and why those choices.

I recently got a 2009 Gibson SG Special with mini humbuckers. Over the years I’ve had a Strats, Teles, and a Music Man. There have been times when I had a pedalboard, but I always felt like it distracted me from my performance. I didn’t like having to think about switching through stuff. I like to be able to get some overdrive just by turning up my volume or changing my pickup position, so the guitar/amp combination is important. The SG is light and straightforward. The mini humbuckers have a nice mid-range growl and chime. It’s such a classic rock sound, it feels good, it’s made well, and it’s not crazy-expensive.

I found my Larrivee at our local Guitar Center. It has a unique sound. I can pick up the sound of it immediately on recordings. It has a nice punch and balance, it’s a nice size, and also I like a guitar that I can lay into hard and it doesn’t break apart sound-wise. I haven’t found anything that sounds as sweet and identifiable. I’ve had it at least fifteen years now, and it will be my forever guitar.

Scott found the Republic resonator. It’s just gorgeous, and I like the sound better than a lot of the better-known resonators I’ve played.

My Nolatone amp was built by a friend of ours, Paul Sanders, in Atlanta. He sent us one of his first models maybe ten or fifteen years ago and it was great. Everything is hand-wired, and the Rotten Johnny has a nice, natural tube overdrive, warmth, and tweedy sag. It has master volume and gain, and I can loop my effects through the amp, which I think sounds so much better. He builds great stuff.

I bought my cello in the early 2000s. We stopped in a music shop on the way to a gig, and there was a cello for $100. It sounded good, and I always wanted to play one, so that became a real passion. It was also really nice for me during the time when I was having trouble with my voice. I spent a lot of time with the cello, playing on other people’s records, diving into that, and it had a big impact on my guitar playing, because the cello is tuned in fifths — a fifth between each string — while guitar is tuned in fourths, with a major third in there. Getting familiar with the cello neck and scales, somehow when I went back to guitar, it wasn’t about “Am I playing a G chord or an E chord?” It was about putting my hand down somewhere and making a chord in a voicing I hadn’t made before. It expanded my freedom to put my hand anywhere on the neck and find something I hadn’t known would be there.

I’m not a gear hound. I like having gear because I need it. I know what I like, and when I find it, because it can be hard to find, I try to grab it and keep it.

You recently released your catalog on Spotify. How is that advantageous when all we hear and read about is that artists earn mere pennies that way?

As a listener, I think it’s a great platform to find and share music. We’d miss thousands of listeners and potential new fans if our music wasn’t on Spotify. But, yeah, as a music creator, it’s a bit of a kick in the ass. There have been some positive legislative changes in the royalty payment structure that are coming into effect soon.

The business is tough, and nobody was on top of it when the technology changed. It halved our income within a year. Luckily, we’ve been able to be creative, and we have each other. Scott and I have very different skill sets and we bring different resources to the partnership, so together we’ve been able to write, record, run a recording studio, and do our yearly Wood and Stone Songwriting Retreat.

When the industry shifted about 10 years ago, we asked ourselves, Should we go back to school? Should we get day jobs? The industry has changed, and we’re not going to get by this way. But we already had fifteen years in the business, we knew that better than anything else, and it seemed like a waste to leave it. And it’s so much fun. The studio, the songwriting retreat, recording, playing live, and touring all are good for each other.

When is the next retreat?

June 6 through June 10. We rented a mansion in Milford, Delaware, and we’ve got about a dozen people coming from Michigan, California, the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia. Pete Strobl is going to join us, and we’ll be announcing another guest mentor soon.

For us, it’s an opportunity to write songs for four days, because that’s hard to do when we’re running a business and wearing a lot of hats, working on our own marketing, our own label, booking, rehearsing. It might be the only time that Scott and I actually spend four whole days on writing, without business interrupting.

When it started, we thought we’d be teaching people, but we quickly realized that we are all teaching each other, and it became more of a co-writing situation. We lead the experience, and we have fun guiding exercises that help fast-track your way into a song. We share tips for getting people there quicker and explore what makes a song great, but really it’s just a bunch of lovely, like-minded people coming in as strangers on the first day and feeling like family by the time we leave, with anywhere from eight to eighteen new songs.

There’s a quote from Lee Child in which he says, “Everybody reads the same book, but actually they don’t. Everybody reads a different book.” The same can be said about listening to music. What do you hope people experience when they listen to Naked Blue?

I hope it sounds authentic and that it opens their hearts a little bit, that they hear something familiar said in a new way that allows them to experience their own feelings in a deeper way. That’s one of the great things about going to see music live. It’s a shared experience between the performer and the audience that allows everybody to open their hearts, widen their experience, have fun, and maybe cry a little too.

Jennifer Ferguson Smith
Guitar Gear

Guitars:

Acoustic: Larrivee L-05
Electric: Gibson SG Special with Mini Humbuckers
Resonator: Republic Parlor Resolian

Strings:

Elixir Nanoweb acoustic 13 – 56 and Nanoweb electric 11 – 49; 13 – 56 on the Resonator.

Cello:

Ivan Donov cello with Fishman Classic Series cello pickup

Amp:

Nolatone Ampworks Rotten Johnny

Pedals:

Holy Grail Nano Reverb
TC Electronic Polytune True Bypass
LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI

Live vocal mic:

Sure Beta 87

 

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