It seems like the fairy tale that all artists dream of and hope for when they are struggling and navigating the treacherous path of being a self-sustaining performer: One day you are making ends meet as best you can, doing whatever performances you can to gain a name, and then suddenly someone passes your name along to someone famous. That person hears or sees your work and then immediately wants you in their next project. This is the basic story line for local Chicago singer-songwriter Sad Brad Smith.
Playing and recording music in his living room and bedroom for “a circle of, at its largest reach, maybe 20 people” for years, Smith— through a combination of luck and friends in the right places—got his song “Help Yourself” in the hands of Up in the Air director Jason Reitman. Reitman loved the song and decided to use it in the movie—not in the background somewhere, but in a pivotal moment in the story. Smith sold the song to Paramount, the movie was released, and suddenly his name and song were front-runners for Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. People across the country loved “Help Yourself” and were clamoring to find out more about its performer. Through technicalities and Hollywood mumbo jumbo (to use a definite term), the song was not eligible for nominations, but that didn’t stop Smith from obtaining incredibly positive notoriety.
Now just over a year later and, as he told me, more than his share of Up in the Air questions, Smith has released a full-length album called Love is Not What You Need. While Smith has grown tired of talking about the movie, he acknowledges that the film helped him out a great deal. He told me:
Whatever fan base I have is because of the movie. A much smaller portion of people have discovered me just through the album. Because of that it gave me more confidence to treat [my music] more seriously. To put it out there knowing that, obviously, it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and a lot of people are going to dislike it. Some people will say, ‘This guy can’t play guitar’ or ‘This guy can’t sing,’ and I’ll agree with them [laughs], but some people do like it, and relate to it, and this was worth continuing.”
With the release of Love is Not What You Need, a whole slew of upcoming shows including an album release party at Schubas in Chicago, praise from everyone including the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and WBEZ, and another album’s worth of songs on the way, Smith is indeed continuing. His brand of honest and personal folk/bluegrass music is striking a chord with audiences across Chicago, and, soon, maybe the country. He says he has been gaining fans from far off countries like Romania and Uganda who heard “Help Yourself” and want more.
Smith is more than happy to play “Help Yourself” for the fans, even though he has “grown tired” of playing it. He says he’s tired of playing it mostly because with his backing band it’s the one song that hasn’t been as fun to play as the other songs from the new album. Smith recorded most the songs by himself playing all instruments, so now with musicians playing the other parts, and by his own admission much better than he can, the songs have gained a new life and continued to grow live. He and the rest of the band haven’t tried to stick closely to the original recordings of other songs, but he felt with “Help Yourself” they should since everyone knows it so well. Smith feels, however, that maybe they should “revisit and fuck with it” to make it a little more fun for the band. Rest assured, and I can back this up after seeing them live a few times, that it’s still a damn fine song live.
Smith’s music and lyrics are, as I stated, incredibly honest and personal. He pours a lot of his heart, as well as his personality, into the lyrics. They have a somber edge to them, but Smith’s style also instills a don’t-take-me-too-seriously humor. He explained:
I was aware that I was dangerously close to overkill. [laughs] ‘We get it. You miss her.’ Or, you know, ‘You’re so sad.’ That’s where the name came from, too— trying to be upfront. I’m acknowledging that this is a little extreme, and I’m kind of making fun of myself for wallowing in it. And in my life, as a person, I feel like a melancholy person generally, and people find me funny. They co-exist in my life, and I don’t really separate them. I don’t see a need to say, ‘Well I’m feeling sad, and so I can’t make jokes about it until I’m not sad anymore.’ It’s like, life is sad, you know? It’s meaningless, and cold, and uncaring, and disappointing, but nevertheless funny shit happens. So in the writing of the lyrics I was never conscious of, ‘I’m gonna put a joke in here.’ They are just a genuine reflection of my personality and thought process.”
That thought process gives Smith’s songs longevity. Like any great songwriter, Smith is able to give the songs a different feeling each time you listen to them. You hear new things you hadn’t noticed before, and suddenly you identify with the songs in a new way. For an artist who is just teetering on the verge of something great, that’s a fantastic path to already be on.
Thumbnail by Brad Bretz.