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With his long brown hair, an intimidating beard and his don't-fuck-with-me look, the White Buffalo—who was born into this world as Jake Smith—is a throwback to a time when rough-and-tumble, hard-drinking artists (à la Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart) resonated with audiences more than manufactured, über-produced pop stars. But Smith connects with a range of audiences in a very contemporary way and has a catalog that spans not only heartfelt ballads, but also raucous bar songs.
On Feb. 28, he will release his latest full-length, Once Upon a Time In the West, which features 13 songs, each with a similar theme. "On the album, there's a nostalgic theme about growing up in suburban California," he said. "It's American music to the core, as there is a broader story to tell about growing up."
Despite his growing mainstream popularity, it wasn't always this way for the singer. When he first started playing music, Smith wallowed in the Bay Area, playing a few shows and not writing a whole lot of material. He was, he says, "unmotivated." That was until he caught the ear of surf veteran-cum-filmmaker Chris Malloy. By chance, a bootleg tape landed in the surfer's hands, and in 2002, he used the White Buffalo's heart-wrenching ditty "Wrong" in his film Shelter. "[Malloy] was one of the main influences who got behind me and made me realize this is what I should be doing," Smith says.
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The film not only exposed him to a new audience, but it was also the impetus for dragging his ass off his friend's couch. The White Buffalo roamed down to Southern California, where the loyal surf community threw its support behind the fledgling singer. At the same time, he was building a cult following; it seemed as though Smith's popularity gained traction almost overnight.
Since 2004, Smith has released several EPs and a full-length. The White Buffalo's music has also appeared on such TV shows as Sons of Anarchy and Californication. (Coincidentally, both shows have characters who reflect the rough-and-tumble, flawed tendencies that are also portrayed in the White Buffalo's lyrics.) His most recent EP, The Lost and Found, hit stores in December to positive reviews, as well as earning a place on Billboard's Heatseekers chart.
It's the vague truthfulness of Smith's lyrics that have helped the White Buffalo's career. "Some songs are autobiographical, some skewed, twisted versions of the truth, and others completely imagined," he explains. "Being somewhat vague serves some songs. It allows the listener the liberty of deciding what's true to them. The honesty lies in the performance. You have to feel what you write and sing, whether it's truth or fiction."
And the White Buffalo says he'll keep doing things his way. "I've been underground for nearly 10 years now," he says. "I just do what I do, which is to try to write good, honest songs that make people feel something."
This article appeared in print as "Songs of Solace: How a surf movie helped the White Buffalo find home in his songs."