"Warm hot chocolate" is how one Soundcloud listener describes Jake Smith's timbre, and on the first cold Autumn weekend of the year, that sounds just about right. The songwriting force behind The White Buffalo has built a name for himself with his vocal tone. Some liken it to Eddie Vedder the morning after a whiskey bender, or if Cat Stevens had a pack a day habit. Smith brushes all that off and accepts that it's human nature to try and compare his sound with some sort of common ground. To his ear, he sounds like Jake Smith—that in itself took the singer/songwriter a few years to come to grips with.
"It took me a little while to find what my sound was," Smith says, by way of his mobile phone, taking a moment from a trip to the Griffith Park Zoo with his 8-year-old son to check in. "It [at first] felt contrived before it got to the point where I just be open enough to be like, whatever comes out is what you should be doing."
That's pretty much the line Smith holds with his voice. How you hear it is the way it is that day; no doctoring or coaching—just raw from the night before—whether that's from laying it all on the line at a performance, or from having seven or eight beers after the gig, which he cops to doing on occasion, though he's not as serious of a drinker as he was in years past. "I just punish my voice," Smith says.
He's conscious that he can't lose his voice on tour so he employs some tricks. "I drink apple cider vinegar, and gargle with it, or I'll get some steam; shit like that."
Right from the get-go, when he got his first guitar at age 19, storytelling defined Smith's goal as a musician. He detailed this five years ago in his first interview with OC Weekly; at that time he was fresh off the release of his debut EP, unsure of where his songwriting would take him. A few of his songs had been placed in the Sons of Anarchy television series, and he had signed a few recording deals that had press and marketing implications. Whatever that meant, Smith wasn't really sure.
Two LPs and a stack of accolades later—critics loved his 2013 concept album Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways, calling it a low-key masterpiece and —Smith seems to have his songwriting formula down to science. Simply put, he uses character-driven narratives to spin a larger truth about human nature and the world at-large. For his most recent LP Love and the Death of Damnation, if you look up the album on Spotify, there's a companion album wherein Smith gives a half-minute preface for each track of the album.
As far as his style of music is concerned, Smith says there aren't very many artists he's aware of taking this kind of storyteller tact. He was raised listening to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and classic country and western, a genre where story is king. When he came of age in mid- and late- '80s, his parents took him to the big country shows touring at the time—Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black, the tail end of the great C&W storytellers. "I still love that shit," Smith says. "Those are still songs, it wasn't all just Solo cups and beer drinking and the truck. There was a formula but it had a little more emotion."
Growing up in north Huntington Beach, it was out of the ordinary to be into country music. He did have a formative punk phase like you might expect an Orange County teenager in the early '90s. Smith recalls digging on NOFX, Circle Jerks, and Bad Religion, and catching punk shows at the Ice House, but for the most part, associates his suburban upbringing more with cul-de-sacs and (motorless) bike riding. "You know, I got my Super Mex on," he adds.
Smith now makes his home base in the San Fernando valley. When he's not on the road, which he is for roughly half the year, he's doing the family man gig. He does about half his songwriting when the kids are in bed or at school, whenever he can get to his guitar which is stashed out in his garage and intermingled with his tools, surfboards, skateboards and bikes.
The other half happens on the road, usually during soundcheck where he and his band have a rare moment to work new riffs and try new ideas.
"For me, it's about the time," he says. "With kids, it's not like, hey I'm going to think about writing a song. It's the same on the road, we're really DIY—there's no bus, I drive 95 percent of the time—so there's not that much free time there either."
The White Buffalo performs at House of Blues Anaheim 7 p.m. Friday, December 4. For full details, click here.