Pedal to the Metal

Darren Smith takes the wheel on his new album


When Darren Smith's girlfriend asked him for help selling her car, he didn't think it would turn out the way it did. "The car got stolen," says Smith. "I think we were set up. I'm not sure how, but it just seems weird that someone would steal the car we were trying to sell! We would have given the thieves a great deal on the car, but we wouldn't have given it to them for free!"

It's a bit of downturn for a year that in all other respects has been a great one for Smith. He started off 2006 by releasing a whopper of a first album in March. The CD, Last Drive, has received five stars on every iTunes review. Since then, Smith's fan base has grown to include Idaho singer/songwriter Josh Ritter. After hearing Smith's song "Dogtown Mines" during a jam session in Stanley, Idaho, last summer, Ritter was floored. "That is an amazing song," responded Ritter, so impressed that he invited Smith to open for him at a homecoming show in Moscow a few months later. At the show in Moscow, Ritter told the crowd a story of how Smith had saved him from a rattlesnake during a Sawtooth climbing excursion the pair had embarked on in the Stanley basin. "I don't know where he came up with that," shrugs Smith. "It's pretty funny because I don't even think there are rattlers in the Sawtooths."

Though the story was fictional crowd banter, it wouldn't be out of character for Smith to assist someone in need. "I used to have an ambulance job in Seattle," says Smith. "I got it after being a volunteer firefighter/EMT in Idaho. In a lot of ways, being a paramedic pressured me to go on to do music. I realized that life is so fragile, and you have to pursue the things you love. For me, it was writing and playing songs. I decided to ditch the paramedic job and start working on my music as much as I could."

Smith's first step toward pursuing a career in music was joining his old friend Douglas Cameron in the band Stranger Neighbor in the late 1990s. "I had known Doug for a while. When he invited me to play in the band, I jumped at it. It happened at just the right time," says Smith. "I drove out to Colorado where the band was living, barely got some of my stuff unpacked and then hopped in the van and started touring with them." Playing in Stranger Neighbor built Smith's confidence to the point where he realized he needed to focus on his own songs. The confidence-builder came, in part, from Cameron. "Doug was such an inspiration. He is so devoted to making a career with his music," says Smith.

After an eight-month tenure with Stranger Neighbor, Smith was motivated by Cameron's work ethic to return to Seattle, this time to work with Dave Von Beck in the band Straw Dogs--a fixture on the Seattle music scene. "Dave and I had known each other for a bit. We basically just started writing songs together. We toured around the Northwest and put out three records," says Smith. "At the same time I started playing with Dave in Straw Dogs, I started listening to all of these great artists--writers like Gillian Welch and Townes Van Zandt. It got me so interested in the songwriting process. Studying the works of some of these masters and working with Dave has helped my songwriting immensely."

Eventually Smith amassed a collection of songs he wanted to sing by himself. "I made the decision to make a solo record after I had written only a handful of songs on my own. I wanted an album that I could stand to listen to more than once," Smith says with a grin. To write more songs for the album, he moved away from the distractions of the city to Vashon Island, south of Seattle. "I rented this old dilapidated farmhouse, set up a studio and started working on the record," recalls Smith. "It was great for me to be in a place with as few distractions as possible." To keep from going broke, Smith began working as a carpenter, something he still does to this day. "I have to work with my hands," smiles Smith. "I don't know if I'd do so well with a desk job."

Although he eventually enlisted the help of old friends to make the record, Smith says he initially wanted to record all of the instruments on the album himself. It's a feat that he probably could have pulled off given the fact that he started playing drums when he was 5. "Right off the bat, I wanted to be Stewart Copeland," grins Smith. He went on to learn guitar and bass in high school, also playing in an electronic cover band that played old Kraftwerk and New Order tunes. Eventually, however, Smith realized he needed the help of others on his album because of the instrumentation he wanted on his songs. "I was thinking a lot about instruments that are really vocal and unique: the mandolin, pedal steel and accordion," says Smith. "Unfortunately, I don't know how to play any of those, so I had to find some other players [who] could help me with the record. I also needed a little company."

The payoff for his time, effort and planning is evident from the first mandolin notes of Last Drive's leading track "Dogtown Mines," the same tune that awed Ritter. An article by Buddy Levy of AmericanUK gives further insight into that track and the rest of Last Drive. "Most people who hear it are literally dumbstruck by how good 'Dogtown Mines' is," says Levy. Smith responds to the question, "What were its origins?" by saying, "I spent a lot of time refining that song ... and it's still too long. I wrote it after doing some free-association writing. I had a few pages of garbage and found a line that really stood out. The song built upon that one line. Songwriting, like all writing, I guess, is so exciting because you have the opportunity to revise and refine," Smith continues. "With songwriting, though, you have to get to the point pretty quickly."

The rest of Last Drive is a song cycle that is at once wistful and hopeful--a journey that is similar to the diverse young life Smith has led. Evolving from a 5-year-old kid thrashing on his toy drum set to a paramedic, to a carpenter by day and an earnest singer/songwriter by night, Smith is not making his last drive anytime soon--he's just getting started.

Smith opens for the Douglas Cameron Band on Fri., Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. at the Big Easy. Admission is $5 or 10 canned-good items, benefiting the Idaho Foodbank. Smith will also play a free in-store on Fri., Jan. 12, at the Record Exchange at 5 p.m.