“Some people write poems, some write novels, I write songs…”
Such is how Donegal-based Ian Smith sums up the special craft he has practiced for more than half a century.
I first met the friendly, fair-haired Scotsman when he kindly introduced himself to my wife, Columbia, and I at a gig some years ago in the hauntingly beautiful Poisoned Glen in the shadow of Errigal where he was both musician and an organising team member at the annual Frankie Kennedy Winter Music School.
Our friendship strengthened after we asked him if he could arrange a group of Irish musicians to play concerts throughout Romania where we were then living as part of our combined inaugural St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and national Corporate Citizen Awards in that struggling post-Communist country.
After his arrival in Bucharest, I remember distinctly his shock upon seeing a huge multicolored banner stretching several floors of a city centre building featuring him strumming guitar. Only then perhaps did the full significance of playing before audiences of thousands including the nation’s President, Prime Minister, Mayors and international Ambassadors truly dawn on him.
Through snatches of conversation in airports and on winding roads between Romanian cities such as Cluj-Napoca, Oradea, Brasov and Constanta and in Donegal’s very own Hiudái Beag’s, Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern I managed to patch together a tapestry of the life of the talented musician-cum-songwriter.
Smith recalls being seduced initially as a young 14-year-old “by the dark and complex lyrics of Lennon and the more upbeat and happy ones of McCartney” before his musical interests expanded quickly until they encompassed Carol King, James Taylor, Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell. “I could have listened to Joni’s ‘Blue’ album 25 hours a day,” he says.
Living in Ayrshire, with such local talent as Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dixon, the air around him was filled with artistic creativity. Smith must have inhaled it deeply as now, many years later, the 65-year-old has three albums under his belt – the wonderful ‘Restless Heart,’ ‘Keadue Bar’ and ‘A Celtic Connection,’ the latter labeled by ‘Irish Music Magazine’ as the recommended album of the year in 2011. He has also produced a two-track mini CD featuring the lovely songs ‘When it Snows In New York City’ and ‘On Keadue Strand’ – all reflecting the diversity of his song-writing abilities and the beauty of his guitar-playing.
As if that wasn’t enough, he has also hosted gigs both in the US, including one at the legendary Woodstock, and across Europe and Scandinavia, touring and playing alongside many international stars such as Nanci Griffith, Benny Gallagher, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Mary Black, Altan, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Liam O’Maonlai. He also recently hosted a group of international writers at Teac Jack during the annual Ireland Writing Retreat, granting them insights into the art of songwriting.
Interestingly, the man from Kilmarnock didn’t begin adult life as a musician, instead working in the textile industry before his true passion took him on whirlwind adventures across England and Scotland either performing solo or with bands such as ‘Nessie.’
On one of these tours he met Donegal woman, Breda Ward, and love being the irresistible force that it is, the young, long-haired lead guitarist gave up the fast-moving world of rock music for donkeys, carts, whitewashed cottages and west Donegal rural tranquility where they reared two sons, Daniel and Mathew.
That was 34 years ago but rather than marking the end of his music career, Smith’s move to Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ simply signified his entering onto new stages – in the literal sense.
After renovating their home, word went out there was a new musician in the area. Soon there was a knock on the door. ‘Can you play a few songs for us at our Dungloe festival?’
That was the beginning of Smith’s baptism into the local melody scene. His skills were in high demand at clubs and pubs throughout the county, and beyond. Smith tours Germany each year with the dynamic dance show ‘Danceperados’ for which he wrote the song, ‘True Travellers,’ has a music residency in Clare and plays at a number of other venues.
He has also been deeply involved in key community projects – the annual summer ‘Trad Trathnóna’ hosted by the organization Tionscnamh Lugh, at Ionad Cois Locha in Dunlewey, that promotes Irish music and the Frankie Kennedy School, where my wife and I first met him.
Such is his love of music he also hosts intimate concerts in his own home, with creative US-based singer-guitarist, Buddy Mondlock and Benny Gallagher (of Gallagher & Lyle fame), among those playing in his cozy living room.
You’ll also hear Smith playing with local band, ‘Vintage,’ featuring Letterkenny musician, Ted Ponsonby, on slide guitar, Englishman, Dave Wintour and Gary Porter from Lifford.
Smith sums up his approach to songwriting in the phrase, ‘One and one equals three.’
“It’s all about sharing,” he says. “Working with others – even up to four people together – can make a song so much better. Lyrics should create word images. Songs are really four-minute novels, with beginnings, middles and ends.” No surprise then that he is a regular participant at festivals such as Songcraft, enjoying the camaraderie of artists just like himself.
In Smith’s view, time matters little in songwriting. “In Nashville, a place filled with great talent, songs are churned out like clockwork, but that’s not my thing, I don’t set a specific time to complete one,” he says. “One song, ‘James,’ about my father, took nine years, it was a tough emotional journey. Yet ‘Restless Heart,’ the title album of my first CD, took twenty minutes in my kitchen. As I get older, I write less songs but, hopefully, better ones.”
Looking back over the years, Smith says, “I consider myself lucky in life. I have a passion for melody and the guitar has helped give me a voice of my own.”