"I've learned from all of the countless mistakes I'd made on all my other records, and I've tried to apply the lessons I've learned," says Georgia-based songwriter Corey Smith during a colorful phoner with City Paper. Smith is a nice fella — far more down-to-earth than I expected him to be. He and his band just released a well-polished new studio album titled Keeping Up with the Joneses.
"This record was a big step forward for me as a producer," he said of the new collection. "I spent a lot more time in pre-production — messing around with guitar loops, drums, and bass lines — and a lot of planning and a lot of work so that we could make the most of our time in the studio. I think it paid off."
Smith still calls the small Georgia town of Jefferson his home, and he enjoys a super-loyal grassroots fan base in Georgia and the Carolinas.
With such artistic and commercial success, it was a bit of a shock to hear him admit any wrongdoing — but he did. Eloquently.
"This time, I felt like I had to prove myself, regain my footing, and be more intentional about what I was," he said. "I was very, very self-critical, and I had to bust up my own ego a little bit. It was painful."
From 2007 until early last year, he and his band — drummer Marcus Petruska and bassist Rob Henson — performed over 250 shows in support of the studio album Hard Headed Fool. It sold well, and garnered a handful of raving reviews, but Smith cringes at what he considers to be a half-assed attempt.
"I feel like I failed in a lot of ways with my last record, Hard Headed Fool," Smith said. "I think I got lazy and complacent. People were telling me what a great songwriter I was. I'd go play shows, and people were screaming. It's easy to let that kind of stuff go to your head. I sort of got to this place where, when I wrote a song, I knew it was good. I went into the studio, recorded things, and I felt that they were good just because they were coming from me. I look back and realize how stupid that was — and how lazy of an approach to songwriting and producing it was."
Although there's no Charleston gig on his schedule, he and his bandmates will be playing up in Myrtle Beach on New Year's Eve.
"We've done tons and tons of shows together as a three-piece, and we've developed the sort of chemistry that only comes through experience," Jones says. "We communicate real well. They understand my writing. This [new] record features them as much as it does me."
Smith's rapid, self-driven rise to regional acclaim over the last five years is impressive. He often says that it surprises him that things have gone so smashingly.
If the twangy, light-groovin' Hard Headed Fool rolled along in autopilot, Keeping Up with the Joneses moves more assertively — from the emotive ballad "The Carnival" and the slow-swingin' piano-accented title track to the boozy funk-rocker "8 Dollar Bottle of Wine."
"I think the songs are better," Smith adds. "I cut away some of the fat, lyrically speaking, and made sure that every word mattered. Ultimately, it comes down to the songwriting, but having this chemistry with Rob and Marcus, and working with a co-producer [Russ-T Cobb] who brought a lot of fresh ideas to the table ... all of it made a big difference."