For the next instalment of our fortnightly FOCUS Nottingham spotlight, we sit down with folk-inspired troubadour Ben Mark Smith, whose music is permeated with integral tales from the very heart of Nottingham.
‘I’m from a small town where nobody wants to hear your music.’ A smattering dose of self-deprecation and realism strikes a refreshing chord as instantaneously as another grin forms on the lips of local singer-songwriter Ben Mark Smith. A humble man from humbler origins, Smith epitomises Nottingham’s effervescent music community, his wide-eyed, stubble-scattered face traipsing the city’s venues far and wide in the rich hope of either playing to new ears, discovering a bright new spark or just offering sage advice and hearty company to fellow musicians alike.
Having immersed himself into pop punk with the help of an older cousin who subsequently drummed in a thrash metal band, Smith’s discovery of Green Day and Ash provided the catalyst for the musical endeavours that were to come in his preliminary years in music. ‘Whilst I do a lot of acoustic stuff now, I used to do a lot more electric guitar stuff and I was really into bands like Parkway Drive, Architects and Gallows,’ he notes, highlighting how the divergent time signatures and delicate guitar sections captivated a mind in awe of the growing musical landscape that was revealing itself before his very own eyes.
"I take my songwriting seriously and I’ll never put out anything I think is crap."
Despite Smith’s current fervour for music, he acts as a champion for the late-developer. Music, for the singer-songwriter was never an intended pathway. He didn’t reach for an instrument until late on into his childhood and his decision to pursue music was met with shock and surprise from his family around him. ‘I was originally doing engineering. I’d been offered an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce and to the confusion of my parents I told them that I wouldn’t be doing that anymore, I was going to study music at college,’ he explains. ‘That could have gone one or two ways I suppose but they were more than happy with me doing that,’ his expression changing to meet the confused yet inspired listener sat before him.
Two years of persevering behind a drum kit led to Smith eventually taking the plunge to learn guitar, a decision that has benefitted him still to this day as a singer-songwriter. ‘There’s only a few cool drum riffs that you could play really whilst there’s loads of guitar riffs. I did university and then went on to teach at Derby College for a year and did all this acoustic original stuff.’ Smith is exuberant when speaking of his growth in collage, facing constant struggles to better and prove himself, and ending up finding heights he previously couldn’t have imagined climbing.
‘At college there were loads of people who’d been playing for over five years that sort of thing, which started off as a bit of task to try and do the same things instrumentally that all of these people were doing but it was good in terms of motivation. I had to practice twice as hard as everyone else and it got to the point where I started excelling the people I originally was trying to catch up with because as soon as I got to their level, I was still in a great routine practicing. When I did the teaching thing, I started doing the acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, writing my own music because all the other kids on the course were doing it and that’s where it led to me becoming a more acoustic performer. I started finding out about other open mics and meeting other musicians.’
Though meeting a plethora of musicians, Smith managed to integrate himself firmly into Nottingham’s music scene, yet it’s not just their presence that helps him. ‘I get really influenced by other musicians, so when I start writing I get intensely into them for a bit, people like Will Varley for example, so I end up writing songs in that style but kind of still pushing it towards my own style.’ In an unconventional move, Smith examines how his songwriting process starts from a thematically subject that he wishes to address, highlighting the troubadour as an incident-led social commentator.
‘I normally have the song fully written out on guitar and then I sit down with my notepad and just try and write the whole song in one go. I feel like some of the worst songs I’ve made have been when I’ve written the verse and then gone off and come back a few days later and it doesn’t click as I’m not in the same mindset.’
"If you support people and make the effort to support other people’s music, then they will support you, it’s as simple as that."
Whilst the natural element to songwriting is of crucial importance to the growing artist, perhaps nothing is assigned more weight by Smith than lyrics. ‘Because I’m an acoustic singer-songwriter, and I haven’t got a band behind me to do some rad solos, or have a crazy beat behind me, the lyrics are really important,’ he emits. 'After the whole pop punk scene that I used to like, I got really into 80s and 90s rap and I watched quite a few documentaries with them talking about lyrics and how long they’d spent perfecting lyrics and it pushed me to that kind of thing where I was making sure that the lyrics were really important, basically telling a story with most songs. I don’t like it where musicians are too descriptive or too cliche, where the song could literally be about any girl ever. Lyrics are really important to me, from rap to the new folk artists like Will Varley, Beans on Toast, Sean McGowan for example.’
Speaking about the EP, Smith offers a level of frankness that only comes with a man so intertwined with his roots. ‘It took forever…actually getting off my arse and doing something,’ he chuckles. ‘I had the songs for at least a couple of years and was gigging them around the Nottingham open mics. I had the idea of sorting it out with the band and all that sort of stuff but it didn’t seem true to what I was doing at the time. I was doing the acoustic thing so I went into Mount Street Studios to record it with a few mics on the guitar and a few mics on the vocals and we did all four songs in four hours. I’d booked out eight hours, but we did them in four and we ended up going to the pub to watch the World Cup for the other four hours! The EP has kind of got a story behind it. The artwork was done by Adam Illingworth, who’s part of a flipping talented family of people.’
Whilst Smith projects wavered enthusiasm when speaking of his EP, there is a noticeable tinge of melancholy as he examines his productive efficiency. ‘You spend so much time after you’ve written those songs, promoting those songs at gigs and then recording it in a studio and promoting that EP. By the time the EP comes out, you’ve written fifty other songs that you prefer to those songs you have on the EP!’ his laugh lighting up the surrounding space. ‘That’s exactly what happened with me. That EP is very melancholic…very depressing.’
Installed into Smith is a heavily Nottingham-oriented dynamic, his pride towards the city an omnipresent feature of this interview. Despite living on the very edge of the county, the singer-songwriter’s love towards the postcode he belongs in is noticeable from the beaming expression he exudes when delving into the city’s growing talents, and the inspiration he gains is all-too-valuable for a wordsmith dependent on narrative. ‘Having somebody from your home city doing well and seeing someone like Jake Bugg on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, it is inspirational to people. There were a million people who came out after him and sounded exactly like him, but it just shows that he obviously inspired loads of other people. I didn’t really get involved in the city until I started working at Nottingham Central Library and because I work long hours I literally would just crash and go to anywhere that had an open mic and hang out for a few hours playing a few songs. I spend ninety-nine percent of my time in Nottingham, even though I live a fifty-five minute bus journey outside of the city!’
"You can’t close yourself off…otherwise you end up being AC/DC! I really appreciate someone like John Mayer who can move between genres on his albums."
He continues ‘Doing college and going off to university, you look at the music scenes that everyone came from. For instance there must be something good going on in Sheffield because Arctic Monkeys came from Sheffield. I think Nottingham’s music scene is getting to the level, where with the likes of Jake Bugg, Sleaford Mods, Indiana, Ferocious Dog, the city is producing a lot of names for younger people to look at. What I like about Nottingham is that everybody helps each other out. The city doesn’t have a genre, whereas Manchester blatantly has a genre.’
The vivacious music scene has installed a passionate sense of community within Smith, so much so that the singer-songwriter’s rich catalogue of tracks is heavily influenced by his experiences in and around the community. ‘The community is a huge part of my music,’ he proclaims. ‘It’s an incredibly supportive network that we have in Nottingham. If you support people and make the effort to support other people’s music, then they will support you, it’s as simple as that. The main reason I still stay in Nottingham after I finish work is because everybody supports each other, I love supporting everyone.’
"I don’t like it where musicians are too descriptive or too cliche, where the song could literally be about any girl ever. Lyrics are really important to me..."
Whilst Smith’s vein of positivity is an illuminating breath of fresh air, there lies a darker narrative to many of his odes to the city he works in, vehemently lambasting growing societal struggles with homelessness and mental health. A scathing inditement against the city’s failure to tackle homelessness, Streets swipes moral incisions into its listener, based on a story that refuses to dislodge from the mind once aware of the circumstances it was written under. ‘I wrote the guitar based on a song from Daughters, inspired by the way that it’s finger-picked and the octaves and the lyrics then follow that,’ he ponders.
‘The second side that goes into my music is the more social problem side that is going off. Streets basically comes from something that happened at the Central Library. There was scaffolding all up the side of the building, this was just before I started working there and one night a guy that was living on the streets climbed up the scaffolding to get out of the way of people because it was a Friday night and people would kick him and urinate on him, which just blows your mind really. He climbed up right to the top, slept there and in his sleep rolled over the side. In the morning, which is crazy that he was found in the morning and not straight away, people found his dead body outside the front door of the Library. I’ve been working there for four years and that story just stuck with me, I just couldn’t believe it so I wrote a song about it. My music is Nottingham music, and it’s from either the amazing relationships I’ve made with other Nottingham musicians or it’s about the bad situations that I see and just talking about it.’
"It’s like we’re almost spoilt with how much we’ve got, we’re very spoilt with the music we have in Nottingham."
Despite the weightiness of Smith’s storytelling, he manages to succumb to the traditional endeavours of the brazen troubadour, battling the torment of love in a tangled mix of charm, charisma and wit that could stretch a smirk on the face of the loveless and uninspired. ‘I started shifting to the Will Varley sort of thing. It’s new folk that’s taken from the old folk of fifty verses and a whole story from beginning to end. I got really into that and started gigging a song called Who’s The Girl? and One Year On and I gig them at every single gig, From doing an EP you realise what went wrong and what went well, so there’s a learning curve.’ For the singer-songwriter as well, modern forms of consumption play their part in the learning curve. ‘The general public has this instant gratification thing now with Netflix and Spotify playlists….they can’t listen to a full EP anymore. It’s like we’re almost spoilt with how much we’ve got, we’re very spoilt with the music we have in Nottingham.’
He grins relentlessly when talking about what inspired the new material. ‘A girl! My first EP was about suicide, homelessness and mental health, keeping away from writing about something like a girl and then these two happened. Both of those are about that, but in a funny way. I met this girl on Tinder and it basically starts from the first date and then ending on us splitting up and that sort of stuff, and then the second song is reflecting a year after that relationship and what has happened. It’s a song about a girl, but hopefully it’s not seen as a generic pop-based track, as it’s something specific to me and quite a funny, reflective story.’
Upon pontificating about his new direction, Smith is optimistic on what his future sound will hold. ‘I’m hoping that will highlight the way forward that I’m going. I’ll still have those minimalistic songs, but there will be others with fifty or so verses! I’m definitely approaching this from a more expansive frame of mind. I’m influenced so much more now by the Nottingham music scene and being more aware of the music scene I’m in. You can’t close yourself off…otherwise you end up being AC/DC! I really appreciate someone like John Mayer who can move between genres on his albums. It’s good to have inspiration songwriting-wise and then inspiration professionally and then further down the line looking at where you want your career to go. John Mayer continues to write good songs but within different genres.’
"My music is Nottingham music, and it’s from either the amazing relationships I’ve made with other Nottingham musicians or it’s about the bad situations that I see and just talking about it."
His illuminating growth as a songwriter makes Smith a heartwarming presence in the Nottingham community, yet he remains insatiably realistic when looking forwards. ‘You never get hyped up to the point where you’re surrounded by yes men and people who take themselves too seriously. I never took music as a serious thing. Teaching younger people as well, who all thought they’d grow up to be massive rock stars, that humbled me massively. Moving on from that I’ve always just wanted to do as well as I could work wise. Music will always be just a hobby until a certain point, and if I reach that certain point, maybe then I’ll start to take it really seriously.’
He continues ‘At the minute I’ll listen to anybody about any gig that they want to offer me, I’ll go to anybody’s gigs, I’ll go to any open mics…I’m not shut off to anything. I take my songwriting seriously and I’ll never put out anything I think is crap. At the minute, it’s a hobby that I really enjoy and I really enjoy the scene and I don’t mind it being like this,’ his words resting on the warm Nottingham afternoon like a lullaby in a nursery. A backbone of the flourishing acoustic setup, Ben Mark Smith epitomises the generosity and camaraderie that Nottingham has to offer. A loyal supporter, Smith’s decadent realism is a soothing reminder on how to stay down to earth, whilst his tracks ebb and flow with creative pull and narrative weight that many songwriters could only dream of. Practical, generous and supportive, Ben Mark Smith is a man every musician wishes they could have fighting in their corner, but first and foremost he remains an integral social commentator through the medium of his folk-tinged narratives.