Listen to AJ Smith on his latest single, “Billy Joel”, and you wouldn’t be too out of line to suggest that the singer-songwriter was born like this, gifted to deliver tunes that get in your head and stay there, accompanied by memorable performances both vocally and musically.
You would also be wrong.
Sure, the soon-to-be Nashville resident has talent. That’s clear. But getting the most out of that talent comes from a couple things easily forgotten in so many walks of life these days, and that’s work ethic and respect for his craft.
The work ethic part came easy thanks to his family.
“My grandfather was in construction and there, the job’s not done until it’s done,” Smith said. “People get hurt if you don’t finish the job. My dad, his dream was to be an architect and he taught me how to build things, but then he also worked in marketing and he worked for the circus. And in the circus, it’s the same kind of thing. If you don’t do the things that you’re supposed to do, either nobody shows up to the show or if you don’t rig the safety net, somebody gets hurt or somebody dies.”
Then there’s Smith’s mom, who made sure that the young pianist and violinist put in his time in the practice room, and not by playing anything he wanted to.
“I was getting so bored playing other people’s songs, and then I would start to play my own stuff, and at first it was super obvious,” he recalled. “My mom would call out from the other room, ‘Hey practice what you’re supposed to practice. No more made-up music.’ (Laughs) Of course, what I did was I just got better at making up the music so she couldn’t tell that it wasn’t Bach or Mozart or whatever. I started learning how to improvise in their style and I could still express myself creatively but not get caught.”
Eventually, Smith didn’t have to worry, as he branched off into various styles of music, including punk and bluegrass (not at the same time), while adding more instruments to his repertoire. All along, though, he adhered to the Malcolm Gladwell idea that to master anything, it takes 10,000 hours of practice.
“I was putting in my 10,000 hours of writing songs,” Smith said. “I put it in as a pianist and a violinist growing up, and now I was putting my time into songs. You have to go through that, but I think you can accelerate it when you have somebody to be able to not just give you feedback, but really informed feedback.”
Glenn Frey was that somebody for Colorado native Smith, who was one of 16 NYU students mentored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in 2012. It was an invaluable experience, to say the least.
“He was able to take a song that I would bring into him and he could immediately say this song works or this song doesn’t, and the reason why you’re not catching me here is because this piano part isn’t actually as memorable as it could be,” Smith said. “It’s like, this is a hammer, this is how you use the hammer. But now I have to go and practice using that hammer in order to be able to get the nail in. It accelerated that timeline in terms of what I was able to learn that otherwise I would probably have to write four times as many songs in order to be able to write the quality of songs that I think I’m able to write now, and I’m super grateful for that.”
The quality of songs is top-notch, whether it’s “Billy Joel,” “Brooklyn Nights,” “Sad Song,” or any number of his releases. The only thing missing is a full album. Hint, hint.
“I have the album,” he laughs. “I have it written, I want to put it out, I want people to listen to myself on vinyl. I’m so ready. But especially when you’re an indie artist, it’s just a matter of getting your whole team and everything behind it. But it is coming, for sure. I’ve written hundreds of songs at this point. I’ll pick my best ten and put those out.”
And when he does, Smith makes sure to point out that he’s ready to tour behind it, another nod to the work ethic that has kept him motivated and working during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if he can’t perform in front of crowds. That part’s been hard, but he still plays live shows on YouTube and Twitch, and yeah, he’s always writing.
“I’m definitely a Type A, so I’m always a go, go, go kind of guy and I’m constantly writing and constantly creating,” he said.
Not bad for the kid playing “made-up” songs when he should have been practicing Mozart. Smith laughs, noting that he did have that conversation with his mom recently.
“I said, ‘Mom, think of all the songs I could have written if you just let me.”
In that case, that album might have turned into a box set. But all joking aside, Smith’s parents have to be proud of the son they raised and where his career is going. Sure, it’s not standing in the middle of the motorcycle death cage at the circus like dad did, but there’s enough excitement and twists and turns in the music biz to keep the young Mr. Smith on his toes. In other words, bring it on.
“My parents, their biggest thing was, they didn’t care if I made a lot of money, they didn’t care if I drove a fancy car; they just wanted to raise me to be a good person, and that was the thing that they taught me every day,” he said. “I’ve taken my missteps here and there, but I think overall, hopefully they kept me grounded enough where I’m on the right path. And if my life does change, I’m ready for it.”
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