Josh Smith, blues guitar virtuoso, Interview, Martine Ehrenclou, Rock and Blues Muse

Photo: Josh Smith by Estelle Massry

By Martine Ehrenclou

Blues rock guitar virtuoso, singer-songwriter and producer, Josh Smith is hailed the world over as a master guitarist with raw talent and power to spare. Blending his signature mix of blues, rock and jazz into dynamic original songs, Smith is known for his incendiary performances, whether at The Grammy Awards or the Kennedy Center Honors with Mick Jagger, Raphael Saadiq and others.

Josh started playing guitar at age six and was praised as a blues prodigy by the time he was 12. Performing at professional blues jams in South Florida, he sat in with greats such as Jimmy Thackery, Tinsely Ellis, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson and more. He began releasing CDs at age 14. Legendary producer Jim Gaines produced his third CD, Too Damn Cold.

Opening for B.B. King over a two-year period was just the beginning for this artist and lead guitarist for Taylor Hicks, Ricky Fante, Grammy winner Raphael Saadiq, and more. Josh recorded his fifth CD, Deep Roots, and continued to play with a variety of notable artists.  Along with touring the world, recording and performing with Joe Bonamassa, Eric Johnson, Andy Timmons, and Kirk Fletcher, Josh is also a producer who owns Flat V Studios (Los Angeles) and has produced artists Reese Wynans, Artur Menezes, Seth Rosenbloom, Jamey Arent and more.

Live At The Spud is Josh Smith’s 11th and latest album and DVD/Blu-ray, released January 8, 2020, which features him and his power trio recorded live over two nights at the legendary Baked Potato in Los Angeles. Josh will resume touring worldwide when the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are over.

Martine: Congratulations on your new live album, Live at The Spud. It’s an incredible album.

Josh: Thank you. I’m proud of it.

Martine: You mix blues, rock, jazz and more into your music. Tell me how that all came about.

Josh: It’s mostly because I love it all. I grew up listening to everything. Blues is where my heart is, that’s my home. But I’ve been listening to jazz and country, soul music and Motown, funk and R&B my whole life, and straight up rock and roll. And to me, it’s all the same if you play with the right intent. Honestly, it’s all the blues to me, because the blues is the basis for all this music. And it’s always where I’m coming from no matter what I’m doing, especially when I’m playing a solo and improvising. This is just what I love and it’s all going to be filtered through the blues. All that stuff has informed my music. It doesn’t water down the blues. I think it’s the absolute opposite.

Martine: Speaking of the blues, I wanted to ask you about one of your blues songs on Live At The Spud, “The Way You Do.” I kept hearing B.B. King in your sweet guitar tone and just beautiful playing on it. You opened for B.B. King many years ago. Can you tell me a little bit about the song? Is B.B. still an influence for you?

Josh: Oh, I mean B.B. is Ground Zero for me. Albert King and B.B. King were the beginning of my love affair with the blues. And then of course I found, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters and Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf and everybody. I love this music but B.B. and Albert King were the beginning for me. My son is named after him. I have a tattoo with his name on my arm. I mean, B.B. means a lot to me.

And when I was able to open for him (B.B. King), those couple years in a row, seeing not just how great he was but also just seeing his professionalism, the way he respected his audience and his fans. He was such a tremendous person and artist, and he made a huge impression on “teenage me.” It was like, wow, this is how you do this for a living. This is how you should be with the public. This is how you should be on stage and this is how you should be off stage.

Josh Smith

Photo: Kristen Honey

Martine: He had a big impact on you.

Josh: Absolutely. So many of my friends have the same stories about their time around him, playing with him or seeing him in those situations. It’s not just the music–the music is groundbreaking–it’s everything. But it was also how wonderful he was. He was just a really special person.

On that song, certainly there’s a lot of B.B. influence going on. And also, I’m playing a different guitar–I’m playing a 335 style guitar, hollow body guitar, which automatically changes my headspace slightly when I hear that tone and feel that feel. Yeah, that’s the thing about playing different guitars and gear–they also influence your playing. Anytime I pick up Tele, a Strat or 335, or Les Paul or something, it’s going to change the way I play. The Tele normally is the only guitar with no thinking involved. Whereas when I pick up some other guitar it always brings up something. A 335 makes me think of B.B. or Larry Carlton. A Strat makes me think of Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Curtis Mayfield. A Les Paul makes me think about Cream or Clapton or Gary Moore or rock and roll.

Martine: Tell me about Live At The Spud and why you recorded a live album.

Josh: I hadn’t done a live album since I was 15 and just wanting to do one. The main goals were to put a bow on the last 10 years. I was ready to wrap up the last 10 years, put it in a box and ship it off. I wanted to give a few songs from each record, and give everybody a taste of really what it’s like to come to a gig and see the band when they’re just going for it on all cylinders. Having the high-quality video available was something I really needed to do.

Martine: Your DVD Blu-ray is a great way for people to see you and your band live. You mentioned that you were closing a chapter. And you had a lot of new music that you are wanting to do. Is that in a different direction as far as genres?

Josh: Slightly, yeah. As an artist, you’re always evolving, but also trying to hone in on what it is you’re supposed to be doing as a musician. With every record, I feel like I get closer to finding what uniquely makes me, me. And the goal is to kind of keep pushing more towards that. Always wanting to explore and try new things, but also trying to hone in on what it is I think I do best.

Martine: Have you figured that out?

Josh: I think I’m figuring it out as I go, certainly. I can’t stop growing. There’s stuff I want to do, there’s stuff I want to learn, things I want to play. When I get something new and it grabs ahold of me, I can’t stop until I follow it to completion. There’s a record that will come out later this year that will be definitely a big surprise to most people. I don’t really want to say what it is, but it’s something I’ve never done. I think it’s probably the best I’ve ever played on a record. It’s the most proud I’ve ever been of the compositions and the playing. But again, it will be 180 degrees different from anything I’ve ever done.

Martine: I respect that you don’t want to share anything about it. Do you want to share a little bit about what genre it is or why it’s going to surprise people?

Josh: It’s more jazzy for sure but it’s not a jazz album. And orchestration wise, it’s totally different than anything I’ve done.

Martine: Back to your live album, Live at The Spud, I was curious about the title. It seems a bit like an ode to The Baked Potato (venue in Studio City, CA) Is that true?

Josh: When it came time to do the live record, there was really no other choice for me, other than The Baked Potato and that was for many reasons. I grew up watching videos and listening to live albums recorded there before I ever moved out here. It was a place that lived in infamy in my mind, from Larry Carlton playing live at The Baked Potato—there’s a record called Last Nite that I listened to a gazillion times. And there was an instructional video he did where they would show clips of him playing at The Baked Potato. That’s where all these legendary records were recorded.

The other part was I’m incredibly comfortable there. I’ve been playing there since I moved here. It’s a special room and you can play loud and people don’t complain. It doesn’t take people’s heads off. It’s just that kind of room where you can be very, very comfortable. You could be yourself and people are there to hear what you’re going to do. There’s no preconceived notions. You don’t have to do anything to make anybody happy. You just go in there and play music. And when doing a live record and video, you want to go in there and not be thinking about all these cameras. This is the only place where I felt like we could go in there, treat it like any other gig, be totally 100% comfortable and just play the way that I know we can.

Josh Smith

Photo: Christine Maass

Martine: It came off in superb fashion.

Josh: Thank you.

Martine: Tell me about the opening track, “How Long.” It’s an intense rocker, of course superb guitar playing. Tell me what you were going for with this track.

Josh: “How Long” was originally from my Over Your Head record. And at the time I would say that was my most blues-rock album ever. It was all recorded pretty much live and very improvisational. And it’s a track that always goes over very well live because of the energy that’s put it into the performance. Something about that night–Gary Novak started the song in a way he’d never started it before. And you can hear it when you put in the CD–the drums start and it’s pretty explosive. It definitely got us going right away and (thinking) Oh, okay, we’re going for broke tonight. And that was definitely the vibe that was put out there right from the first note of that tune. It’s definitely one of the more Hendrix-y tunes I’ve ever written. It’s got that “Manic Depression”-type-feel to the drums, into the groove. And yeah, I think, everybody seems to like that one. When I started asking people, “Hey, what song would you want to hear on a live record?” That was one that got a lot of votes.

Martine: Did you have a set setlist for this? Did you just decide spur of the moment or did you have a general idea of the songs you wanted to play?

Josh: I had a good general idea of what we wanted to play. I wanted to represent something from every era of the last 10 years and every record.

Martine: “Pusher” is also a great song. I can see how that is a big crowd favorite. Can you tell me about it?

Josh: “Pusher” is one of those tunes that evolves live. On the record, it’s a pretty standard track. Not overly long, it’s like most record tracks, it’s just a seventh or eighth track on a record, no crazy arrangement or anything like that. But live, it took on a life of its own where you start to improvise and find things you like over certain grooves. It became the song of the night where Travis is going to get a moment to shine and Gary gets a moment to shine, and the next thing you know, it kept ballooning to six minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes. It became one of the moments that guitar players and other musicians in the audience were waiting for us to play because of all these little moments that happened in the tune. It’s one of the most improvisational tunes of the night.

Martine: And probably one of the most fun to play.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I love improvising over syncopated grooves. A groove like that, that has some balance to it and has some movement, gives me a lot of opportunity to do pretty much anything within those constraints. So, those grooves are some of my favorite things to play over.

Martine: “Penance” is beautiful. How did you decide to do an instrumental? Such emotional playing. Can you tell me about this one?

Josh: “Penance” is by far my number one requested song that I’ve ever released, without question. It’s the one people expect me to play. It always makes gets a reaction and it’s from a record I did called Inception, which was an instrumental album. I wrote it for my wife and also I was trying to write something in the vibe of Roy Buchanan, who’s a big influence of mine. Live, it took on a life of its own, like most things do. It has those two very live-oriented arrangement things. It’s about closing my eyes and just trying to play that song and trying to be in the moment and play from the heart.

Josh Smith

Photo: Olly Curtis

Martine: I listened to it last night in preparation for this interview. It was so moving.

Josh: That’s the one on the cruise that’s always at the end of the show and the song people want to talk to me about.

Martine: Since you brought up performing on the Keeping the Blues Alive At Sea cruise, can you tell me about it?

Josh: Oh, it’s a blast. It was my sixth one in a row. Luckily, Joe (Bonamassa) likes to have his friends on the boat. I’ve been on every one of them. And it’s a great time. It’s actually a very chill cruise. From the audience to the band, everybody’s very, very relaxed and just really happy to be there. There’s not a lot of ego going on that boat. There’s a lot of jamming. A nice thing about being on it every year is there’s a different lineup every year. I get to see people I’d never seen before. This year–I’ve been waiting a long time to see Tommy Emmanuel live–I’ve been listening to him almost my whole life, but never have seen him play a live show. I didn’t miss a second of him on the boat. And then I got to play with him some. Which was really, really fun for me. Joe and I were both really enjoying that moment. It was just me, Joe and him on that tune.

Martine: How fun.

Josh: Joanna Connor was on the boat. Joe and I just produced the record for her. I’m just really happy that we were able to get this going for her. She deserves it. She’s been working really hard for a long time.

Martine: She’s a lovely person and incredibly talented.

Josh: She deserves everything she’s getting. Everything that’s going to come her way right now, she deserves that 100%.

Martine: I can’t wait to hear her album. Tell me more about your producing.

Josh: I’m in the middle of a lot of production, different albums. We got to finish up Joanna’s album. I’m going to be producing Artur Menezes’ new record. I’m in the middle of a record for a guitar player from Dallas named Andy Timmons, who I was a huge fan of as a kid. He was in a band called Danger Danger, but he’s also just an incredible guitar player. He’s a monster. And the fact that he even asked me to be involved was super cool. And he wanted to do something a little more bluesy. We’re almost done with that. We’ll be mixing Guy King’s new album, which is almost done. Greg Koch is coming back here.

Martine: You’re producing some of my favorite artists.

Josh: Joe and I are going to be producing Eric Gales’ new album later on this year.

Martine: Wow. Tell me about that.

Josh: Eric asked Joe if he was interested and luckily, Joe wanted me to be his partner on that stuff. I think we work good together as producers and I have a long-standing relationship with Eric as well. Selfishly, Joe and I have a record in mind that we wanted to hear Eric make for a long time. We’re hoping that’s what gets done because we’re both just huge fans of his. I’ve been a fan of Eric Gales since I was a kid. I’ve got stuff in mind I’ve always wanted to hear him do, so I’m excited to get that one going.

Martine: You are doing so much.

Josh: (Producing) is one of those things that helps me learn new things to bring back to my thing, which I love.

Martine: It sounds like you just love all of it.

Josh: I’ve never wanted to do anything but this. Is it frustrating sometimes? Yeah, it is a struggle sometimes to make a living. And yeah, do you get bummed out when things don’t go the way you want? But in the end, there’s still nothing I’d rather do than this. The greatest thing in the world is to play music and being around these people and to be creative. I only ever wanted to be two things in the world and that was either second base for the Yankees or playing guitar for a living, and I was way better at guitar than I was at baseball. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter) That’s a great way to end the interview. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been such a pleasure.

Josh: You’re welcome. Thank you for the support. See you soon, hopefully.

Live At The Spud DVD Blu-ray by Josh Smith will soon be on Amazon and Apple iTunes. The CD is currently available. 

Josh Smith Online