With over 220,000 albums sold, over a million digital downloads, and a million concert tickets purchased, Corey Smith has built a career as an artist worldwide producing 9/10 of his own albums. We had the pleasure of sitting down with this “Fan-made-man” to discuss touring, performing, and life lessons learned from his career as a musician.
Corey Smith will be performing Saturday August 17th at Barrelhouse Live. You can purchase tickets here.
You’ve been to Augusta before, right? Are you excited to be back?
Oh yeah, many times more than I can count! We are definitely excited to be back. We’ve been to Augusta at least once a year for ever since I can remember. We were at The Miller last year. The last few times we’ve been to Augusta we’ve played in theatre settings. It will be nice to play in a club setting this time. You get a more intimate, in your face type vibe. You can definitely feel the energy on stage. That energy has an impact on how well I play.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Augusta when you come to town?
I really like to walk by the river in the mornings, clear my head. It’s a pretty cool scene.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got an album that’s in the works. Most of it I’ve written over the past few months. The Great Wide Underground was more of an experiment for me. It’s been 4 or 5 year since I’ve put out a record. The last one I did put out was the first one I let somebody else produce. I’ve produced or co-produced all of my other records. I’ve financed all of my own records.
I got to the point of where being a producer, I just felt like I needed to learn from somebody else that knows this. Keith Siegel produced Alan Jackson, Zac Brown, and has worked with Merle Haggard, Randy Travis…he’s won Grammys, so I decided to go and work with someone on my last record While The Gettin is Good. I learned a lot from the process. I learned how to do some mixing.
Before, I was producing, but I wasn’t necessarily behind the board turning the knobs. I was sitting with someone doing that and giving my input. Creatively for me, I want to be able to sculpt something out of my head rather than just explain it to somebody else. I built a studio in my house and I released the singles instead of an album because I was terrified. I released four singles which were a part of The Great Wide Underground Tour. I needed to build my confidence in producing my own work and the single by myself.
I’m excited because it’s a chance to apply what I’ve been scrutinizing painfully over for the past three years.
Do you prefer making an album yourself rather than working with a label?
Yeah, I do prefer making albums myself. I think most people really don’t understand how the industry works. Most of the time people will say they like a certain artist, but most of the time that artist will have four or five people helping them write a song. To me, in my world, I can’t imagine sitting in a room with five people trying to write a song.
The reality is in order to have a shot at being on the top ten, that investment is easily four or five hundred thousand dollars for a beginning artist. At that point, the label isn’t going to give creative freedom. They know it needs to sound a certain way to have a shot on radio. When you sign up for that kind of relationship, that’s why you are writing songs with four or five other people.
For me, I don’t live in Nashville. I’m not aligned with a major label. That’s never been in the cards for me. I wouldn’t be able to do it because it’s not the way I’ve learned. I chose to do it this way which comes along with a lot of self-doubt at times. A lot of it can be very frustrating but I do think it’s the path I’m supposed to be on, It’s my calling.
Speaking of writing your own songs, walk me through your creative process.
Well, I don’t normally try too hard to write. For me, that process only works when I don’t treat it like it’s a means to an end.
For me the process of writing, getting my thoughts and my feelings out and bottling them up into one complete song, I can’t accurately describe to anyone how great it feels when it’s done. It’s a very emotional sort of thing. What I hope is that if that’s happening to me while I’m creating the song, the listener might have that same type of experiencing while listening to the song.
I have found that over the years the best way to hijack that process is to start thinking about what the song could be…this song could be a big hit man!… oh! I bet people would really like this song…I bet my fans would like this song!… Once I start thinking of things like that, it hijacks the process for me. I just have to sort of stay in the moment with my train of thought and see where it goes.
Sometimes that’s the song people will appreciate, sometimes it’s a song that while it means a lot to me, it may not mean a lot to anyone else. It was a good process for me to go through.
How has your life impacted your music? Can you see a change from your first songs to your current releases?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like the stuff I’ve been working on recently has connected a lot of dots.
Back in the day I put out three records in three years while I was teaching high school. I was churning out songs, songs that for me turned out to be hit songs. I’d churn them out over a short period of time, not even thinking it was possible for me to make a living making music. Then as I began doing this full time and began to have a fan base, I felt a lot of pressure to get better.
It was my own insecurity; I felt like I wasn’t good enough and my output really slowed down. I think it makes sense now looking back. I’m married, my kids are older. My life isn’t what it once was. It’s not surprising I haven’t been writing because I haven’t felt like I’ve had a whole lot to say.
Whatever I did to start to try writing, a lot of times it just came out so blah. Where now, I’ve gotten to this point where I feel like things have really come full circle. I feel like I’ve gotten something to say again.
Tell me a little more about The Great Wide Underground Tour.
I haven’t been playing a bunch of the new material. I’ll incorporate one or two songs every night. But really the idea of The Great Wide Underground was a good metaphor for my career.
When you experience adversity and disappointment it’s tough to cope with. One thing that kept me from going off the deep end was being out on the road and especially going to new places. For instance, I wrote most of my songs for TGWU on tour while out on the West Coast away from home.
We were playing in a lot of markets I haven’t played in before, like Salt Lake City, Oregon, Montana, places where I don’t have a huge fan base. To see 150 people come out on a Sunday night, that felt really good. How do that many people out here know who I am? The fact that many people came out to hear us in a small club really gave me the sort of confidence that I needed.
While it’s really challenging to carve out a place in this industry without mainstream exposure, it’s really rewarding. It’s almost like not being attached to all of those things that make mainstream exposure possible has given me a tremendous amount of freedom. I Don’t think I would be who I am without it. My music wouldn’t be what it is without it.
Even though TGWU didn’t turn out to be a full-length album, it was an era of touring and being creative, experimenting and kind of celebrating that freedom fans have given me the opportunity to have. The fact that I can go out and tour and make a living has given me the ability to continue to create and explore as an artist. To me, that’s what the tour was all about…a celebration of that.
What does a tour day look like for you?
We travel on a bus the vast majority of the time. We wake up in the morning at the venue in the town we are going to next. I’ll eat breakfast and normally lately what I’ll do is focus on writing while on the road. I’m reading or writing in my journal, not necessarily music…just something to get inspired. I walk around town and go to a coffee shop or play the guitar.
What has been the most remarkable experience as an artist thus far, whether it be on stage or something more personal?
You know, I’ve had some cool milestones that I felt validated me in a way, like making my debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
I remember calling my grandparents and my dad to tell them I was playing at the Grand Ole Opry. That was such a huge thing! I had so many family and friends that came up to Nashville to watch that.
It was a really cool thing I got to share with my family. Grandparents that were there aren’t with us anymore, so that was a cool memory that I will always have with them.
What are some of your favorite things about your fans? What can your fans from Augusta expect?
My favorite thing about my fans is that they make an effort to find my music. They’ve taken the extra steps to share my music.
I commonly ask fans how they found out about my music and it’s always a story. One fan said they used to go ride dirt roads with friends and listen to my CD or a guy from GA deployed in Afghanistan, showed his music to a buddy there and they loved it. It’s those kinds of stories that create deeper sort of connections as opposed to hearing it over the radio. I appreciate that.
I’ve tried my best throughout my career to honor that relationship with the fans. Knowing that there was a special relationship with the music, I’ve tried my best not to ever betray that. And I’ve done that imperfectly. You know, I’ve made records that my fans didn’t like and that is probably the worst feeling as an artist to have. It wasn’t anything I ever intentionally did. I was following my creative instincts the best I could and made some decisions that fans didn’t like. They let me know that.
I was in Charleston two weeks ago and I was hanging out after the show. This girl came up and asked me why I re-recorded some of my songs. She didn’t like it; she went on and on and gave me examples. It stings, but I appreciate that. I appreciate that she cared enough to let me know. I had to take it and wrestle with it. In a way, that conversation inspired a song that I wrote the next day.
As far as Augusta, I’m going to do the same thing I do every night and be in the present. While writing is my favorite part of being a musician, and the most sacred part, preforming is right next to it. I can get on stage and if I’m doing my job right, I don’t have to think about anything. It just all comes out and I’m completely into every note and every word that I’m playing. I think that’s what’s happening with the band as well. That’s why it’s so fun. It’s such a release, it’s a way to escape all of our day to day worries. I feel like if we can approach our job that way on stage, that translates to the audience and they are right there with us singing along, or dancing, or hanging out with their friends. It puts us in the present, its therapeutic, it’s good for us.
For more on Corey, visit his website by clicking this link.