It’s the power of The White Buffalo that makes an impression. His deep, bellowing voice, the characters, and pace of his songs linger long after they’ve ended. Often, his stories are achingly personal, heart-on-sleeve confessions, cinematically styled so that if you closed your eyes, you could almost see the tale unfold. Maybe that’s why the music of The White Buffalo aka Jake Smith has enjoyed a place in film and on shows like Sons of Anarchy, The Punisher, and Longmire— like those series, Smith isn’t afraid of the visceral. His latest album, On The Widow’s Walk, continues to see Smith create detailed, hard-charging narratives that explore love, darkness, fear, and hope through characters that could’ve been flesh and blood a century ago, today, or certainly tomorrow. To this commentator, there’s also a shift in style. On The Widow’s Walk trades the desperado’s dust of previous work for salt and mist without sacrificing The White Buffalo’s medicine, balladry, and strength.
AI- “Only one way to be free, no history…” Not only do I love that line, but that song has a real vintage alternative drive to it– kind of like the Jesus and Mary Chain without the shoegazing. You’ve always had a punk or alternative edge to your songs, but On the Widow’s Walk seems a little more dedicated to that tone throughout. Were you conscious of that going into it, or did it evolve throughout the sessions?
WB- That’s odd you say that. I don’t feel that. It was never conscious if that’s how it seems to you, but yeah, we thought it was maybe a little more piano-driven than anything else we’ve done in the past, which kind of puts it in a little different airspace. I’m just trying to write good songs and make good music, but with “Faster Than Fire” and “No History”, maybe there’s more electric guitar, I suppose, on those as a feature?
I felt that there was.
Actually, you’re right! No, you’re totally right. Good idea! (Laughs)
You do have some intense stories on the new album and a lot of them seem to be personally driven. In the liner notes, you thank your producer, Shooter Jennings, for bringing you out of darkness and validating your ideas. That’s a quality he gets credited with a lot, I think– not just his ability and ear behind the board but his support. I recently spoke to Jaime Wyatt and she basically said that very same thing. What led up to you making this record and joining forces with Shooter?
We met at a bar. That was set up by our managements– and we just drank together. With not much of an agenda really. Just to kind of get to know each other, like a blind date for grown men. We ended up just hittin’ it off and talkin’ about life and families and love and all kinds of stuff in the process of getting pretty buzzed for four or five hours during the day.
What were you drinkin’?
I’m more of a beer guy, but then some Jameson was introduced at some point, which I think just elevated our friendship! (Laughs) But yeah, then we had a writing session. But we didn’t really talk about working together. We just talked about music in a general space, about things we liked, and it kind of went from there. I went to his house and had kind of a session where I tried to bring songs in, but I didn’t really feel like I had much. He immediately validated a bunch of the things I was doing and gave me at least the idea that they had worth and they were worth exploring when I was like, “Ehhh…” That validation filled me up inspirationally and creatively and took me on another creative bender where it was unstoppable. He had a lot to do with that. And I don’t know why? He’s just that kind of guy, I guess, just supportive and I don’t think he’s fabricating that. I think he was honest by saying that, and if he does that for everybody, that’s great.
With the Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, you’d spoken at length about how that album’s origins were on the fly and how the sense of urgency propelled the songs and the creative process forward. Was it like that this time around?
My album before that was more like that, where it was almost out of desperation. There’s a bit of time in between this album and my last album and this one… There were moments of that, but it was after that meeting with Shooter where I thought had nothing and then within probably a week, a week and a half, I was like, “Oh man, we’re ready to record!” It wasn’t a desperate feel, it was just a really uplifting, excited thing that it wasn’t out of that kind of desperation. They were all written really fast and in a short space, at least the bulk of it. The ideas came from different times but… So not as much with this one.
As far as the time when we recorded, we basically did it in two different sessions where we did two days and then we did four days, but they were months apart because our schedules kind of weren’t lining up. I laxed a little bit in between those two sessions (laughs). One of the songs is a song called “Cursive” that I really only had that first line the night before I had to go in and sing it. There was a little desperation there, so I decided to stay out of the bars for that night!
Do you enjoy that though? Does that challenge, and that sense of urgency, does that do it for you when it comes to writin’ the songs?
Oddly it does! I’d never really worked in that format or under that amount of stress.
Like if you planned it that way, it wouldn’t work. But because it just happens that way?
Because it has to happen that way! There was no other alternative. It was like, “Okay, we’re doing these two songs tomorrow, or finishing up the vocals on these two songs,” and I was like, “Well, I don’t have anything really… I have a first line and I have an idea of what I need to do, but there’s a very loose map of what it could be…” There were just so many different options or possibilities of what to do, but I was blank before that! Like we were doing scratch tracks while we were getting the band together where I’m just throwing jibberish out. And then to make sense of that jibberish… (Laughs)
There had been some discussion of a straight-ahead concept album, which you’ve done before. What would the story have been and why didn’t that happen?
I started with the concept of basically the widow’s walk. I was just going to build a larger narrative around that concept. A widow’s walk is like this rooftop deck in port towns where the wife or woman will go up and wait for her husband to return from sea. I just thought that idea had so much possibility– of the romance and the drama and things could take crazy twists and turns with that. I started writing that a little bit, but then all these other songs kind of started coming in and I didn’t really want– since it’s been so long in between albums, at least for me– I didn’t want to exclude those other songs. Songs like “No History” and “Faster Than Fire”, which don’t really fit in that narrative. There’s basically only two songs that, “Widow’s Walk” and then the song “Sycamore”, which were going to be part of that larger narrative. But it was odd, some of those ideas of longing and just the water and ocean… Those ideas kept creeping into even the new ideas. And so it’s still kind of this loose conceptual thing, but not as tight as I would have done it if I would have just written a large story.
You bring up the water– oceans, rivers, rain– a common theme running throughout that album. But there’s another theme that sort of caught my attention. Maybe it’s just where we’re at right now as a world and a planet and a country here… Fear of the future seemed to be another theme. You released this album during the swell of a global pandemic. We’re currently experiencing protest marches, rallies, and riots for racial justice and equality, and this is all happening in 2020. I don’t know if that’s the kind of fear that you were talking about, but there does seem to be, within some of those songs, a trepidation of where everything is going, whether that’s for you or everyone else as well.
Yeah. Specifically, that song “Cursive” has a lot to do more about the fear of losing human connection due to technology and people’s phones and people just not being as focused on person-to-person contact. There’s a filter, there’s a screen, there’s something else in between us. This change needs to happen. I think it’s good that people are getting out and supporting other human beings for the right reasons. But no, I didn’t anticipate the current situation or the pandemic or any of that. Other songs are about fear of the future, but even the prospect of the future is more about living in the moment. A few of the songs about not dwelling on the past or having a fear or even a concept of the future is about living in the moment. That’s really all you can really dictate your life with.
You’ve had a lot of your music find its way into film and particularly television, and a lot of your songs have a huge theatrical quality to them anyway. Of course, you’ve got some fantastic videos out there that are really just mini-movies. Do you write from that perspective? Visualizing a particular song being used in that capacity?
No, I don’t, but I’ve always looked at my songs as a little mini-movies, as narratives, as someplace that you could just listen to the words and get lost in this little story. Maybe that approach has always made them more licensable or usable. Sometimes I think they’re too specific, you know? I feel like there’s maybe some broader concepts on this album and in the past as well, that aren’t… Often I would write really specific little human stories that have deeper meanings and deeper themes within them but then as I’ve gotten older, I think I’m writing a little more universal things that are obviously going after a larger picture or larger concepts.
Have you, have you ever considered writing a movie? Or have you been approached about doing the soundtrack for a project before?
Not really, no. The majority of the stuff, it’s been very few occasions where I’ve written for the actual show or for a picture– which has been years since I’ve done that, really. Some of the Sons of Anarchy thing, they would have me come and sing on some things, but I never would write. I would be after the fact. It’d be like, “That song ‘The Whistler’ or whatever, it’s pretty murderous but conflicted, so that could be good for that show!” (Laughs) But I never set out to write stuff that’s like that, and I haven’t been approached to do that, but I’d be open to it.
If this had been any other summer with a new album in hand, you’d be out on the road– would have been out already, in fact. What have you been doin’ to occupy your time?
A lot of snacking. (Laughs) I’m trying to stay productive. Performance is important for my own mental health, and I don’t know how I’ve been able to survive this! (Laughs) We’ve done a couple of live streams. We’re going to do a live stream again [Sunday, June 14th], and we’re actually going to do it in a venue that we’ve played many, many times– The Belly Up in San Diego. We’re going to do it from there with a company called Cadenza. A lot of people are doing the live streams. It almost feels oversaturated in a way, but I know it’s important for both fans and performers to do that. We’re trying to elevate it so there’s multiple cameras, the audio is really good, so it’s not just this speckled Instagram live feed where you can’t really hear what’s going on or if you think too loud, it’s too compressed. We’re trying to elevate that to make it feel as concert-like as we can.