Performing songwriting team Jen & Scott Smith, and their band, Naked Blue, are a mainstay on the singer-songwriter and pop scenes. They have released 7 full-length albums and built a devoted following of their songwriting, recordings and performances. Scott and Jen’s obvious joyous connection on stage and easy rapport with their audience are the hallmark of their performance style; defined by their interwoven guitar work, Jen’s instantly recognizable smoky, vulnerable voice and Scott’s passionate, impeccable lead guitar.
Naked Blue has worked with a host of fine artists, sharing stages with John Mayer, Joe Cocker, Dan Fogelberg and Aimee Mann, to name a few. We are honored to hold a Summer Songwriting Series with Naked Blue here at Stages Music Arts this year. The series consists of four parts: “Show, Don’t Tell” on July 9th, “Deconstructing a Hit” on July 23rd, “Song Critique Session” on August 6th, and “Enhance Your Performance, Enhance Your Song” on August 20th.
Check out this Q&A to learn more about their approach, creative processes, and future plans.
Music is a great inspiration all by itself but it all seemed more possible because we both had parents who were musicians and grew up in households with music always present. Most importantly, our parents were supportive of our playing, and encouraging when we decided to pursue it as a career.
We met at a guitar shop where I worked, and Jen shopped. Initially, we traded favors – I had a studio and needed someone to sing on my songs, and Jen needed someone to record songs she had written. We began writing together, then recording, then ultimately performing live together full time.
It’s funny, we are collaborating on this interview much like we collaborate when writing songs…
There is no one way when it comes to writing. Sometimes inspiration (or a whole song) just falls into our laps. Most other times we’ll have the desire to document a particular story, or just want to write something that will be fun to perform – giving ourselves the assignment to craft something in particular. We often spend as much time working on and melding together our own separate guitar parts as we do on lyrics, so that even playing as a duo, it’s as musically interesting as possible.
The last record was born out of a decades-long friendship with author Lee Child who wrote the bestselling “Jack Reacher” novels. We had talked about trying to do some songwriting together for years, and when the stars finally aligned for both of our schedules, we made it happen. We penned 10 songs together exploring his Jack Reacher character in song, and produced an album of the results. We also toured together playing the music, and talking about the record, books, philosophy, and anything else the audience wanted to ask about during the show.
To me (Scott), the studio is its own art form separate from the writing and performance. The criteria have always been, “Is this song worthy of recording?”, so once we feel that we’ve done everything we can to make it the best song possible, and we continue to feel joy performing it, then it’s time to figure out the best way to capture and present it.
While we’ve done most of our writing, (with Scott producing and engineering) at our home studio, you never know where inspiration will come from. It’s always a blast bringing in friends – and new people we’ve had on the radar – to collaborate with, and when we get outside into another studio it’s a great experience as well to learn and let go of the reins a little. We were asked to contribute a track to the Peter Green Rattlesnake Guitar compilation album and got to work with producer Pete Brown at Showplace in NJ. Really memorable experience.
Any song we write, whether happy, sad, poignant, angry… we want the feeling to convey to the listener. We want the listener to recognize that experience from their own life from a new and novel perspective. Once the song is born, at that point it belongs to the listener to take from it anything they want. If it evokes emotion, we’ve done our job.
Hmmm… the recent sessions I (Scott) produced with the Rachel Hall Band were a lot of fun. It was an ambitious undertaking with the number of tunes and the time we had, but we got some great stuff, and the sounds we captured were killer!
Also, Stages was a beautiful place to video some of our promos, like this one, from the Jack Reacher project with Lee Child.
Hopefully, it always gets better. Songwriting is a craft, and we are always working to craft a “better” song. And by “better” I just mean that more people can relate to it while we still keep it unique and our very own. We really like this quote from Jason Warburg from the Daily Vault for that reason:
“…reminds us of artists like Susan Tedeschi and Lucinda Williams without feeling derivative of either; Naked Blue is its own thing, a potent pairing with natural rawness and muscle…”
Luckily, the kind of writing and playing we both personally like tends to be commercially appealing. There’s only been a couple of times where we’ve tried to finesse something more commercial for a specific opportunity that came up. Generally, our philosophy has been to create something we love, and then find the people who will like it. Because you can’t make people like something they don’t want.
Write, write, write… then write some more. The only way to do it is to get your hands dirty and get through your first bad 100 songs until they start getting better. The shortcut to this is by studying great writers and great songs, and learning what they do. Songwriting workshops are also a great way to quicken the process. Co-writing with others (especially writers better than you) is also key. Working in a vacuum can be a tough way to go.
Quick example: One time I (Scott) was tracking a part in the studio and loved the sound I was getting. I shut everything down, was packing up, and realized the microphone was backward from the instrument I tracked! I started firing everything back up again to redo but realized that the “mistake” was actually pretty cool. The mic was picking up the reflection of the instrument off of the wall and gave it a cool timbre that I never would have tried. Ultimately that sound is what went on the record. So, before you see something as a setback, take a moment to think about if it actually isn’t a gift in some way. And (Jen) don’t be hard on yourself! Learn when to keep pushing, but also when to stop pushing and let it be what it wants to be.
Well… it’s us! 🙂 Everyone has the same 12 notes to work with and all we can do is make it uniquely our own. Trying too hard to be too different is a slippery slope. You want to be true to yourself and your art. Just do that and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.
Our plan is to just keep making the best possible music we can and present it in both recordings and live shows. The Wood & Stone Songwriting Workshop Retreat which we started 10 years ago, is still going strong and we plan to continue its tradition. We always enjoy opportunities to share any knowledge and tips we’ve accrued over the years, and occasionally work in University, High School, and Middle School systems teaching. Over the years we have done some work with Music Therapy of the Rockies, and the Wounded Warrior Project, helping veterans tell their stories in song. We’re always grateful to share what we’ve learned, and hopefully inspire, or make a difference in someone’s life by doing that.
Ha! It’s hard to pick out one thing. We are pretty proud of the simple fact that we’ve been able to make an actual career out of it. But along the way, there’ve been so many milestones – signing our first record deal, our first publishing deal. Having the opportunity to perform or write with artists we never thought we’d have access to. Maybe one of the biggest highlights was our sold-out 20th-anniversary show at The Rams Head Stage in Annapolis. 16 of our best friends/favorite regional artists got together and performed their favorite songs from our catalog. That was a real heart full.
“Once the song is born, at that point it belongs to the listener to take from it anything they want. If it evokes emotion, we’ve done our job.”
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