Technically, Ad Astra is singer-songwriter Shevy Smith’s third album. She previously recorded two albums while living and working in Nashville, and by her own account, these releases were more commercial than Ad Astra, which will be released May 1. The new record is different.
“This record is truly what I want,” Smith, 28, said in an interview with Cultural Transmogrifier.
The album’s lead single, “Shine,” displays Smith’s engaging vocal style. Sung over an acoustic guitar, her voice starts off delicate and restrained. However, after the song’s breakdown, Smith kicks it into high gear and unleashes a big voice that’s sure to go places.
It has been a long journey for Smith. Born in Haven, Kansas and raised on a farm, she began learning to play the piano at the age of 4, as she was learning to read. Smith said that she wasn’t a virtuoso; playing piano was just something that she enjoyed.
Then something else entered Smith’s life: the radio. It was then that she was exposed to artists like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Smith said that she remembers hearing Harris and Ronstadt, then riding miles away on one of her family’s horses. “I would rock out on horseback, and sing at the top of my lungs,” she said. “I was young enough to not know inhibitions.”
Smith’s interest in music continued to grow, and she started playing guitar at 11. During her high school years, she made trips to New York City and Nashville to meet with songwriters; Smith seemed to be on her way to a career playing music, but not everyone was pleased. Smith’s choir teacher didn’t want her playing pop music and forced her to make a choice: her music or choir. Smith chose her music – and was promptly kicked out of choir.
But her school choir’s loss turned out to be Nashville’s gain. Smith headed to Nashville after high school to be a songwriter. In Nashville, Smith learned how much discipline it takes to work for a publishing company. Smith said that in instances where she was teamed with another writer, she would go into a session with pieces of songs. Only the best ideas would be kept, and Smith said a song would be written in three hours.
“The efficiency was pretty mind-blowing,” said Smith.
Some veteran songwriters in Nashville took Smith under their wing and even allowed her to watch them create demos, and Smith said that she learned a lot from observing. It was also during that time Smith started touring the country and playing her own music for about 200 college towns per year.
But as beneficial as her Nashville experience was, Smith wanted more artistic freedom. “I woke up one day and decided I wanted to do my art. And if that meant not writing a big country hit, I was okay with that,” she said.
So Smith headed for Topanga Canyon, California in March of 2008. “I wanted to breathe the air that gave us Joni Mitchell and Neil Young,” she said. A “girl on fire” when she arrived, Smith quickly put together a band and met her future husband, Mike Bucher (he co-produced Ad Astra with Smith); Smith was newly inspired. “Anything can happen, and there are no rules,” she said of California.
But in an instant, Smith’s life changed. She was physically attacked outside a laundromat on Sunset Boulevard, and her career stopped. “I was really depressed,” Smith said of that period. “I didn’t want to be heard or seen.” Touring the country had helped Smith foster an aura of invincibility. But this aura was now gone, as was her desire to create music.
However, Smith would get back her desire. After the attack, Smith started giving guitar lessons to young girls. Seeing her students’ excitement as they learned the instrument inspired Smith. “My pilot light got lit, and it became fun again,” she said.
So Smith and Bucher turned their home into a 24-hour studio and began recording the songs that would become Ad Astra. With no clock ticking, Smith was free to take her time with writing. Of the attack, Smith seems at peace. “It’s part of my timeline,” she said. “Without it, these songs wouldn’t have been written.”
The roadwork for her new tour has begun, and Smith will be playing the University of California-San Diego on April 26. Even with her career back in full swing, Smith hasn’t forgotten the girls she taught guitar to. Smith started Girls with Guitars, a guitar lesson program that teaches children how to play songs by artists from Bob Dylan to Beyonce. Smith, along with fellow artist Lakin Saucedo, teaches at locations in Orange County and Topanga Canyon. And fear not, Y-chromosomers: Smith said boys are now enrolled in the program.