Ossian Smith is in love with music. Now he gets to create his own compositions with first release Sleepless Town.
Ossian Smith is an artist more in tune with the cultural influences of America and the UK than those closer to home in Finland where he resides. That is not to say that Finnish culture has no part to play in the alternative roots rock music this singer-songwriter has crafted to date, or that Ossian Smith is ignorant of his own cultural surroundings considering his allegiance to the Finnish Library Institution as he attests to during his discussion with Famous Last Words (FLW).
“One of my biggest helpers has been the Finnish Library Institution. It’s so great to just go to a library and have all this amazing music and literature available for inspiration. Everybody’s welcome, you don’t have to buy anything, and the service is great. Other than that, it’s hard to say if I’m particularly influenced by my Finnish surroundings. Most of the music I’ve listened to has always been American or British.”
With Ossian Smith confessing his love for the music coming out of Britain and the States that has provided the main bulk of his listening pleasure over the years, not to mention provided a source of inspiration for the stage he now finds himself as a singer-songwriter in his own right, it’s no surprise that the man and his music has been mistaken for something other than Finnish.: “About two years ago I was playing this solo gig, and after the show this older gentleman approached me and asked me if I often perform here in Finland. He thought I was an American [laughs]!”
How do audiences perceive the music of Ossian Smith therefore, if the influences are of an external nature? Also is there a big enough scene for the type of music your producing and indie music in general in Finland?
“Rock music, especially sung in English, used to be big in Finland when I was a kid,” says Ossian Smith and then adding, “but now it’s more of a marginal sound. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can’t realistically expect any sort of mainstream success, I think that might free people to just focus on doing things the way they want. And who knows if that might be the next big thing? There’s plenty of new indie releases every week but from what I understand, there seem to be less opportunities to perform live than, say, 10 or 15 years ago. So, I think a lot of the music doesn’t get heard and reaching people must be done differently through internet playlists, blogs and review sites, etc. That probably makes it harder to build a big scene in the traditional sense, but I might be wrong. I don’t follow the Finnish music world as much as I probably should.”
Possessing an impeccable music taste that is as broad as the influences inspiring his songs, in addition to creating songs of a confident nature is Ossian Smith who not so long ago produced a debut EP under the heading ‘Sleepless Town’ that was quickly snapped up by Finnish record label Secret Entertainment and released to a wider audience.
When hearing the melange of alternative rock meets Rolling Stones mashup of opening track ‘Circus Maximus’, and driving energy of ‘Rainmaker ‘for example from Ossian Smith’s debut EP, it’s not surprising that a record deal was soon in place considering the quality of song writing on offer. Such progress from an early stage in his solo career is highly encouraging but understandable considering Ossian Smith’s own confession that he’s been writing songs since the age of twelve.
“Making original music has been a major part of my life since I started playing guitar at age 12,” begins Ossian Smith regarding the early stages of his musical development to FLW. “Even before that I remember having all these musical ideas as a kid but no tools to help bring them to life. So, the guitar became almost like an obsession because I understood I could actually start hearing my own music by learning how to play. I’ve since played with lots of musicians in several bands and I’m still involved with other projects apart from my solo thing. I started working on my singing and writing more seriously around 2012 and that’s also when I first became more of a band leader as well because I really wanted to do my own thing.”
There is no doubting that Ossian Smith is showing great signs of doing his own thing via latest EP ‘Sleepless Town’ with the previously mentioned influences that range from Rolling Stones, Lucinda Williams, Little Richard to more extreme examples where subtle strands of grunge can be heard and therefore suggesting an artist willing to push his own creative boundaries to the limit if need be. Once we get on to the subject of listening habits, the artists suggested by Ossian Smith certainly make for interesting discussion.
“During the writing and recording of the EP, I was listening to a lot of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Rolling Stones and Lucinda Williams, for example. A lot of my newer unreleased material has more of a harder edge to it, which probably comes from listening to heavier stuff like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and The Cult. When it comes to the rhythmic feel of the music, I look to the early rock & roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard for guidance. Those are some of my biggest influences.”
With various artists established in terms of providing influences for your own music, are there other influences that inspire your song writing?
“Like a lot of people, I often get ideas for lyrics from reading books or watching movies. A certain word or phrase will stick out and other ideas might follow. I also take a lot of ideas from other people’s songs and make them my own by changing things up a little. I keep a notebook or my phone close by and I’ll go through these little fragments I’ve written down and hopefully some of them will start fitting together to make a bigger picture. Occasionally I’ll hear the music in my head as I’m writing and that makes the whole process a lot faster. If not, I’ll try to find suitable music or words for a musical idea by simply trying out different things that happen to come to mind. I find that the more I listen to music, the more ideas I have flying around, which might then cross-pollinate.”
Those creative ideas certainly entwine during playback of Ossian Smith’s ‘Sleepless Town’ where traditional elements of rock and roll compete with Americana and more modern influences of alternative rock music, yet credit to the artist at the centre of these songs because Ossian Smith pulls off the improbable by melding all these ideas together into a seamless whole. With all these different ideas coming together, how does Ossian Smith describe his overall sound?
“In short, I refer to my music as ‘alternative rock & roll’. I want to have the word ‘roll’ there because to me it implies a certain emphasis on the rhythmic aspect of the music, which is very important to me. In my opinion, there should be an element of swing to the music and it seems to have been lost from a lot of rock bands. The ‘alternative’ part refers to the more modern and eclectic influences that are part of my music as well as the fact that, like a lot of earlier alternative rock bands, I’m also addressing topics like social and environmental issues, etc.”
Once the influences and ideas behind ‘Sleepless Town’ are established, it’s on to the finer details of the EP in terms of where and when this five-track record was recorded, and just how long did the whole recording process take. Over to you Ossian Smith.
“The EP was recorded at Studio Bad Mama in Jyväskylä, Finland. The engineering, mixing and mastering were done by Simo Orpana who runs the studio. Some of the songs were already written about two years before they were recorded, so there was plenty of time to arrange them. They were chosen from about a dozen finished songs that I thought could work together. The recording process took approximately one full working day per song. The drums, bass and rhythm guitar were recorded together to get a live feel and everything else was added later.”
Considering that you predominantly live the life of a solo artist right now, did you receive any additional help when it came to writing, recording and producing your current record?
“I wrote the music and lyrics, but we worked out the arrangements together with the band,” Ossian explains. “Most of the lead guitar parts were played by Artturi Borén. The bassist on the EP is Markus Ilkka and the drums and percussion instruments were performed by Samuli Kesti. I sang the vocals and handled the rhythm guitar tracks and a little bit of lap steel as well as a couple of small lead guitar parts. Studio Bad Mama is great to work in because Simo [Orpana] has lots of great gear and he knows how to use it. That way it was easy to get a good sound first thing in the morning and when the day starts in a good mood that tends to colour the rest of the day in a good way. It [‘Sleepless Town’] was self-produced. I asked the band what they thought and occasionally Simo had an opinion about something, but I was the one who made the decisions.”
Despite the additional help that you received recording the EP ‘Sleepless Town’, did you encounter any problems when piecing all of the musical components together?
“It was pretty straightforward,” is the immdeiate reply from Ossian. “Maybe the mixing took a little longer than I’d prefer in the future because when you listen to the songs long enough it gets harder to tell what works and what doesn’t, and you might start questioning your choices. But I’m happy with the result.”
After listening to the tracks making up ‘Sleepless Town’ and then discussing a few of these with Ossian Smith, there are two that standout in particular; one of which due to its rather topical title (‘Soviet Airspace’) and the other (‘Rainmaker’) for reasons explained by the Finnish musician himself.
“‘Rainmaker’ was inspired by ‘Angelus Novus’, a monoprint by the artist Paul Klee and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of it. History is full of violent and catastrophic events that bring about change. I think we’re living in a period of big changes that are coming very fast and I just wish we’d get through these times without violence and make this a better world for everybody. Awesome guitar solo by Artturi! ‘Rainmaker’ is one of my personal favourites from the EP. I just had a feeling it was a good one even when I was just playing it with my acoustic guitar. ‘Soviet [Airspace]’ is an older song from almost three years ago. It took something like 20 minutes to write. The words just came to me and the Cold War theme inspired me to give the chords a 1960’s James Bond sort of sound. I wasn’t really trying to comment on any recent developments, but unfortunately war doesn’t seem to go out of style with a lot of the world’s leaders.”
Where did the title of the EP come from and is it referring to anything in particular?
“The title ‘Sleepless Town’ came from a line in the song ‘Rainmaker’,” Ossian replies. “I liked the sound of it and the way it looks written. It had sort of an ‘Americana’ feel to it which I think ties the songs together as they had a lot of country and blues influences.”
Who was responsible for the album’s artwork and how did this all come together? Also, who came up with the ideas for the images, etc?
“I designed the cover,” admits Ossian. “I must have done about a dozen different covers until I settled with the final version. The picture is a black & white scan of some marbled paper from over a hundred years ago that had an interesting and mysterious look to it. As far as the layout and typography, the design was also inspired by old album covers from the 50s and 60s. I like designs from that era and I thought it would give the cover a timeless feel.”
What are your hopes and expectations for your current EP ‘Sleepless Town’?
“All I want is to keep making music and if the EP helps me get gigs and people like it and want to buy it, hopefully that’ll help me cover the costs of working on more music in the studio. I’m happily surprised with the attention I’ve gotten internationally, and now I want to focus on reaching more people here in Finland as well.”
What’s next for Ossian Smith?
“We have several local live dates coming up here in Jyväskylä with a new line-up that has Timmo Salakka on drums, Miiro Kesti on keyboards and Markus Ilkka on bass and we’re trying to get booked elsewhere as well. Touring overseas is not on the radar right now, but that might happen someday. We’re also rehearsing new material and hopefully I’ll get enough funds together to record and release a new single at the end of the year. I’m also producing and playing on an album with singer-songwriter Paavo Kässi, so I’m keeping myself fairly busy.”
Do you have a final few words of the day for FLW?
“Thank you for the interview! The best way to find out about my music right now is through my Facebook page www.facebook.com/ossiansmithofficial. ‘Sleepless Town’ is now also available as a CD and can be ordered internationally through the Inverse Record store at www.inverse.fi/shop/catalog/.“
(Photos courtesy of Miika Ihanainen and Ossian Smith)
When it comes to the rhythmic feel of the music, I look to the early rock & roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard for guidance. Those are some of my biggest influences."
FLW - From the Tapes
When quizzed about three current albums Ossian Smith is currently listening to, these are the answers the Finnish singer-songwriter came up with and his reasons why.
“‘The Colour of Spring'” by Talk Talk. One of the best bands from the 80s with great songs, highly original arrangements and incredible production. I like bands and albums that sort of live in their own unique world and this is one of my favourite examples of that.
‘The Blackout’ by Speedball Baby. I’ve always liked guitar player and producer Matt Verta-Ray’s work with Jon Spencer in their rowdy rockabilly-influenced project called Heavy Trash. Speedball Baby was Verta-Ray’s earlier band and I was happy to find this album at a record store recently. It’s even more out-there than Heavy Trash. A highly energetic and wild concoction that reminds me of the fact that there are no rules when it comes to music.
‘Blues Funeral’ by Mark Lanegan. Lanegan’s music has been something I go back to very often. I have a lot of respect for artists who can broaden their sound and keep going forward the way he has done. There’s something about the combination of Lanegan’s intense and bluesy vocal delivery and the electronic pulse on many of his recent albums that I really like. Dark and powerful.”