Rarely is the very first song on a debut album perfectly relevant to the story about to be told concerning the author of that song. Yet that is exactly what happened with this tale regarding local rock band Wilderness 34-year-old front man, Jared Smith, and his solo acoustic/demo version of "On My Own."
It's a backwards story from what one would expect, considering it's about a band here in Bend. The commentary for most artists in this town is that they have long played instruments, at one time or another worked with most every musician in town and eventually got enough scratch together to eke out a do-it-yourself album or two. But very few end up in the national eye—as Larry and His Flask has.
But Smith comes from a remarkable Forest Gumpesque past: He has already showcased his talents on the big stage. His former band—L.A.'s new wave rocker group Hello Stranger—toured with Rooney, Kings of Leon, and Foo Fighters and in a stark contrast to making this album with Wilderness on a horse ranch (as the band did for this, its debut album), he has recorded music in the legendary Sound City Studio in Los Angeles, responsible for albums like Fleetwood Mac's Rumors and Nirvana's Nevermind and recently the subject of an excellent documentary of the same name.
And his fast-paced LA rocker lifestyle was punctuated by Hello Stranger's relationship with storied guitarist Ry Cooder, whose son was a bandmate. In 2003, Cooder was named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine; Smith could not have imagined a better mentor.
On a windy Central Oregon summer night with a gorgeous sunset in the background, Smith arrived at Crux Fermentation Project via motorcycle to discuss the new DIY album and what drove him out of LA into Bend to start over with Wilderness.
"I learned so much from [Cooder], an enormous amount of knowledge, especially about guitar," said Smith. "He's a master. He can play one note and it sounds like heaven opening up. [Cooder] was supposed to be recording something for the movie My Blueberry Nights but somebody couldn't make it, so we had two weeks at Sound City and we ended up recording an album we put out as Hello Stranger."
In between anecdotes about a cat living in the wall at Sound City and a horrible touring experience with Rooney, Smith's recounting of his time with Hello Stranger was full of banging on the doors of record labels, dealing with fast-talking execs and, despite big tours and a growing fan base, the disappointment of not achieving the LA definition of success for a rock band.
"We would sell out the Roxy or we would play some huge showcases for, like, Epic records," remembered Smith. "Either it would be raining and the exec wouldn't come or they would show up and then say, 'The guys look too old.' The guy from Epic Records said that Juliette [Commagere], the lead singer, looked out of place in our presence. It was crazy. Just say you don't like it, but don't give us some crazy-ass reason. That's when it started to get weird. We were working so hard and things weren't happening."
Eventually the long hours and time on the road with minimal money led a couple of members of the band to start working on some pop music behind Smith's back. That spelled disaster.
"I was in the studio and they were talking about me in third person," said Smith. "It was really weird. And then they were like, 'We'll just call you when we need you.' It was the classic implosion of a band. The last thing we did was say yes to recording a cover song to "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" with David Hasselhoff singing. He was magnetic, it was awesome. As crazy as he is, he has a vision."
A few years later, after leaving LA and settling in Bend, Smith would pen the song that would open Homeward From the Battle, effectively painting a picture of his past with 20/20 hindsight.
"["On My Own"] has a lot to do with my experiences in LA—what I thought was good and what I thought was horrible. That song can be taken so many ways, like with co-dependence and true love. What it says is really important."
The solo/demo version of the song is a woeful and yet hopeful folk tale. It feels a million miles away from the concrete jungle of LA and sets the perfect tone for the rest of the sonic artisan folk music on the album.
"I feel better to not be in LA. I like being able to get out in the world. I like to breathe clean air. I think there is a really cool music scene that is about to start in Bend."
Smith hails from a small town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He is married to band member Nora Smith. From a family of copper and iron ore miners, in Bend, Smith is in a way returning to those rural roots that saw him pick up the piano at age 6 and the bass guitar at age 10. And now that the door is closed on LA, Smith is proud about Wilderness and the hard work that went into the rustic-sounding rock album. It's a far cry from the hot pursuit of rock-and-roll stardom he experienced in California.
"I'm very happy that there is something still happening," said Smith. "There was a long time where I had no idea if I was going to do anything at all. I think that they are pretty good songs. Hopefully someone will care. If we can turn this into something, it will be an amazing feat."
Record Release Party
7 pm. Monday, August 19
Crux Fermentation Project
50 S.W. Division St.