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Interview: Canaan Smith - How he found himself through fatherhood, faith, and a little help from the forest
This interview originally appeared in Mindful Melody Issue 6 - read it online or buy print editions here.
The Virginia songsmith tells Maxim why family time means so much more to him than studio time.
Hi Canaan! Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to me today. Your new album, HIGH COUNTRY SOUND, epitomises the theme of this issue, and you’ve talked a lot about how you ‘came home’ when writing this project. This pandemic has given us a lot of time to refresh and appreciate where we are in life. How much of this project was created during quarantine?
Eight of the twelve songs. I have a studio here in my garage, I used to have a place in the house but then we moved here and had a baby girl, so there’s no spare room anymore! I sat out here singing underneath a blanket facing the baffles, which was really cool because it was all in my own time and in the comfort of my home. Metaphorically, it was all very much the same messaging for me. I feel like I had to come home, and God knew it, and I’m thankful I was forced to do it because I needed to grow and shed a lot of layers. My perspective needed shifting, the hierarchy of the things I thought were important needed changing, and I needed to balance work and home better. I started embracing the parts of me that are true, and trying to dig deep within instead of reaching for things.
I was driven to be different for the wrong reasons. I think everyone is different just by being themselves, and I was trying to create what would make me different, instead of just being myself. I got lost and I got a bitter taste for music because I was always being disappointed. I was measuring myself by chart positions and comparing myself to other artists. There were different decisions that led me down paths of confusion, and I wasn’t even aware of what was happening until I was forcibly removed from the scenario because of COVID. That changed my perspective in such a good way. Through the birth of my daughter, Virginia, I was reminded what a gift life is. Trust me, that’s been a battle too, I’ve had to pull away from work sometimes because I have my duties at home. My wife’s a nurse and we don’t have a sitter, so I’m the one here with Virginia. Sometimes the days are long and challenging - pre-COVID me would’ve been a disaster, but post-COVID me has learned that you have to live life to really have anything to say. Life doesn’t look like the social media version of itself. There are so many ups and downs, just in the course of 24 hours - moments of complete joy and moments of complete frustration.
You mentioned your daughter, Virginia, who you welcomed in 2019. How has becoming a father influenced your music?
I just have to be selfless because it’s all about somebody else now, it’s not about me. Artists are so conditioned to think everything’s about them, like when we go on the road everything’s catered to us, and it’s so easy to get caught up in this mentality of having someone else do everything for you. I’ve stepped back and I see what’s wrong with that. That doesn’t work for me anymore - it doesn’t work for my marriage, or for me as a father. You can’t be first. You have to take care of your needs obviously, and you have to be well in order to show up for somebody else. But beyond that, everyday my mission differs now to what it was. It’s about my family, which is a much bigger, more meaningful purpose than it was previously. Before, I was just hungry to wake up and have success, and I defined success by all the wrong things. I love music with all my heart, but it’s not number one in my life, and it used to be - to a fault. I was in a really tough place mentally, failing to see how blessed I already was and how much I’d already been given. I was overlooking all that because I always wanted more. Having a baby has been a recalibrating season mentally, and I feel healthier in that regard than ever before.
The overriding feeling I get from this project is one of gratitude, and ‘Grounded’ epitomises this mentality of always searching for silver linings. How long did it take to get to this place where you could look back and say, ‘Okay, these felt like obstacles at the time, but now I appreciate them for bringing me here'?
I got to this point when I was with Mercury Records and after a couple of misfires in terms of single releases, I felt really lost and I felt like I needed to start over. I had to let go of a manager, and I walked away from an incredible record deal with the biggest label in Country music, just to find myself again. I didn’t remember those stories that I sing about now, I didn’t remember anything about my life that mattered because I was so worried about the present coming together the way I wanted it to. Once I hit pause, and signed a publishing deal with Tree Vibez Music and then a record deal with Round Here Records shortly after that, even then it took me two years to really find my groove and get back to my story. When I moved to Nashville sixteen years ago I was singing the kind of music you hear on HIGH COUNTRY SOUND. I’ve been getting texts from friends saying, ‘This sounds like your old stuff, I love it’. That’s so rewarding to hear because it means I’ve come full circle and I’m doing what I came here to do. I credit BK [Brian Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard] for helping me remember my strengths as a writer and as an artist. They met me back when I first moved here, and they’ve done a great job in helping me remember that what I bring to the table is enough and that being myself is what ultimately wins. It’s a cool place to be, man - I’m not looking for other people to tell me what I am anymore, I’m feeling it in my heart and being led by the Lord to know what’s best.
‘Mason Jars & Fireflies’ is as Country as it gets, but at the same time, it could also easily be seen as an EDM track. It really finds that balance between being experimental, but also traditional. What inspired you to give ‘Mason Jars & Fireflies’ this innovative sound?
Man, I just started diving into the cultural history of where I’m from and my natural instinctual reactions on the mic. It’s coming from within. Why replace that with an instrument if that’s what it needs to sound like, and it’s already emotionally getting across what it needs to just by doing a holler like that? There’s freedom in that for me, to know that the only rule is to remain true and not second-guess it.
You co-wrote one of my favourite songs on Florida Georgia Line’s recent album, ‘Good to Me’, which goes back to that feeling of gratitude and appreciation. How did that song come about?
That was written while I was on tour with the guys two summers ago. We were writing multiple songs every day out there. I grew up in the church, so I’d heard it said so many times, but I’d never really stopped to survey the significance of that particular phrase - ‘God’s been good to me’. Now that I have more tangible things right in front of my eyes to make sense of that, it comes to the forefront a little more naturally and from a deeper place of gratitude than before. I know that Brian and Tyler feel the same way, so that song was easy to write because we all believe it and we all feel very blessed. It’s almost like a Christian worship song, really, with a little bit of front-porch sitting to bring it home to Country. It’s about not overlooking what you have because you’re hungry for more, but instead just being in the moment and appreciating what’s there now.
‘High Country’ is another of my favourites from your album, as it captures that feeling of being out in nature, and feeling cushioned and comforted by the trees. What do you find therapeutic about being outdoors, and how do you use this to help you when you’re feeling low or stressed?
I think it does ground me to be out there in nature, where the only distraction is the natural beauty. That’s so much more impressive and there’s so much more to take away from that, compared to having your head down glued to a screen. I love the fresh air. I love how majestic old forest growth is and the power of that. God’s creation is so majestic, man, it’s just awe-inspiring. When I find myself out there, it shifts my entire outlook. I could be having the worst day ever, but drive ten minutes down the road and walk through the woods for an hour and come back a whole new person. It gives me a sense of peace, and I feel more at home out there. That’s where I’m most inspired and most at rest.
Once it’s safe and COVID-secure, can we look forward to you returning for another UK tour?
I had a great time when I was last in the UK, and I’ve always wanted to go back. You guys are so good at giving us your ear and your attention, and at really appreciating the lyrics. You don’t just want to be entertained at the bar and have a rowdy time - I’ve done those shows here in the States so many times, and I don’t want to do that same thing again. Maybe COVID has changed things, and I hope and pray that the next time around when we all go out the appreciation for music in the US is on a whole different level. There’s a place for every kind of music, but where I’m most gratified is on a stage with just me and my guitar, singing songs from the heart that people are appreciative of, and not having to compete with the noise of the crowd, but rather the crowd hanging on the words of the song. I think this album really lends itself to that. We’ll definitely come up with plans to go back over to the UK - hopefully soon. I’d love that.
Canaan's Top 3 songs with a theme of mental health:
1. 'Son's Gonna Rise' - Citizen Cope
2. 'Easy Come, Easy Go' - George Strait
3. 'White Gloves' - Khruangbin
HIGH COUNTRY SOUND is available to stream on all platforms now!
This interview originally appeared in Mindful Melody Issue 6 - you can read it online for free or buy print editions here!
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