Household Saints make
ambitious pop ascent
By Chris Webb
I love…music when it’s good, and life.
-Tom T. Hall,”I Love”
At the tender age of four, Ray Smith had the great pleasure of meeting singer/songwriter Tom T. Hall. “It was at Tombstone Junction,” Smith recalls. “My dad was looking up above the stage and apparently the dressing room was up there, atop this huge flight of stairs. And for some reason, he just happened to see Tom T. Hall come out onto that stairwell. So he decided, even though he’s not an imposing person, to take me up there to meet Tom. I have this vivid early memory of my dad, and my mother following in train, marching up this wooden staircase to the dressing room above the stage. And I distinctly remember feeling a strong urge to meet this guy who I adored, but also wondering what in the world my dad was doing. We got to the top of the steps, knocked on the door, someone came, and my father told him that he and his son wanted to meet Tom. The guy yelled over to Tom and Tom said, ‘Come on in.’ I sat on Tom T. Hall’s lap and talked to him and hung out with him for while. I seem to recall him wearing a seersucker suit. Then I remember leaving and my parents talking about how they could smell whiskey the whole time. And that’s one of my oldest memories.”
Little did Smith know that a few years down the road, he’d start writing songs of his own. The Tom T. Hall encounter certainly had an effect on the young Smith. But he also remembers loving the Beatles and Roger Miller. “Another one of my earliest memories,” Smith says, “is wearing this big pair of white headphones and listening to the Beatles’ red greatest hits record. I remember opening up the record to the picture of the Beatles standing with a bunch of kids in the garden and wishing I was one of those kids. I was obsessed with that band. The lyrics sheets were included for both records and when I learned how to read, I can recall sitting in my room with my headphones on, listening to those records, reading those lyrics, and being transfixed, transported into another world.”
“And I had Roger Miller records, too. For some reason, I just felt this weird connection to him. I remember the warmth of his voice and I somehow identified with him, even when I was little. One of the records I had was ‘Old Toy Trains.’ Something about that song and his voice just made me feel safe.”
These three musical influences had a tremendous impact on Smith and as he grew into a songwriter, he never lost sight of what made him love music in the first place. A veteran of the Mojo Filter Kings, he’s attempting to make the purest music he can with his new band, the Household Saints.
Now finding sincerity of expression and more comfort in his own compositions, Smith tries earnestly to make his songs musical in the most genuine sense of the word.
“Oh, revelation only ever comes at sudden crossings.”
-Maurice Manning, Lawrence Booth’s
Home-Made Book of Sacred Visions
When Smith began assembling the Household Saints about a year ago, it was a slightly different lineup and the idea behind the band was a little different. As Smith explains, “After the Mojo Filter Kings, it took me a long time to want to put another band together. I knew I wanted to play music and I knew I wanted to be in another band, but I wasn’t sure exactly what lead I wanted to follow. So I got this idea to put together a really acoustic band, with an upright bass player – with a sound a whole lot twangier than what the Household Saints sound like now. I wanted pedal steel, but I didn’t necessarily want it to be super-country.
“When the band started coming together, it just didn’t happen that way. I found that I was surrounded by some good musicians with a lot of flexibility. And so I found myself writing in the more poppy, more melodic vein because of who I was playing with. Since that’s really what I love and what I listen to, I just went with it. The result has been what has evolved naturally. I’ve not tried to write in any particular style for this band. I’ve just written whatever came my way.”
The members of the Household Saints have changed a little in the past year. One member has moved out of town while several more have been added. The current lineup has only been playing together since this past spring and includes Ray Smith (vocals/guitars/keyboards), Jesse Wells (guitars/anything with strings), Jason Swank (bass), Marc Jones (drums), Hugh Bartling (accordion/vibes/keyboards), and occasionally Burton Joyner (harmony vocals). In just six or seven months, they’ve evolved into an incredibly functional band that defies categorization and definitions.
Although the name evokes some religious images, the Household Saints aren’t, by any means, a contemporary Christian band. Smith attempts to describe the sound by saying, “If you sort of take Roger Miller and the Beatles and put them together, that’s where I hope we’re heading musically. Roger Miller was sort of jazzy and twangy, yet very literate. And the Beatles had such great pop and melodic sensibilities. If I had my way, that’s what I would want us to sound like, the merging of those styles.”
While many of Smith’s compositions rely on religious images and references, he qualifies this by saying, “My songs contain lyrics that may be vaguely spiritual…informed by religious imagery. To me, the importance of religious imagery is that it’s sort of a cultural reference point, a mythology, that people, whether religious or not, share. It’s just a common language and it can be very sensory oriented.”
For example, the song “Nothing Changes” mentions some things that, if standing alone, might be taken as wholly religious or spiritual. But in the given context, they only help to create a more vivid picture for the listener. Another example is “Cannonball” which contains the lines, “I saw the Sistine Chapel/With both eyes blind/On the back of a Camel/Drinkin’ holy wine.”
Smith believes that his “religious references are oblique and that they serve the purpose of finding a sensory language of commonality, a mythical, cultural reference point.” He firmly believes that one “cannot find any image that carries as much weight as a religious one, from whatever culture.”
Some songs do evoke a possible spiritual nature. But, truth be told, it’s often something that you just sort of wonder about. Is it there or isn’t it? It’s often hard to tell. Smith points out that “Sometimes I don’t even notice that they are spiritually oriented until someone points it out to me.”
The resulting sound is catchy and very musical. It stands alone, on its own two feet. The Household Saints have a sound that’s similar to something you might hear on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label, or something that Buddy Miller might produce. Several Household Saints songs would simply make Nashville weep.
Generally speaking, the sound is very organic. Jones goes further to describe the sound as “very melodic with a good use of harmony. We’re not really blues, not reggae, not southern rock. We’re not a jam band. Some would say we’re dangerously poppy, but I think that if the songs stick in your head, if they’re singable and memorable, then that’s a good thing.”
One distinction is the use of a wide variety of instruments and arrangements that can change largely from one song to another. A combination of multiple elements can emerge, even within a single song, then fade away again. Wells calls the sound “eclectic,” largely because it “draws on a such a wide variety of instruments and influences.” The inclusion of vibes and an accordion isn’t some sort of novelty type of thing either. Bartling says that these instruments “just add more texture to the songs.” He adds that “the eclectic nature of the music is refreshing. We all have various influences that we bring to the mix and they merge in this cauldron of sound.”
Smith comments that “the main idea is to get these songs more orchestrated. Since we’ve just really been playing together for six months or so, we’ve just recently started to work out the fine details. We’ve found a strong focus and we definitely have more cohesion as far as the sound is concerned. These types of things take time to develop and you don’t do yourself any good by overlooking them.”
Another distinctive element that is integral to the sound of the Household Saints is Ray Smith’s phenomenal voice. It is easily the most unique and underappreciated voice around. His vocals are understated. They’re never over the top, giving the song just what it needs and nothing more. Words tend to carry a little more meaning when Ray Smith sings them. There’s something about the sound of his voice that demands attention, rises above everything else, feels real, and lifts you.
“You know, I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote those songs. Didn’t have any idea….They just rolled off my head.”
-Tom T. Hall
With catchy melodies and intriguing lyrics, the Household Saints can captivate. The songs work well on the surface. They’re very palatable. Swank thinks the “chord progressions are great and that the structure of each song is incredibly well-crafted.”
Jones recalls that “Smith usually has the whole arrangement worked out before rehearsal even begins.”
Below the surface, there’s more to be discovered. Smith’s songs can plumb the depths of the soul, paint a complete personality portrait, describe an emotional tumult, take a snapshot, or merely observe. They are vivid sketches – like that friend of yours who can tell certain stories like no one else can, remembering every detail, never losing enthusiasm. It doesn’t seem like anyone else could quite do them justice.
And like your friend’s story that somehow manages to never get old, no matter how many times you hear it, so Smith’s songs hold your attention and remain enjoyable, even after repeated listenings.
In the song “Nashville,” April heads to Nashville and takes some money with her. But Smith sings, “April went to Nashville with a wad of rolled up twenties, pressed between two postcards from the mail.” The difference is substantial and the result is a subtle, but remarkable depiction. And April doesn’t just reach her destination. “That Nashville skyline, like a drunken stop sign, says the traveling day is done.”
“Nothing Changes,” one of Smith’s more impressive lyrical works, paints many such portraits. In the song, Smith recalls a trip to the Station Inn “Where a girl held her beer like an orange/She’s been saving for days/And her spider web fingers made a cradle/That looked like the work of a saint.” In another part, he remembers how the “snowflakes stained the sidewalk like ashes/From an overhead funeral parade” and how “A visitation on the top of a mountain /Does nothing for the dull aching pain.”
Lyrically, Smith is very satisfied with this song and feels fortunate that it turned out the way it did. He says, “It’s one of the only songs I’ve ever written that I’m almost happy with every part of it. And the parts that might seem odd to the average listener are there for a reason. I know exactly what every word means and I want it to be there.”
Smith’s songwriting is undoubtedly unique and compelling. His lyrics, as Jones puts it, “are very intriguing.” He could sit down and discuss almost every line in every song, explaining the nature of each verse if he wanted to.
Smith adds, however, “I really don’t want to demystify the songs too much. That’s not to insinuate that I think everyone should care about my songs either. You may not care about them at all. All I’m saying is that everyone who hears them can, and should, make up their own mind about them.”
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
-William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The immediate future for the Household Saints includes their first release of recorded original work entitled One Door City, scheduled for release late October or early November. The disc is being recorded at Otto Helmuth’s Spray Records with Helmuth as a producer.
Helmuth remarks that One Door City is the work he’s most proud of so far. He says, “I really like what they’re doing and I’m excited about the time and effort they’re extending to put ideas across and make things happen. They have great ideas and are willing to take the time to do them right. The other day, we spent two hours working on one small vocal part. They’re not afraid to try new things and experiment. Their efforts allow me to better exercise my skills and quite honestly, they make it easy for me. So far, we’re extremely happy with the way this stuff has turned out.”
“Compared to previous recordings I’ve made,” Jones says, “this one is a much better reflection of the band and what we want to sound like. I think it’s more true to the songwriter and we’re achieving a much more cohesive sound than anything else I’ve ever worked on.”
Tom T. Hall has said that “Songwriting was more a calling than a profession.” Smith feels very much the same way. Music has almost always been a huge part of his life and he would like to keep it that way. His melodies and lyrics come from someplace real. Smith says, “I write because I have to. I honestly feel like I get a little truer with every song, a little closer to what I need to do, closer to what I want to do and to what I want to say.”
Many repressed adults spend a good chunk of their lives believing maturity means rejecting childhood’s joys. For Ray Smith, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. And for the Household Saints, well…they just get to play the truest music they can.
Check out gigs and release date for the Household Saints at www.householdsaints.org.
One Door City
Old Regular Records
On their first release, Household Saints present their music with passionate certainty. Ray Smith’s intrinsic aptitude as a lyricist is unquestionable. His musical instincts prove themselves compelling while his subtle, soulful voice works wonders throughout. The songs are warm and buoyant and the arrangements are full. They have a strange, lingering presence, like you’re witnessing the beginning of what will ultimately be a distinguished body of work.
“Nashville” is a moving number that transcends the traditional definition of pop and demonstrates Smith’s rich harmonic palette. The unexpected bridge on “Big Alabama” is ambitious and dynamic, a true burst of genius while the waltzy tempo of “I Gotta Move” helps it flow gracefully. Austere ringing piano affords “Nothing Changes” a sense of grandeur as hummable melodies make “Cannonball” and “Valerie” undeniably catchy.
There’s real studio craft here. Meticulously textured and well mixed, the songs come alive with multiple instruments that are intricately interwoven. Household Saints perform songs that are unabashedly sweet and fragile and beautiful. And more importantly, they play songs that actually say something.