Patti Smith Recorded 'An Unexpected Gift' for Amy Winehouse
New album 'Banga' reflects on 'the state of the environment' as well
Patti Smith feels like she's saying something -- or, rather, a lot of things -- on her new album, "Banga."
"I have certain core things I want to say, and as I get older, that changes," Smith tells Billboard.com about her 11th studio album and first set of new material in five years, which is due out June 5. "All of my records reflect some kind of study or questions I'm asking myself... but this particular record really reflects the things I was studying, the books I was reading. A lot of things I wanted to do morphed into other things; you can't always predict how an album's going to go. I knew I wanted it to be an album that explored new territory, but I wanted to add reflections on the state of our environment. That was the political issue that I was most concerned about."
To that end, Smith decided to finish "Banga" -- which was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York with her regular band with guest appearances by Television's Tom Verlaine and Smith's children Jackson and Jesse -- with a stark piano-and-vocal version of Neil Young's ecological paean "After the Gold Rush," which a children's chorus singing the chorus at the end. " 'Constantine's Dream,' the song before it, is such a dark song," Smith explains. "It ends so darkly, with Columbus having a dream of the environmental apocalypse of the 21st century. Even though I fear that myself, I didn't want to end the record that way. I wanted to write a song that was more like the dawn, that gave some kind of hope.
"Then I happened to hear 'After the Gold Rush;' I was sitting in a cafe and thought at least the two verses of Neil's song said what I wanted to say because it has a sense of optimism, but it's also at a cost. So I thought I'd just sing that, because that's what I wanted to say...And having children sing that with all their innocence and purity, I felt that brings out the danger of what he wrote."
Smith considers "Banga" to be "divided between portraits of people and, I'd say, exploration." Among the former is "This is the Girl," a lush, 60s-flavored pop tune inspired by Amy Winehouse's death. "I felt very saddened by that," Smith recalls. "I thought she was extremely gifted. I loved her voice. I thought it was a very important voice, very authentic, and I just wrote a little poem for her when she died and my bass player (Tony Shanahan) happened to write this little piece of music that expressed the same sentiment. So we made it a little song, right at the end of the record. It was an unexpected gift that just sort of appeared."
Smith and her band will be spending the summer in Europe, starting at Norway's Bergenfest on June 23 and with dates booked into mid-September. Before that, however, she's headed to Detroit -- where she lived 1978-95 with her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith -- for the opening of her Patti Smith: Camera Solo exhibit. The Detroit Institute of Arts edition of the show will feature some new pieces, including Fred Smith's Mosrite guitar. "Fred had this dream that his Mosrite (guitar) would someday be in a museum," Smith says. "I've had (the guitar) all these years. It stays under my bed, and Fred gave me explicit instructions what to do with his guitars. But he did have a certain dream for this Mosrite, and I think it's time to take it out for a little while and let the people see Fred's guitar. It is like a work of art. It's quite beautiful."
The Detroit visit will also give Smith a chance to play three special shows with her children, which she says is particularly exciting. "They really magnify Fred," Smith says. "Jesse has Fred's compositional and melodic grasp, and his feel in terms of playing piano. And Jackson is just a brilliant guitar player. I think what they get from me isn't so much their playing ability -- that comes from Fred -- but they're both very natural on stage and they both can handle the ups and downs of performance. They have a lot of poise and are completely natural, so maybe that was my contribution. But they're their own people. I'm very proud of both of them, and it was wonderful to have them both play on ('Banga')."