What makes the great songwriters of the past and present constantly relevant? Why do their lyric's still hold merit in our day to day lives? Is it the subjects that they sing about? Is it the relation between their words and your life that gives them credibility? The answers may lay in the relationship that songs have to their writers. The backstory and influence life has on them and all of us. Great writers present perspective and open their lives to the public through their writing. Tyler Smilo, is a true example of a great songwriter, with an open willingness to share. We were given the opportunity to have a great discussion with him. Man to man, songwriter to songwriter. Lend your brain a moment to gain some insight into such an artist.
Here is Part 1 of our 2 part feature with the great Tyler Smilo
We would like to encourage you to follow along, There is a transcription of the interview below. As well as links to albums and some fancy other content not shown in the video.
You can also watch the full part one interview here.
Who is the Angry Gnome?
Tyler Smilo Intro: For me, songwriting started off just by being able to express myself, and it seemed like I could express myself more true, without reserve. I mean I could say what I wanted to say in songs, and I could say things in songs that I didn't even know i wanted to say. It became an alternate form of communication for me, and a great way to express myself. Getting into other songwriters, it is this whole beautiful craft, ya know? Q: Any songwriters in particular? Smilo: ...Bob Dylan is one that I've talked about a lot of times over the years. It just seemed like he was beyond prolific ya know? He's even recording and putting stuff out now, but he had fire.. lighting in a bottle for so long. I really look up to him as a writer. There's lots of other ones too, like Paul Simon is a great writer. Cat Stephens is a great writer... Oliver Burdo: Being a songwriter myself, songwriting is an accidental progression of my life. It kind of just became who I was, and I think the same thing happened to you. I think it kind of happens to all of us. Do you have any thoughts on that? Smilo: Well, I didn't start doing music until I was probably 17 and I went to St Louis. Well Marion, Illinois and then St Louis with some cousins for the summer, and both my cousins Micheal and Tommy were into music at the time, and played some guitar. I remember that they showed me a few chords and I really liked that, ya know? I grew up in high school playing sports and it opened some sort of door for me, and then really what I was listening to. I remember I got the "Times They are a Changin" the Dylan album, and this was coming from someone who just listened to what's on the radio and whatever my mom and dad were listening to, which was either like talk radio or... My mom was an aerobics instructor, so she was constantly listening to early 90's dance music tapes. So, when I heard somebody like Dylan and it opened the door to that kind of thing, very methodical and in depth and very deep, I wanted to do that. I remember I went and took guitar lessons a couple times ever, and I was like 17 or 18, and I took him a Dylan record, and the guy was like "why the hell would you want to play this crap?" Something about hearing that and several others down the road, it kind of all started, and my passion grew. Then playing in front of people, and having people seem like they received what I was putting out, it really gave me the confidence to keep writing and doing things.
Burdo: In your writing do you find yourself to be somewhat self-reflective or political? As a folk artist, you're kind of tuned in to having to do some of that. Do you kind of just make observations and they find a way into your songs? How do you pick your subjects? Smilo: Well, lately with so much going on in the world in general, you'd think that there's a plethora of material. There's so much going on, and the thing is all my senses are being blasted at all times, and it's almost like I don't know how to put it into words. So, yeah I definitely have political views. As far as putting them into music over the years, there hasn't been anything specific that I try to write in songs. A lot of times I just sit down and things start coming out . I like that line, and i like that line, and then usually by the time I'm putting the chorus together I've got an idea of what the song is going to be about. A lot of times I'll write a song, and it'll be years later, and it'll make more sense. If you look at the era or the time of your life that it came from it can be pretty spot on how i was being with my feelings, while not even knowing what the extent was at that point. I'd say for sure that it's self reflective. Any time I want to break that mold, "I specifically want to write about this," I don't have as much luck. It's always "I've gotta get this out right now," I write a song. Twenty, thirty minutes, and then I just start playing it and it becomes a piece of the catalog or whatever. I have been trying to do some more political or outside the box writing and it's been a dead end.
Burdo: Many artists have found habits of drugs and alcohol creep into their lives. Understanding that you've dealt with that battle and have a better understanding than most. Would you be willing to talk about the progression or evolution of yourself as an artist undertaking a very self reflective approach in regards to that? Smilo: Yeah. I wasn't a kid roaming. As a kid I rode my bike, like I said I played sports. I was into BMX. I was into skateboarding, but I wasn't doing crazy drugs when I was a little kid or from a super bad part of town or anything like that. As time progressed... I remember in high school having, I don't know what it was, just depression and anxiety. It really hit me around that time, and I still struggle with it, but I didn't know what it was at that point and I didn't know why I was feeling that. When I started using pot and alcohol it did things for me that I could never do naturally. So I got into that way of thinking that "if I can't dictate the way that I'm feeling or the way that I want to act, and be confident and be secure with myself, there are chemicals that can do that for me." I think with writing there's definitely been things I've done that I probably couldn't have done otherwise. I know that with LSD... I'd take LSD and play guitar for hours and hours and hours, and there's no doubt that the next morning I was a better player than I was the night before. I don't know if I was born an addict or became one through substance abuse, but there's a point where you go too far and nothings genuine anymore. You're like a shadow of a person, a shell of a person and you don't feel empathy. You don't care what's going on around you, you don't care about the people around you. All you care about is drugs, and when I get to that point, which I've been to a few times in my life, and there's no good. I've heard with the Chili Peppers "Oh, they were better when they were on heroin," which is a crazy thing. I've thought about that with my own music. "was I better with the drugs?" Maybe sometimes, at the end of the day though it sabotages everything man... I don't know. That's a good question man, I just know that for me, I cannot use substances anymore because I've passed that line. At some point I passed that line and ill take it there every time, and ultimately it'll kill me or kill the music for sure. Burdo: I know you knew Dave Mcdonald. One of the things I respected about him most was his ability to delve into the magic of sobriety in and of itself, its own kind of drug. Its really cool to see great musicians realize that amount of sobriety really helps them in some ways or another, and its a very respectful thing. Smilo: ...I was a heroin addict years ago. An addict in general, but I used heroin in the mid to late 2000's, got clean, and then was clean several years, wrote a lot of good music. That's when I started getting known in this region, when I was clean. When I first went to treatment in 2018 they were like "you're bipolar, you've got massive depression," all this stuff, and technically think I was at the moment. That first year there wasn't a lot of writing going on. I recorded my record "The future is Looking Mighty Old Timey," but most of that was wrote previously. There's a couple that I added after, but it was really kind of dark times mentally just getting everything straightened out, and its been a process to write again. This is a new time for me. The process isn't the same. I'm not the same. I'm grateful for where I'm at, and I'm making a lot of changes to my life, and things are the best they've ever been, but I'm still hunting down that songwriting version of me. Being able to do things that I used to do, but do them better and clean. Its been a battle for sure, I mean there's been thoughts in my head like "maybe I should go back out or maybe I should go do these things because they would help me in this process," but I think just time, being away from that stuff, and working on mental health... that's a bitch man. Burdo: Absolutely, absolutely.
Burdo: Being that they're older songs, I listened to the album again earlier today. I felt like it had so much more of what I'd consider you. It seems like it brought more of your essence. The album... its very somber. Humanizing, very honest. Not to say that the rest of your records aren't, I just feel like it delved into the process of you maturing as an artist, so i'd be curious of your thoughts on that. Smilo: It was definitely different, and our mutual friend Adam McKillip... I remember when I was like "what did you think of the record" he's like "ahhhh it hurt to listen to dude, it was raw as shit!"... When I was working on that album and putting it together, I had this plan to do some sort of like musical play with either performing live with recorded narration or animation in the background. Every single one of those songs... I had a 65-ish page booklet that told the story in between. It just got so big in my head that I kind of lost sight of the actual project and I said "I'm just going to put these songs out there." There was a lot more to that record initially. I wrote that during a relationship. When I met this girl, things were beautiful. Things started getting weird, I started losing trust with her, started using again. Things were getting out of control. The relationship was exploding. Shes pregnant, she secretly ditches me. Ditches the baby, kind of fucked up, sorry. Then I lose my mind and have a complete mental breakdown, all to kind of gather it up at the end like "what just happened?" That was what that record was about, and its really just pushing that out on the local scene like "check this out guys! I made a little album." It was a lot for me, so I appreciate you listening. This record I've probably got the least feedback out of all the ones I've done, because it was different, but I really appreciate that you sense that because yeah it was honest, because it was basically in a poetic way, my life, start to finish of an entire story, or section... Few years of my life...
Burdo: In previous years, you being in the state and condition that you were in... Did it affect your ability to actively go out and gig? Do you have a hard time now, being sober going into that mindset of playing live?
Smilo: A lot of times I wouldn't, at least initially I would be careful what I would do before I had any sort of performance. Then towards the end it got to a point where I just couldn't. I couldn't function without drugs so... That's about when I was was like okay... I'm done. I'm going to sabotage my entire reputation, more than I have, doing what I've been doing, so I'm bailing out. That was a big motivator in getting clean. But I think still, this whole time, I get nervous in front of people, yah know? That was a way for me to kind of X out the audience and be in my head... Still to this day I get nervous. You get up in front of a bunch of people... Especially with my songs... We were talking about there so... A reflection of myself to that extent... It's like being really vulnerable in front of people... Doing that at a brewery when people are eating dinner... And drinking beers... It was always kind of uncomfortable.
But yeah to answer your question, It was definitely effecting my live performance and that was a huge motivator in getting clean. At the end of the day music is one of the most important things in my life.
Burdo: Given the state of the world in 2020, COVID, everything else... The bizarre nature of the year... Has it affected your livelihood since you haven't been able to actively go play shows? What are you doing to adapt to that? Are you finding outlets or hobbies or anything else beyond just music?
Smilo: I initially had a bunch of shows planned. I'd been kind of... out of doing shows, definitely haven't toured in a long time because I was getting help. In treatment... All that stuff... Working on getting my life together. Then right about the time I was like... "Okay I'm wanna hit it", this kind of popped off. So a lot of shows got canceled. Then I got a restaurant job that I worked last summer and I just... Lot's and lots of hours. 12 hour shifts, few times a week... So I've been slaving away and that kind of stuff kills my spirit because I really am a creative person and anytime I get a normal job I get all dramatic... Like... "I'm being under utilized! I've got so much more in me". But, there's not shows going on, I'm just gonna focus on working and get some gear... That's what I've been doing... Even on my days off I've been so bored not being able to do shows... I'm working on launching this company called Angry Gnome Hair and Beard Pomade. And that definitely was COVID inspired. I was reading all these things like... You should start a business... But I kept reading all these articles... "You should invest your stimulus check, you shouldn't just blow it on amazon and all these things..." So definitely for me to be honest, life has been better then ever oddly in this weird time. It kind of made me strategize... on the chess board... Do different things than I would normally do.
Like with what you're doing with this publication... It seems to be an online renaissance or... different ways to use social media. But using that platform to connect people and kind of keep the inspiration flowing and try to keep the creativity flowing. But I see that man... That's what I'm holding on to at least. I don't really want to accept a world without live music and public events where people get together. I don't know if I really want to live in a world like that so... Everybody is kind of retooling,
regrouping and doing what we can to keep that alive
Burdo: Something I'm super interested to hear the backstory of is your painted guitar?
Smilo: It's a Yamaha that I've always loved the electronics on it. That's why I bought it. It's never exactly has the best acoustic tone. When Smilo and the Ghost recorded our record, I always used one of Adam Mckillip's guitars. I recorded the painter on one of Adam's guitars, cause he's got some really nice high end instruments. It came about when I came out with the record The Painter...
The whole thing was kind of a train wreck. I scheduled the album release party... I'd been promoting and talking about it. The record was done, it sounded fricken great. I did it at GCR Audio in Buffalo, NY. I thought Justin Rose the guy that engineered the record did an amazing job. Then something happened with the records and they weren't gonna be there on time. So, I got a bunch of blank discs and I started throwing paint on 'em... All this stuff... Burned a bunch of copies and I was just gonna hand 'em out for free. Then make announcements... "sorry the records weren't here". It kind of sucked.
This is not as epic of a story as you were probably looking for... I started getting paint splatter all over my guitar and then kind of quit doing the CD's and started painting this guitar... It's got a bunch of different random artwork that a few friends started throwing on there. Over the years I've lightly sanded it and then done a fresh coat... Something different. But I still love the guitar. It still plays great and sounds good through a PA system. But, I've embraced it man... I've actually done it to a couple other guitars too.
Burdo: On the note of Adam, simply cause he's in the ghost of Smilo and the Ghost... What inspired the ghost?
Smilo: Jassen Wilber, who's an amazing bass player from... Olean, NY... He's in Ron Yarosz and the Vehicle, that's the first time that I had seen him play. He's toured the world. He played with a blues guy named Bernard Allison. So, Jason is a very seasoned, real deal bass player... I think he caught me at the Cambridge Springs Music Festival back when the hotel was still around. He hit me up not long after and was like... "Hey, I saw your set, I really loved the songwriting. I thought it was refreshing. I want to be involved." I was like... Dude... I've seen you with Ron Yarosz, I know your backstory a little bit. I would tickled pink if you wanted to play some music with me. So we started playing and then we tried out random drummers... When that band started there like 10 people, it was all this madness going on. Adam was one of those people. We played with him for like 5 minutes and Jay looked over at me and said "This dudes in." He didn't know who Adam was. Initially I was like... I know this guy named Adam Mckillip, I think he'd be awesome in this project. We've been a little trio ever since. On the record, Eric Brewer was on it. Abby Barrett was on it. Ted Smeltz from the Buffalo Philharmonic was on the record. We've played different variations of the lineup over the years, but it's always been me, Jay and Adam.
Burdo: Adam blows my mind,
He's such a genuinely good dude...
I have a special place in my heart for him.
Burdo: What advice would you give to new artists, younger musicians, and people breaking into the industry. Is there anything to avoid? Or anything to focus on specifically?
Smilo: I would say, do it yourself. DIY. Bust your ass... Don't make it about anything but the music.
Social media's been rough. It's starting to shape people and what they do. They start to do certain things because it gets likes. "ooo, I want more of that". My advice would be, just be true to who you are right from the heart. Just keep playin' man.
Burdo: On the DIY setup, what's your home studio like? Do you find differences between sitting down in a studio and having a specific amount of time that you have to do your work? Do you really find enjoyment in that DIY situation?
Smilo: Basically, I've been building "the arsenal". Which I think, with what I have, could do justice to some things for sure. It's all fairly new, I've only had this mic for maybe a month. (Aston Spirit). I just got this interface (Scarlett 18i8)... I got one initially, then sent it back because I didn't like it and then settled on this one... I haven't sat down with an actual project... It's been a bunch of dicking around really. I just got a really nice electric amp. I got an old vintage Twin Reverb, electric bass etc. I have not put it all to the test yet...
That's what I thought too, if I go to a studio and I have 10 songs and I want to record... There's no dicking around. I'm here to do this. I've had a lot of success with being able to do that... do it fast and get it done. I haven't sat down at my home studio to do that yet and I'm kind of excited to do that...
Burdo: On the subject of DIY recording, is there something you'd really really miss about the studio setting?
Smilo: Ghost has talked about doing another record soon and we will probably go back to GCR Audio. Just because, to do that project justice, I'd rather be more focused on the creation aspect of it, rather then the engineering aspect of it, yah know?
I also have Ableton Live and a little midi pad. I've always love Beck, and incorporating folky tones with beats. I thought Demon Days, the Gorillaz album, was one of my favorite albums of all time. So, I would like to be able to experiment and do that at home. You can't really do that on the clock at a studio. This isn't like 1979 and working on a Floyd record where we spend 6 months dicking around, messin' with buttons. So, it's cool to be able to do that on my own.
Burdo: If you had one venue to play, and you could never play another venue ever again. What venue would that be and why?
Smilo: I love playing the Heron man... I was blessed to play. I've done the Tiger Maple Stage up in the woods.. The songwriters circle several years in a row. Did a little tweener on the main stage and I've played the dance tent a bunch of times too.
Burdo: Whats it like being a dad, a musician and an entrepreneur, all at the same time?
Smilo: I like to stay busy and I like to stay busy with things that I feel productive doing. I think about productivity differently than I think a lot of people. When I'm at work, working in a restaurant... I feel very anti-productive. When I go to work for 12 hours to make money, I'm like..."This is not where I should be, man..." So when I'm working on this new pomade company, beard oils... Hair Pomade, Beard Pomade... I feel very productive and I like the creation aspect of it. With my little boy, I like to be with him as much as humanly possible. I like to do activities with him. He's slowly getting there with the music. He's starting to mess around on the drums and the guitar and stuff. I'm excited to see what happens with that. Basically man, I just like to keep moving, I like to try to out-do myself as much as possible. I'm excited for the future.
Burdo: Being on the road for 30 days at a time... Do you have a best show you've ever played or what are your greatest road memories?
Smilo: I've played some really awesome venues up and down the coast... I remember Virgina. I played 3 or 4 breweries in Virginia couple times on my way down through the Carolina's and such. I absolutely loved those places... I really loved even being alone. The aspect of "I'm in a car, I've got my gear, there's no one with me." Cause I'd travel alone for the most part. Listening to music, driving down the highway with the windows open, knowing I was on a way to a show. If the show didn't turn out amazing or not, I felt like I was on a mission. Those are the moments.
Burdo: Do you have any future plans for album releases? Whats in the future of music?
Smilo: Since we've talked DIY home studio, since I've gotten some of those things. The one thing that I have done, since I don't have a huge list of songs I've been wanting to record. I've just been pressing play. Really it started with testing out the gear with a couple things. That's one thing I've always done from the beginning of playing music, has been improvising and making things up on the spot. I do it a lot with ghost, I've done it a lot in projects where all of a sudden the band is like "what was that third verse? That was cool" and I'm like... "I have no idea what the hell it was". So I've been pressing record and just kind of rambling. One out of five times it's something that I would put out. I think it sounds good. "I like what I did there..." So I've been working on this improv, made up on the spot, record called The Profound Ramblings of Tyler Smilo. I don't have huge goals with it, but I think it's interesting and I think there's some quality stuff in there. I've since learned a few of them by just listening over and over and incorporating them into my set. But beyond that, I'm talking with a few people about getting an electric project starting again, kinda seeing what's happening. I got a couple friends in the Franklin, PA area that might be traveling up... I know that I want to keep writing, keep doing stuff, and that's just where I'm at.
Thanks for watching and reading along. Remember this is only part 1! Stay tuned for part 2 where we will delve further into fun road stories, Angry Gnome: Hair and Beard Pomade, and the Sink, Swim or Fly podcast!
Tyler Smilo is a Singer/Songwriter from Erie, PA.
Owner of Angry Gnome Hair and Beard Pomade
Front man of Smilo and The Ghost
and a genuinely nice dude.
*Special thanks to Smilo for his willingness to participate in our first video interview!