Jake Smith on why he prefers to keep his characters in the shadows as the White Buffalo
Jake Smith writes some songs about happiness, but he writes a lot more about unhappiness—the kind brought about by law-breaking, hard living, broken hearts and bad luck. Performing under the name the White Buffalo, Smith says these down-on-their-luck characters are more intriguing than those for whom everything goes right. For him, it’s important to tell the stories of people whom society considers “bad.”
“I love the juxtaposition of light and dark,” he says. “There is happiness and joy and love, but there’s also pain and strife and people [who] are hurting. Within a lot of my songs, there’s good and bad.”
On his 2013 album Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways, Smith, who was born in Oregon and now resides in Southern California, took the study of good and bad to a new level, crafting a 12-song cycle that tells the fated story of Joe White, a haunted veteran of the Iraq war, and his love, Jolene.
The story starts with Joe as a young man, follows him through his experience of war, coming home, and his eventual death. Despite its modern setting, it describes experiences and issues that could have roots in any war.
“It’s Joe White going off to war, getting fucked up, coming back, not really knowing how to adjust, and still kind of bloodthirsty,” explains Smith. He adds that the story is also about family and love. “The love of his woman keeps him normal,” he says, “or halfway normal.”
The album is full of raw emotion and conflicted characters. As the storyteller, Smith captures this emotion and channels the characters in a way that lets listeners lose themselves in the tale; a haunting journey of love, murder, and the search for redemption.
Smith digs deep to deliver the soul of the story, which is nothing new for the songwriter, whose catalog is full of engaging songs about conflicted characters.
“I’ve always tried to write emotional songs that are going to connect with people in, hopefully, a deeper fashion,” he says. “You have to feel the songs and get in the songs.”
When Smith started putting Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways together, he didn’t plan for it to be a concept album, but looking at the batch of songs and half-finished material he had, he realized that, with some work, they could provide the context for an album-length story.
“The songs just seemed to fit really perfectly,” he says. “It was just a matter of finding the right arrangements and figuring out how to tell the story and keep moving it along within each song.”
For 15 years, Smith has been performing as the White Buffalo. Despite the ongoing air of mystery around the name, he explains that it actually came about by pulling names out of a hat. While hanging out with some of his friends, he was wondering what name he should use—“Jake Smith is not terribly mystical or intriguing,” he jokes. His friends wrote names down, put them in a hat, and the one he drew said, “The White Buffalo.” Call it a touch of inspiration because the name nicely captures his character, with his massive voice, lumberjack-like appearance, and fringe-dwelling subject matter.
The world-weary, haunting quality of Smith’s songs has made him a favorite of the Americana underground. He’s also captured the attention of film and television producers. His song “The American Dream” appeared in the 2013 film The Lone Ranger, and several of his songs have been featured in the television series Sons of Anarchy. Of the Sons of Anarchy placement, Smith says the songs were cut and edited to fit whatever was going on in a particular scene.
“It was cool,” he says, “to see how they end up weaving songs into the story.”
When asked if he knows the Lakota legend about the white buffalo calf being a sign of hope, he says he didn’t at the time he took the name. He says he doesn’t “pretend or claim any of that.”
“I knew it had some significance to Native Americans,” he says, “but I didn’t know about the whole bringing of hope. I think it’s beautiful in its way, and I respect their belief.”
The White Buffalo will perform at 9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $18/adv, $20/door. 479-1854.