Daughter of the revolution

How Jesse Smith became a force in Detroit music

Feb 22, 2012 at 12:00 am

Both Walking Beat and Belle Ghoul play the Blowout preparty at the Magic Stick. Jesse Smith also performs with various people at the Beehive Recording Co. showcase at the Polish National Alliance Hall on Friday.

It's never easy nailing a time to meet with the lovely, raven-headed Jesse Paris Smith; she's either here, there or, seemingly, everywhere. She is daughter to Patti Smith and MC5 guitar hero Fred "Sonic" Smith (he died when Jesse was 7), a lineage that's as fascinating, certainly, as it is telling for her and Jackson, her guitarist brother. Perhaps it can't be easy being a child to the grand matriarch of rock 'n' roll — and art and poetry from the New York fringes — who later showed us that the universe is indeed female. But Jesse says her culture-shifting mother was pretty much a regular mom. Indeed, Jesse is her own woman; she's kind, articulate, assured, intellectually and musically curious and empathetic — in many ways a creation of her environment, not a representation. The well-traveled pianist and singer spends much time in New York City and in Detroit, to which she's both fiercely loyal and sympathetic. 

At this year's Blowout, Jesse plays with E6's Chris Tait in his new Belle Ghoul band — which is their debut performance and record release — and the Walking Beat with Steve McCauley, which is also a debut show. She'll perform with Kenny Tudrick, Skinny Wrists and Esquire as well. You see, Jesse's here, there and everywhere. 

Metro Times: At what age did you start playing music?

Jesse Smith: Music has always been in my life in one form or another, but I didn't start taking piano lessons until I was 13. I played piano in school as a teenager, and with my mom's band I was able to sit in on keyboard occasionally, but was never in a band until I was 18.

MT: You play guitar as well as piano, right?

Smith: I don't play guitar, actually — that's Jackson's thing. I only know a couple of chords. I used to play ukulele, and have a little collection of them. I tried learning guitar, and I have them around the house, but I had my brother remove two of the strings so I could play it like a ukulele. I've tried other instruments — violin, banjo, drums, bass, clarinet. Piano feels most comfortable, but also is extremely overwhelming and intimidating. 


MT: Was piano foisted upon you? How about singing?

Smith: Music was never forced upon us, or even encouraged. My brother and I found it on our own; I guess it was just a natural progression. I never even considered being a musician until I was in music class in eighth grade. My teacher played "Maple Leaf Rag" for us, and I was forever changed. ...


MT: And in what manner did your mom or Jackson encourage or nurture that? 

Smith: My mom always allowed my brother and I to do whatever we wanted, without pushing us or trying to steer us in any specific direction. It was very much in her life, so it was just there for us to draw from on our own if we chose to. I guess she wanted to make sure we found the paths that were right for us both. Sometimes I wish she would have insisted more forcefully, and put me in some sort of school band or early music lessons. Jackson was in his own world with guitar, and music wasn't really something we discussed together when we were young. We sort of just gave each other space. I was inspired, though, by Jackson and how much he fully dedicated himself to being the best guitarist he could, learning all styles and constantly practicing, sometimes being a bit too hard on himself. Every time I hear him play I'm surprised by how much he has improved. 


MT: Are you writing whole songs without collaborations?

Smith: Yes, I write songs. When I was younger I wrote a lot more regularly, and mostly structured songs with words, most of which no one has ever heard. ... 

 MT: What's the new band Walking Beat all about? Great lineup.

Smith: Steve McCauley and I have been friends for years, and have always talked about playing music together someday. Besides a couple late nights with harmonicas, a guitar, we had never tried it before. A couple months ago, he was starting a new group, and I muscled my way into it, even though I live in New York City. It's been great, and musically we bonded instantly. He is an old-fashioned songwriter, such a nice person, and the music is fun to play. Everyone is really nice. It feels good to be in a band situation like this, I haven't been in one in about seven years. It's just fun.

For the Hamtramck Blowout, I'm also playing with Chris Tait in his new group, Belle Ghoul. He's a dear friend and we have a similar story to that with Steve, always discussing the idea of playing music someday. I guess things just happen when they are meant to. I'm also playing with Esquire, Kenny Tudrick and Skinny Wrists for the Beehive Revue show. Jackson and I were in the house band for the Beehive Ball in November, which was a wonderful experience and a lot of fun. I met some really special people doing this show. The work that Steve Nawara does with the Beehive Recording Company is great, and he's a good friend as well. It should be a fun month of practices and shows.


MT: At what point did it begin to sink in that your mother and late dad were "more" than just standard-issue parents? Maybe when you saw a magazine article on Patti or the MC5?

Smith: I actually didn't know anything about what my parents did for a living, or their impact in music until a bit later in life, though I sort of knew music was involved somehow. I remember having an assignment in school at Grosse Pointe Academy, and we had to write what our mom's job was. I remember sitting there and having no idea. I asked my mom and she said to write that she was a singer. Having never heard her sing before, I found this a little bit strange. It wasn't until we moved to New York in 1996, and with the dramatic change of our lifestyle when she started performing again that I realized what was going on. I didn't know about my dad until even later than that. When he passed away in 1994, I remember we were watching MTV, and Kurt Loder announced his passing and they showed a picture of him. I thought [Loder] was just a friend of ours and was being nice. Nothing really made much sense, and I just sort of slowly put the pieces together over the years based on stories from friends and family, and digging for answers on my own. I'm still trying to understand a lot of things when it comes to that subject. But it's just their profession. ... 


MT: You played piano on your mom's Trampin' in 2004, and then did backing vocals on Twelve in 2007, right? Before that, Jackson had appeared on Gung Ho in 2000. Was it always a given that your mom would bring the kids into the recording situation with her, or alternatively, how did the matter come up that your mom got you to appear on those albums?

Smith: The recording of Trampin' was the first time I had ever been in the studio. I had been taking piano lessons for only a few years, and occasionally playing keyboards with her band, but this was a new challenge. She had wanted to record a cover of a Marian Anderson gospel, and all she had was a scratchy, slightly inaudible recording of the song. My piano teacher and I sought out to transpose it to sheet music, so I could learn it for the recording. It was a great experience. In terms of why Jackson and I have been on these sessions, it just happened naturally. It's the family business. My mom likes to include friends, family and fellow musicians on her albums, and being that Jackson and I play instruments, it's a nice way for us all to work together sometimes. When she has an idea, she just casually asks us if we'd want to do something. For me, her band is my family, and when they are in the studio, we all just sort of visit and hang out together, and help out in making things come to fruition.


MT: Likewise, you've performed live with Patti and the Patti Smith Group — what were some of those situations, and did you feel comfortable or deer-in-headlights or ...?

Smith: My mom used to tour the U.S. and Europe every summer, and when I was 14, I joined them on a tour and was allowed to help the tour manager as his assistant. I did this again for a couple summers, and then when there was a lineup change, I helped out playing keyboards on songs here and there. This started happening more frequently, which developed into my mom and I performing together on our own, varied lineups, acoustic shows, etc. Jumping into this was very helpful because I quickly had to adapt to an already professional and tight band, and develop a comfort on the stage, for small and quite large audiences, and in local and foreign places. There were many times when I would feel scared or intimidated, but had to just breathe and hide those feelings to fit in. I am grateful for this being my first stage experience, and it's not an opportunity a lot of musicians have in their early careers.


MT: What sorts of things interest you beyond music?

Smith: I love traveling and exploring, in the U.S., locally, and around the world. I have been to some really special places, which is another of the perks of music. ... I also love writing, and someday would possibly like to write a book, maybe a novel, or short stories. Or a history of St. Clair Shores or Belle Isle.


Jesse Smith's 11 

life-changing albums


The Roches


Great Lakes 

Myth Society


John Coltrane 

My Favorite Things

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 

Deja Vu

Joshua Rifkin 

Scott Joplin Piano Rags

The Byrds 

Notorious Byrd Brothers

Buffalo Springfield 

Buffalo Springfield Again



Tony Rice 

Church Street Blues




A Night at the Opera