More than a decade before he rebranded himself as one of Canada's best-selling country newcomers, Dallas Smith was a grunge rocker. His four-piece band, Default, went platinum on both sides of the American border around the turn of the 21st century, armed with a batch of sludgy, guitar-driven songs — including the Top 10 rock hit "Wasting My Time" — that the group had co-written with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger.
Default's music was borne by aggression. As Smith grew older and became a family man, though, he realized his personal life didn't always gel with the band's material. Looking for a new sound, he turned to country music, a genre that his parents had consistently played throughout the house during his childhood. What followed was an unlikely transformation from Nickelback protégé to successful country pop-rocker — something few people apart from Staind's Aaron Lewis have been able to pull off. Smith released his solo debut in 2012 and quickly racked up a pair of Top 10 hits on Canadian country radio, not to mention three nominations at the 2013 Canadian Country Music Association Awards.
It's a different story in the Lower 48. Here, Smith is still trying to find his big break. He hopes it'll arrive on the back of his new EP, Lifted — and its lead single "Wastin' Gas" — which streets November 24th and makes its streaming debut on Rolling Stone Country below. Lifted is a party-loving country record that's proud to sound thoroughly modern, with hard-hitting guitars worthy of Jason Aldean's catalog and emotional vocal performances that were inspired by Keith Urban and Lee Brice. For Smith, it's also a chance to correct some of the mistakes he made during the Default days.
"Most of the Default stuff was very linear," he admits to Rolling Stone Country. "Everything sounded the same. I could be singing songs about many different topics, and my voice would be emoting the same way on each of them. When we did the third record with Default, I recorded all the vocals and harmonies in a day and a half. You can't tell me that the producer pushed me. It all sounded technically good, but the emoting — getting the audience to believe in what I was saying — it just wasn't there. I wish I could go back and re-sing those records, knowing what I could've done with them."
Looking for someone capable of breaking his old habits and whipping his voice into shape, Smith teamed up once again with longtime friend Joey Moi, the polarizing producer behind albums by Nickelback, Jake Owen and Florida Georgia Line. Moi, who also produced Smith's debut, is more or less wholly responsible for teaching the hard rocker how to shed some of his grungy baggage and shoulder the weight of Nashville's country scene, where the rules are entirely different. The first step? Changing the way Smith wrote music.
"The Nashville way of songwriting is completely different from what I've done before," Smith says. "With Default, we'd go out drinking on Friday night, then sit down and hammer out ideas. If something happened, great. If not, no pressure. Everything was very guitar-based, so we'd find some cool guitar riffs and build the song from there. My first trip down to Nashville was so eye-opening, because I realized that here, songwriting is a 9 to 5 gig. With Nashville, it's about finding a song title that you like, and then the rest of the song will be built around that idea. The music and the melody aren't afterthoughts, but they tend to follow the title. I was used to building songs around a guitar riff, and matching lyrical content and melodies to the mood of that riff. The whole thing was flipped backwards for me."
While pulling together material for Lifted, Smith essentially let go of the songwriting reins altogether, allowing top-tier country writers like Craig Wiseman to do the heavy lifting instead.
"When you've got people like Craig Wiseman throwing songs at you," he explains, "it's tough to get your own songs on the record. I sat down with those [songwriters] and the producer and said, 'This is the sound I'm looking for. This is the kind of record I'm looking to make.' And they took it from there. To be honest, when you sit down in the room with Craig to write, it's a situation where you sit and watch him write the song. He's hard to keep up with."
Another marked difference from his Default days? A lack of breakup songs, which had formed the backbone of his band's albums.
"In country, everybody just wants to have a good time," says Smith, who supported his solo debut by opening more than 20 shows for party-hearty headliners Florida Georgia Line. "They turn to music to feel good. That isn't true 100 percent of the time, but the majority of the content is about people wanting to enjoy themselves. If I had tried to do some of that stuff in the past, it just wouldn't work. But to be honest, I'm just not there in my life anymore. I'm happily married. I don't have a shit relationship to sing about."
Released less than a month after Steven Tyler declared, "I think country is the new rock & roll" on the 2014 CMA Awards, Lifted is yet another sign that country music — once the province of fiddles, acoustic guitars and singing cowboys — has, like Smith, undergone a radical makeover. It's become punchy and polished, filled with less twang and more Tube Screamers. Smith, who sports full-sleeve tattoos instead of cowboy hats, is in the running to become one of the genre's newest bad boys, but he still faces an uphill climb in America, where he's mostly remembered as Default's frontman.
"You've gotta get yourself into the mindset, because this kind of music is an internal thing," he says. "You can't walk up to the mic and bark out the notes. You have to pull from experiences and insert that into how you're singing the song. It's gotta be there. That stuff, you can't fake it. At least I can't fake it."