When Jake Smith went to the studio to record his latest LP under the auspices of his musical alter ego, White Buffalo, he did something he’d never done before: He decided to record with barely any music written. For a man whose songwriting and distinctive baritone voice are his hallmarks, it was a leap of faith.
“I had four or five ideas but I wasn’t super secure with them. I was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s start Wednesday.’ Then it just started flowing,” says Smith. The resulting 10-song album, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, was built from the ground up in less than six weeks. “I think it helped establish a little more urgency with the album. The songwriting process was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants situation.”
Produced by Smith’s longtime collaborators, Bruce Witkin and Ryan Dorn, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights is an appropriate title for a record that stands as White Buffalo’s most stylistically rich collection of songs. Rocking one minute and ripping your heart out the next, it’s an album of contrasts, a trait that stems from Smith’s impromptu studio approach.
“I’d go write in the morning at a coffee shop, sit there and bang it out, then start recording in the afternoon,” says Smith. Once in the studio, he would start the recording by laying down vocal and guitar only, then build the arrangement from there in order to get a “rawer” feel. “I had a real prolific, good spot where I was able to write a bunch of songs in a very short period of time. There’s emotional songs, there’s dark songs. I tried to run the gamut of human emotions and I think I succeeded in that.”
Smith says that the fast pace of the sessions inspired the album’s many uptempo songs, an unusual occurrence in White Buffalo’s often dark, contemplative catalog. Those tracks tend to come with a healthy dose of debauchery, such as on the martial, string-snapping “Madam’s Soft, Madam’s Sweet” that’s punched through with some gritty blues harp and the hand-clapping “The Heart and Soul of the Night,” which hurtles through the intersection of heartland rock and Thin Lizzy.
Back in 2013, Smith released his first concept album, Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, but he pulled away from that approach on its follow-up, Love and the Death of Damnation, which also introduced more roots rock to the White Buffalo palette. This time around he says he focused even further on developing each individual song. “It’s such a varied album. I think this one has a little more balls and a little more swagger than some of my other albums. I’m proud of all [the songs] but I tend to gravitate toward the ballads because they tend to hit me in the heart a little harder,” says Smith.
For all its freewheeling moments, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights doesn’t shy away from the tragic side of Smith’s storytelling, be they major or minor tragedies. He admits that “Border Town/Bury Me in Baja,” which features a reference to bodies “swinging from the trees,” was inspired partially by his desire to include the word “diabolically” in a song. “I think life is conflicted. Even when you’re dealing with horrible characters, often there’s hope in them. A song like ‘Avalon,’ basically he made terrible life choices but it’s about really being in control. At the same time there’s hope, whether it be delusion or not,” he says.
No song expresses greater despair, nor more resilient optimism, than “If I Lost My Eyes,” a devastating, understated love song that forms a spiritual pair with the closing track “I Am the Moon.” The latter song’s brittle, cosmic beauty also harkens back to the album’s lead single “The Observatory,” a stream-of-consciousness rumination on life, death, and a person’s place in the universe. “I was trying to create this roller coaster of emotion where there’s sorrow, fear, love, happiness – big questions of humanity. A lot of small human stories have bigger themes behind them,” Smith says. “But then some of them, like ‘The Observatory,’ I tried to make something more universal and thought provoking, just about the human experience.”
The constant through all those twists and turns is Smith’s unmistakable voice, which adds weight to his philosophical musings and a sinister edge to the darker moments. As defining as his singing is to White Buffalo’s music, he says it doesn’t have much effect on how he writes, nor even the grizzled, world-weary persona that he’s cultivated. “I write what I feel like writing. I think I’m lucky in the respect that I can do different things with my voice. I can be tender in moments and then be aggressive and scary in other moments,” he says. “From something soft to something growling, it’s always the vehicle.”
While Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights marks Smith’s first release through Thirty Tigers (done in conjunction with his longtime label, Unison Music Group), White Buffalo thrives on the freedom granted by being independent. Even with the increased fan base afforded by song placements in TV shows like Californication and Sons of Anarchy, including the closing track in the series finale, he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“That’s super important to me. I think if somebody tried to force me to go in a different direction or say, ‘We’re going to do a whole country album,’ that would be difficult for me,” Smith says. Fifteen years and six albums into his run as White Buffalo, he has a good idea of what he does best. “I just want to move people, whatever way it is. If it’s to feel good or to make them go, ‘Holy shit, that’s a gnarly story.’ If it’s a heartbreak song, I try to break their hearts. I try to make every lyric count and have a purpose.”