Singer-Songwriter AJ SMITH Opens Up About Newest Single ‘Billy Joel,’ Missing Live Music, His Experience in the National Symphony Orchestra and More!
In these challenging times, NYC based singer-songwriter AJ Smith is looking to bring listeners together in a common love of music. “Billy Joel”, Smith’s new single, is about coming together after a fight or argument, listening to that song, and starting over.
As somebody who grew up as a Colorado/Maryland/Virginia kid who didn’t really identify with any one hometown and moved to New York to pursue a dream of being a professional musician, AJ Smith was taken aback when a few weeks into dating his girlfriend, she invited him to her mom’s for dinner to “meet the family.” On the train to see them, she gave him the run-down: “They’re super Italian and super Long Island. They love wine, The Mets, and Billy Joel.” After dinner, his girlfriend’s brother started the momentum when he asked AJ whether or not he knew any Billy Joel. After playing some deep cuts at the piano, AJ’s eyes were opened; he noticed just how much his girlfriend and her family were connected by their mutual love for Billy Joel and his music.
Everyone has that favorite song or artist who elevates their mood when they’re feeling down. As an artist, AJ hopes to be that for people myself in his writing. “Vienna” – the ‘77 Billy Joel b-side -is that special song for Brianna (AJ’s girlfriend) and is the inspiration for the new single, appropriately named after the hero of Long Island himself, “Billy Joel.”
AJ Smith writes with such emotional honesty and clarity, that you can’t help but get goosebumps listening to his music. The unique qualities and power of his voice turn his nostalgia into your memories, his triumphs into your successes, and his heartbreak into your own loss. His unique pop sound is an effectively orchestrated blend of acoustic and electronic instruments: both raw and refined, featuring beautifully patient builds, builds, mesmerizingly unforgettable melodies, and emotionally compelling lyrics. His compelling sound helped secure Smith collaborations with GRAMMY-winner producer Scott Jacoby (John Legend, Vampire Weekend) for his 2016 single & EP “Brooklyn Nights”, which received airplay on Z100, Eagle 97.7 and DC101.
He has opened for Lindsey Stirling and Emily Kinney, and performed at Milwaukee Summerfest and Bethlehem MusikFest. AJ Smith’s inspiration is drawn from his unconventional path as a songwriter, one that has seen him serve as a Young Associate Violinist to the National Symphony Orchestra while simultaneously serving as an Engineer and Infrared Systems Developer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Never shy about seizing opportunities or facing challenges, Smith’s diverse passions and healthy obsessions led him on a genre-crossing journey. Now nearly 2,000 miles away from where his musical journey began, Smith makes his home in a city with a different sort of breathtaking view – New York. His continued wiz-kid love of technology that once had him building infrared sensors for the U.S. Navy now enables him to build out custom rigs for his one-man live shows that are a spectacle of showmanship, featuring Smith on a revolving multitude of instruments all at once. Be sure to stay in touch to see Smith’s next live show!
Connect With AJ Smith Online Here: WEBSITE
Learn more about AJ Smith in the following All Access interview:
Thank you for your time. So given these unusual Covid-19 times, what does a typical day look like for you? How have you adjusted to these times?
Before all of this happened, I would schedule writing/recording sessions every evening after work (still rocking a 9-5 that I’m extremely grateful for right now) or play shows when I was touring. A lot of that has shifted to zoom and livestreaming. It’s actually been a great time for me to write by myself as well, which is something I haven’t done much of in a while since I love collaborating.
So my typical day has me waking up around 7:30/8 so I can read, catch up on music emails and have coffee before I dive into my day job work. During my lunch break, I’ll do a radio interview or call with my music business team, and then I’ll try to get the rest of my work done so I can have a zoom songwriting session or work on producing music in the evenings.
What has been the hardest/most challenging part about being quarantined? Is your city starting to open up more now?
The hardest thing has been the emotional and mental toll. My girlfriend’s entire industry—she’s a Broadway actress, singer, dancer—is shut down with no timeline on a return until at least early 2021. Our landlord raised our rent in the middle of all of this, so we decided to give up our apartment. It was the right decision and some new opportunities have opened up which are really exciting, but it was still hard to pack everything up and say goodbye to a place where we’ve made so many memories. My dad is stressed beyond belief about the future of his business. My grandparents have been hospitalized and luckily have turned out to be okay, but there was a constant fear while they were there. We’ve lost family friends during all of this and my girlfriend’s mom “attended” two funerals on Zoom. My sister works in a hospital in D.C. as well, and I’m always worrying about her and the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on her. She works with COVID patients and goes to work every day trying to spread her light and positivity to her patients while wearing gradually declining quality PPE, and some people still want to politicize wearing a mask in public. But I try to stay positive and keep my family and friends in good spirits, because even if it’s hitting us hard in some ways, this has hit a lot of people much harder.
How have you been able to use social media during these unprecedented times? Are you finding that you use it even more now to stay connected to fans and other musicians?
I do a full livestream show every week and I’ve been doing them since mid-March, without interruption, so that’s been a fun way to engage with my family of fans; I want to keep that streak going as long as I can. At the beginning, I was really ambitious and going live on Instagram every night with a different songwriter friend of mine. That got to be exhausting while trying to keep up with everything else. But I do still find myself connecting more with people over social media than I was before. It’s the only way I can connect responsibly with many of my friends right now.
What has it been like having to reschedule your spring, summer and fall shows? What shows in 2021 are you are already excited for?
The rescheduling is still open-ended. We don’t have any finalized live show bookings because there’s still so much uncertainty. At first, we pushed the rest of my March and April tour dates to September. Those aren’t happening anymore either and we’re looking at March of 2021. But, Billy Joel invited me to open for him in 2021, which is extremely exciting if it still happens. Knock on wood–a lot could change with all that’s going on in the world–but, it would really be incredible to get to learn from him and get to play “Billy Joel” to his fans.
Since we are all desperately missing live music, can you recall a favorite show of yours from the past? What do you think ultimately makes for a great show for you? What about a favorite show of someone else?
I miss playing festivals. SummerFest was always a favorite of mine and it was cancelled this year along with everything else. One of the cooler shows I’ve ever played though was when I opened for The Eagles. It was incredible seeing those guys warm up and sound check and get their harmonies perfected the way that they did. It was my first time in a big theater (this was at the Beacon Theater in NYC). Absolutely unreal.
Since it looks like it’s going to be awhile before people can see you perform in person, can you talk about your custom rigs that you create for your one-man live shows?
I’m a total music engineering geek. And I’ve built a couple of Ableton rigs for myself so that I can loop in my drum pad, keyboard, violin, guitar, and vocals. And it’s really fun. It allows me to play everything, which is great for practicing, and fans love it because it’s one person simultaneously playing 4-5 instruments and singing. It’s a high intensity workout.
That said, I love playing with my band. Right now, we’re all spread out awaiting the return of responsible live music. I definitely miss them. My guitarist is in Germany with his family right now, so the most collaborative we can get is over Facetime. We actually had a running game of remote Risk going for a while; hopefully once I get settled in my new place, we can get that going again.
Let’s talk about your brand new track, “Billy Joel.” I love that it came from visiting your girlfriend’s family who all loved Billy Joel! I’m curious, how did it go from just being an idea in your head to a full-blown out song?
I keep a running list of song titles and ideas in my phone. That night, after meeting her family and having a Billy Joel singalong after several bottles of red and bottles of white, I wrote in my notes: “One day, I want to write a song called ‘Billy Joel.’”
Fast-forward to a songwriting trip to visit one of my closest friends and collaborators, producer Don Mills, up in Toronto. We were sitting on his deck having a drink and I was telling him the story and reading him some of the lyrics I had typed up in my phone. The story and message of the song resonated with him and he basically said, “dude, I don’t care if we finish any of the other songs we started this week – we need to work on this one until it’s done.” So he went and queued up a session and the song just poured out. It was an easy one to write, I think, because the idea had been germinating in my head for a while. We cut the piano and reference vocal there.
Fast-forward again to March 2020 and we had just moved out of our apartment to my girlfriend’s mom & step-dad’s house about an hour outside of NYC. I set up a mini recording studio in their basement and felt like the song really fit the moment. It’s a song about forgiveness, apologizing, empathy, compassion…and it felt like the world needed something emotional and raw like that. So right there in the basement, I tracked final vocals, strings, and we queued it up for release.
Do you have plans to release an EP or a full-length album later this year? How would you say that “Billy Joel” compares to new forthcoming music that you are working on? How thrilled are you to hopefully open for the musician once the pandemic is over? Or better yet, how thrilled is your girlfriend’s family about that?!
I would love to get it out this year, but it may be 2021 before the full project comes out. I’m working with my team to make sure we release it right because I think these songs have the ability to resonate with a lot of people and I want to be able to get it to folks in the right way.
The common thread in all of my music is definitely to dream big and share through raw, elaborate, and emotional storytelling. Like with “Billy Joel,” you can expect to hear a lot of live instruments, including strings and keys where they fit. My songs vary in lyrical and melodic complexity and will keep it fresh for listeners, but I definitely don’t hold any punches from an emotional level. I write songs for the feelers of the world. I either want to lift you up or let you know that you’re not alone when going through a tough time.
How would you say that your time as part of the National Symphony Orchestra and an Engineer and Infrared Systems Developer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has helped make you the kind of musician that you are today?
Performing with the NSO has definitely informed the way I arrange strings into my songs wherever I can make them make sense. It’s funny that you mention both of those in the same question because those were the two paths presented to me in a way and there came a pretty pivotal time when I had to make a choice. I’m a believer that people can be accomplished in multiple fields and don’t have to pick one, but there is also some merit to the idea of “where are you going to put in your 10,000 hours?” if you only have so many hours in a day when you’re just starting out.
I remember playing Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” when I was an associate with the National Symphony Orchestra, sitting next to my violin teacher who is still an active 1st violinist in the NSO. That piece was never performed during Mossorgsky’s lifetime because his mentor didn’t believe in the composition. And as I sweat my way through the Witches’ Sabbath theme, I had this mini-revelation, thinking of all the songs I’ve written and how I’d hate to leave this world (hopefully far, far, away in the future) and have never performed them in my lifetime and not released them or shared them. So I moved to New York to pursue a music career and left the Naval Research Lab behind.
That said, I actually went on a masked up and social distance hike with my first boss from the Naval Research Lab the other day and we caught up about how learning to code there has given me such a valuable skillset and “side hustle” (what I call my 9-to-5) while I chase my music dreams. He’s apparently been tuning into all of my quarantine livestreams and was really excited for my move to Nashville. He’s been super supportive of my music career, even though I think he wanted me to come and work with him in the lab long-term.
How do you think future music is going to be influenced by this incredible and absolutely necessary Black Lives Matter movement that the US and even the world is going through now? Is it inspiring you and your music today at all?
What’s really inspiring and encouraging this time around—and I say “this time around” because the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t new and the last ten years, my eyes were really opened to the reality of ongoing systemic violence against Black people in this country—is that I’m seeing people I love that I argued desperately with in 2016 start saying, “Black Lives Matter” now, when they maybe didn’t fully understand why that was such a necessary thing to say back then. It’s also discouraging to see some still don’t get it.
I’m still learning exactly how to use my voice within this moment. Depending on the day, you might catch me getting into it with someone on Twitter about how human rights are non-negotiable and shouldn’t be politicized. But, I’ve had to stop having those conversations on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not convinced that I am able to do it in a productive way and I can end up spending my entire day focused on a lost cause when I could be putting my energy and attention into something more positive.
I think one extremely important action that every artist, especially white artists, can take is to examine their influences. If you’re a rock or blues artist, if you play guitar, if you play banjo, the list goes on…your art and music has been influenced by African American music. And taking that in mind, giving respect to those who have come before to create that source material from which you draw inspiration, seek to amplify Black and marginalized voices. I am lucky enough to have some incredible champions and members on my team who are women in a notoriously male-dominated music industry. And I would encourage any artist, especially any white male artist who wants to see a better, more equal, and compassionate world to surround themselves with and listen to collaborators and team members who are Black, who are women, who are gay, who are diverse. It can’t be posturing, though. It must be genuine respect and appreciation. Out of that diversity, rising above adversity, we will see great art.
As to how it has impacted my own art…like I said, I’m still figuring out how to use my voice, especially in my own songwriting.
But I did write this song a week after George Floyd’s murder:
So many things that I’ll never have to do
Like be afraid to take a run each afternoon
Or sit at home and be mistaken for someone who’s trying to break in
Not live long enough to prove it.
So many things that I’ll never have to say
Like how the “talk” with my kids one day
Will be ‘bout sex, not how they’re labeled as a threat by those sworn to protect
It’s got me messed up.
And there’s so much that I’ll never truly see
Like my family being choked out in the streets
Brutalize their whole existence, the guilty hide behind “resistance”
And oh, my heart’s breaking
There’s so much that I’ll never have to lose
And all these things that I’ll never have to do
No one should have to.
If you could get into the studio with any artist today and collaborate on a new song, who would it be and why?
Among the living, so many – I feel like Bruno Mars and I would write some wildly good songs together and I’d love to just learn from him; it would be like attending a songwriting, singing, musical master class. I also have a song I wrote with my friend Easha that I think would be an incredible one to sing with Julia Michaels, if Easha and I don’t record it first. Also, Benny Blanco—apparently we grew up 5 minutes from each other, so we’d probably have a ton of fun. Lennon Stella is another artist I’d love to work with. Honestly, the list goes on and on.
That said, I’m also into super dramatic lyrics and melodies and I’d love to hop in a time machine and write with Freddie Mercury. That would be an absolute dream.
What would your dream music video look like right now?
I have one song on the upcoming album that tells such a vivid story that I’d love to just see it enacted in a music video. I see it taking place at a wedding on a pier. I’d be in the wedding band, almost narrating the drama that unfolds. All the music videos I really want to make would require a lot of people, so I’m having to flex some creativity or as I imagine what my videos might look like with a smaller cast and crew. I’ll probably have to learn to act a bit better since right now it’s seeming like we’ll be small scale producing video content for a while!
Would you like to share anything else about yourself or your music with our readers?
I think we covered a lot! Every week, I do a livestream show—usually on Fridays, but since I’m in the middle of moving to Nashville, I’ve had to be a bit flexible with what night I actually do the show. So drop a sub on youtube.com/ajsmithmusic or message me on IG @ajsmithmusic so we can chat and I can invite you to the next one!