New Yorker Patti Smith's influence is wide
Sunday, June 10, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) — The success of Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids," about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, sealed her reputation as a wide-ranging artist and writer at the heartbeat of New York City.
The 2010 best-seller about growing up in New York's art scene won the National Book Award for nonfiction and is her most successful project yet in any format. But whether her new literary fans will translate into more buyers of her music is a question Smith has been asking herself of late.
While making her new album "Banga," out this week, Smith said she "had more of a sense that I had people I was speaking to in America, because I haven't felt that in a long time."
She knows her audience. It's why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member will be far from home this summer supporting the release of "Banga," her first album of original music in eight years.
Three-quarters of Smith's music sales are from outside of the United States. At home, she's a niche artist best remembered for the 1978 hit "Because the Night." Overseas, she's a star, with her biggest markets in Germany and France, said Jenifer Mallory, Columbia's vice president of international marketing.
She's in Europe all summer, starting a tour in Norway on June 23 and ending in London in September.
Smith said she thinks a European audience responds better to a multi-disciplinary artist. She's got a rock 'n' roll growl with the best of them, but Smith considers herself primarily a writer and also exhibits her photography.
"They can understand that I'm a visual artist and a poet," said Smith, who's 65. "They're more friendly toward activism and strong political stances against one's government. When I would be banned and questioned in America, they're more embracing in Europe."
Smith works hard to seed her success in Europe, Mallory said. She traveled to Paris and London in April for several events and interviews previewing "Banga." It's a disc of wide-ranging intellectual heft, with songs inspired by the late French actress Maria Schneider, singer Amy Winehouse and novelist Mikel Bulgakov. She wrote during a cruise on the Costa Concordia (before the sail where it ran aground off Tuscany), and wrote "Nine" as a birthday present for Johnny Depp (they became friendly after spending time together in Puerto Rico, where Depp was filming "Rum Diary" and Smith interviewed him for a magazine).
"Banga" is also a good bet to be the only disc this year with a song about explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
Smith takes natural pride in two of the disc's musicians — her son Jackson, who plays guitar and daughter Jesse, a pianist.
Jackson, who's 30 and married to the musician Meg White, picked up his father's guitar and taught himself to play after Fred "Sonic" Smith died in 1994. Jesse, 25, is featured on the album-closing version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush."
"It's for their father," said Smith, who lived in Detroit for many years while married but is now back in New York. "When we all play together, we really have him with us. I'm just so happy that they have so much of him within them. I just want my kids to be healthy and happy. They can do whatever they want. But they're musicians, through and through."
Smith's maternal instincts partly inspired "This is the Girl" about Winehouse, who died last year. It was originally written as a poem, but as the album was coming to a close, bass player Tony Shanahan offered some music that matched the lyric.
Smith was drawn to Winehouse as a singer who had "one of the most unique voices I had ever heard," she said.
"I was amazed at this girl and equally worried about her," she said. "I thought, 'This poor girl is going to ruin this tremendous gift,' and of course it turned out much worse than that. But I worried about her. I used to daydream about talking to her and trying to inspire her to take better care of herself. But I never got that opportunity."
Smith's only instrument is her voice and nobody compares it to Winehouse's. She remembers "winging it" as a singer early in her career. But she's taken care of that voice by not smoking and rarely drinking, and the song "April Fool" is a showcase for how that voice has improved as well as being the most straightforward pop song on the disc.
A rarity that can be found on the Internet is testament to Smith's love of a good pop song. The punk poet sang a respectful version of Debby Boone's soaring ballad "You Light Up My Life" while appearing on a children's television show around the time that song and the Bruce Springsteen-penned "Because the Night" was popular.
"I've always had an interesting life," Smith said. "I look upon it with great amazement. I've met some wonderful people, both known and unknown. I've had great relationships. I have great kids. I do the work that I want. I've been able to do the work that I want with no compromise or regrets. So I feel pretty lucky."
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