Rett Smith comes from a dark place. Literally. Oscuro, New Mexico, to be exact – a town named for the Spanish word for "dark," near where he spent time as a teen in those southwest mountains. It's also the title of his new EP, a four-song journey into those shaded corners of existence, exploring hardship, heartbreak and redemption through bluesy riffs, a retro soul and Smith's raw, honest howl. A new and unstoppable presence on the musical landscape, Smith's focused on cranking the feedback high, the guitars loud and keeping the studio tricks to a minimum: Oscuro may conjure darkness, but it's pure, analog rock & roll that he's helping back into the light.
With that approach, it's no wonder that Grammy-wining producer Joe Nicolo, who has worked with the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, was so drawn to Smith's early recordings that he invited him to create his debut, Tularosa, in his Philadelphia studio – in a world enamored equally by synth-based EDM and earnest banjo-laced roots music, Smith stands out as someone more intent on bringing back the days of when guitars sounded like guitars, and artists looked to blues and soul gods like Lead Belly and Robert Johnson for true inspiration. Some might say rock & roll is dead, but Smith would beg to differ: and Oscuro is his argument why.
"Rock is where my heart lies," says Smith, who refuses to buck to trends. "On stage, and on the record, I just always want something to happen – that intangible moment. My heart lies in rock and heavy, charging blues, and I if didn't play that, how could I say my songs were real?"
Born in Texas, Smith has lived everywhere from Austria to New York to now Nashville, with time spent, of course, in New Mexico, where he grew up on the professional skiing circuit. Though sports seem like a far cry from his days now as a singer-songwriter, the similarities were often more numerous than not: he lived a life on the road away from his family, constantly pressuring his body to perform even when it was pushed to the edge, looking for sanity and companionship in an increasingly isolating world. Turns out, sanity and companionship often came through words and music.
"I felt true isolation, and used words and writing as a way to channel that," Smith says. "I was always journaling, writing short stories, poems; I was listening to music like early blues and country, and reading constantly – authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who told the great American story." While other teammates and competitors were being lured into the perks of a life that included big-name sponsorships, Smith would dig deep into his artistic world instead.
But tenure as a professional athlete is not easy on the body, especially for someone like Smith, who never powers on anything less than all cylinders – and soon, after numerous injuries, he found his career on the snow had to end. Once again, he turned to music: this time picking up the guitar and finally turning all of that writing into lyrics. Though he got a late start, it made sense to him instantly, and soon had enough material cobbled together to released four original songs online. Within a week, KCRW took notice – the famed Los Angeles radio station featured his music on-air, a moment most burgeoning artists can only dream of.
But it didn't stop there. The radio recognition led to an invitation to play the House of Blues – an amazing opportunity, with one small problem. Smith had never preformed his songs live with a band before. No matter: he said yes, and quickly assembled a trio. "The first time I ever sang in public was at the House of Blues," says Smith, who eventually went on to sell out the Viper Room. "I'd never even sung in front of my sister or a campfire. From there, I started playing constantly. I took a lot of pride in being the guy who said yes to everything."
It was then that Nicolo took notice, leading to a two-week recording session together and even a distribution deal with Sony. But for Oscuro, Smith decided to take things into his own hands, recording in his new home of Nashville at Blackbird Studios – Nicolo mixed the EP, but Smith produced it himself. Gritty and full of spontaneity, it's a high-octane set of blues-driven tracks packed with chugging riffs and jangly melodies, from the fuzzed-out sadness of "Broken Heart and T.B.I" to the devastatingly honest "To Death."
"It's a landscape of disparity," says Smith about the EP. "These aren't happy songs. If you dive into the lyrics, they are sad. And they reflect a hard time in my life. But there has to be hope at the end of this, too."
From sidelining injuries to headlining shows, from athletic sponsorships to one from Gibson guitars, from darkness into the light, Smith has weathered it all. The lesson? Always leave room for growth, honesty and rock & roll.