Alexander Smith may be one of the most criminally underrated musicians in the city, not only for his superlative work with Lydia Burrell, but in the careful balance of satire and stylistically accurate musicianship found under Howell Dawdy. Composing as Howell Dawdy, Smith has no qualms with getting goofy and commits fully to his premise; if the joke involve country music, he’s going to absolutely wail.
With “Louisville“, Smith enumerates the many virtues of our fair city, a topic that rings true to our hearts here, before turning cartoonishly hostile in reference to St. Matthews, an affluent Louisville neighborhood in the east end of town. Like Weird Al or Mark Mothersbaugh, Smith has an incredible ear for not only mimicking a style, but in matching the general tonality of whatever genre he’s tackling. You can sample Louisville below, and learn how the sausage was made below.
Never Nervous: Put us in your shoes. What prompts your subject matter? How does what you’re singing about influence the music?
Howell Dawdy: I see the big picture first, what’s the joke and tone of the song and does that make me laugh. If so, I go for it. They usually come from just random thoughts but if my mind comes back around to it a few times I’ll start trying to make it happen. As for the stye of music I just go with my gut most of the time.
NN: I hear a lot of Weird Al or Beck in your music, both musicians who create very plastic music. When you’re digging into a style, say country or pop, what do you do to get started? How do you find the right fit for what you’re shooting for?
HD: In general, I trust my gut and work quickly and don’t try to emulate other songs or exact production styles. I want it all to be in my own world and not a parody. I try to make a demo pretty fast as I’m writing the words. That way at the end of the session I have something complete I can sleep on. Sometimes that’ll be too slow or two fast or I need to fix some words or the beat is cluttered.. There’s always details to sort out later, but I try to write as in the moment as possible. For instance if it’s more of a rap idea I’ll put a kick and snare on loop and start talking. If it’s a sung tune I pick up the guitar and dive in as quick as I can. It sort of feels like I’m letting the song write itself, and the broader style ends up, usually, being secondary to the concept of the song. However I am working on a song right now that is a huge Jim Croce rip off and I listened to Jim Croce and ripped off the way he layered guitars and mixed stuff. So it’s whatever I feel like doing I guess.
NN: For Louisville, what was the vibe you were working with in terms of the general tonality of the music? How, if at all, does that reflect Louisville?
HD: Louisville started with the backing vocals (ooh baby, what a thrill) and everything else is built on top of that. I wanted that wide open, inspirational vibe you hear in promotional stuff about cities and destinations. So it’s all cheery and bright like that. For me, I guess that represents Louisville because the song is aware that it’s corny, and so it gets pretty sarcastic about it.
NN: Why the animosity towards St. Matthews? Tell us about your burning hatred.
HD: Haha well.. Actually the St Matthews bit is from a song I wrote years ago that was a bunch of wikipedia facts about St Matthews with the chorus ‘I don’t care for St Matthews’. The facts were just regular boring facts and the joke was I was condemning it for no clear reason. That song didn’t end up working but I had it in my head and it just made me laugh to think of someone interrupting their city anthem to say ‘except for St Matthews’. Also it does suck out there.
NN: Are you ever worried that you might upset someone with your humor? Have you so far? Has Kimmet & Doug heard this track?
HD: Kimmet has heard it. She sent me a message and she was very cool about it and she said she thought it was funny. And by the way I was not being mean to Kimmet and Doug, they’re just an institution worth mentioning in your song about Louisville.
But yes, I do worry about alienating someone. I know I’m gonna be hollering my songs at people for the rest of my life and I want them to be surprised and weirded out and maybe even a little grossed out but I don’t want to diminish anybody or take lightly a struggle I don’t have to face. I have a song called We Don’t Eat that was (to me) a light, absurdist send up of extreme food movements. Then it occurred to me while I was performing it that someone with an eating disorder might see it as making fun of that. Also, the first draft of Fire Extinguisher had a couplet about needing a bunch of guns, but there were all these shootings going on and it made the whole thing more sinister and it wasn’t as funny to me, so I changed it. So yeah, I worry about it, and I may nix a song or change it, if it’s gonna make me feel like an asshole. But the tricky thing is I do want to be a little bit of an asshole. So, I guess that’s a continuous concern and I just listen to my big old throbbing love-filled heart. Also, if someone’s offended that I’m trashing St Matthews I’ll just say enjoy your 20 minute trip back to there pal.
NN: What do you hope people take away from this?
HD: I guess that you can love a place and also make fun of it, and that a musical tribute can make fun of its subject and still be a tribute. Also I’d like people to imagine if St Matthews was still an untouched new world wilderness of old-growth trees, streams, and wild animals, right here in our very own county.