The first thing Jake Smith had to work on was his voice.
When Smith began taking music seriously, late in his teens, there wasn’t much range to his singing. He had been raised in Southern California in the 1980s and naturally gravitated toward the dominant music of the setting: punk, hardcore and other forms of loud, aggressive styles.
“At the beginning, it was all louder stuff. I hadn’t honed it,” Smith said from his home in the greater Los Angeles area. “Younger, I didn’t even know I could sing. It was more contrived and guttural. It took awhile to let that go. It was more angst-ridden music, teenage angst. It took me awhile to find my own s---.”
These days, Smith, a 39-year-old who performs under the name The White Buffalo, is anything but one-dimensional. He can get loud: Often, Smith uses his tall, burly body to produce a deep, earth-shaking roar of a baritone. But probably more often, he puts the emphasis on melody, clarity and even softness of tone. Smith might look like a member of a butt-kicking Southern rock band, but his sound and musical persona make him more of the singer-songwriter who is billed in his promotional materials.
“I’m lucky I have the ability to do that — to be able to sing light, have something sensitive and delicate. And then the more aggressive, pushing, yelling — that can serve a song in a different way because there’s a lot of conflict in a song and in storytelling,” said Smith, who plays today at Belly Up. “You have to have that in a narrative — it’s all about the emotional and musical ride.”
Smith says the direction a song goes is a matter of instinctual feel rather than a thinking-through process. But having developed various sides to his voice, he has a wide range to draw from when it does come time to put his stamp on one of his songs.
“Things just happen. What feels right and what comes out, it’s just a feel and a natural feel for the most part,” he said of which side of him is expressed in a particular song. “It’s not just calculated.”
Under the name The White Buffalo, Smith is three albums and three EPs into his career. At this point, a good deal of his attention has shifted away from his voice. His latest album, “Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways,” released last month, raises the stakes on the songwriting. The album is a cycle of related songs that tell of a young outsider, Joe, who has known war and killing and now knows sorrow, regret and impending doom. If there is an avenue for redemption, it is through love and his girl Jolene.
“It has a beginning, a middle and an end,” Smith said of the album, whose song titles — the opening “Shall We Go On,” “Set My Body Free,” the closing “Pray to You Now” — indicate Smith’s desire to get to life’s big issues. “It’s the lifetime of Joey White and his wife, an exposition of good and evil, love and hope, war.”
Moving from a song-oriented process to album-oriented thinking is a step forward on par with adding a touch of Jack Johnson folk to Smith’s original base of Black Flag. It’s a way of stretching his creativity.
“The idea of writing an album as an album, that always attracted me,” Smith said. “The last couple albums I did, it was in the back of my mind. Then I had these songs, or parts of them, in my mind, and I wanted to make a whole piece of art. I arranged them in a way to make them flow, and I saw I could just do that right away. I just had to change some notes, tighten the story. Before, it was all stream of conscience, all these babbled words that I had to stitch together.”
“Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways” required attention to words, characters, themes and plot.
“I had to get these characters in different places, different emotions,” Smith said. “And there are so many life questions — going to war, the effect of war, redemption after he kills, things that are maybe quick fixes. And is there an afterlife? There’s a lot going on.
“This is a bit of an achievement for myself. There aren’t many projects I’m conscious of that tell a full story. I think I did a cohesive job.”
A parallel challenge was making songs that could stand on their own. Smith brings up the example of “Fire Don’t Know,” which fits into the narrative of Joe rediscovering himself — “becoming less of an animal,” as Smith put it — but also is a self-contained meditation on how objects don’t have meaning unto themselves, how it is humans who attach meaning to things.
“Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways” is hardly sunny. But there is a heavy spiritual element, and there is the prospect of better things.
“The only way he’ll become human again, or halfway normal, is through the love of this woman, his wife,” Smith said. “He’s realizing he has human feelings about people and love.”
Smith recalls the moment of his own, slightly less profound transformation. Late in his head-banger years, Smith began visiting a friend’s house, where the friend’s father would play guitar — not thrashing punk chords but the tunes of writers including Bob Dylan and John Prine. Smith began following that path to Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and Elliot Smith.
“I was off to the songwriting races. I just started writing with no purpose, no agenda, no lofty goals,” he said. “My father asked, ‘When are you going to get a guitar?’ It seemed like a weird thing to do. But I played one for my mom, and she was shocked. She said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’”