Lately, Nathan Smerage spends a lot of time on the road. The young guitarist, who originally hails from Chicago, hits as many regional shows as he can for a few weeks at a time, swings back through Santa Fe for a month or so, and then back out he goes. It's a solo affair and an evolving practice for Smerage; both a far cry from his days of straight rock with Venus and the Lion, a once-promising band formed during the heyday of Santa Fe University of Art and Design that is now no more, and a departure from his session and concert work with bands like Storming the Beaches with Logos in Hand. Smerage's solo work has been contemplative and complicated, like a gospel-adjacent next step for a fan of Iron & Wine or the culmination of a studied guitarist who splits time between riffs and rock and fingerpicking lessons.
For his new record, The NO LAND Sessions, Smerage enlisted Storming the Beaches' Luke Carr for production and DIY arts org Strangers Collective's physical space off the Plaza, NO LAND, as a makeshift studio; the results are staggering. Smerage has obviously matured since his previous efforts, Rain Check and Like Polishing Firewood/Stage Left Exit—though, he says, the new songs have been in the works since the release of those albums last year. "I had started writing the stuff pretty much right after Rain Check came out and, at that time, I was actually recording with the one and only Jason Goodyear," Smerage says of the Santa Fe Community College audio professor. "I lived across the street from him, so I would go over once I finished a song and record in his personal studio—he really coached me on my playing and pushed me to go down the scary road of a solo guitar album."
Smerage has done solo before, yet he says that the work he attempted with Goodyear was premature. "The songs didn't get room to breathe," he explains. "It took this past summer's length, I'd say … to find what I could make a song into with just guitar. Lessons with Tom Adler helped." Adler, a former Santa Fe University of Art and Design professor, is actually better known as a banjo player, but as a veritable font of Americana and bluegrass knowledge, he's been known to help fledgling guitarists expand their repertoires. "I got super into ragtime," Smerage adds.
The production of NO LAND occurred over a single weekend at the art space. Carr set up multiple microphones around the room—including a clever telephone mic that sounds pretty much how you'd think it would—and Smerage played live. "I can't pretend to understand all of [the audio setup], but I certainly learned a bunch about treating a solo instrument," he says, "and figuring out what rules can be broken." Smerage further explains that these rules had mostly to do with a lo-fi sound dialed in by Carr, and a smaller guitar than most musicians generally record with. "Luke and I were finding ways to bring grit into the record," he says. "To have parts sound almost like a voice memo … I thought was rad."
And rad they are, these familiar-yet-refreshing translations of older styles for a modern era. Smerage deftly transitions through waltzes and rags, at once showcasing his talent and understanding of the aforementioned rule-breaking. It isn't what you'd expect from someone so young, but twentysomething Smerage has skills. "I think the record is totally Santa Fe-inspired," he continues. "I'm not sure I would have made something like this in Chicago—[I had] so many inspirations; ppoacher ppoacher's most recent record, Johnny Bell's endeavors into experimental Americana; the Atalaya mountain trails are rad. I could go on."
Which actually raises an interesting point: Can Americana-esque albums still break new ground or, at least, not seem stale after so much exposure in a town like Santa Fe? Smerage comes awfully close to proving they can (and we'll tip our hat to Johnny Bell and the Visitors while we're at it) and we can't wait to hear what else he's been working on. In the meantime, The NO LAND Sessions releases Thursday Dec. 21 at a solo Smerage show. Let's all go learn together.
Nathan Smerage Album Release
7 pm Thursday Dec. 21. Free; $10 for the CD.
54 1/2 E San Francisco St.