The 2010 bestseller 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.
While making her new album “Banga,” out last 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 outside the US. 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 Records’ vice president of international marketing.
Smith is 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 she 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 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 Mikhail Bulgakov. She wrote during a cruise on the Costa Concordia (before the voyage 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.”
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 lyrics. 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.”