The hard rock band Shinedown was formed in Florida in 2001 and has gone on to release six studio albums and find a high level of mainstream success. The group has the most number-one singles on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart out of any other band, with 16 number one tracks. Every single the group has ever released has charted in the top 5 on that same chart. Recently, Billboard ranked Shinedown number 1 on their Greatest of All Time Mainstream Rock Artists chart. In 2020, frontman Brent Smith and guitarist Zach Myers followed up their 2014 acoustic project, Smith & Myers, with two full volumes of acoustic covers and original acoustic music.
Shinedown’s film accompaniment to their latest record, Attention Attention, is set to be released on September 3.
Read on for our interview with Shinedown frontman Brent Smith, where we talk about musical beginnings, songwriting, Smith & Myers and Shinedown 7.
What initially drew you to songwriting and music and performing?
Brent Smith: As early as I can remember, I was compelled by melody, different types of sounds, ever since I can remember. My mother has always said that I came out screaming and singing all at the same time. A friend of mine, a couple of years ago, made a very simple statement, but it held a lot of weight, which is ‘you don’t necessarily pick the music, the music picks you.’ And I’ve always been very humble and very respectful and I try to show an immense amount of gratitude for the fact that, ever since I was a child, I always knew what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a songwriter. I didn’t come from this school of learning other people’s material. I started writing early, around 10 years old. I feel very, very lucky that I’ve been able to be on this path. I always knew what I wanted to do. What I do today, I work every single day to be the best I can at it. I always had a vision and I always knew what I wanted to do.
You have one of the most iconic rock voices of the early 2000s, built with tons of texture and range—when you go to lay down vocals for a track, what kind of thought or purpose exists behind the way you choose to sing a song?
Smith: I sing it like it could potentially be my last day on earth. That’s one of the best ways I can say it. You know, because it’s an interesting element. Granted, I’ve got to say this, too, I’ve had a lot of extraordinary teachers. Not vocal teachers, but I’ve been able to be in a lot of studios with world-class producers, different songwriters—so I’ve been very lucky to be in the presence of a lot of people in the industry, male and female, that I have just, constantly over the years, really listened to. I’m not the type of person that has to hear the sound of their own voice in a conversation—I’m listening a lot of the time because I’m studying what’s going on.
But at the end of the day, too, man, it’s got to come from your heart and your soul. You’ve got to be honest about it. Especially when you’re writing, you have to have an immense amount of integrity, because people aren’t stupid and they can see through if you’re not genuine. And I’ve always tried to be extremely genuine. Every time I walk into a studio and I come up on a mic, or when I walk on stage, whatever city I’m in, you try to do it—and it’s not meant to sound morbid, it’s quite the opposite—do it like it’s your last day on earth, man. It matters and it’s forever. That’s the mentality I have when I get up to any microphone.
It’s a very emotional kind of thing.
Smith: Yeah, and there’s a bit of study involved in it. When it’s live, it’s live. But when it’s in a studio, you don’t want to out-sing a performance. And what I mean by that is don’t walk in there with this idea of ‘I’ve got to hit every single note perfect,’ because then, all of a sudden, you sound like a robot. With technology and the way the advancements are with recording, everybody in Shinedown, we still come at every record with an analog mentality. Do it in one take. Don’t necessarily cut and paste everything. Make sure that you’re singing through it. When we’re writing a song, a lot of the times, we don’t really have a demo process anymore. Now, what we do is we’ll write the song, we have a good understanding of what the song is, but when I walk into the studio to sing it, it is me singing it for the first time. I’m trying to get that inflection, that passion; I’m trying to emote. Sometimes it’s hard to be what is considered the ‘demo,’ because it was a moment in time. I find that if I go back and try to redo what I did in the demo, it just doesn’t have the same feeling.
What does your songwriting or creative process look like? How do you find an idea and nurture that into a completed song?
Smith: Yeah, it depends. I’ve often said this and it’s very true: I write songs because it’s cheaper than therapy. It’s something that I’ve been able to do since I was 10 years old. I’ve just never had a problem conveying my thoughts or how I feel. And I’ve always been able to put it into a song format. I can’t write things out of thin air. A lot of the stuff I write is because of a situation I’ve been in, a scenario I’ve been a part of; life experiences in general. And also, everybody around me, from everybody in the band to the amount of shows we’ve played over the years, the fanbase that we’ve met—we’re in the middle of mixing Shinedown seven right now, and I take it very seriously that we have 27 singles in our career that have been released. That’s still mind-boggling to me. But I also don’t think that I’ve done my best work yet, either. So that’s another thing; I’m always searching for different subject matter. I’m always paying attention to my surroundings.
Obviously, if we’re commissioned to do a film and there’s a storyline involved in things—one good example of that is Sylvester Stallone with The Expendables and ‘Diamond Eyes.’ He had a very specific way that he wanted the song to be. He gave us examples. It was awesome working with him because he knew exactly what he wanted to convey. I remember the only thing that he cared about was that we use the term ‘boom-lay, boom-lay, boom,’ which was a little bit, for me, ‘how am I gonna make that cool?’ But then you find out where he got that from. Expendables was built out of a poem. And every paragraph in the poem, the narrator said ‘boom-lay, boom-lay, boom.’
So getting back to your original question, I just pay attention to my surroundings. A lot of times, I don’t question that part of the process in regards to the writing. I’ve been very lucky—knock on wood—it kind of just comes to me.
The Attention Attention film is being released in September—can you talk about that project, why you felt it was important to put together this visual component of the record?
Smith: The song ‘Get Up’ is the song, during the writing process that made us understand that this is following a thread. We already had the song ‘Monsters’ written and we had gotten back from the Iron Maiden tour and we wrote ‘Brilliant.’ And we were working on what became ‘Black Soul.’ Once we wrote ‘Get Up,’ we started figuring out what was actually transpiring. That this was an album about people from all walks of life. It didn’t matter if you were young; if you were older; if you were a male or a female; the color of your skin was irrelevant; your religion, that was yours, that was up to you; it’s individuality. And everybody has a different story. Everybody has a different set of obstacles that they’re gonna have to maneuver. We wanted to make it an album about, not only the human spirit but also how important that element is—I’ve often said human beings, we’re at our best when we need one another. Sometimes you feel as if you’re alone, mentally, especially in this day and age because of social media, because of the way the world is; everybody is on a platform. So how do you find yourself in a society like that? And how can you, instead of going down a rabbit hole of, basically, a mental health decline, how do you use that to make yourself stronger? How do you not ignore the issues that sometimes are unpleasant? How do you find solutions to the problems? How do you help your fellow man, woman, child? How do you become a better person, for everyone?
Once we figured out it was a conceptual piece, then the next step became ‘well, we have to show it all visually.’ And that was the beauty of finding Bill Yukich, who’s the director of Attention Attention. And kind of how we borrowed a little of the mentality from Quentin Tarantino, in regards to Pulp Fiction and the way that we released the singles out of order, that was all on purpose. So now, three years later, with the success of the record and the visual aspects that people have seen, it’s fun to watch the fanbase from a global standpoint go ‘what’s happening?’ The goal was always to do it that way and then show it in its entirety so that people were finally able to go ‘that’s what they meant by all of this.’ It’s been a fun journey. I give a lot of credit to Bill Yukich.
With that record, Attention Attention, all the tracks except one are titled in all caps. ‘Special’ is all lowercase, and also sounds and feels different from the rest of the album. Can you break down the song and the caps versus lowercase difference?
Smith: That was 100 percent on purpose. There was a moment in time during the writing process of everything, and really once we were in the recording portion of the record—we had done the writing, we had everything and we were recording—where we questioned whether or not ‘special’ belonged on the album. Would people really understand what that song is saying, in context to the story? Because the first time you hear it—and once again, we know the way people consume music nowadays. The younger generation is more of a single mentality. But the way that we look at it is, not to sound dated, but it is a traditional record. It is meant to be listened to from the beginning to the middle to the finale. So there was a question mark: would people understand why ‘special’ is there?
All the other songs are capitalized because they’re all a part of a moment in time in this story, where the different people that are involved in the storyline—because they all come from different walks of life—there had to be a centerpiece where these people understood that they’re not special. What that’s actually saying is ‘you’re not special, but neither am I.’ Meaning, we’re all individuals. You have to work hard and you have to be willing to go to the ends of the earth for yourself as an individual if you want the life that you’ve always dreamed of. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. That’s why it’s lowercase. It humbles you. It humbles you from everything else. There’s this dynamic in society today where people are so afraid of failure that they won’t even attempt whatever it is they’re thinking of doing. It’s trial and error. You’re not gonna be remembered in life for your failures. You’re gonna be remembered in life that you were willing to fail in order to see if you could do it. Your legacy is not built around your failures.
I think that why ‘special’ incorporates this acknowledgment is that you have to be willing to do everything in your power to have the life that you want. You have to earn it. It was a tough call. The one specific line in the song that holds the most weight in my mind is ‘life is too short to run it like a race / because it’s never gonna matter if you win first place.’ You’re born, you live, and we’re all gonna pass away. I’m not one of these people that believes that this is it. I think that we’re all made out of energy. It’s that dynamic, too, when people lose a loved one when they’re at the funeral and they’re so saddened by it, and they think to themselves, ‘I can’t believe they’re gone.’ They’re not gone; they’re everywhere. That’s why ‘special’ was so important. But why it’s lowercase is because of the humility. If anything, ‘special’ is probably one of the songs on the album that gives people the most encouragement.
The Smith & Myers acoustic side project released its first two volumes in 2020—specifically for the original songs that are peppered throughout those two records, was writing those songs different from the way you write a Shinedown song?
Smith: Hundred percent, yeah. Two totally different projects. And a lot of people have dissected it a little bit. I’m one of those people where I’m like ‘put it on and enjoy it.’ If you want to dissect it, go ahead, you know, that’s part of it. We put it out there, obviously, it’s gonna get judged. But yeah, the project started in 2014 because our fanbases asked us if we would do another cover song because Shinedown’s known for a very famous cover that we do. There’s a lot to that story of why we do that cover, which is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man,’ but we’re not a cover band. The dynamic of that was, me and Zach just thought ‘we’ll let the fans pick the songs that they want to hear.’ We ended up doing it. We filmed it, back in 2014. He was like, ‘let’s call it something different. Let’s call it Smith & Myers.’ And I said, ‘we sound like a bakery or a law firm,’ and he was like ‘exactly.’
The fanbase really appreciated it, and I actually thought we would never ever do anything else with it. Then we went out in 2017 and did some shows and they did very, very well, and so later on, at the beginning of 2019 we were doing a show in Sayreville, New Jersey, and me and Zach had talked about doing another record. And I just blurted out on stage: ‘I know everybody’s wondering if we’re gonna do this again and make another Smith & Myer’s record. The answer is yes, and we’re actually gonna make two records.’ And I had not told Zach that that’s what I was gonna say. Zach says I am the king of just saying stuff. But I have to put it out in the atmosphere so that it will happen.
The reason for the two records was, we were gonna do 10 new covers, but for the very first time we were gonna do 10 original songs as Smith & Myers. Not as Shinedown, but as Smith & Myers. “Bad At Love’ was the first original song that we wrote and it was written in like 30 minutes. And then it just took off from there. Our long-time fifth member of Shinedown, our producer was like ‘man, let’s just go. As it comes.’ But we weren’t thinking at all ‘be careful, that might be a Shinedown song.’ Because we didn’t think like that, we really looked at it as a debut. We look at this double album really as a first record. I have to say this, too, the two people that gave us the most support with this was Eric and Barry.
They both work with each other. If you know who Shinedown is, just by the situation, you’re probably gonna listen to Smith & Myers, too. But what we’ve found is there’s a lot of people that are into the Smith & Myers project that don’t know that we’re two-fourths of the band Shinedown. I’m glad that’s true because that was the whole point. Also, why would I make a carbon copy of the band I’m in. If you listen to it, some people might say it’s reminiscent of it here and there because of my voice, but then some people say ‘not really.’ If you listen to it, it’s a different project.
Do you intend to keep up with new Smith & Myers music in the future?
Smith: ‘Bad At Love’ is actually currently being worked at Hot AC radio, right now. Some top 40 stations are starting to add it, which is a little unexpected, but very cool. Yeah, it’s all scheduling. We have to make sure one doesn’t impede the other. Don’t get me wrong, though. The breadwinner is definitely Shinedown. Some people are like ‘oh, god, what are they going to do.’ You’re safe. We’re not gonna un-rock Shinedown. But yeah, it’s about evolving, too. We want to create as much as we possibly can. Shinedown’s not going anywhere.
Earlier you mentioned you were in the mixing process on Shinedown 7—is there anything you can say about the record, when we might expect it?
Smith: I can tell you to buckle up. I really can’t talk too much about it, but I will definitely tell you at the beginning of 2022, pay close attention, because there’s gonna be a lot of impact.
You can listen to Shinedown here.