6 November 2023

Canberra folk artist marks 7 years since Leonard Cohen's death with towering song

| James Coleman
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Fred Smith

Guess where the album name came from? Photo: Fred Smith, Facebook.

Today (7 November) marks seven years since Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen truly was “ready, my Lord”.

It’s also the 80th birthday of Helen Garner, the Australian true-crime novelist behind Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, This House of Grief, and others.

These two noteworthy anniversaries haven’t been lost on Canberra folk artist Fred Smith, who has written songs to honour their legacies. ‘Lenny’ and ‘Hel’ are included in his new album Look, described as walking a “nice line between reverence and piss take”.

Fred released his first album in 1998, entitled Soapbox, which has sold about 3000 copies in Canberra to become “a bit of a local success”.

He has also featured on the ABC’s Australian Story and published a book called The Dust of Uruzgan, inspired by his many stints in Afghanistan as a political officer “engaging with tribal leaders and provincial government officials”.

He returned to the Australian embassy in Afghanistan in 2020 and again in 2021 to assist with the US Army’s evacuation of Kabul.

These experiences have become a major source of inspiration for his songwriting. Throughout August 2022, for instance, he toured southeast Australia with ‘Gates of KIA’, a song about the anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

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“I’ve spent much of the last two years very focused on telling the Afghanistan story,” he says.

“But Look marks a real transition away from all that.”

Fred has long been a fan of Helen Garner’s writing and her “real gift for observation”.

“She doesn’t take on anything particularly remarkable, but she pays attention to the world very carefully and describes it very honestly, and that’s all it takes to make good art.”

He first encountered Leonard Cohen while working as a waiter on a cruise ship in the Hawaiian islands when he was 18.

“Another waiter there, an old Mexican guy, took it upon himself to provide with me a cultural education – he gave me a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a copy of War and Peace, a brochure from an East German holiday camp, and a Leonard Cohen cassette,” Fred recalls.

“I started listening to this stuff, and it didn’t make an immediate impact, but about a year later, it sank in. I’m not the first to have fallen for the songs of Leonard Cohen – he seems to be a power who understands our longings and drives, irrational as they may be.”

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Work on a single to celebrate Cohen’s life started in 2004. It’s finally complete and wrapped up in Look. This name, believe it or not, was inspired by the road-surface safety markings near Canberra’s light-rail tracks.

“I was telling my photographer Jeff Dunn how I didn’t have any ideas, and he said, ‘Oh, I know a really cool shot in front of the tram’ … So we dressed up and took the shot and the concrete just happened to have the word ‘Look’ on the front, and there was no way of getting that out of the photo. So we thought, ‘Well, there it is’.”

Fred Smith

Fred’s time in Afghanistan is an inspiration for many of his works. Photo: Fred Smith, Facebook.

Fred describes the lead single, ‘Crisis’, as a “gentle piss-take on my career as a songwriter and folk singer in Canberra”.

“An upbeat zeitgeist-tickling Rumba tune, inspired by the last three years that have seemed to be a rolling series of crises around the world.”

Another song captures what it’s like to spend three lockdowns cooped up in a hotel in Afghanistan.

Fred will spend the next few months “touring the shit out of it” through Melbourne, Bundanoon, Braidwood, and here in Canberra on Saturday, 25 November at The Street Theatre. He says “people are really warming to the songs”.

“So many people have been touched by Leonard Cohen’s writing, and I think it really resonates now. There’s a lot in the new album people are responding to – meditations on mortality, but with a humour to it as well people seem to resonate with too.”

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