Michael Louis-Smith’s ‘First Black Nation’ is a deeply emotional look at the disaster in Haiti through the lens of Smith’s musical stylings. Bringing together a group of longtime friends and collaborators for this project, Smith and his crew consisting of Stacy Dillard, Diallo House, Ismail Lawal, and Victor Gould, create thought-provoking vignettes of disaster, hope, and beyond. We caught up Michael to discuss the record and some of the musical experiences that helped shaped his vision. Be sure to grab your own copy of the record and then come out to the album release party at DROM on June 4th to experience the musical journey live.
What was the inspiration for recording First Black Nation?
Hearing all of the reports and the heartbreak from the disaster in Haiti just inspired me to write music. I wrote some pieces on the subject and they sat for a while. I picked them up again recently and started flushing out the story a little bit with some more material. But it was really inspired by the heartbreak and the horrific sound bites and images that were coming across here in the States. I couldn’t do the project right away. There needed to be some time.
What’s behind the name First Black Nation?
Well, originally the title was going to be “The Haiti Suites.” That was the title for the longest time. Then I decided I wanted to make it a less direct title and then also wanted to bring attention to some of the social and political things that make Haiti special.
The musicians you chose to be on the record with you needed to be able to perform both as a group and individually to create the vignettes of emotion you have on the record. How did you choose these musicians?
We’ve been playing together for a real long time. We have that brotherhood together; it’s a real strong connection as friends and also musically. The last album I did I wasn’t able to get everyone together, so I ended up mixing things up with some different personnel. So I just really wanted to have my brothers on this one.
We actually recorded a lot more music than just this one piece at this session. There’s going to be another album coming out. With the vignettes, I thought it was a nice way to give everybody an intro on the record.
We performed a lot of music on the road before we went in to record, so everyone was pretty in tune with each other. If we’re going to record an album we usually perform it beforehand on the road to flesh it out. Then when we record it we can do it in one take or so.
Aside from you all being friends and close musical collaborators, what makes this group special?
Aside from being friends, all of these guys are top musicians. We don’t even really have to talk. The rhythm section plays together a lot more because sometimes we can’t go on tour with the full quartet, but Stacy [Dillard] is just a great musician. He makes everything happen. We had Victor Gould on that solo piece for the record, but he’s on a bunch of tracks for the next record that we did at that session as well. It’s really nice to have him in the band now.
Minus Stacy, we are also the backing band for a Nigerian singer named Nneka. That’s when I became really good friends with Victor. He’s a fabulous player. It’s really unique with these guys because we are able to communicate with each other about exactly what we need to do. We all love music and care deeply about it.
Do you think the African inspiration from touring with Nneka influences your songwriting or playing styles coming out of that tour as well?
Definitely. I’ve been so busy putting this album out and doing other things that I haven’t been able to fully realize everything in my head. I’ve got a lot of music that was written on the road with her. Even before we got with her we were pretty versed in African music.
Not to get too far ahead, but what does the music from that same session sound like as opposed to what’s on the record?
It’s along the same lines in that it’s the same instrumentation, same musicians, and same sound. It’s jazz, but not so much straight ahead. There’s a piece on there inspired by Miles Davis’ Kilimanjaro with that mellow sound. I had intended to record some of the music that was inspired by working with Nneka, but we didn’t get around to everything. So we’re going to be going into the studio this fall to work on the backlog of projects we have.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)