Vowing To Be “Cooler” – AJ Smith Talks Hindsight And Teaching Ukulele For A Space Mission

Multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter AJ Smith released new single and video “Cooler” on October 8th channeling so much relatable reflection on the “hindsight” we have when trying to impress someone we think is cooler and more interesting than we are. Other recent releases include the single and video “Roommate” where ukulele and a moving van take center stage and Smith is planning an upcoming album release in 2022 for Illusions of Grandeur from which the song “Cooler” is taken.

You may well have come across AJ Smith very recently on Netflix’s series called Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space following the lives of the first all civilian crew to go on a space mission. AJ Smith took part in the mission and the documentary by spending many hours teaching space traveler Christopher Sembrowski to play the song “Colors” by Black Pumas on the ukulele, along with vocals, so he could perform it on his mission in space. Why a uke? Well, a guitar was too large and heavy to take to space, but a uke was perfect. I spoke with AJ Smith about the songwriting behind “Cooler” and “Roommate”, and also about his experiences teaching Sembrowski “Colors” via Zoom to make it an extra-special mission for everyone.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Firstly, Illusions of Grandeur is a great album title. I want to give you some applause for that. I noticed that “Cooler” is a co-write with Jenson Vaughan. Are you someone who often co-writes with others?

AJ Smith: It’s a mix. I co-wrote it with Jenson, his girlfriend Sarah [Raba], and our friend who is a producer, Bhav [Pattani]. We wrote a few songs together. I had gone up to visit them. It’s always fun when you get to hang out with friends and make music together. Then I often write by myself, too. I think that’s something that, during Covid, I ended up doing a lot more of. I love writing with other people because it’s a bunch of people who are all getting to do the thing that they love most in the world together. But there’s also something fulfilling about finishing a song by yourself and creating a body of work that way.

HMS: I actually really love the song “Cooler” because it’s so relatable. I know that I have an internal voice that thinks, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” It’s excruciating sometimes, but the song feels cathartic because even though it lists all those things, it has an aspiration to it. It says, “No! Somehow I will do better next time!”

AJS: The conversations from childhood that keep me awake sometimes! I’m still thinking, “I can’t believe that person said that!” That person probably doesn’t even remember.

HMS: It’s harsh to have a memory that good.

AJS: At the end of the day, it’s probably a personality thing for me. I’m a people-pleaser and that’s probably why I became an artist. When I was dating my fiancé, I was thinking, “I really hope that she likes me.” And I was second-guessing everything after I said it. Was she going to think that was really stupid? Evidently not, since we’re still together. But it’s still true when meeting new bandmates or new friends. I’m bringing a new bassist with me on tour and we met for coffee. I was nervous to chat with him, hoping this guy wouldn’t think I was a loser.

HMS: We’re all really out of practice with social interaction right now, which heightens everything, so that’s why I think this song is great for this time. We’re all feeling like that!

AJS: Oh, gosh, yes. You go from Zooming everyone to in-person, and then you realize you can’t just be chewing food all the time in the meeting.

HMS: For me, it’s like, “Oh, I’m leaving the house right now, what am I even wearing? Is this okay?” Tell me about the video for “Cooler” featuring this fabulous, sparkly red guitar.

AJS: I’m giving the guitar away on Instagram as an encouragement for people to presave the song. I’m taking the guitar on tour with me and I’m going to do a drawing and pick someone to ship the guitar to. It’s a Telecaster. For the video, I was feeling sort of retro, and wanted to find a place outside that we could shoot so my friends could all come and be in it. We picked a drive-in movie theater.

The premise is that I’m on a date with my fiancé, who plays opposite me. She’s an actress who is going to be in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story coming out in December. We’re basically both on this first date and we are wondering if the other person likes us. We envision this fantasy where on the drive-in-movie screen, I’m in a Grease-style leather jacket. We’re thinking, “What if we were cool, like that? Would the other person like me?” The concept is, basically, “Hey, be yourself and people will like you.”

HMS: That’s a great concept. I noticed that you did a Master’s Degree in Songwriting, and that you have a classical background. With the Master’s Degree, what were some of the things that stayed with you the most?

AJS: I don’t know that you need a Master’s in songwriting to be a great songwriter, but I do think that it accelerated the learning curve for me. It helped me learn concepts and writing skills, and a lot of history, which was great. But these skills would probably have taken me many more years to craft and I think that was immensely valuable.

Through that, I also got to meet some amazing mentors who I could still send a song over to and get some really great feedback. I might say, “I feel like my lyric is not really hitting home here, what do you think?” And they might say, “Maybe you should change your perspective. Maybe it a “we” instead of an “I”?” That’s invaluable to have people like that who you can count on.

HMS: It sounds less like operating in a vacuum, creatively speaking.

AJS: In this really tough industry of ups and downs, it is good to be able to fall back and then think, “I got this. I am good at what I do and I have these resource in my corner.”

HMS: Did you create the songs “Roommate” and “Billy Joel” during Covid?

AJS: For “Roommate”, yes. For “Billy Joel”, I had written that before Covid, but recorded during Covid. I worked with my friend, whose producer name is Don Mills, wrote and produced “Billy Joel” together and we worked over Zoom since he lives in Toronto. I asked him to vocal produce me over Zoom, since I wanted somebody listening.

I had him on Zoom while I was doing the vocal sessions so we could try to make the song as emotionally powerful as possible. When I was recording the string parts, too, we did the same thing. I was playing the violins and everything. It’s nice to have that other person collaborating. If we had to go through a pandemic, at least it was during a time-period where we had the technology to be relatively connected.

HMS: I agree with that! Of course, you’ve had a massive experience of working at a distance on Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission To Space. I’ve seen the eight minute video that condenses the eight hours that you worked on this project, and that was all by Zoom, wasn’t it?

AJS: Yes, because Chris, who was going into space, lives in the Seattle area, and he was between there and Texas, and Florida during all of his prep. We couldn’t get together in person, so I was helping him via Zoom to learn how to play the Ukulele so he could perform for the kids of St. Jude from space! He had played guitar, but he had never played ukulele before. The guitar was too heavy to send up, because everything is very much weight-based.

Martin built a special ukulele to go up there for him, but he didn’t know how to play it. I had performed the song “Roommate” at their artist’s studio in Nashville and they asked if I was down to teach Chris. I told Elon, “I want to go up there next time!” I was nerding out very hard.

HMS: As an aside, what made you write “Roommate” around the ukulele?

AJS: When I first started writing “Roommate”, it wasn’t around the uke. I had the chords finished, but I was struggling. I liked the lyrics that I had but I didn’t feel like the song was where it needed to be. I was playing it for my friend James [Adam Shelley] from the band American Authors, and he had a ukulele at his house. He thought that because it is a really intimate song about, basically, asking someone to live with you and share a space with you, what if I made it sound more acoustic, like on a ukulele? We played around with it and really liked the smaller sound.

HMS: It does feel like a really good balance between the ideas of the song and the way that it is conveyed. I think that comes out even more, if possible, in the video, where the song is played inside a tiny van space.

AJS: I was supposed to be filming a video for Jam in the Van, and we don’t own a van. We got our first car to live in Nashville. I also wanted to do a video for “Roommate”, so I thought, “What if I go rent a U-haul?” I brought down some of our furniture, lights, and boxes, to make it seem like the in-between stage of moving. It’s like you’re asking someone to move in with you from the moving van. I’m also joking about how small the apartment is…

HMS: That’s so awesome. To go back to Chris, for a moment, how difficult was the transition for him between playing the guitar and playing the ukulele?

AJS: It’s a bit of a challenging transition, but it’s great to have some of the musical prerequisites and intuitively be able to figure out some techniques. It’s completely different tuning, so the chords are completely different. I could tell him, though, what chords were similar to the chords on the guitar. He also had a very small instrument in order to be able to bring it into space. That was a little bit of a challenge, but it was also about helping him get the confidence to play what is actually kind of a tricky song. He had picked “Colors” by Black Pumas, and I think his thought was, “I’m looking down at the world and all of these colors from space.”

HMS: I noticed that you also did a lot with vocals with him, too. But related to this, you seem like you’ve been a teacher before. You really keep the positivity up and act as his cheerleader, which is great.

AJS: Yes, I have taught before. Teaching music is a way that I made some money earlier on in my career, and it’s still something I enjoy doing here and there. Being that cheerleader to help his confidence and help him get to the point where he could sing and play at the same time was a challenge in itself.

But it was also being able to say, “You’re doing something that no one has ever done before, so don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. If they wanted to have the Black Pumas play in space, they’d send the Black Pumas to space!” I think he did a great job, though I haven’t actually seen the performance yet. It might be on the finale. I did text him when he arrived back on earth, though. He’s been pretty busy with his own press stuff, and I’ve been getting ready for a tour.

HMS: It was pretty inspirational to see both of you working together like that. Both of your attitudes and approaches were pretty special, with a lot of positivity and persistence. It really showed that if people are patient and open with each other, there’s a lot they can accomplish.

AJS: 100 percent. You learn a lot while you’re teaching, too. He’s an inspirational guy and brought a lot of positivity to the experience, which fed into my attitude, as well. It’s easier to be optimistic and happy when you’re working with someone who is that way, too.

AJ Smith is performing in Nashville on October 14th. Find more information here.