In a lucky place

By Alan Perrott

After years of hard slog keeping a day job to pay for his musical passion, to becoming a household face no one can quite put a name to, Big Wednesday presenter Marshall Smith tells Alan Perrott the effort is now paying off.

Marshall Smith is proof that noodling on a piano and writing your songs in your room can become a
Marshall Smith is proof that noodling on a piano and writing your songs in your room can become a

Marshall Smith finally has a real job. Actually, make that jobs. Even if they're stopgaps, much like actors who turn to waiting or bartending to fund the dream no one takes seriously.

In Smith's case they're also the kind of jobs that get strangers thinking they know him when he walks into the dairy. He's now used to the slightly puzzled double-take followed by a wave and tentative "oh ... hi?"

That's what happens when you inhabit the edges of telly, more people know your face if not your name. In Smith's case it comes from his fortnightly role as a Big Wednesday lottery presenter and long list of bit-parts in advertisements. Of late he's been one half of a waving couple in the Hyundai ad, where the kids take the car for a spin and his hands often loom large for Burger King and McDonalds.

It's all good news as far as his parents are concerned, they've worried about him for years. It's the music. Noodling on a piano and writing songs in your room aren't proper jobs, they just annoy the neighbours.

It's not like the 35-year-old has enjoyed the greatest of relationships with his muse, either. Behind the telegenic grin is a tortured artist whose battle to be taken seriously has seen him give it all away on more occasions than he can remember.

But the fact is, he's now getting somewhere and there's got to be something in that for all of us ... even if it's only a pang of jealousy.

As mentioned, he was an early starter. He started taking correspondence lessons in classical piano from the Royal School of Music when he was 4 and didn't give them away until he was 16, "when I got to hating it". Two years later and now in London, the North Shore boy was living in a basement flat underlooking the Thames, exactly far enough from the naysayers to provide the space for a proper crack at showbiz.

A day job designing artwork for the latest EMI music releases paid the rent, while songwriting and gigging kept his soul alive. For six years he performed at least three nights a week and practised until his neighbour's knuckles left bloody smears on the wall - every sound he made was broadcast via the chimney flue.

Then his fifth year passed by and took his starry eyes with it. "I was exhausted," says Smith. "With working and gigging I'd been going hard, seven days a week since I'd arrived and had played every dodgy pub in town. I was absolutely over it. If you're working in the arts and desperately trying to create a career ... well, London gets really hard. I loved it there and the people I'd met, but it's so competitive, so expensive and you don't have your family or support networks to fall back on. And I really wanted to see the sky again."

After a little more navel-gazing, he scribbled down some ideas for a song, then jumped on a plane and pretty much gave music away. Once home, Smith worked his way through a degree and stuck at a marketing job until it drove him crazy.

Then he rediscovered those notes he'd written and whipped up a song called Grey Boy. On a whim he posted the result to the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) for the 2004 Silver Scroll songwriting award.

He didn't give it another thought until "I got this phone call telling me I was a finalist ... after all those years of being told to get a proper job - people always said stuff like that to me. I had even started wondering if I was some talentless fool writing crappy pop songs in his bedroom. So to be told that and finally feel like maybe I'm not too bad at this ... for me that was a major milestone. It felt very, very cool."

So, after 20-odd years of slog, Smith was declared an overnight success. Losing out to Scribe's Not Many on the night wasn't enough to dent the feeling that he was now among peers.

That same year he met Tom Fox, an ex-pat South African who had played with Bright Blue, a group who made a killing when their anti-apartheid anthem, Weeping, was picked up by dross-meister Josh Groban and sold truckloads. Together they now compose and produce soundtracks and pop songs under The Sound Room banner, and by room they mean a wee studio in the basement of Smith's Takapuna home.

It was here that he got another extraordinary phone call. It was the BBC, calling to ask if they would mind if the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded one of their pieces. It was even to be conducted by Grammy winner David Arnold, the man behind the last five James Bond soundtracks and collaborations with artists ranging from Massive Attack to Bjork to Pulp.

"So no," says Smith, "we told them we didn't mind."

Happily, the pair have had a busy time of it over the last two years, as well as sundry film and documentary work - including a few on show at this year's film festival - they spent a year composing music for the 14-part Animal Planet series Dark Days in Monkey City before being commissioned to soundtrack ESPN's background doco to Invictus, the Morgan Freeman film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

With each job extending their network of contacts a little further, they're positive that their first feature film project is a matter of "when" rather than "if".

Until then Smith is busy knocking off pop songs in the hope of selling one to someone famous while also commuting to and from his real job or, as he puts it, his fortnightly "holiday" where he gets to turn his phone off and hang out in a nice Wellington hotel.

The Big Wednesday draw isn't without its tensions, though. It's all done live and in the blink of an eye, so there's no room for error. Just in case, he always has two auditors standing over him. If they think anything is going to pot they activate the "abort" sign, telling him to stop whatever he's doing. Much like what everyone used to tell him about music, really...

- NZ Herald

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