By Olivia Tracey
Stopping by Santa Monica’s latest Coffee Bean to meet with musician P. J. Smith, I indulged in a delicious vanilla ice blended which I passionately savaged, despite my best attempts to elegantly sip. Nonetheless, my 32-year-old Dublin companion declined my offer to try some, much to my relief, announcing with that endearing Irish mentality and twinkling smirk "I don’t see the point in taking hot drinks cold."
P.J. Smith has opinions. Then again so have I. Some might call it haughty. I call it intelligence. Some might suggest narrow-minded, I suggest focussed, coupled, of course, with the courage of one’s convictions. And just as Sinatra did it his way, so too is P.J. playing to the same tune. He knows exactly where he wants to go and how he’s going to get there, boldly embracing total responsibility for his fate.
His gift for music goes back to his father Pat, a singer with "The Johnny Flynn Showband" whose 60s hit single "The Black and Tan Gun" may be remembered by many. His mother, Bernadette, still works as a nurse and counsellor for the mentally handicapped in St. Michael’s House, Ballymun.
The eldest of four, P.J. also shares the music business with his immediate younger brother, Ivan, 30, who works as a generator technician, and tours with numerous artists including Tina Turner. The two brothers, living in Los Angeles since the early 90s, share a four-bedroom California bungalow in Venice Beach which they were smart enough to buy before the real estate boom. Well, I did say he was intelligent.
Mind you, as they say back home, ’tis far from rollerblading Venice Beach they were reared, beginning their lives in Tuam, Co. Galway, a stone’s throw from an itinerant camp, with everything from donkeys to hens a regular feature in the Smith back garden. P.J. recounts this with much humor, telling it like it is, and squirming amusedly at the memory of his eventual move, age 6, to Collins Avenue in northside Dublin where he was labelled a "culchie" and a "knacker" by his peers. However, resilient and adaptable by nature, he settled in quickly, thanks in part to his love of and gift for football, both Gaelic and soccer. The same sporting tendency also helped him score with the Christina Brothers at St. Aidan’s secondary school where his long hair was somewhat tolerated because he was a strong player on the school football team.
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However, he was also a nervous child, especially at exams, causing him to do poorly at the school entrance test and consequently landing him in the subordinate classes, studying woodwork and art instead of the more highbrow Latin and music. Yet, even then, age 13 and with much encouragement from his parents, he put his dreams into action and began weekly classes at the London College of Music in Dublin. There he studied piano, despite friction with his teacher between the classics and his urge to write his own pop/rock music. So, in true P.J. style he did both, on his own terms. He bought a guitar and started his own band "Gilt Edge," rehearsing in school and in friends’ houses, gigging around various Dublin pubs including "The Ivy Rooms." And, as the years passed, he learned to love and appreciate classical music too. All in his own time.
At age 18, he left home to join a band called "No Sweat" which took him, a year later, to London via Arklow, Co. Wicklow. Despite getting to indulge his enthusiasm for soccer team Leeds United, and gigging in various pubs throughout the city, including "The Marquis Club," he also learned some of the difficulties of the music industry, one being the challenge for a rock/pop band in an 80s electronic era. Although the group survived the big smoke, they returned to Ireland to continue gigging and touring. Attracting lots of press, including appearances on "Zig and Zag" and the "Late Late Show," they soon signed with London Records and in no time had their first number one hit, "Heart and Soul," produced by Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and penned by P.J.
The band then came to Los Angeles where they released their first album, "No Sweat" which was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. However, due to a misunderstanding with management on the direction of the band, the group disbanded and went their separate ways. So, P.J. returned to L.A. where, with a new band, "Toe," he released another album of the same name and opened on tour for former "Stray Cats" lead singer Brian Setzer, and played the Sunset Strip hotspots including The Roxy, The Viper Room and House of Blues.
However, P.J. wanted to go solo to write and produce his own work. And that’s exactly what he’s doing, working out of his own recording studio at home where he produced, in conjunction with Jim Wirt, his first solo album "Fear of Flying" due for release early next year.
In the meantime, he’s off to Ireland, England and Europe on a promotional trip and hopes to get separate European and U.S. distribution for the album. He’s also earning quite a reputation, being compared to Neil Finn of "Crowded House" and even John Lennon which I can personally vouch for. To top it all, the soon-to-be-released album has already been voted into Billboard magazine’s top ten, not to mention a powerful vote of confidence from the L.A. Times which stated, "Cross Bono with Morrison, the next famous Irish singer, songwriter."
So keep doing it your way, P.J.