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Empire of Sound: Savannah’s Isaac Smith and company release debut album


Empire of Sound: Savannah’s Isaac Smith and company release debut album

04 Oct 2017

Savannah is more than just an incubator for artists; it has become a place where identity is forged through trial and error, and the help of a supportive community.

Isaac Smith exemplifies that ethos.

The Atlanta-born singer/songwriter spent the majority of his musical life as a worship leader in several churches. The son of a preacher, Smith moved to Savannah a decade ago as a Christian musician. Over the years, Smith experienced a revolution of self and has emerged on the other side as a confident songwriter at the helm of a folk rock band sharing their debut album.

Throughout the album “Young Or Old,” Smith, guitarist Ethan Stewart and drummer Robert Saunders are fighting for a new sense of freedom. The group spent several years together as a praise and worship team, mostly playing songs they didn’t write. The gospel and especially the praise and worship aspect of a Pentecostal church is still evident, with the influence of bands like Mercy Me encoded in the music.

In their first brazen step into a new world, Smith and company deliver a solid batch of love songs, steeped in Americana, country and folk, accented by heavy notions of indie-rock. They fall in the realm of a raucous Iron & Wine, or a less-country Jason Isbell, and are well-suited in the songwriting universe of Deer Tick, J. Tillman, Justin Townes Earle and The Avett Brothers.

‘Night daddy’

Savannah has been instrumental in shaping Smith. After forming in church around 2013, Smith and the band took an adventurous step to play covers at various bars and venues. It was a money-making venture to begin with. The tourism industry in Savannah has created a lot of demand for cover bands, and working musicians have learned how to tap the well to support themselves.

A new evolution started when Smith and Stewart began making regular appearances at an open mic night at Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub, where a tall man with a gentle soul and a professional knack for songwriting would transform the young musician.

“I started going to this open mic, where I met Craig Tanner. It was Ethan and I, church boys, in a whisky bar with this tall, old man that eventually Ethan and I called our night daddy,” Smith recalled with a laugh.

“I cut my teeth learning what he did on the acoustic guitar and his writing capability and the way he captured a microphone,” he continued. “I don’t think that people in Savannah realize the depth that that man could write a song. He is as capable, and has written songs that compete with Jason Isbell. He’s incredible. I will say this, with 100 percent confidence, he is my biggest influence in starting to pick up a guitar and write. Period. It was just incredible to be under his wing.”

Tanner ran several open mics in Savannah, performed with his band American Hologram and was a regular staple of singer/songwriter showcases before leaving the city last year. Smith is one of many musicians in Savannah who have noted being impacted by Tanner’s giant shadow.

Smith would leave his father’s church eventually, and move into a more charismatic church, which helped open his mind. Eventually, he would begin to focus more on songwriting. The songs on “Young Or Old” are relatively new, most of them written in the last year or so. They follow the EP “Magnolia Bloom,” which Smith released in 2014 as his first shift into original songwriting, recording and releasing.

Into the Garage

When it came time to record a full album, Smith sought out Savannahians Matt Collett and Colin Motlagh, who own and operate therecording studio The Garage. After years of playing together, the band knew the songs so well they recorded the entire album in fivedays.

“When we went into the studio, Matt and Colin were ready for us,” Smith said. “They did a helluva job prepping the studio andunderstanding what we wanted. We came in ready … Essentially, we just went in and recorded.”

“Say Goodnight” was co-written by Collett and Smith. Motlagh, who also plays bass for local bands The Train Wrecks and Bear Fight!,stepped in to write and record all of the bass parts as well.

“I am really happy they knew our strengths and weaknesses and pushed those strengths out of us,” Smith said. “They were willing tostay up the late nights. We had a great time vibing together and bouncing ideas off together.”


Smith handles the foundation of the group’s music, writing the songs on acoustic guitar. But when it comes to arranging, it’s often agroup effort. The nine tracks on “Young Or Old” could stand on their own as acoustic songs, but Stewart and Saunders’ contributionselevate the entire album from a dangerous precipice of pedestrian into sonic beauty.

Stewart’s guitar work becomes its own voice in many respects, pushing Smith to leave his comfort zone. The conversation between thetwo births the album’s most powerful moments, which come when Smith unleashes his pipes. At full bore, his voice is the most uniqueinstrument at work, but wouldn’t be balanced without Saunders’ driving beats and Stewart’s wall of sound.

Here, we find a debut album from a group of Savannah musicians emerging into a new dawn of independence. Like so many locals,they are forging their own personal identities, on a path paved by a community of musicians and artists encouraging each other to stepinto the light and take a chance on something truly original.

Joshua Peacock is a writer and musician based in Savannah. He studied music theory, jazz and playwriting at the University of Iowa.Empire of Sound has won two Georgia Press Awards in the last two years. Email


What: Isaac Smith album release with Reuben Bidez and Gin House

When: 9 p.m. Oct. 6

Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.

Cost: $10