BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Some budding songwriters feel comfortable just making home recordings in their bedrooms that, to them, become perfect creations, unspoiled by the outside world.
But what if, with little effort of their own, one of those songs leaks out and ends up in a major motion picture starring George Clooney? What happens if the songwriter, who has little experience performing his music onstage, is suddenly given opportunities and exposure most others dream of?
That happened to Brad Smith who records as Sad Brad Smith, an actor and singer-songwriter whose song, “Help Yourself,” was used in a pivotal scene of “Up in the Air,” the Clooney comedy about the loneliness of long-distance airline travel. By 2009, Smith had not released a full-length album and was mostly showing his songs to friends. One friend was connected to director Jason Reitman; the Smith song was sent independently, and a year later, it was in the film. None of it was anticipated and Smith hadn’t even planned to make an album.
“Songwriting is something I always loved doing, but I was always self-conscious about it. I wanted to write great songs but didn’t think I was a good vehicle for them. I didn’t feel like I was a good singer or a good musician,” he says. “So I was embarrassed about it.”
The film changed things for better and worse. First the worse: Smith says he was naïve to give away the publishing of the song, so today he fails to receive proper royalties. Promises by the record company to record an album also went nowhere, he says.
“I was just very, very impressionable. It happened really fast. I definitely learned a lot as far of the pitfalls of the movie industry and record labels,” he says. “Nobody is interested in being your friend.”
But there’s also the better: The validation pushed Smith to commit more to his craft, and subsequently to himself. The end result is “Magic,” an appealing new collection of chamber pop songs that has elements of country twang, mystical atmosphere, and wit. Even though his moniker suggests something more on the sullen side, the music is anything but: melancholic, with humor, and driven with wonder, “Magic” reflects a songwriter whose bares his vulnerabilities inside a cosmic sound palette that bends with front porch warmth. The fact that he enjoyed an accidental hit for the movies is no accident: Early Beatles harmonies, traditional folk instruments, country guitar, and melting studio atmospherics collectively create living cinema for your mind.
Smith recorded the album over time at Pieholden Suite Sound in Chicago, the studio founded by Jay Bennett, the late multi-instrumentalist in Wilco known for his deep collection of vintage instruments and noisemakers. “We wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to fit a Mellotron on every song — The toys they have there is just unbelievable,” Smith says.
Unlike his first album, home recordings which he says were related to the crash of a single relationship, “Magic” was put together through with more subtle connections: The evolving mysteries of unforeseen threads between religion, science, and daily living. “The life you had in mind/is going to come back in style/all babies are born blind/but only for a little while,” he sings (“On the Beach.”).
The film experience drove him to look deeper into what mattered. “Being forced to face what I would do with my life and maybe seriously look at sifting through what my dreams were and see how they differed from reality — That’s a theme of the album, the feeling that there is a magical force at work and how do you reconcile your childhood dreams with the adult life,” he says.
Smith, 33, grew up in Highland Park and started playing music in high school. The wealth of crafted moments in the music can be connected back to his other life as a Chicago actor. A graduate of DePaul University’s theater school, he can be seen on most theater stages around town.
The name “Sad” dates back to a 2007 MySpace profile, an effort to spruce up a rather nondescript given name and “to get the jump on anybody who would criticize me as being a sad sack.” Those days are past and now, Smith says he wants to start touring outside Chicago and take what he learned from the process of recording “Magic” to the next album.
For someone who learned about fickle nature of instant success early, Smith says he understands the value of measured steps and artistic credibility.
“I’m trying to play the long game. As long as I get better and put stuff out, these tiny balls will get rolling and pick up steam,” he says. “If I can get a big following by age 80, I think I’ll be satisfied.”