I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say Mickey Smith has been one of the most influential surf photographer and filmmakers of a generation. His pioneering explorations and coverage of places like Aileens and Rileys broke ground and set a very high bar. But 10 years ago, after the tragic death of his sister, Cherry, Mickey produced ‘Dark side of the lens’. It was about then we had a chat and he said he was going to ‘reset’ his life. Being a talented photographer, film maker and musician as well as a bit of a nomad I wondered what direction he would take. In 2015 I got my answer. There he was on The Other Stage at Glastonbury playing a packed arena as part of Ben Howards tight crew. Ben had been on an equally amazing journey with good friend and manager O Dog, then Mikey and the lads paths met in Ireland surfing and, well, things went large from there…
It’s now 2020 and tomorrow Mickey is releasing his own album “Labyrinth” as ‘Blaze of Feather’ and has a new single, ‘Magpie’, streaming now. You can find out more here >>> www.ablazeoffeather.com What better time to catch up and find out where it all went right!
So, life has changed pretty drastically for you over the last ten years. I remember when you were in Ireland you saying you had to ‘reset’. But it went pretty crazy after that and it was like the next thing I saw you were on the main stage at Glasto with Ben. What happened there then?
Well yea pard, I guess ten years back we had just released Darkside. Back then life revolved around the elements and heavy salt. It was an obsession we were dedicated to on a pretty intense level. After my sister Cherry died, making that film kind of helped make some sense of why I was committed to living that way for so long. I knew she had felt proud of me for it, but internally I realised I hadn’t really been there for her properly over the years. So underneath it all,making that film felt almost like a part of grieving really. Afterwards, I kind of felt like I’d been as open hearted in the film as I was capable of at that point. I’d also given everything to living that way and I realised that some things are just more important to me than the next swell. So that was a big reset moment like you say,although it took a fair while to understand. We really didn’t expect the film to resonate the way it did with people back then at all. Around this time Ben (Howard) and Owain (Davies – Ben’s friend and manager) were spending a fair bit of time with us out in Ireland. Things started kickin’ off for them in a wild way too and when they asked if I’d shoot the first record cover I was so stoked. I started travelling with them a lot then but myself and Ben actually only started playin’ music together later on. I had my band scene always goin on over the years in Manchester with my brother Nat and we had started soundtracking things together after Darkside. When the film ‘Spirit of Akasha’ came up we asked Ben to help us. That unfolded in the magical unexpected when Ben asked if me and Nat could join his band for a while. The momentum kept building and we have experienced so much together,things I had never really imagined. I basically owe the whole cosmic journey since to Ben and O taking a punt back there believing in this Cornish weirdo!
Are you still surfing and shooting loads, or is music and family keeping you on your toes these days?
Music and family are the central focus of my little world, but the Atlantic is in my bones always. I am there most days,mostly with my kids,I’m experiencing it in new ways a lot now. It’s nice to be gently trying to prevent them drowning instead of half drowning myself all the time. Still shooting a lot,making my own films for the music and that kind of thing. Still working with brother Wilbot who shot Darkside with me. You should interview him some time pard he’s a beyond talented freak of nature! We’ve been working with 16mm a lot again and really enjoying that whole process,it’s been great for my state of mind.
What inspires you in surfing these days?
So much incredible stuff going on in surfing, bodyboarding, longboarding, whatever floats your boat, all over the place. It feels like it’s become more about riding waves with grace than anything else these days and the vibe seems way less judgmental and more accepting of everyone. Maybe I’m just in a bubble of nice pards, but that idea sure inspires me a lot. People just enjoying the sea for what it is, a place of wonder, joy and healing and that being their focus and enjoyment. That’s how I feel about it anyways.
I was watching Powers of Three the other day. I remember the shots coming through just wondering what I’d be seeing next. It was pretty groundbreaking stuff at the time and you were a full unit. Lowey has gone on the charge which is amazing, while Ferg has gone a different way and is killing it. You all seem really happy but on completely different paths at the moment…
So unbelievably proud of those pards. I feel lucky to have spent such an epic moment in time with them for all those wild years we had together. Such a bloody intense adventure. They’re both a force of nature in their own ways. Incredible human beings. I don’t think we’ll appreciate the scale of what Loweys achieved in iconic circles as a surfer just coming from Cornwall for many years. Fergy is an absolute beast of nature vibrating on a higher dimension to the rest of us. His commitment to whatever he sets his mind to is next level. You’d never have predicted any of it when three cowboys without a thread of sense between them were out there gettin stuck into Atlantic storms back in the day.
Are you a trained muso or have you just winged it and taught yourself? You seem to be able to play all sorts as well as mixing, producing, singing… How do you do all that?
I have been playing music longer than I can remember almost anything else. Riding waves came my way after. I grew up playing in various circuit bands on what was the pub scene down here. Dive bars, working men’s clubs, legions, pubs, whatever, wherever. From an early age we were on it. It taught me a lot on so many levels. Al Rideout – one of my closest companions taught me so much by just getting me up playing live from so young. That was my training for everything really,thrown in at the deep end playin on the edge of oblivion,learning how to keep your head above water on stage and flow with the energy. I’ve learned a lot from Ben & Nat and the experiences we’ve all had together over the years to. I think coming from down here working creatively, you just have to learn a lot of different skills and experiment to be able to finish anything. Maybe I’m just a hacker of all trades master of none! I find it all helps having different creative pressure valves when my minds spinning out of control though anyways.
Are you going to do any socially distanced gigs? I reckon one at the Minnack would be pretty nuts…
I’d love to do that pard, it’s hard to know anything or plan in advance at the minute with the virus and that,but hopefully somethin might happen. For now il just keep making my weird little 16mm films and soundtracking then, Ive really enjoyed that a lot lately.
So, ten years since Dark Side, what are the five most important lessons you have learned that you would pass on.
Be there for your friends and family above all else. One life goes by way to quick for ‘I wish I’d’.
The low times are lessons, they sure as hell feel like the end of the world but they will always pass. Hold on and when you get through, use that shit as fuel.
If you want to live a creative life, be prepared to be tested and asked to go above and beyond all pain barriers internal and external for what you love.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, there is literally no other being like you on the face of the planet. Do your thing pards!
Do give yourself permission to do what you love doing. It’s a beautiful thing to find something you like doing, give it a chance. Don’t ask anyone else for permission. There are so many barriers designed to break us down, make us feel shit and stop us achieving what we really want to already. So just shake off the demons and give it a fuckin crack!
Dark Side of the Lens
“Labyrinth” LP Released 14 August 2020.
Launches With New Single, Magpie, streaming now and an LP Labyrinth out tomorrow 14th August.
A Blaze of Feather is pleased to share details of his new album, Labyrinth. It will be released on 14th August 2020. It launches today with a new single, Magpie, the second new track to be released since the eponymous debut album back in 2017.
Blaze of Feather is the brainchild of Cornwall native Mickey Smith. Written, recorded and self-produced at home in the converted shed at the bottom of his garden in the wilds of rural Cornwall, Labyrinth is a tense, dissonant affair. Where the debut record was soaked in a dewy, psychedelic haze, Labyrinth is a more propulsive listen. Unusual shapes and sounds that crackle and fizz. Where it doesn’t differ from the early recordings is that sheer sense of scale.
Mickey has this innate penchant for writing easy, laidback melodies and painting them with a sonic dissonance that fits square pegs into round holes and makes it sound so gorgeously opaque. Those pegs fit like a glove.
“During the recent writing and recording sessions I listened to Bjork a lot. Her individual creative energies just strike me as phenomenal. Vulnicara in particular breaks my heart every listen. I keep Bjork’s work in mind whenever creating gets challenging. How open and fearless she is with feelings and emotions, unleashing vulnerability and strength through musicality. It gives me some comfort when I get scared of voicing some hidden part of myself through my own work.”
Inspiration can hit you at unusual moments, whether you’re seeking it or otherwise. The bleakness and breathtaking beauty of the Cornwall horizon acts as a constant source, juxtaposed with the devastation of grief, pain and confusion that Mickey’s experienced of recent years. He’s a man of the earth. Weighted by his location, and in touch with those surroundings that he holds close to heart.
The songs themselves speak to that physical energy too. Palpably. And with a craftsman’s attention to detail, where the minutiae can be deafening.
“‘Magpie’ was certainly a cornerstone. It’s a kind of love letter to West Cornwall where I’m from, so it speaks for the whole record in a way. There’s a wild old energy about the place. Mischief in the air coloured with lost things. The local clubs are the Magpies or the Pirates. Kind of sums up the vibe one way or another down here. Memories always flood my mind, every corner is a trigger. I try and appreciate the magic in the air despite this wonkiness and despair beneath the surface. Penzance is the last stop on the train tracks and it is the Wild West in its own way. I began writing the song from the perspective of dementia slowly stealing my Nan’s memory. She’s never been past Truro and all she knows is here, she’s as Cornish as they come. It gradually became about that disconnect I felt in parallel though. How sometimes it’s easier to embrace apathy than deal with the real shit, whether that’s through burying your head in the sand or partying hard.
“Everything seems to be out of reach as a kid. The cities and the chance of work, anything of consequence is owned by someone far away. It’s like you’ve already been forgotten before you’ve even begun living. Apathy becomes the obvious option and that can have heavy consequences. There’s still this mystical energy here though: watchful, charged and present. You have to be wily enough to steal a glance at the secrets sleeping wherever you are before your chances really have gone I guess.”
What Mickey has created in this second Blaze of Feather record is something completely existing outside the orbit we find ourselves in. It’s otherworldly. And yet it speaks to a very real, natural sense of self that we often all need to find the time to seek out. Meditative. We live in a strange world, and finding a moment or two to breathe can be a real effort. That sense of self now finds itself a new soundtrack.
Mickey concludes, “In 2020, I feel full of hope and hopelessness, fear and overwhelming joy. Mind and eyes pinned open and ready to learn. One foot in front of the other each day, glad to wake up and dream each morning. I take nothing for granted and try to leave nothing behind.”