The voice inside him whirls, lapping and rising, hitting the air like a fist. He stops. "I'm screaming too much." He starts again. Stops. Curses. He takes a breath and closes his eyes. The microphone hangs silver before him. He leans in. The tone he wants arrives like a late friend, lifting softly, galloping ahead with the music, leaving behind the ghost of a life's wreckage.
"Excellent take," says producer Ryan Dorn. "You had to warm up."
"I was pushing too hard," says Jake Smith, whose alias is the White Buffalo. "I have to breathe more and bring it down into my body."
Smith steps outside the small recording studio in Valley Village. A pool shines. The air is warm. His lyrics — smudged poetry and cursive lines — are penciled in a spiral notebook. A big man with a beard and long, hanging hair, Smith looks like he could rough you up, but his eyes glow warm and there's a boy's mischief about him. He acts as his own road manager and dresses like he raided a consignment shop.
NPR's "All Songs Considered" has praised Smith as an "amazing storyteller," but like other gifted singer-songwriters he has yet to break beyond a small, passionate following. Seven of his original songs were featured on the biker series "Sons of Anarchy," and his 2013 "Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways" concept album was a vibrant and soulful exploration of the battered and bruised among us. An Iraqi vet with tears in his eyes once handed him an American flag and said Smith had caught the truth.
"Country, I was a soldier for you/ I did what you asked me to/ It was wrong and you knew," Smith sings in "Wish It Was True." "Country, now I'm just a stranger to you/ A number, a name it's true/ Throw me away when you're through."
It's the voice that burrows into you. Devil's growl. Sinner's lament. Smith's baritone echoes with villains and misfits, drunks and philistines. It curls through loneliness, sets out on crooked highways. It is an American voice cured in recession, war and betrayal, a resonant map where the spectral bleeds into dreams. But in it, like mica in slate, is the glint of redemption, flashing just long enough to allow a man to keep a bead on whatever goodness might dwell in him.
"I have a unique voice and a rare ability to sing to make things sound very tender or sweet but at the same time to scare the ... out of you," said Smith, 41, who bought his first guitar, a Fender acoustic, for $200 at a pawn shop. On his new album, "Love and the Death of Damnation," due out in August, he slips out of grievousness on a few compositions, including a Gospel-like soul song.
But Smith's lyrics tend toward tales with eerie edges. In "This Year," which he performed on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," Smith traces a veteran's moods through the change of seasons. Summer is "toasting our drinks in the warm sunshine ... The future's, future's looking bright/ I think that I might get it right after all." But in winter "Christmas ain't easy when you can't pay the rent/ and the lights go out to a silent night/ and all you can do is just stay in the fight."
The best songs are "little narratives, mini-movies," he said, noting that only a few songwriters, such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, have resonated through the decades. "A song should take you on a journey, to touch you in a place that's honest. I don't think a lot of people write like that anymore. Pop music is just fluff and 'bitches' and money.... But I want every word to do something, to mean something."
His music glides across folk, country, alternative and rock and his words can find life just about anywhere. The other day at a cafe, Smith, hushed as a penitent in a confessional, leaned over an egg sandwich and sang a verse from a new ballad about a drug dealer that involved a Smith and Wesson and a lesson to be taught. He paged through his notebook to a duet but chose not to sing it, mentioning that it wasn't the sweet stuff of most duets.
"It's hard to predict Jake's future. You have someone who is true to himself. He doesn't compromise musically or lyrically, almost to a fault," said Bob Thiele Jr., music supervisor on the "Sons of Anarchy," noting that Smith's sound mirrored the show's outlaw aura. "Jake's got this crazy fan base of bikers and women, and he doesn't mind crawling in a smelly van with four other guys and driving 400 miles to play a show."
Smith appeared in April at a benefit for autism at the Pantages with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. He and his band — drummer Matt Lynott and bass player Ryan Rehm — sat in a dressing room before the show, drinking beer amid conversations about horses, wedding days and the 1970s sitcom "Three's Company." Lynott thrummed a countertop, Rehm did pushups; Smith said, "I better go find out if I'm on stage for the finale."
He went upstairs to the shadows at the curtain's edge. He took the spotlight for two songs and returned for the finale, singing "Rockin' in the Free World" with Young, Stills, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin. When the stage emptied, Smith, carrying his guitar, walked with his wife, Kasey Drayton-Smith, into the parking lot beneath a sky clearing after a rain. A guy asked him if he wanted to have a drink and hang around.
"Can't man," said Smith, who has an 8-year-old son. "We've got a baby-sitter. Have to get home."
He looked like an old-world troubadour heading into the night, passing entourages and a beggar holding the sign: "Bad ankles, Please help."
The son of a college professor and a nurse, Smith grew up in Huntington Beach, listening to
"I was a two-pitch man," he said, "curveball and fastball."
A friend's father taught him three-chord progressions on guitar. He began writing songs — "angsty stuff about society, horrible songs" — and after college lived in San Francisco, where he landed gigs by calling clubs and immediately singing into the phone. "I had a 100% success rate with that method." Jake Smith, though, was not an ideal stage name.
Friends drew suggestions out of a hat and the White Buffalo stuck. "I'm a big white guy, and the name is kind of mystical," he said.
He made cassettes of his songs for family and friends, mailing them out on birthdays and special occasions. The tapes spread beyond that circle, and one of his songs ended up on the soundtrack for the surfer movie "Shelter." That brought him back to the Huntington Beach area, where he slept on couches and sang at a sushi bar. He recorded his first album in 2002 but was unhappy with the result and discontinued it; he has since made four albums and three EPs.
"Sons of Anarchy" has broadened Smith's following. He often plays in the Los Angeles area and has toured parts of the United States; this month he performed in London, Warsaw and Bilbao, Spain. His videos get steady traffic on YouTube, but he has yet to penetrate mass consciousness, a prospect that doesn't bother Smith but confounds others.
"It makes me want to put my head through a wall," said Smith's lawyer, Stephen Sessa, whose firm Reed Smith represents stars in the music industry. He added that the first songs he heard of Smith's more than a decade ago "moved me. He's just one of those guys that no matter who I'm representing has been at the top of my playlist."
His music speaks to today's ills but is not politically driven. His most evocative songs are infused with a man's struggle against burdens both self-inflicted and imposed. The couple in "Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways," Joe, a troubled vet haunted by alcohol and violence, and Jolene, "you know she ain't no nun," find grace in each other's sins.
"A lot of popular music is disposable, but Jake is a legacy artist," said Dorn, whose Unison Music Group label allows Smith creative freedom. "There's a realness to him."
Smith is mostly self-taught on guitar and is not big on the intricacies of musical structure. "The ignorance of not really knowing what I'm doing is a blessing in my eyes," he said. "At this point I'm pretty set in my craft, but the not knowing allows me to do things that are just on straight feel. I'll add an extra bar in a song or play something in a time signature that's weird, but I don't know it's weird."
Weirdness and poetry mingle in the recording studio. A strand of tiny lights hangs next to a piano and a picture of the Indian deity Ganesha. "They're vibe lights," someone says. Smith rolls his eyes. The lights are turned off. He slips on headphones and steps to the microphone to lay down a track for an up-tempo song, "Dark Days." His voice is coming from places he doesn't want.
He stops. Gargles with apple cider vinegar. "It's a little reedy and gravelly, right?" he asks Dorn, who is sitting behind a mixing board. Dorn is patient, coaxing. "I gotta figure out where to breathe," Smith says. "I feel like I'm running out of gas." The music rolls on, but he keeps missing the notes. He sweats, rocking back and forth in front of the mike. He's exasperated, but there's ironic humor in it.
If there's one true thing in his life, it's his voice. He will wait. It will come. He closes his eyes. He takes a breath, looking for that sacred space between a smile and a growl. The reed falls away; the gravel is smoothed. He locks on as words take flight. "Dark days behind me," he sings, "Hope the good days don't blind me."