Originally appeared on Page 30 of SRFC Magazine
The sound check is complete. The instruments are on stage. The lighting engineer is ready and waiting for his cue. Fans cover most the dark and muggy space in The Studio at Webster Hall, waiting in anticipation. The packed room gets hellish as fans crowd the bar for some cooling refreshments. Little do they know, a “dragon” is about to heat the room even more. Backstage, the band celebrates the third performance of solo artist AJ Smith at New York City’s Webster Hall with pre-show drinks. However, the stakes are higher this time. They have never headlined before. Drummer Tom Jorgensen, percussionist Xander Green, guitarist Peter Wise, and vocalist Tiger Darrow gather around in a circle for words of wisdom from AJ. They have been here before twice already. They have practiced for weeks. Sure, it was in a dingy, old room, but sacrifice was necessarily. Most of the budget was spent on advertising. But it worked! A crowd of people ages 18-30 shouting “AJ SMITH!!!” can be heard from inside the dressing room. AJ reassures them that they are going to rock, as they did when the band opened for the Eagles at the Beacon Theatre months before. And when they play AJ’s new single, “Dragons In the Sky,” the band will go down in history among the great “dragons” before like Mumford & Sons, AJ’s dream band to open for.
AJ Smith is definitely not the typical rock star. He hates tattoos, wears fairly loose jeans, and has no plans of ever putting on makeup. Under all the glamour of the music industry, AJ is still a graduate student in Songwriting & Film Scoring at New York University. And when he is not on stage, he is the resident assistant of a first-year dormitory. He is also the captain of the university’s lacrosse team. How he juggles Music Composition homework, band practice, and tending to his residents while still having time to write his own songs is beyond me. “It’s very difficult to balance a music career with school, lacrosse, and being an RA. Google Calendar is my best friend,” says AJ. Just because the songwriter does not look and act exactly like Ozzy Osbourne or Steven Tyler, does not necessarily make him the male version of sweet, hopeless romantic Taylor Swift. Music is his only love at the moment. AJ admits that it is hard to have a social life and work so hard to reach success in the music industry. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find a girlfriend by the time I’m 30 and get married by 32. What else?” He sighs and says, “I’m more concerned about my career though right now so…There’s no use starting a family right now if you can’t afford it…other than for love I guess. But I don’t have that right now so.” Unlike today’s artists who go in and out of relationships, AJ does not care to be in one. He would rather think about his career and dedicate his life to that.
According to the artist, he is in an “Empire State of Mind” like one of his favorite artists, Jay-Z. He started out “cocky,” thinking he would see faster results. He had expected to win his first Grammy by age 25. Now at 22, he sees that time and money are against him. That goal has been pushed back to age 28. He does not want distractions. “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen may have been the Global Best Selling Single in 2012, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, but AJ is not looking for maybes. He does not want failures. All he wants is to spread his music. He wants to make it a definite possibility that he will have his own tour one day. No matter the struggle, he will not stop trying. He does not care that the average musician makes only $34,455, according to Forbes Magazine. In his latest song, “Dragons in the Sky,” he writes, “Teach me how to fly so high just like the dragons in the sky.” Smith wants to become as successful as musical legends, whom he calls “dragons.” This is his American Dream.
This musician is so driven and stubborn in his ways. “It’s almost like the dream is that you can have a voice I think it’s being able to do…what you love…and being able to make a life of it. Not everybody can – in other places – can become a musician and make a career doing it.” He sighs, “Plus that, not everybody here can do that here either so…” Yet, AJ remains determined to accomplish his dreams of becoming a successful musician. According to the artist, music is not only just a part of him. Music is who he is. It always has been.
Before AJ came to the city with the hopes of making it big in the music industry, he was Andrew James Smith growing up in Denver, Colorado. He was born on Dec. 21, 1990 and raised in the Littleton suburb of Denver. A career in music was not something his parents necessarily pushed him towards, according to AJ. Parents Scott and Sharon Smith encouraged arts as a hobby. Therefore, they thought nothing of it when 2-year-old AJ would bang on the keys of the family piano. No one predicted that this little boy would eventually open for the Eagles on Nov. 15, 2012 – not AJ, Scott, Sharon, little sister Sarah, babysitter “Grandma” Lillian, or even Teddy, the family dog. But as he developed, AJ became enticed with having a career in music. As a teenager, he wrote songs and began using his recorder to multi-track different songs with his own singing. He also played in youth orchestras after learning to play the violin. Later, he decided to apply to several songwriting programs for college. New York University was the only music program that would allow him to do music composition, his biggest passion. He questioned whether this was the “universe’s way” of telling him he was not cut out for the music industry. But, then the musician saw this as a sign that his dream could be made possible. Now a student at New York University studying music, AJ has the full support for his musical career from his family and the full confidence in himself, according to the songwriter.
With his aspirations of becoming the headliner of his own tour, AJ was driven to increase his chances of doing so. He taught himself to play the guitar, drums bass, mandolin, and banjo while also learning how to sing. He practices three to four times a day in his dorm room. AJ has written lyrics for over 100 songs, including for other artists. He excelled in the undergraduate Music Composition program under the mentorship of Phil Galdston and other faculty members. In 2011, he competed in New York University’s Ultra-Violet Live Talent Competition – which Lady Gaga has also competed at – and won Best Original Performance. He was awarded a scholarship in 2012 as NYU Steinhardt/Songwriters Hall of Fame Songwriting Scholar of the Year. Despite recording his songs mostly at New York University and few professional studios, the artist’s music has gain international popularity. His song, “Summertime,” ranked number three on the Australian club charts. Then he reached an American fan base when his music ranked in the Top 15 Upcoming Indie Artists in the United States on Reverbnation for two weeks, according to AJ. His talent has been acknowledged by Eagles founding member, Glenn Frey, renown songwriter and producer Barry Eastmond, and musician Jonathan Brooke.
Yet, the financial burden of pursuing his dream still weighs heavy on him. He is without a record label, agent, attorney, and producers. Most of the business side of his career he does by himself, occasionally with the help of his father. His rehearsal space may not be a lavish sound room but it does its duty for his band. Also, he is forced to record his music in studios provided by New York University instead of more expensive and equipped professional ones. Nonetheless, AJ says that money cannot buy him his dreams, no matter how much he has. So despite his money woes, he continues trying to reach his dream of a successful music career. “I want to be the best musician that I can be. I want to touch the hearts of many, inspire people. I was at a Jay Z concert the other day at the Barclays Center and it was just amazing to see how many people. And in order to do that and then have all those people come out and were able to sing along with your lyrics, that just goes to show how much of a profound impact you’ve had on some people. Whether or not you identify with his music, that…THAT IS POWER. And I think that you can use that power to benefit the world really.” AJ continues to write songs that will relate to his American and Australian fan bases.
AJ has a definite plan to make sure he is the next “dragon in the sky” among the greats. If things do not go as planned, he will keep trying. “Well, the funny thing about [perfection] is that you can actually never achieve it,” the songwriter says, “There are a lot of instances when famous musicians are on their deathbeds and they’re still trying to practice, you know, even if they might be the greatest of their generation.” AJ says that he refuses to give up because pursuing a music career is doing what he loves. With his determination, he could eventually reach his goal. He has reached success despite his struggle because of his dedication to his music. His only true setback is trying to make it in the music industry by himself.
With his busy lifestyle, AJ has only a few minutes left to speak. He has to run to fulfill his RA duties. Hopefully, he will have time to finish his To-Do list:
1. Get a new Mac charger to upload music for streaming
2. Edit his videos
3. Send Sony a download for his new songs
4. Set up ITunes account
5. Set up a press kit
6. Set up his performing acts royalties
7. Inventory Check. He forgets a task so I add it for him: 8. Find balance in money, duties, and pursuing dreams.