It was very dark one night in a local, dimly-lit neighborhood. The only real light came from the numberless clusters of stars above and the inconspicuous crescent moon peeking above the mountain’s ridge. A man was walking around soaking it in, tucking his shoulder-length hair behind his ears while celestial light glinted off his glasses, contemplating his seemingly insignificant place among billions of people — a speck in the midst of such vastness — wondering what he could do in his life to create more meaning.
Things like that keep him up at night.
Raised in Provo, 27-year-old Jess Smart Smiley is what many would call right-brained — and hopelessly so. Making music and art is his passion, his career, his life. Without an ounce of guile — and with an infectious twinkle in his eye — Jess possesses a unique, perpetual excitement that seems ready to burst out of his otherwise demure persona.
I first met Jess while I was writing for my college newspaper and got the the chance to interview him at his home in Orem where we sat down (during which time he told his son he’d be sent to the “police store” if caught as he struck out on the sidewalk wearing merely a diaper).
I’ll be honest — in my line of expertise, I get a lot of less-than-talented musicians requesting coverage and promotion. In addition, and with a name like Jess Smart Smiley, I was less than inclined to take an earnest look at what this guy really had to offer. I soon came around, though. This endorsement is in no way prompted by personal gain, but it has to be done—in part because Jess, himself, would never tell you he’s great, and also because the man is wildly talented.
Although he’s been drawing far longer than playing music, he’s been performing for the last ten years — wielding his guitar and sparse, Bon Iver-styled indie-folk vocals. Fairly recently, Jess released a collection of songs entitled “Things That Light Up,” available for free on the Internet, after realizing he had five hours of songs recorded on his computer.
On the aforementioned tracks in the collection (he is careful not to say album), it’s not uncommon to hear ambient sound effects in the background like birds chirping, a phone ringing or his young son enjoying a repeat viewing of 101 Dalmatians since the songs were all recorded at home. Oddly enough, instead of masking disappointment, Jess enjoys the added soundscape, believing it to add to the authenticity and message of his music.
“There’s nothing professional about it,” he said, partially smirking but with an unmistakable fire in his eyes. “My goal is to make it something people can relate to. It doesn’t really fall into a category of music — just call it genuine or sincere. I’m not trying to make it a big presentation, I just really mean it. My songs are about people working hard and struggling; having dreams and having dreams broken. I feel like my music would have a stronger impact if just a few people really got hope out of my music, instead of just a song everyone can dance to.”
However, music is more of a hobby in Smiley’s artistic repertoire. He maintains his first love and “native language” is his artwork, which he simultaneously does to pay the bills, and in a variety of mediums — producing album artwork, concert posters, laptop covers, coloring books, portraits and more. A self-proclaimed “rotten kid” growing up, Jess spent most of his younger years in his room sans Nintendo or TV, his only companions books and blank pages, which is how he developed this language.
Due to be released next Halloween, Jess recently completed a 135-page all-ages graphic novel for what he dubbed “one of the top three comic book publishers in the world.” (I trust the claim, partially because of his sincere honesty and partially due to the fact that despite my well-deserved place in geekdom, I know little about comic books.)
In February, he submitted said graphic novel, entitled “Upside Down,” to two other publishers who weren’t interested and, on a whim, sent it to another publisher who immediately wanted to buy it and turn it into a three-part series. “You could go to Barnes and Noble next year and see my book there,” he eagerly told me.
Regardless of medium — or portion of the brain utilized, for that matter — Jess is a believer in doing what you love, an advocate of finding and cultivating passions and individuality. Along with the majority of our population — especially in these uncompromising economic times — Jess constantly worries about making ends meet and supporting his family. However, happiness, not simply financial security, is what he deems most important.
“There’s this gap between where we are and all these places we could be in life,” he said. “I have a wife and a kid that want me to be happy — that makes them happy. I’m going to be happy if I’m doing what I love all day and then come home to the people I love. I really believe what I do to be a force in helping people.”
Jess has something akin to a “no regrets” policy in his life and career, believing if he doesn’t pursue what he really wants wholeheartedly that he’ll spend the rest of his life wondering what could’ve been. “I have so much more to offer than just clocking in and out,” he added. Besides being described as “down to earth” and “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet” by friends and associates, Jess has also received praise as someone who has found innovative ways to make money with his unique talent and skills.
So far it seems to be working.
“If you’re doing what you love, then everyone you talk to will be better and you’ll inspire others to go after their passions,” Smiley said, delivering a seemingly cliche remark with absolute resolve. “I feel a moral obligation to go after what I love. I think there’d be a lot less conflict if we all did that.”
Like the lyrics penned in John Lennon’s timeless “Imagine,” Jess portrays the idea of hope and unity: “You may say that I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.”
For a streaming/downloadable version of ‘”Things That Light Up,” as well as a collection of Jess’s entrepreneurial endeavors, visit www.jess-smiley.com.
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