Evan Smith has recorded with David Byrne, St. Vincent, Pink, Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Taylor Swift, among others. Judging by how in-demand he is, the Portland-based musician knows what he’s doing.

But sometimes, he doesn’t know who he’s doing it for.

Evan Smith of Portland played multiple instruments on six tracks of Taylor Swift’s hit album “Folklore.” Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

This year Smith played multiple instruments on six songs on Swift’s album “Folklore,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart July 24. But it wasn’t until he completed all his parts – playing saxophones, clarinet, accordion, keyboards, guitar, flute and singing back-up – that he was told he had been contributing to Swift’s latest mega-hit. The element of surprise has been part of the album’s success. It was released with no advance publicity, drawing lots of attention from critics and fans. Even musicians who worked on it, like Smith, only knew it was a Swift album about a day before it went on sale.

“I never heard a lead vocal. I was given my tracks to work on and told what kind of vibe it should be, maybe a little dark, or a little orchestral,” said Smith, 37, who has worked on two other Swift albums. “When I saw all the other session musicians all over the world who were on this, I had to do a double-take. It was really fun to be a part of.”

Smith recorded his parts for Swift’s album at his Portland home studio, something he’d being doing regularly even before the pandemic hit. Other musicians and producers did their bits at locations around the globe, including New York City, Los Angeles, Germany and France. Musicians who’ve worked with Smith say he gets high-profile assignments, like this one, because of his versatility and the emotional power of his playing.

“Evan is as much a session musician as he is his own artist and that is exactly what makes him stand out. Lots of people out there can play parts, but very few can bring them to life,” said Jack Antonoff, who worked as a producer and writer on Swift’s album, in an email. “His playing and ideas are magic. You know it’s him and that personality that’s in there is what has the power to make a part feel like you are being spoken to.”

Smith’s extreme versatility as a musician is illustrated by his work on “Folklore.” On the song “Illicit Affairs” he played accordion, saxophones, electric guitar and keyboards and sang background vocals. On “The Lakes,” he played saxophones, keyboards, flute, clarinet and bass.

Evan Smith, playing saxophone on a band mate’s shoulders, performing with Bleachers in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Shane Timm

CAREER TOOK OFF IN MAINE

A native of Dallas, Texas, Smith has been living and recording in Maine since 2013. His wife, Megan Smith, grew up in Cape Elizabeth. The couple, who had lived in Brooklyn, New York, for several years and briefly in Texas, were looking for a place to settle long term when they chose Maine.

Living in Maine has not slowed down Smith’s career recording on albums and touring. He’s close enough to go to New York for work frequently, and finds Portland’s airport really convenient. He also does a lot of recording work out of his home studio.

When Smith first moved to Maine, he was working day jobs in restaurants as well as playing music. Around 2014, a musician he had known in New York recommended him to Antonoff, a producer and musician who had been in the bands Fun and Steel Train. Antonoff was putting together a new indie pop project called Bleachers and asked Smith to join the group.

Smith has toured all over the world – including in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia – with Bleachers. The group’s most recent tour ended in 2018. His work with Antonoff led to his gigs for Swift. Antonoff is a frequent collaborator with Swift and produced several songs on “Folklore,” including ones Smith worked on.

Portland-based musician Evan Smith began making hot sauce for band mates, and turned it into a business. Photo courtesy of Evan’s Rockin’ Hot Sauce

It was between tours with Bleachers in 2017 that Smith came up with his other career, as a hot sauce maker. Before he made a full-time living from music, Smith had worked in a lot of restaurants and kitchens. On the road, he ate out a lot and missed eating fresh food and cooking.

To keep his culinary skills sharp, he decided to start making things he could give to other musicians as gifts in jars – sauces, like mole poblano, or kimchi. Being a Texan, he loved spicy foods and used hot sauce on everything. So he decided to create an “everyday” hot sauce, called Evan’s Rockin’ Hot Sauce, made with fresh fruit and vegetables. Ingredients include Fresno chili peppers, distilled white vinegar, banana, agave nectar, apple cider vinegar, garlic, water, shallot, carrot, Habanero peppers, sea salt, ginger and grapeseed oil.

He started selling it at concerts, at the merchandise tables, and then online. The business really took off when food celebrity Rachael Ray in November named it one of the “5 Things I’m Loving Right Now.” She wrote that Smith’s sauce is “complex and herbaceous and vinegary. I put it on everything – fried chicken, pizza, wings.” The sauce is made at a commercial kitchen Smith rents in Portland.

MUSIC BEGINS AT HOME

Smith does much of his musical work at home, recording for other people’s albums. He grew up in a house where musical work was the norm.

His mother was a piano teacher, who gave lessons in their Dallas home. So he was used to hearing music played, and watching it being taught and studied. His father was a big music fan, who played lots of records, from Motown to Led Zeppelin. But when it came to choosing an instrument to play, Smith said the event was sort of random.

“I remember being old enough to take an instrument in elementary school. I filled out the forms and then somebody just looked at my face and said, ‘Oh, you’ll play saxophone,’ ” said Smith. Over the years, Smith mastered many other instruments, but saxophone was his first and the one he’s best known for, especially when playing live.

Albums Evan Smith has worked on by Carly Rae Jepsen, Pink and Bleachers. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Smith went to a performing arts high school and focused on saxophone and jazz. He studied jazz performance at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, then moved to New York City and played in several groups and at venues around the city. He also started playing as a session musician on other people’s recordings.

In New York, he started shifting from jazz to pop when he joined a band called The Prigs, known for raucous live gigs at the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. Smith said he rediscovered the kind of pop music he loved on the radio as a kid. He said playing in The Prigs was a “rush.”

“It was kind of like rediscovering something from 8th grade, when I was learning guitar parts to my favorite records,” said Smith. “I was fun to play music that had lyrics.”

One of Smith’s first big tours came in 2009 when he was asked to join the live band for St. Vincent, the performing name for musician Annie Clark. He toured with her for about two years, around the same time that she was working on an album with David Byrne of Talking Heads. Smith ended up playing on that album.

Nowadays, a lot of his work is with Antonoff, who has done production work for many stars. Smith’s become known for his versatility with many instruments, and somebody Antonoff can rely on to deliver what ever the needed vibe for a project might be.

Evan Smith digs through some of the albums in his home in Portland. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Smith has recorded on albums for Swift, Lorde, Pink, St. Vincent, Bleachers, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Rey and Kevin Abstract.

His versatility shows up in the style of music he’s asked to play as well. He’s done several projects for Daniel Hart, a musician and composer of film and TV music based in Los Angeles. The two met while they were both touring with St. Vincent.

When Hart needed a jazzy score for the 2018 heist movie “The Old Man & The Gun” starring Robert Redford, he called on Smith. And when he needed a film noir feel for the music for a CBS All Access streaming show called “Strange Angel,” he went to Smith again. The fact that Smith plays so many instruments so well is another reason why he’ll continue to be in high demand as a musician, Hart said.

“He is such a great improviser and his ideas always feel like they belong in the music I sent him,” said Hart. “In TV especially, we often have to turn something around in a day or two. It’s a great comfort to know I can send him something, and he’ll send back something that’s exactly right.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: