Renowned singer/songwriter Michael Smith hasn't limited his craft to the coffeehouse folk scene

In "Ballad of Elizabeth Dark," Smith captures the irresistible and doomed innocence of the beatnik coffeehouse scene, a time when the rhythms of Kierkegaard, Gainsborough, Kerouac and Lord Buckley mixed with free love and "house parties to cover the rent." "We all wanted to be existentialist," Smith sings, "None of us knew what the hell it meant." His tone falls somewhere between nostalgia and haunted disbelief.

Now I take the el to Loyola and I walk along the Sheridan side

Where the waves are breaking over the jetty

Michael Smith and Anne Hills
Irene Young
Michael Smith and Anne Hills

Where the wind is like an icy hand

Fyodor says that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime

Maybe I'll see Elizabeth D. one more time

"Elizabeth Dark was a name I found in a mystery book," Smith explains. "I found it and said, I've got to write a song with this woman's name. There are some experiences of mine in it, but it's quite fictional. It's set in places that I know. I read this interview with Joyce Carol Oates in which she says she begins with a geographical location. She'll see a place and say, "What kind of people would show up in that place, and what would they say and what would they do?' I wanted to make Chicago and the places around it a mythical place, like Paris or Manhattan."

As a lyricist and storyteller, Smith has only a handful of peers on the folk scene, and so it's tempting to dwell on his command of image, his unpredictable shifts and leaps of sense, which of course only tells part of the story. His melodies are elliptical and dream-inducing, drawing on jazz and rock & roll — "I want to be my own Beatles," he says — and his stories take on a life the page can't reveal. "All songs have stories, but I don't want to put too much emphasis on the story. I think what's important is that songs go together. When the second song starts, you don't think, "What the fuck? Is it a different band?' That's what I hate about records which are too variety-filled. The average folk singer is pretty dull musically, and they're too focused on the words. When songs are good, you're not thinking about the words, and sometimes you notice a word or two, but mostly you're just getting a feeling, and it comes from the combination of words and music. That's what's exciting about songwriting. It's not just making up words and singing them so that people accept the words. It's making a whole mood."

Michael Smith and Anne Hills play the Focal Point on Friday, Sept. 17.

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