Exclusive: Stuart Smith talks Heaven and Earth, Ritchie Blackmore influence

Los Angeles hard rockers Heaven & Earth are keeping rock alive with their fourth studio album, Hard To Kill, which was released on October 6th via Quarto Valley Records. Hard To Kill features Joe Retta (lead vocals, guitar, harmonica), Stuart Smith (guitars), Lynn Sorensen (bass and vocals), keyboardist Ty Baillie (who has played with Katy Perry and Robbie Robertson), and essential to the album with his songwriting and drumming is Kenny Aronoff, who has been a sideman to countless bands both live and in-studio including Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and the Rolling Stones. His distinctive style and energy is one to behold on Hard To Kill. While on tour, the band includes musicians Mike Mangan (Hammond organ and keyboards) and Steven Wilson (drums, percussion, vocals).

Taking Hard To Kill as a whole, the 11 original songs ring true and the melodies unfold like you have known them your whole life. The title track serves as the band’s anthem, a testament to perseverance and the power of rock. “L.A. Blues” exposes the pitfalls of living in the City of Angels, while “The Game Has Changed” dramatically contrasts the past with the present. Meanwhile, “Til It’s Over” will earn the admiration of longtime rock listeners, just as the attitude in “Bleed Me Dry” and “Walk Away” will speak to any modern music fan.

“It took two and a half years to record this one. We took about the same, literally same amount of time as the last album. Our record company is really behind us and we’re very lucky that their really behind us and that they give us the time to do that. Most record companies will give you a small budget and you’ve got to get it done really quick. Where as the head of our record company, Bruce Quarter, he’ll say ‘Listen, I don’t care how long it takes, how much it costs, if you feel you can do better, do it again.’” Smith says of the project.

He continues, “We’d spend a lot of time writing, crafting the songs. That’s what takes a lot of time as opposed to the recording. We can change a song around about fifty times before we say we’re ready to record it now. The only reason we can do that is because our record company gives us the freedom to do it. Most record companies say you have a deadline in three months and you’re gonna get this amount of money. You’ve gotta do it quick because you’re not making any money with it.”

With guidance from Ritchie Blackmore, Smith’s own performing career took him across Europe with various bands, through New York City, and ultimately to Los Angeles where he first formed Heaven & Earth. The band released two previous albums before he met singer Joe Retta about a decade ago, when both men were touring with The Sweet, known for the classic hits “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox On The Run.” After developing a strong writing partnership, Retta and Smith joined forces to continue the Heaven & Earth legacy.

“Our first gigs when I came out here were to clubs of a thousand people because MTV was really big at the time and Ritchie [Blackmore] was all over it.”

Founder/guitarist Stuart Smith was born in Great Britain, the son of an RAF jet fighter pilot, and he was originally classically trained on the guitar from the age of eight. After seeing a Deep Purple concert in the early ‘70s, he got turned on to rock and roll and met Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore when he was nineteen, and the two have been friends ever since. Blackmore instantly took Smith under his wing and mentored him.

“When I was nineteen, I met Ritchie and we became very good friends. We just had a lot of the same interests and everything. He sorta took me under his wing. I was living in England in 1983 and everything was just sorta Duran Duran and dance music, there was no — and England’s so small that if you’re not playing music that it’s fashion, you starve. Ritchie said, ‘Why don’t you move to the States?’” Smith tells me exclusively.

“He came out and just got in with the band [Rainbow] and got a hit with ‘I Surrender’ and they were touring. I was on the tour with him hanging out. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to the States? It’s so big! No matter what style of music you’re doing, there’s always an audience.’ So, I took his advice, packed up, went and– he lived in Huntington, Long Island and [I] moved over there. I got my own place in North Port just up the road and I formed a band. Ritchie would help out. He’d play with us and they’d advertise this on the radio. Our first gigs when I came out here were to clubs of a thousand people because MTV was really big at the time and Ritchie was all over it, so, they’d announce it on the radio and word had spread like it does. We’d go on and play our house set and then go off and come on and bring on Ritchie. It was great. He helped out tremendously in that sense and also with his playing. He was very instrumental, taught me so much. Not just about playing, but about how to tune, about approaching the instrument and the business in general.”

A native of Rochester, NY, Retta established himself as one of the most versatile singers in Los Angeles. He has performed with The Sweet, Gregg Rolie, Dio Disciples, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. With Retta out in front, his powerful vocals and world-class musicianship are integral to Heaven & Earth’s epic sound.

Bassist Lynn Sorensen, a Seattle native, has performed all across the globe with Bad Company and in Paul Rodgers’ band. As a teen, Sorensen studied classical violin and viola; to this day, he maintains a passion for classical music.

You can hear the entire interview I did with Smith and how I nearly snagged an impromptu with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, as well. How cool would that have been? The nearly thirty minute chat covers everything from the album’s production, drummer Kenny Aronoff’s involvement, Smith’s turn onto rock and roll, Blackmore’s mentoring, the Sunset Strip and more.

Author: Buddy Iahn

Buddy Iahn founded The Music Universe when he decided to juxtapose his love of web design and music. As a lifelong drummer, he decided to take a hiatus from playing music to report it. The website began as a fun project in 2013 to one of the top independent news sites.