Jesse Paris Smith: Pathway to Paris concerts will go on

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

As the daughter of two rock legends, Detroit-born Jesse Paris Smith grew up in St. Clair Shores surrounded by music and poetry.

Her mother is singer and author Patti Smith, and her father was the late MC5 guitarist and songwriter Fred “Sonic” Smith. Her older brother, guitarist Jackson Smith, 33, still lives in Detroit.

Jesse moved to New York with her mother and brother Jackson after Fred Smith died in 1994. Her interest in environmental causes blossomed when she was in high school there (she attended the Grosse Pointe Academy as a child.).

Smith, 28, merged her musical background and contacts with her concern for the environment by co-founding an organization, Pathway to Paris, with Rebecca Foon.

Pathway to Paris was organized as a fundraising concert (for the environmental organization in response to the People’s Climate March, which took place in cities all over the world, including New York, on Sept. 21, 2014. The response was heartening enough that Smith and Yoon decided to make it a more concrete organization, launched a website and planned a series of music-based events that will culminate with two nights, Dec. 4-5 in Paris, to coincide with the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (which started Monday and ends Dec. 11).

Despite the Nov. 13 terror attacks and heightened alert for U.S. citizens traveling abroad, Smith says the Pathway to Paris events at Le Trianon on Friday and Saturday are still on. Among the musicians and speakers set to appear are Patti Smith, Thom Yorke, George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison, Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers), Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva.

Jesse Paris Smith spoke with The Detroit News in between recording sessions in Metro Detroit.

You divide your time between Detroit and New York. What are your favorite things about Michigan?

I divide my time year-round between Detroit, New York, and traveling within the U.S. and overseas. But mostly it is between Detroit and New York. You will commonly hear me wishing the two cities were closer together, but I am fortunate to have two places in the world where I feel so comfortable and at home.

I was born in Detroit, and spent my early childhood in St. Clair Shores. In many ways my heart is in Michigan, and some of the most wonderful memories of my life have been spent here. I have family here, as well as many friends and collaborators. I love living in Detroit. I find that people are very friendly and there is a strong sense of community. People say hello to you on the street, even though you might never see each other again. Michigan is also so beautiful and diverse. You can easily get lost in the wildest of nature, or be fully immersed in cultural activity. I There are so many people I love here, I am so proud to be from this city, and I feel strongly connected to the land. It’s an unexplainable feeling of home.

What draws you to New York?

Our family moved to New York when I was nine, and so my formative years into adulthood were spent there. I love the communities I have found there, and the boundless opportunities. It is quickly becoming more difficult, with how expensive things are getting. Rent prices are increasing so rapidly, businesses are closing all of the time, and it becomes harder to find work with the amount of people and competition. But I have family, friends, neighbors and collaborators that I really love there. Oh, and since I grew into adulthood in New York, to my brother’s chagrin, I also don’t have a driver’s license, so it is easier for me to be self sufficient there, where I can walk and take public transportation; though my mom did live in St. Clair Shores for 16 years without knowing how to drive.

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

I first became passionate about environmental studies when I was in high school in New York. I was shocked by an article I found on fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses, and was upset that we hadn’t been taught about these subjects in class. During and after high school, I volunteered and worked for environmental organizations, and took part in grassroots activism. As a teenager, I wanted to become a climate scientist, imagining that I would devote my life to studying glaciers and finding real solutions to climate change. Instead, I have ended up on a path more focused on music, but I have always tried to find and create ways to connect the worlds of the arts and sciences.

Can you explain what will happen at the Pathway to Paris events?

The evenings will follow the same structure as all of the previous Pathway to Paris events, with music, poetry, videos and speaking. Our lineup includes a beautiful and inspiring group of musicians and leading thinkers. All of the events have been special in that they have included beautiful, powerful music and art, as well as words from climate experts, writers, activists, politicians, scientists.... For me, the events have been emotional, educational, inspiring and deeply motivating. Across the globe, we are all just people, requiring the same basic needs of food, water, air and shelter, and a concern like climate change reminds us of that.

You often tour with your mother, Patti Smith, and brother Jackson Smith.

I enjoy collaborating with my mom and brother very much. Music is the family business, and it’s a wonderful chance for us to spend time together. My brother is a very talented guitarist, and it is a joy to watch him perform, and we usually have a lot of fun (and laugh quite a bit) when we play together. My mom has many talents, and though I particularly enjoy performing with her in more quiet, acoustic settings, I am also constantly amazed and inspired by the amount of energy she has on stage when she performs with her band.

Are you writing and performing your own music?

Yes, I compose, record and perform often within a variety of projects. I enjoy working by myself, and I also enjoy collaborating with others. Since 2008, I have been composing and recording music for film. I have many ideas that I look forward to focusing on in 2016.

How did you become involved with the fight to keep natural grass at Navin Field? The old field where Tiger Stadium once stood is set to be redeveloped. Your father, Fred “Sonic” Smith, was a staunchTigers fan.

This issue was first brought to my attention by my roommates who own the house where I live here in Detroit.They have been residents of Indian Village for many years, and are passionate and proud of maintaining the historic value of the city. They both spoke at the most recent city council meetings, and have been actively engaging neighbors, friends and colleagues, spreading the knowledge of this issue to as many people as possible. There is absolutely no good reason to remove the natural grass and replace it with plastic grass. Astro turf is harmful to the health and wellness of children, adults and dogs, with new research linking it to cancer.

I never got to see a game at Tiger Stadium, and for so many, it is such a romantic idea, and Navin Field is symbolic of a lost era. My dad certainly was a Tigers fan. He was a talented shortstop and was scouted as a young man for the Tigers’ farm system. He had a unique moment in life with a difficult opportunity to choose between music or baseball. He chose music (when Fred Smith helped form the MC5), but his love for baseball was always with him. I would think that the majority of families in Michigan either have a personal history tied to the Tigers, the stadium, the field, or a desire to create new stories there. The idea of Navin Field being renovated and put to new use is a positive improvement for the city, but nobody wants to create new family memories on plastic grass.