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Watch & Listen
The world got its first introduction to Mindy Smith nearly a decade ago, when she won over Dolly Parton lovers with an elegantly pleading cover of “Jolene,” then promptly added to their number fans of wide-ranging Americana, connoisseurs of confessional songcraft, appreciators of mature pop melodicism and seekers of spiritual heft with her Vanguard Records debut One Moment More and the three albums that followed.
As adept as the Long Island native and Nashville fixture has shown herself to be at sifting through the hidden contents of her heart for the big questions and small breakthroughs that mean as much to her listeners as they do to her, people will be struck by the deeply expressive artist they encounter on Mindy Smith, her fittingly self-titled and first truly independent album. Smith talks about the bold music she’s making in this new season of her career.
Q: Your first albums came in pretty rapid succession, but it’s been a few years since Stupid Love. What have you been up to?
A: I spent the last several years trying to get my bearings and investing in myself. I think unless you’re willing to do that, it’s going to be very difficult to convince other people that they should invest in what you’re doing. I stepped back and regained control of the things that I could, which were publishing—the current songs that I’m writing I own my publishing on—as well as masters and recordings. People don’t realize that unless you own those masters, you really don’t own anything. You get to own your personality, I suppose, but that doesn’t pay the bills necessarily.
Q: What felt right to you about going out on your own at this point?
A: I’d been praying for the opportunity to do it. Vanguard Records had been a great partner for me, but there was a time when I needed to say, “Hey you guys. Love you. Mean it. But I’ve got to do this on my own.” That option presented itself to me an album early. If you’re going to say, “If I could do this or that myself, I would,” and then you don’t when you have the opportunity, then that’s your own fault for not trying.
Q: People may forget that you were presented with a lot of options, some of the biggest labels in Nashville, and chose to go with Vanguard. Independence has always been a priority for you, hasn’t it?
A: Definitely. I still have wonderful relationships with the labels that I chose not to work with. They understood my position. I see where those companies are, they’ve since folded or been bought and sold, and the artists on those labels have fallen by the wayside. And I’m thankful that I had confidence in the decision that I made.
Q: People tend to attribute a lot of meaning to album titles. Why wait until you’re five albums in to release a self-titled album?
A: I came to the decision because it’s all me. This is “make it or break it”. I’m hoping since I’m breaking out, people will come along with me in that thought process: “Okay, this is really what Mindy’s about.” Regardless of the fact that I think this album is one of my best works, I’m still terrified. Every album you put out you’re putting your soul out there for people to criticize it or to love it.
Q: So you’re terrified and yet you’re putting it out there without anything to hide behind.
A: Exactly. I’m exposed. It is a scary adventure. I have a great team. Everybody’s independent that’s working on this project. The neat thing about this is that some of the people I’ve worked with in the past have come back around. I know that their passion for what I’m doing is still there. And who could ask for more than that as an artist?
Q: A lot of people came to know you through your cover of Dolly’s “Jolene”, “Come to Jesus” and your debut One Moment More. Since then each album has had its own personality, from the elegiac Long Island Shores to the pop sensibilities of Stupid Love. You’ve drawn in tangibly rootsier elements on your latest. Is there a stylistic sweet spot for you, or are you an artist of many moods?
A: I am moody! But I have things that I enjoy singing more than others. You start with the writing process. I try to introduce exercises where I find chord progressions that may not be something that I would gravitate to naturally. You collect a group of songs that you think have dimension and dynamics. I don’t like any filler music. When I buy a record, I want every song to blow me away. And if that’s what I want, then that’s what I need to give people. I think with my sound, I just get bored if I’m singing the same thing. I feel like this album is very reminiscent of my first album. I feel like it goes back to that place, that sort of organic place.
Q: I do hear this album circling back to One Moment More, but taking it forward. There’s more of the blues and country grit that you hinted at on your debut. The new thing is that you really let it rip in some of your vocal performances. You push that perfect crystalline vocal timbre to its limits. Same with the playing. Do you feel like you’ve arrived at a different way of expressing yourself?
A: Oh, absolutely. Three of the songs on the album, we used the scratch vocal. I was heartbroken the day we recorded them. I had an unfortunate falling out with somebody. My emotions were running very high. I had to get through that day, and part of that was singing these songs.
Q: Would you have considered keeping those scratch vocals in the past?
A: I’ve used scratch vocals on other records, but none so moving to me. When something’s really moved your heart, it gets to a point where you just have to release it. There are people that can recreate that. I’m not one of those people. If it’s there its there, if it’s not it’s not.
Q: It’s in some of the guitar playing too. There’s a really visceral attack that we haven’t heard on your other records.
A: All the guys that played on this record got emotionally involved in the music. Lex Price and I have been working together for years now. He has an emotional investment in me as an artist. He’s working with k.d. lang now, which is fantastic for him. Jo Pisapia’s also works with k.d. lang. Joe and I have always wanted to do something together. Ian Fitchuk, he just gets inside the music. When we did “If I”, it was just Bryan Sutton and me. I sang and he played and that’s what we kept. He came back out and he said, “Thanks for having me on this record. This is a reminder of why you’re a great artist.” Somebody like Bryan doesn’t have to say that. He’s an accomplished musician, and accomplished producer. But he was emotionally struck by that song.
Q: There’s always been drama bubbling just beneath the surface of the songs themselves. But it feels like you let that out sonically.
A: There’s always honesty in my approach to writing. Sometimes I’m too honest. Vocally, I’m just less worried now. As unconfident as I may be about other things in life, I’m pretty confident in my singing. I say that because I’ve worked really hard at it. I wasn’t born singing this way. I was born wanting to sing this way.
Q: You’ve joked that your songwriting often heads toward heavy territory. But whenever you team up with Daniel Tashian, you wind up with a contented romantic song. There’s one on Stupid Love and “Pretending the Stars” on this album. How does that happen?
A: “Pretending the Stars,” sounded quite tragic when I first brought it to Daniel. [laughs] For some reason we just have a great energy when we write. I think it’s because we love harmony. I mean this is a song that the lead is harmony. I’m really fortunate to know Daniel and some of the other writers on this album, Kate York, Tami Hinesh and Lori McKenna.
Q: There are songs on the new album where you return to a theme you’ve addressed before from a different angle. “Everything Here Will be Fine” made me think back to “One Moment More”. Between the two, you’re dealing with your mother’s death in completely different ways. Is that a sign of growth for you, personal or artistic, to arrive at a new vantage point?
A: Have I wrapped my head around it? In some ways, yeah, with the change in the songs and the approach to writing. To me, my whole life, my whole career has been sort of shaped around the fact that my mom passed away. The songs that I write are very much coping mechanisms for traumatic experiences in life.
Q: Another theme you’ve taken up over the years is your search for spiritual footing. You’re not just appropriating language you heard somebody else use. You’re using language that’s part of your own history. But for a pastor’s kid who put in a few years at Bible College, you’re not doing the expected thing with it.
A: The old way of talking about that Christian perspective is tainted. People often have an aversion to Christianity, because of false representations of what it actually is, which is really love. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to love each other. And I don’t want to just be the “Come to Jesus” girl. I want to be a person that says what I mean always and only. I’m not gonna lie to people. People ask me, “Why do Christians do this or do that?” I don’t know. All I know is what I think, and that’s all I can say in a song.
Q: Speaking for yourself, as opposed to claiming to speak for an entire group.
A: Or for God, for that matter. Who am I to say I know what God’s thinking? I don’t! I don’t mean to write about this stuff. I write about it because that’s where my journey has taken me. I feel blessed that people have realized that that’s what it’s about for me, instead of assuming that I’m trying to preach. We’ve got enough preachers in the world.
Q: It’s not often I hear a writer admit a song came from them playing around with a songwriting exercise. After all, we like to know that our artists have suffered for their art. Do you need things like that to lighten your load so that it’s not all emotionally wrenching?
A: I wrote some pretty sad songs. So I have to write songs that aren’t so sad, and I don’t naturally go there. I have a great sense of humor in a conversation, but when I’m writing it sounds so sad. If I don’t have something not sad to sing at my live shows, people are all gonna want to kill themselves. I can’t carry that burden around with me. [laughs]
Q: You wrote “Cure For Love” envisioning something Sarah Vaughn might sing. People might be surprised to find you that you identify with her.
A: I went through a period of time where I was so obsessed with Sarah Vaughn. I latch onto an artist for the texture in their voice and the timbre that I don’t necessarily have, but I appreciate because they’ve taken what they know they can do and owned it, honed it and used it.
I would’ve hoped that she wanted to sing it. That’s exactly what was going on in my thought process. I think it’s important to change your perspective, just like as a visual artist I’ve learned you need to exercise your skills. Maybe it’s not comfortable for you to do chalk drawings, but do it anyway.
Q: I was going to ask you about your visual art. Is that something you’ve been doing all along?
A: I studied in school. I actually intended to be an art teacher. But I wouldn’t have loved it. I wanted to do music. Visual art was just sort of something to get me by creatively, where I could still express myself. Then I put it on the back burner. Then it would resurface.
Q: It sounds like you’ve rediscovered it in recent years.
A: I really sort of came back around to expressing myself visually with color. I love color. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, because I always wear black. But my house is colorful. My living room is bright blue.
Q: What would you like life to look like now?
A: I want what I’ve always wanted: I want to live my life in a way that I can be proud of myself. I just want to be heard, and that’s what I think success is for me. I’d like for this to be something that everybody can say at the end of the day was worth their energy—not just me. I’ve got a lot of people pulling for me.
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