With Your Smith
Story & Photo • Cory Weaver
A lot of things happen at 30. It’s a time to reflect on what you’ve done or in most cases, what you haven’t done. For Caroline Smith, it was time to hit reset.
By the age of 16 the native Minnesotan already had an established music career—playing out regularly with a debut album, Rising and Shining with Caroline Smith, under her belt; she had even opened for B.B. King.
Smith then joined forces with three others and formed Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleep. The quartet had a great run, releasing three albums, gaining radio exposure in Minneapolis and playing all the cool venues in the Twin Cities.
But, it was just that: a good run. At some point a few years ago, she pushed the restart button and closed that chapter of her musical life. Smith moved to Los Angeles, slowly started to let go of Caroline Smith and took on a new persona: Your Smith. Last year, Your Smith went public in the form of her Bad Habit EP, produced by Tommy English.
During the Midwest portion of her fall tour, I sat down with the indie folk rocker on a mild fall evening on the patio at Off Broadway before her set. The 30-year-old, dressed in a “wife beater,” khakis and penny loafers, seemed refreshed, like the feeling you get when starting a new job, a new relationship or moving to a new city.
The name change is an obvious topic. Why don’t we get that out of the way first?
As Caroline Smith, I was working out my craft as a songwriter, working out, you know, being a well-rounded human and all the things that you are working out before you turn 30. For example, the crux of the Internet is that it never goes away, so basically changing my name to Your Smith is just like I wanted a fresh start. Your Smith felt so freeing to me and I think it reflects in the songs I released.
The biggest thing is, I feel freedom from a narrative I was existing in. From a storyline that people already knew who I was, whether good or bad. I don’t align with every phase I’ve gone through anymore.
It’s like an embarrassing photo of you wearing a whack-ass outfit and you’re like, ‘ugh,’ but that shit follows you around. After years of trying to figure it out, I created Your Smith to be the vehicle to bring this concise message without all the muck of the past…it just feels really freeing—I get to start over right now.
The EP has a lot going for it—you’ve navigated a few musical genres in such a small sample size.
I wanted it to feel like the four tracks were separate from one another; they had a different vibe, a different story, a different tempo, a different makeup all-together. So it felt like I wanted to solidify what people were going to expect from a full-length and it was going to be those four directions expounded upon.
I grew up listening to music that my mom grew up listening to, like Paul Simon, Jackson Browne and Van Morrison—songs that emphasized songwriting. Those albums feel like home to me or feel comforting, and I just really wanted to write an album that felt like it could be somebody else’s, like, warmth in their chest. I also grew up in Minneapolis and the Minneapolis sound is something that’s really important to me. It was really influential, you know, that Prince and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that did all the Janet Jackson stuff—I will never give up my love for New Jack Swing.
How did you and Tommy English (K. Flay, Miike Snow, BØRNS) end up being a team?
I love the stuff he did with Kacey Musgraves. So when I met Tommy, we were in Nicaragua together writing for a camp put on by our friends—I really didn't know everything he had worked on, but I came into the session just being very, ‘This is what I'm doing.’ I already knew I was changing my name, I knew what I wanted, I knew what sound I was going for. I pitched that to a lot of producers who then tried to tackle it, and some did a great job and thusly I continue to work with them, but nobody's quite done it like Tommy.
I want to do all these dusty 70 sounds with warm crackles and stuff, but with like a New Jack Swing high-hat or something with more modern lyrics or way to say things...and he just nailed it. Since then he's become like one of my best friends, so now he can expound on my vision very easily. He can be like, “Have you heard this Wings album?” and I’m like no, I didn't grow up listening to Wings, that was like a totally undiscovered thing—my mom did not really like Paul McCartney. So, then he showed me this Wings album and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ He said, ‘I know, this is very futuristic for the time, we’ll do some riff off this’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I love that.’ So now we are developing further and further into territory we want Your Smith to be.
The first half of your tour you’ve been teamed up with Baum. How’s it been going so far?
Touring with Baum has been pretty magical. My agent kept sending me people and sending me people and you know in today's day and age, it's so easy for people to make music…I felt no soul in a lot of the things I was listening to, but then when he sent me Baum’s music, I totally perked up.
At first I was like, ‘Oh here’s just another submission,’ but then I played it and I liked it—she was singing about real things, real struggles, I had no idea how young she was. And then, I was like, ‘Let’s do it, that sounds great.’ Then, I found out that a few of my band members already knew her and were friends with her band members, and it’s just been like a little party, or big party—however you want to put it.
Being from a city that has a great music scene like Minneapolis, did that make it easier for you to take the leap and move to L.A.?
Yes it did, but it’s layered because Minneapolis is so great. It's amazing because they support their artists and it’s unparalleled by any other city. You know, there are obviously major music scenes in Nashville and New York and L.A., but the hometown pride and local support… I've never—I’ve never seen it like that anywhere else.
Conversely, sometimes it can make their local artists a little comfortable. I was pretty comfortable in Minneapolis, and I was getting more and more frustrated because I wasn't growing the way I needed to be growing and it wasn’t like, ‘I’ll move to L.A. and that’ll fix it.’ I was honestly kind of going through a quarter-life crisis, I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, and five years had eventually gone by where I hadn’t released anything.
I kept writing and writing but I don't know…something was missing. I started working with a publishing company in L.A., so I was flying out there a lot and a friend was like, ‘Why don’t you just stay out here?’ So I did…and it was so scary. It was so hard uprooting from Minneapolis. The three years I was in Los Angeles was just a lot of me trying to figure it out and grappling with the industry and my confidence and at the end of the day, I'm really glad I did it as Your Smith [was created], the EP came out and I got to meet Tommy (English).
You’ve talked about struggling with and breaking through writer’s block. How did you handle it and how did you overcome it?
One time I found a quote of something I had copied down in one of my notebooks, and I asked myself ‘Who wrote this?’ because it was so good that obviously I couldn’t have written it. So, I was googling the words and couldn’t find anything, and I was like, ‘Oh my God—I wrote this!’
So to me, writer’s block is a total lack of confidence, it dissociates yourself and blocks you out of your [artistic ability] and your own creative possibilities—there’s a complete divide. People write books and books on how to conquer it, but the only way to overcome writer’s block is to not be scared of it, to accept that it will come back and to be patient because time will heal it. The more you force it, like, ‘I gotta release something, it’s been years,’ the worse it’s going to be, so you just need to surrender to it, take a break and keep writing through it.
It’s amazing to have such a great collaborator in Tommy. There are many days I go to his house to write, and somedays I sit down, and we come up with the greatest shit or I have literally nothing to say and we do something else other than work on music. When you work with someone who keeps the pressure low, it really keeps writer’s block at bay.
In the digital age of music and the immediacy of needing a song now, how do you deal with the label demands to stay relevant?
Personally, it’s frustrating me that consumption moves really fast, but there’s no changing that and I could stand on a soapbox and tell everyone to slow down—they’re not going to slow down.
The best thing for me is to try to beat it at its own game. I’m an album-based person and for me, I put a lot of work into it, and at the pace that things move in this industry, it would be heartbreaking to release something and it get trampled over really fast. So, I think you have to leave breadcrumbs, which is what I think an EP is for me. I’ll give you a little bit, heads turn. I give you another one, and a few more heads turn, and keep doing that and go back, do more stuff and wait ’til all the eyes you want are on you to release the work you’ve been working so hard on.
It’s ironic the speed is breakneck at which people consume music, and it forces us as artists to be more patient. You know how great it would feel to just release a whole album and then, tour it? It would feel great, instead of one single here and one single there and I’m like, ‘Great, I have two singles and I play a live show and wow, what do I play?’ It’s forced artists to think and do things in a different way.