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Words of Wisdom from Mindy Smith
By Kara Kulpa
Photo by Tracie Goudie
In 2003 singer/songwriter Mindy Smith blew into the Nashville music scene from Long Island, NY like a breath of fresh air. Successfully managing to combine elements of alternative-country, folk-rock, Christian contemporary and even pop into her music, Smith seemingly became an overnight success when she covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” for the tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton.
This past June, Smith released her highly anticipated fifth studio album, Mindy Smith, on her own label, Giant Leap/TVX Records. As the first leg of her national tour winds down, Mindy Smith graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Coolgrrrls about her musical past, present, and a few potential ambitions for the future.
Kara: You’ve been on the road since the beginning of July, how’s the tour going, and how has fan reaction been to the new material?
Mindy: Yeah, we’ve been touring since early July, and there are a few more shows left [in NC, TV, & KY.] Then we’re going back out in September for another leg — we’re pretty much touring continuously right now. (laughs) It’s an on going thing!
I think [the fans] are enjoying [the new material]. I’m enjoying playing it for them. I think that’s half the battle. I think when people don’t see you enjoy what you’re doing it makes for a less interesting performance. So, I’m enjoying it, and I think they will enjoy it as well.
Kara: What was one of your most memorable moments from this tour?
Mindy: On this tour? Oh, I think being on the road and getting to know the guys in my band; having some really great conversations and bonding in a way that maybe most people wouldn’t bond with others. You know, you always try to keep everything politically correct, or whatever. We’ve had some great chats, and I think that’s been one of the most profound things that’s happened on the tour.
Kara: For some of our readers, this feature may be their first exposure to you and your music. If it’s ok, lets backup for a moment – what made you decide to have a career in music? What specifically ignited your passion?
Mindy: I’ve always sang. I don’t remember a day in my life where music hasn’t been valid and passionate for me. I struggled with it as a young person. It wasn’t necessarily encouraged by my teachers in school. Luckily, I’ve been adopted into a family where my mother was very musical; she was a choir director herself. In fact, she enabled me to continue and grow as a singer; as an artist — for me it was about singing. And then as I got older, I realized that I couldn’t get away from it, no matter how hard I tried to ditch it. Sometimes you’re just put on this planet to do a certain thing, you can ignore it if you want to, but it doesn’t always go away so easily. So, I just decided that the only way for me to get noticed was to start learning how to play guitar, and write tunes, and have some original material. I was around 25 when I started writing and playing, and now (adding extra emphasis to her voice) I’m very old. (laughs)
Kara: (laughing) Awe, c’mon!
Mindy: No, I’m very old and I’ve actually managed to pay my bills doing it — sometimes just barely, but… (laughs) But, I’ve definitely been blessed and I can’t say that I would have done it any other way.
Kara: Did you teach yourself how to play guitar, or did you take a couple lessons here and there?
Mindy: I had an instructor for a short period, like for one semester who was terrific. His name is Harold Nagy, back in Knoxville. I lived in Knoxville for a few years. I’m from Long Island, New York, but I lived in Knoxville for a few years — that’s where I discovered Writer’s Night. Long Island doesn’t really have a lot of those. This guy really embraced what my intentions were in terms of learning guitar, which was to write tunes
and have original material. That sort of jump started my exploration of chords. I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist by any means, but I survive on getting by on alternate tunes and all kinds of cheats and what not. But, that was just a short period of time that someone kinda showed me how to muscle through even when it hurts to play.
Kara: Who are your musical influences?
Mindy: Oh man! I’ve listened to so much over the years throughout my life. Early on gospel music, because my dad’s a minister. We grew up listening to a lot of gospel music — The Materials and The Gapers and things like that, but that was during my younger years. Then, I discovered some secular music like John Denver, and then (exaggerating her voice) I discovered the radio! Ooooooo, and I found out that there’s bands like The Cure, well that was a little later on. But when I first discovered the radio, it was all about Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson and all the pop music of that period. The 80′s [music] was amazing, I still go back to it!
Kara: I think everybody still goes back to it! There was some great stuff released back then!
Mindy: You have to! It was just so amazing — great stuff! Then, throughout my years, I took a liking to jazz, and I like artists like Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, Alison Krauss and Chuck Holden — I’m all over the place! Actually, leaving New York has helped me discover music — before the internet and all that stuff. Before then, I was pretty sheltered in terms of discovering artists and their music. Now, it’s such a superhighway, you’re over stimulated with music.
Kara: Oh yeah, definitely! I’ve actually gone back to school for the business end of the industry, and that’s a topic that keeps coming up – everything is a click away, and music actually comes to us now because of all the online resources.
Mindy: Yeah, instead of having to go out and really dig for [new music] at record stores, and pull the CD out, put it in a CD player, sample it — do that extra work that it takes to buy music — things are changing a lot. Now there’s so much, it takes a different kind of an effort.
Kara: In 2003, you covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” for a tribute album. That was actually my initial exposure to your music. Dolly wrote a great song, but I really admire how you were able to make it so uniquely your own. There is something so haunting and almost tortured about your rendition that adds another layer of emotion to the track for listeners to grapple with. Was there a particular reason that you chose to cover “Jolene”? And, do you remember your first reaction to hearing Dolly Parton’s rendition?
Mindy: Truthfully, I thought about the emotion where she was coming from, and that’s how I interpreted it. I unintentionally took it to that next place that was sort of dark and tragic, because that’s what I do best — dark and tragic. [Dolly] really got behind [my interpretation], and told me on several occasions that it is, in fact, her favorite version [of the song] including hers. And that’s a huge compliment coming from somebody who’s an icon. She doesn’t have to say things like that — she’s just been so terrific!
In terms of my rendition, I just couldn’t figure out how to play it on the guitar. (laughs)
I was just trying to find my own way around the guitar with it. When I was invited to participate, Steve Buckingham, who was producing the record, told me to take it home and find a song that I liked. I jumped on that one, and the rest is history.
Kara: That’s awesome.
Mindy: The cool thing about it too is when you think in terms of having to sing a song every single time you perform — that song never gets old for me. I think that’s a testament to Dolly’s ability to write. If you’re stuck singing a song you hate — that sucks! But, to sing a song that you love to sing every night, that maybe you didn’t even write — again that’s a huge testament to her abilities as a songwriter. So, kudos to her!
Kara: There have been a few changes in your musical career – a new label and a new record. What made you decide it was time to leave Vanguard, and was there any special reasoning behind self-titling the new album?
Mindy: I left Vanguard because the option came up. There was a shift and a disagreement in how to go about the next term, so on good terms I decided to take my independence and make a run for it. As much as I love those guys over there, it was time for me to go out and invest in myself again. Three years is a long time to be working on something in terms of recording, and publishing, and whatnot. So, I decided to just go at it on my own. It’s been something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. The opportunity presented itself to me, and I jumped on it. I think if you’re gonna put out an energy and say, “Hey, if I could do this myself, I would.” And then not, when you’re presented an opportunity to do so. That’s you’re own fault. Whether it’s intimidating, or frightening, or you’re taking a risk or a leap of faith — which is why I called my record label Giant Leap — it takes risk to gain. You have to risk something. If you’re going to play the lottery, you have to put in a dollar — nothing comes for free, like that.
Whether it’s a financial investment, or emotional investment, or time investment — so for me, titling the album was about tying that all in together. I’m much older, I’d like to say I’m still 39 and holding, but I’m not. I’ve taken a lot of big steps in the last couple of years, and so, I wanted this record to just say who it is…. It’s me. And, there’s no interference. What you see is what you get — it’s always been like that, but this is a little more true in terms of it really is all me. (laughs) I also have a great team behind me.
Kara: It has to be really great as an artist to also have complete creative control — not to mention owning your own masters, and everything else on the publishing side.
Mindy: Yes, spoken like a music business major! Masters are key! Obviously I can license them, but down the line, I’ll have those…. I look at people like John Prine, and people who have really established themselves. They can say, “This is how I’m doin’ it.” When I’m 60, I [won't be able] to afford to do that if I don’t have any financial security. You know, the industry is completely….
Mindy: Completely! It doesn’t even support itself. So, for me to give up those masters, it’s just bad business.
Kara: I totally agree with you on that!
Kara: It’s easy to hear musical growth in this album. However, one might also say that you returned to the alternative-country/folk-rock roots that you became known for on One Moment More, which will most likely please a lot of fans. Your mother’s passing and your faith is clearly evident in your work, but where else did you draw your inspiration from for this record? And, what’s your process in terms of putting a song all together?
Mindy: Well, I was actually in the middle of writing one when I got the phone call to chat with you.
Kara: Oh no! I’m sorry!
Mindy: No, it’s good, it’s good!
Kara: I totally didn’t mean to disturb brilliance at work!
Mindy: Well see, that’s what I was going to tell you. It’s very spontaneous! For me, it’s not –get up every morning — there’s not a ridge, daily grind with it. It’s in the moment — living. In terms of seizing the opportunity when you have time, or when you feel like, I might as well pick my guitar for 10 seconds and get a feel for it, and see if anything happens today. That’s how I write! (laughs) I have that luxury. I certainly don’t take it for granted. It’s something that you hold onto because a lot of people get stuck in writing situations where they do have to write, or co-write everyday, and it just kind of bastardizes the whole [creative] process. Not that I’m criticizing people for that, it works for some people. But, I’m not just a songwriter, I’m an artist.
The whole thing with the process of the record… I wanted to just let loose and not be so concerned about the impression that it would leave on people. I wanted it to sort of embody all of the albums, in a way. I’m proud of all the work that I’ve done with all of the producers that I’ve co-produces with over the years. Jason Lenning and I had worked together before One Moment More. Actually, we were going to do the rest of the album together, but something came up, and it didn’t work out. So not that I’m back out, and I’m on my own, we just decided to give it a go. This guy is incredible — great sense of letting music breathe, and live, and exist. We both have grown over 10 years from working with each other, in terms of that. But with the song selection, those are songs that I’ve written over the years. Again, it’s a lot like One Moment More, in that sense. One song that I wrote, “If I”, is from the year 1999 or 2000. And then, there are songs [I wrote] as new as this past year. So, I think that’s why it rings kind of familiar to One Moment More, and I just let the band have at it. We just went in [the studio] and in three days, we tracked. One was a budget concern, but also, it was just because we could. We had the best players for this particular record lined up, and they came in, and really enjoyed it and kicked ass! (laughs)
Kara: It’s a great record. “Closer” is my personal favorite. I love that real sexy riff that you got going on in the beginning of that track! You did a really great job with it.
Mindy:(Laughs) You’re a banjo girl?
Kara: I am! Banjo, guitar, bass — I love it all!
Mindy: The Banjo’s a good instrument! I just watched a whole documentary on it from Netflix.
Mindy: Steve Martin did a whole documentary on it. You should watch it!
Kara: Cool, I’ll definitely check it out!
Kara: You’ve worked with some notable names in the industry – Dolly Parton, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, just to name a few. Who else might you like to collaborate with in terms of a possible future project?
Mindy: Oh wow! My dream is to meet and do something with Robert Smith of The Cure!
Mindy: (laughs) It’s reaching… I just kinda wanna meet the dude, ya know? I think he’s incredible and people like that — people from my youth, like…I don’t even know! I couldn’t even tell you! I love so many people! I’ve met once or twice, Bonnie Raitt — I love her. There’s so many!
Kara: I can totally see you do something with Bonnie Raitt. I think that would be really cool!
Mindy: Wouldn’t that be awesome? Nothing like being self-indulgent! (laughs)
Kara: Since you brought up The Cure… If I was to peruse through your music collection, would there be anything else that might surprise me?
Mindy: Surprise you? Ummm… Ozzy Osbourne.
Kara: No way! What else ya got??
Mindy: Hmmmm… Let me think… Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 (laughs)
Kara: Hey, there’s nothing wrong with having a diverse taste in music! I’m the same way!
Mindy: Yeah, I think it helps kind of expand your thought process. When you’re out and you’re listening to the radio, or whatever, everyone is trying to mimmic what everyone else is doing. Sometimes you just have to go back to the places where people just started doing something new, and created a tone or a sound that is innately them, and get away from all the imitation. You know, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but the industry tends to jump on one wagon that does well one time and beat it into the ground.
I tend to get really irritable when I hear a song that sound exactly like 14 other songs I just heard in a row, instead of being unique. And so, you get one artist like Adele, who’s kicking ass and taking names, and then everyone wants to sound like Adele, because she’s done so well.
Kara: I noticed on your website that you also paint; you have some really cool pieces for sale as part of one of your fan bundles. How long have you been doing this hobby, and did you also do the cover art on the new album?
Mindy: Well, the painting on the cover art, yes. That’s my painting in the background, on the right. All the pieces that you see there are from things from my house. We just pulled things from things that I enjoy. I go looking for buried treasure in thrift stores — that’s my hobby. It’s kind of addicting. I went out yesterday for a while; didn’t buy anything, but I look at a lot of stuff. (pauses to give her dog, Josie, a treat)
I’ve actually been painting for a long time. After music was such a pain in the ass when I was in high school, excuse my language! People are going say, “She swears like a sailor!”
Kara: (laughs) You listen to Ozzy, what do they expect?
Mindy: I know, right? (pauses) I took on art because it was busy, and I was always embraced by my teachers for my ability there. It actually helped me get through high school. If I hadn’t taken those extra electives — I doubled up my junior and senior year to [graduate]. I wasn’t a big fan of school at all, but I had so many extra credits with art and music. (laughs) I wan’t an honor student, I can tell you that much!
Kara: You just excelled at other things; there’s nothing wrong with that.
Mindy: Thank you. (laughs)
Kara: You have a teacher by trade telling you that, so for whatever it’s worth…
Mindy: Awwww. Cool. That’s the thing — kids are being told that math and science, and scientific types of ideas and schooling is more important than nurturing their [creative] abilities and their gifts. I don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that’s helping the youth more to learn — that’s how I felt when I was going through it.
Kara: Creative outlets and self-expression is definitely a part of growing up, but it’s also essential to establishing one’s identity as well.
Kara: What do you want fans to remember most about your music?
Mindy: Oh my God! No one’s ever asked me that! Ummm…
Kara: No pressure!
Mindy: That it’s sincere, and that it’s coming from the right place — always. I have God constantly steering it. Sometimes I try to fight that, and it doesn’t work out for me. I’m human. I get blue, or discouraged by the industry just like everybody else. But I hope that I’m making the right decisions and creating templates and ideas. And maybe, someone who is coming up behind me can use and take with them in their own right. I think music is a very healing thing, if it’s done right. (pauses) Hopefully, I’m helping to heal people. I may not be a big humanitarian or someone who is going out and building wells, as much as that’s a beautiful thing, that’s never been my calling. Music has. I just try to be strictly honest, and I just want people to see it for what it is.
Kara: What advice do you have for young girls that are looking to have a career in this industry?
Mindy: First I would say, learn how to be self-sufficient in terms of an instrument. Make sure that you’re investing those hours in learning how to play, whether it’s guitar, or keyboard, or something that’s going to sustain you. That way, you don’t have to count on a band all the time. You can go out and do solo work and support yourself that way. And, just write! Have original material, always have original material. Always be willing to grow, and then learn the business side of it. The business side of it is critical. If you’re going to do this, you have to understand the ins and outs, and when to compromise and when to hold out. That’s my big advice, and be honest. Music is supposed to be honest and truthful.
It’s that very sentiment of truthfulness and honesty that can always be heard as an under current in all of Smith’s work. We all need something to believe in, and depending on the curve balls that life throws our way, healing may be necessary too. It’s comforting to know that like the lantern on the cover of Mindy Smith’s new album, her music will always be there to light the way.