Writing and singing sad, sad songs is Mindy Smith’s specialty. But just hearing those words on a record is like buying a one-way ticket on her emotional journey.
To complete the trip and fully appreciate the original Mindy Project, make a date to see her perform.
The Long Island native, who eventually moved to Nashville and became the Americana Music Festival’s best emerging artist in 2004, may never be confused with Little Miss Sunshine. Yet there are rays of hope that prove no matter how dark her incredibly introspective material is, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel of love.
Just as she comes across in concert, Smith was pleasant and personable during a phone interview last week, punctuating her sentences with periods of laughter that even retain a New York accent.
Smith seemed positively chipper the day before embarking on a western swing of her “Closer” tour, named after the opening song from her new self-titled album. On September 30, she’ll perform (with Peter Bradley Adams opening) at Denver’s Daniels Hall, in a building where the esteemed Swallow HIll Musicorganization is located.
A serious folk-roots artist who has written almost everything that has appeared on her five studio albums, Smith did form a musical bond with an unlikely partner when she covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on her stunning 2004 debut One Moment More.
Smith definitely wasn’t rooted in the country genre when she made the move to Tennessee after attending Cincinnati Bible College, a seminary school where she enrolled for no other reason than to connect with some acquaintances of her mother Sharron, who died in 1991.
“I came here just as ignorant as can be about country,” said Smith, who first followed her father Larry Smith to Knoxville in 1994 when her mother’s death made it unbearable to call the Long island town of Nesconset home any longer. She did develop an appreciation for bluegrass artists like Alison Krauss, but admitted, “I met Marty Stuart several times and didn’t realize he was a country singer (laughs)until after the fact. ... People make fun of me because I didn’t know like — this may sound stupid — but I didn’t know who Merle Haggard was. Now I know, but ... I had to get a schooling when I came here.”
A friendship formed with Parton, who even paid a visit to Smith’s apartment, which was documented on video. Reminded of that 2009 meeting, Smith was asked if the two ever followed through on a planned songwriting collaboration.
“Well, you know, I have to sort of get the balls up to remind her that we discussed that,” Smith said. “I think it’s more ... she doesn’t co-write so the fact that she put it out there, I would be stupid not to take her up on it. So maybe one day I’ll have the sensibility to crawl out of my little comfort zone and reach out and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this; what’s the holdup?’ I think the holdup might be huge productions and amusement parks, but, hey, I can slow down with my amusement parks to write with sweet little Dolly.”
That wry sense of humor thankfully is emerging again after what Smith described as a “short hiatus.” With a split from Vanguard Records, the future is in her own hands as an independent artist.
Mindy Smith the album, which exquisitely shows her broad range beyond roots and what she calls “sad, sad, sad, songs,” was released June 26 and is the first record for her own label, appropriately named Giant Leap.
“Well, it was time for me to go,” Indie Mindy said about the decision. “I think it’s something I had been asking for, praying, putting it out to the universe or whatever. And Vanguard, there was a shift in the option that they wanted to come to me with and I just decided that I was just gonna take a leap, a giant leap of faith.
“There’s a lot of elements to having a record label that are definitely beneficial. But, for me, it just didn’t outweigh the benefits of owning my masters and having something tangible later on in my life if things pan out for me here.”
Saying “those are the kinds of relationships that you need to continue to nurture, in my opinion,” Smith doesn’t harbor any grudges with Vanguard, appreciating that the company waited months after her record came out to release The Essential Mindy Smithcompilation on October 9.
While sounding grateful to be allowed creative freedom there, it didn’t make her rich. Not that becoming independent will improve her financial situation.
“There’s a great misconception that people think that if you have five albums, you have 5 million dollars,” she said.
Joining the indie ranks is “definitely not about the money. ... It’s a different sense of power. ... The beauty of being a struggling artist is that you kinda don’t know any different. And you just kinda hope one day that you will. ...
“I would much rather have this kind of control and input that I have, even though it’s terrifying, than to be given a $250,000 record deal that’s gonna get spent on probably catering and things that they spend it on,” Smith added, making sure to point out that Vanguard was never guilty of throwing away that kind of money.
After taking "some detours that were out of my control" following the release of 2009's Stupid Love, Smith seems invigorated by the prospects awaiting her while putting together a new team and signing a publishing deal. Possessing an affecting soprano that she admits can’t match a powerhouse voice “like Mavis Staples,” she’s insecure about touring with a full band that “can oftentimes drown my vocals out.”
So the vulnerability expressed in heartfelt lyrics pours out in an intimate three-piece setting that includes Kyle Ryan (electric guitar) and Marc Pisapia (percussion). “It’s probably my favorite setup that I’ve done on the road,” said the artist, who literally knows how to paint a pretty picture, too, with her artwork recently featured online at Paste. “And honestly I think it shows in the performance that I’m enjoying myself.”
By now Smith was bubbling with enthusiasm, and it seemed as endearing and authentic as the personal works she might as well tear out of a private diary. “You have to enjoy making music,” she continued. “Otherwise people know if you’re not having a good time. They know.”
Still working with talented Nashville musicians from her first album that included Telluride favorite Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar and other string instruments), former Smith co-producer Lex Price (mandolin, now bass) and versatile session playerDan Dugmore(pedal steel), that spirit shines through on her current crop of songs. Along with the requisite poignancy, there’s gospel (the divine “When You’re Walking on My Grave”), blues (a fiery “Don’t Mind Me,” “Tin Can”) and jazz (“Cure for Love”).
Even though she’s known for heavier, heart-wrenching numbers such as “Raggedy Ann” and “One Moment More,” a plea to her dying mother from her debut album that is guaranteed to bring a tear to anyone who’s lost a loved one, Smith said covering all the bases is nothing new for her.
“I didn’t write anything specifically for a new record,” she said about her most recent experience. “I just was writing. That’s the truest form of art, I think, instead of anticipating you have to have a follow-up single or you have to have ... I mean radio doesn’t really want to play a lot of what I do. I don’t know why. Hopefully, that’ll change soon.
“I’m all about making sure that every song is something that I would want to sing for the rest of my life — every night. For me, that stands the test of time. And I’m telling ya, I’m not easy to please in terms of music. If I’m not happy with a song and I realize — ‘Why did I put that on an album? I don’t ever want to play that song again’ — then that’s a problem for me.”
Working with different co-producers over the years (including Jason Lehning this time) has provided extra insight, she said, and allowed an intense nitpicker to reconsider her quest for perfection.
“Sometimes people in my position spend so much time ruining things by making them perfect,” Smith said. “And I could be easily guilty of that.”
She even went so far as to use the scratch vocal on three of her songs, including the powerful “Don’t Mind Me” and the delicately sparse “If I.”
“Don’t Mind Me” was written several years ago when Smith had a falling out with “a really, really dear, dear friend,” she said as thunder began rumbling in the background. “And it was really strange, but on the day that I did the vocal for this, I had a similar falling out with somebody that I considered a sister.
“When you love somebody like a sister or a brother, family, and your friendship has been tainted a little bit, it can be like losing somebody in your family,” added Smith, who remains close to her two actual sisters living in Virginia (Kimberly) and Knoxville (Shannon) and a brother (Don) and her father now in North Carolina.
The emotion from that recording is “very, very, very real,” Smith said, happy to report that the damaged relationship has been somewhat mended.
So while the sad songs remain, the the moody blues have dissipated. Smith refuses to let a struggling economy get her down and for someone who at one time didn’t know the Music City existed, even embraces the place she lovingly calls her home, having recently performed at the Grand Ole Opry and the Americana Music Festival.
Pleased to have a spot under the wide-open Americana umbrella, the performer who believes her last visit to Denver was opening for John Prine at the Paramount in 2007 finds it cool that artists like Robert Plant are proud to be one of its members.
“What I only ever wanted to do in my life was do music,” Smith said, sounding content that following her heart to Nashville took some time while emerging in 2004 from a list of nominees that included Adrienne Young, the Greencards and Old Crow Medicine Show. Although the 40-year-old doesn’t prefer the fast track, Smith has been on quite a roller-coaster ride. And it isn’t always a walk in the amusement park.
Asked again about joining forces with Parton, Smith followed up her joyful odd-couple experience with a deeper thought that might apply to her career these days.
“Sometimes you just have to wait it out and let God worry about it,” the impassioned “Come to Jesus” songwriter said. “And other times you have to reach out and make something happen. I think I’m being made to have to reach out and make something happen. You can always count on the universe.”
That just might be her ticket to Dollywood.
Publicity photo by Fairlight Hubbard.
See the official music video of “Closer” from Mindy Smith: