Monday, June 25, 2012

Erica Rivera Interviews Caroline Smith

At the tender age of 18, singer-songwriter Caroline Smith cut her teeth on the Twin Cities’ music scene at the 400 Bar, the West Bank watering hole that has served as a launch pad for adored local artists like Mason Jennings. In 2007, Smith joined forces with Arlen Peiffer (of Cloud Cult), Jesse Schuster, and Colin Hacklander and a year later, the quartet released their debut album, Backyard Tent Set under the moniker Caroline Smith & The Good Night Sleeps. The group has since completed several national tours, shared bills with big Indie acts like Dawes, and received substantial critical acclaim for their quirky, storybook-style folk music.

While the band’s latest release, Little Winds, veers into new sonic territory, loyal fans will continue to be wooed by Smith’s heartfelt and unforgettable lyricism as well as her feisty, youthful energy. Don’t be fooled by Smith’s seemingly precocious nature, however; this chick knows her stuff and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I spoke to Smith in anticipation of her next big gigs: opening for DeVotchKa at the Minnesota Zoo on July 6, a show with The Jayhawks in Duluth on July 7, and a two-night-stand at the Minnesota State Fair on August 25 and 26.

You’ve said that the making of your latest album was a trying time for the band because you were “in transition.” What about the process made it so intense?

Caroline Smith: We weren’t prepared to write the songs that came out. Everyone talks about how different our first album is from the second album and it’s true that the two are very different, but we didn’t do that intentionally. When we were writing these songs, they were just coming out of us. It was very jarring. We were asking ourselves, “Is this who we are? Is this what we do?” We fought against it, but the songs ended up being a balance of all of our personalities. It was challenging to accomplish everyone’s ideas in one project. There was some fighting, a lot of tension. But we came into our own because of it. No, that’s the understatement of the year. We almost broke up because of it. But we came through and we’ve had an amazing year and we’re all really excited about the music that we’re making and we’re all very proud of this album.

You recently played at the Live Letters’ "An Evening With Friends" event, and I wanted to ask you, as a performer, how the experience differs when you play in a small venue like that versus a larger space. Do you have a preference between those?

CS: I prefer playing smaller venues. My favorite venue is the 7th Street Entry, but we’ve grown past that. It’s kind of sad. But, yeah, I like intimate, acoustic shows. Playing in a room of people listening is more relaxed and laid back. The stress and excitement of a big show is fun, too, but that’s not really why I write songs. At the Live Letters show, you covered a Beyoncé song (“Why Don’t You Love Me”). First, I want to say that I hope you record that, because it was awesome.

CS: Thank you.

And then I wanted to ask you if exes inspire most of your songwriting, and if bad relationships provide better material than good relationships do?

CS: I hate to be the woman who has to say this but, yes. If you’re in a safe, steady relationship, the writing comes harder. I used to write a lot about exes, but I’m in a relationship with a great guy now and I’m happy, so I don’t write so much about boys anymore, at least not from my personal experience. What I’ve been doing is taking from my girlfriends’ experiences, and I get to write vicariously through them. They’re advice-based, empowering songs.

Could you speak to your experience of being a female in the male-dominated music industry, or is that something that you’re not even aware of? Are you just one of the boys?

CS: I am constantly reminded that I’m in the male-dominated music business and it’s really frustrating. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve worked on my craft, not only as a songwriter, but as a singer and an entertainer and a musician. I know how to use my gear and my levels, but sound guys will talk to me like I don’t know what I’m doing and I want to say, “I got it.  I’ve been doing this a long time.” It’s almost belittling because no asks the guys in my band anything, because the assumption is that they know what to do with electronics. We’re a band that is always on tour, so I see these things all the time. If I say something gross between songs, people notice, but if a guy were to say those things, no one would care. I try to rub up against it. I play with aspects of it. It’s very fulfilling as woman to do that, but the reality of touring is frustrating sometimes. They probably won’t like me saying this, but the dudes in my band are a little effeminate. They talk about their problems and they’re respectful. They’re in touch emotionally. They take care of me.

How do you deal with unwanted attention from male fans?

CS: That gets tricky. We were playing a show with Trampled By Turtles—have you ever been to a Trampled By Turtles show?


CS: Then you know: their fans get really rowdy. They don’t have a lot of girls open for them or playing with them, so I don’t think they were prepared for this, but we were playing and it was a crazy, drunk, raucous night and there were a group of guys heckling me and saying offensive things, and I was like, “How do you perform through something like that?” I don’t know. My mom taught me to be strong. I don’t take a lot of bullshit. I’ll say, “You’re in my comfort zone,” or “Don’t touch me,” or “Back away.” I’ll see a guy coming my way and think, “Oh, no, I know exactly what you’re after” and throw the hand up. The creepy Facebook messages are less threatening. I laugh about those in the van with the guys in the band. So let this be a warning: if you send me a creepy Facebook message, it will get laughed about.

Smith (left) with Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles (far right)

As you mentioned, you’ve shared stages with big names like Trampled By Turtles, but I’m also thinking of Dawes [whom Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps opened for on New Year’s Eve] and soon you’ll be opening for DeVotchKa. Do you ever feel intimated by these artists or is it just business as usual? Do you ever get starstruck?

CS: Trampled By Turtles are my buddies, I mean, I know they’re a Top 4 artist now or something, but I think of them as my buddies. Minneapolis is a really supportive community, but I don’t think I’m above it. It’s great when national artists come through and they get to see the best of what we have to offer. I got starstruck when I met David Bazan. He said, “I really like your music,” and I thought, “I’m going to pass out right now!” I’m the worst at being starstruck. When I met David Groth—he’s my favorite person in the whole world—I almost died.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve written a song?

CS: Hmm…the weirdest place would have to be on the beach, waking up in Crete, which is off the coast of Greece. But I don’t usually write songs in strange places.

Do you have a structured schedule for songwriting?

CS: I do. I usually write in my bedroom. Sometimes in the van, though I can’t do much with a song there. I also have a huge, irrational phobia of writing in front of other people.

If you were to voice a fairy tale character for a Disney film, which one would it be?

CS: I don’t watch many Disney films, but I guess it’d be The Little Mermaid.

What is your favorite State Fair food?

CS: Fried pickles.

Is there anything on your iPod that you’d be embarrassed for people to find out about?

CS: Dave Matthews. Nobody will every understand it. They will just tease me ruthlessly for it. I went into hiding for a while about how much I like Dave Matthews. Then I came out and said, “I am a fan!” and now I’m back to keeping quiet about it again.