By Valerie Siebert
At a more superficial listen, it was easy to draw many a comparison to Halifax native Meaghan Smith’s debut album The Cricket’s Orchestra; from Norah Jones to Imelda May to Regina Spektor (I actually thought that I’d mistakenly turned on Spektor’s “Laughing With” when “A Piece for You” came over my speakers). However, turns out that my inexplicable urge to lump things into categories (much like my shameful clothes organization skills at home) was just making it difficult to sort through what is actually quite a healthy wardrobe of eclectic styles. From adult contemporary to 30s vocal jazz to early 40s swing to Greenwich Village anti-folk to country balladry and even rockabilly; my color-coded mind is set a-spinnin’.
There’s Disney-esque mellotron droning of wheezing winds and tinkling piano keys, which would have many of the instrumental tracks fitting nice and comfy into a 30s silent film (she was once an animator and is an avid Disney lover). At times it conjures images of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire flying across the room. Lead single “I Know” is especially in this vein. Piano lilts lazily over sighing strings and presents the perfect cushion for Smith’s airy forget-me-not vocals that express the relatable sentiment of love not unrequited, but rather not said.
Beyond the musical era-hopping, Smith’s tunes are oft found traipsing the globe. Accordion driven “Soft Touch” has you enjoying a serenade outside a Parisian Patisserie while “If You Asked Me” would have you swinging into the wee hours of a Chicago morning.
The Cricket’s Orchestra is not all throw-back, however, as more modern tunes like “Poor”, “5 More Minutes” and “Heartbroken” bring the album into the 2010s in alt-folk, fresh style.
A fave of mine would have to be the tantalizingly short “A Little Love” where a very simple arrangement of plucked strings is augmented with some surprisingly not out of place turntable scratching. The chord modulations are especially attention grabbing and the ominous ascending bridge gives the otherwise playful piece depth; a deft mix of old and new.
The chanteuse’s image is similarly retro but modernly in-tune with her pale skinned, rosebud lipped, blunt fringed indie look that’s so in right now (lucky for my sun-loathing self). The light melodies and brushed percussion serve as a well matched accessory to her personal brand of sunny vintage style.
The album will drop early next month after years of preparation on her part, but despite the understandably busy schedule, she took some time to chat over the phone to us about her ascending star and getting her crickets in a row.
She Does the City: You recorded some of the tracks a few years ago, can you tell us about the process of making the album – why you decided to dedicate so much time to complete it?
Meaghan Smith: You’re right, I recorded the record 2 years ago actually in Toronto and later I took it to this film festival that was being held in Halifax where I just passed it around to the delegates that had come and a lot of them were from Los Angeles. I made the record for myself and I was just going to release it around my hometown and play local shows, but I just wanted to know what someone from LA would think of a little record that I made. And they were really impressed and actually really, really liked it and they started talking about me coming to LA and meeting with different record companies. This was stuff I had never ever thought of really! So I jumped at the chance and figured I didn’t have much to lose. And so I ended up going to LA and that kind of got the ball rolling. I don’t think it’s a matter of choosing to dedicate so much time to finishing the record, but more of just spending a couple of years getting things in place which consisted of management and a band. I’ve been touring and working on forming a foundation on which to build a career.
There is such an eclectic mix of instrumentation on the album – this is ambitious – what made you decide to incorporate such a range of sound?
I get really bored easily. A lot of it was just for my own amusement. I really just wanted to make this record for myself, like I said, when I recorded the bulk of it, I wasn’t thinking of signing to any labels or about radio-play, but rather just “what would I like to hear?” It was like my dream recording session set up, I wanted to work with a horn section and so that’s exactly what I did and then I wanted some strings and wanted to mix it up and have a friend of mine to do some DJing. I wanted to make every song really interesting.
The styles and genres are also quite eclectic. Did you do this on purpose or is that just the way the songs take shape?
They took shape, like they came out speaking for themselves. When it came to recording I just thought about what speaks to this individual song and, not having an A&R guy or anyone to answer to, I did whatever the heck I wanted and I think I stayed true to my vision of what each song called for. However it’s a full body of work; a record and not just a bunch of songs. It’s about letting each song be it’s own thing, but still be true to who I am so I feel like my voice and my personality is what glues the whole thing together.
How would you describe your music if you had to choose three adjectives?
I would say eclectic, whimsical and naive. I’m not out to impress anybody and I feel like that makes it naive and it’s whimsical in that it’s kind of all over the place.
I was wondering if you could tell me the stories behind some of your songs, specifically “You Got Out”, “If You Asked Me” and “I Know”?
“You Got Out” is essentially about an experience I personally had where I had a boyfriend who was sent to jail and then he broke out after two months. I didn’t think we were going out anymore because I hadn’t heard from him and he was in jail. But he came to my house that night and asked me to run away with him! I said I couldn’t go; I had school the next day. And he just went on his way and I haven’t heard from him since!
“If You Asked Me” is about a relationship I had with this guy who was a great dancer, but a really terrible boyfriend. Unfortunately I fell in love with him solely based on his dancing skills and anything he asked, mostly having to do with dancing, I would have to say yes even though he was really super bad for me.
“I Know” is a song I wrote for my grandpa because he’s kind of a very unemotional guy, but he’s in his 80s – getting kind of up there- so every time I see him I always tell him I love him. But he never responds aside from “thank you”! He’s very loving in other ways though and I guess that song is just for anyone like him who can’t say “I Love You”. Sometimes it’s important and sometimes it isn’t, but I think it comes out in other ways.
Since all your songs seem to have some story behind them, what’s the story behind the name of the album, The Cricket’s Orchestra?
It’s actually a line from the song “5 More Minutes”. The album sort of started as a small thing, but eventually it got built up into this big, beautiful project that a lot of people have put their time and effort into. When I first started writing the songs and working with a producer, spending my own money and having no manager, no one behind me, it was kind of like one little cricket chirping, but once more people got involved and my fan base grew, things eventually turned into a cricket’s orchestra; it’s just how the record feels to me.
Do find it necessary to write from personal experience?
Well that’s a good question. I do actually find it hard to sing about stuff that isn’t really personal to me. For example, if I’m doing a cover song it has to be something I can emotionally latch on to or else I can’t get into the song. I have a lot of respect for people who can, but I personally have a hard time doing that. For me, it has to have a deep emotional connection and so that often has me writing from my own experiences.
You used to be an animator and you have helped in the animation for your videos which, I can’t help but notice, looks a bit like the very old Mickey Mouse cartoons like Steamboat Willie etc. Your music likewise seems at times to draw from styles used to accompany such cartoons. Is this coincidental, or do you ever have like a visual process involved when you write songs? Has some of your animation influence transferred into your music?
Absolutely! As soon as I start writing a song I have a video in mind, so the process is very visual for me. When I finally got to go make those videos I just had to have them animated and a lot of the samples I’m drawn to remind me of that old sort of Disney music; that soft fuzzy analogue music of those films. I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up , but rather a lot of Disney movies and that got all rolled up in my music taste as well as my love for animation. It all formed together into a package and came out of me. I’m glad you think that too.
Do you think you’ll continue to animate for future videos?
Well it’s hard to find time, but I do a lot of artwork; I’ve sold upwards of 30 paintings. As we speak I am actually working on a new painting, so I’m still involved in art, but it’s just animation is very time consuming.
What musicians have been your greatest influence?
Well I don’t have just one and I feel that my influences change all the time. I love Bjork and The Pixies were a big influence on me, I also listened to a lot of female artists growing up like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos as well as rock (Beatles) and classical music too. I have a very eclectic musical background; my mom was a piano teacher and my dad played in bands. I guess I’m influenced by everything I listen to.
What artists are you listening to right now?
I’m definitely on a steady diet of Adele right now; I’ve been rediscovering how awesome she is. I’m also listening to this guy from the 70s who sounds like he’s from the 20s named Leon Redbone. He does a throwback thing that has been a big influence on me recently.
Where do you get your sense of style? What are the staples in your wardrobe?
Definitely some crazy throwback dresses. There’s a store in Halifax called the Pretty Things Boutique and I almost exclusively buy my clothes there. They look really vintage, but as someone who is often living out of her suitcase, I wouldn’t want to take lots of real vintage items, because they can get ruined. But the thing I love about Pretty Things Boutique is that they have stuff that looks vintage, but is made from new material and I can shove things in my suitcase and abuse them a bit and they still come out in one piece ready for me to wear on stage. I also like buying handmade stuff like jewellery, headbands and accessories. I try to mix it up a little bit
On a more personal note – when is Meaghan Smith her most happy?
I’m never really unhappy! I’m really, really happy when I’m performing and obviously I’m SO happy when people like what I’m doing. I’ve opened for some pretty famous people like k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, and Chantal Kreviazuk and the fans at those shows have been there to see these people, but if I can go out there, introduce them to my music, and they like what I’m doing, then that makes me REALLY happy. I’m generally happy, I have a great life! I love hanging out with my friends, writing songs, doing art, I guess the only thing I don’t like doing is exercising.