Sunday, January 14, 2007

Mindy Smith Updates

It took eight years for Mindy Smith to become an overnight sensation.

The world discovered her suddenly around ‘04; that’s when she started winning awards, appearing on national TV, inspiring critics and artists to sing her praises (and her songs), and riding the momentum of One Moment More, her Vanguard debut.

But when she wasn’t accepting Best New Artist honors from the Americana Music Association, sharing stages with the likes of Mavis Staples, Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris, or winging across the ocean to recruit new fans in the U.K., she was often doing the same thing she’d done when she was new to Nashville.

She was, in other words, in a room with a guitar, closing a door and coaxing music up from somewhere down inside.

The songs of Long Island Shores, her new Vanguard release, come from that process, untainted by success and its distractions. What they reveal is an artist who is moving forward, which means digging inward as well as bridging out toward her colleagues in the mutual obeisance of co-writing.

The energies of Long Island Shores are as contradictory as the tides that wash the coast near Smithtown, where she was raised, on the northern side of the island. Beautiful to the ear, these songs are turbulent beneath the surface. The first single, “Out Loud,” breathes cautious hope over a breezy beat. “Please stay,” a playful love song, masks a deeper meditation on possessiveness and freedom. “You Know I Love You Baby” sets a hint of rage to a jazzy, toe-tap groove. Layers of meaning open to other layers, exposing these songs as complex in their simplicity. But then Mindy takes another turn on songs that bring one theme – the nestling comfort of “Tennessee,” the lazy pace of untroubled love on “What If the World Stops Turning?” – to a single blossom. “You Just Forgot,” transforms into something emotionally elusive, an intricate interweave of anger, pain, and ethereal detachment. Maybe Mindy didn’t conceive this one, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing it.

You can feel the presence of co-writers on some of these tracks: Beth Nielsen Chapman, Maia Sharp, John Scott Sherrill and the others, all of whom Mindy meets on some common ground of emotion and idea. And you can sense the privacy of those songs she wrote on her own, in which her convictions and doubts, her passions and humor, speak universally, through the poetry of her lyric and the beckoning in her voice.

All of this colors her words too, as she remembers how she felt after One Moment More changed her life. “It tripped me up,” she admits. “I felt like I needed to make a drastic musical change. I guess I wanted to be cooler, so I wound up wasting a lot of time until I realized I’m not cool after all.”

A laugh punctuates her speech; like her gestures, quick changes of expression, and sudden bursts of New York argot. Then we’re back to the story: “But I also came to allow myself more room to grow than I did on the first record. This one sounds more like me; nobody who hears it will be confused when they hear me playing these songs live, because I know they want to hear me tell the truth and be honest.”

Expectations were high for Long Island Shores, but none were higher than Mindy’s. “I’ve always had this need to keep improving,” she says. “I’m always under the gun to top my last song. I guess that comes from being a ‘professional songwriter’” – and here she wiggles her fingers, signaling quotation marks that also betray a self-deprecation that traces back to her first experiences with music.

She still remembers, for example, being confused and embarrassed, as the young adopted daughter of a minister and his musically gifted wife, over the looks she would get for singing out loud wherever she was, whenever the spirit seized her. “I had to learn how to not be excited about singing as I was walking through a mall,” she says. “My teachers hurt me a lot too, when I’d do it in class. That led to learning how to not love having music stuck in my head. I became very guarded. I wrestled with what to do with my life. I tried so many other avenues, but I kept having this desire to make music.”

Her mother’s death, her relocation to Knoxville with her father, and her move to Nashville in 1998, after giving college a whirl in Cincinnati, all hastened Mindy’s decision to pursue music without reservation. Recognition came locally first, beginning with first prize in the Tin Pan South writer’s contest of 2000, which prompted an invitation to join the writing staff at Yellow Dog Music the following year. 2003 led toward her appearance with Lee Ann Womack at South by Southwest and her electrifying rendition of “Jolene” on the Dolly Parton tribute CD, Just Because I’m a Woman. Though she was the only unsigned performer on that collection, Parton herself as an artist of special promise singled out Smith.

Even now, though, you get this sense from Mindy that she’s running everything she’s written through her head again – not just the new songs, but things she wrote years ago. Could she have done better on this one? Will she ever do better than she did on that one? She does know the answers, and she accepts that they point toward her continuing development in every aspect of music, from the writing and the singing to production as well.

That, of course, makes Long Island Shores a masterwork of intuitive artistry. The fact is, for all of her insistence that she’s still just tapping into her creative resources, the scary thing is that she may be right. And for all acclaim that’s come her way, and all of her drive to keep pushing ahead, Long Island Shores captures an artist who is at peace with where she is and where she has yet to go.
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