SP: Wonderful voice. It's very smooth. Did you take voice lessons?
RS: I took voice lessons for six or so years to help get more power and control. They really helped me to open up and feel confident. Later on, though, I started to feel like my operatic voice was influencing my pop voice too much and I stopped taking lessons so that I could experiment with my own sound and find a less "pretty" or "perfect" voice. Less prissy, I guess is how I would describe it.
SP: Who were you influenced by?
RS: I loved music in the 80s-the Cure, U2, the Smiths. Sinead O'Connor was a real revelation for me because of the emotion and the raw power of her expression. Then, as I moved into my 20s I became fascinated by Bjork both for her voice and the production on her songs. Lately I've been moving into a more minimalist mood listening to a lot of Philip Glass, Avro Part, and singers like Stina Nordenstam who leave a lot of open space in their songs and whose voices are more quiet and intense than bold and bombastic. The person who has always travelled with me musically and imaginatively is Jane Siberry, an amazing Canadian musician and poet whose stunningly original take on music and poetry always awe me. To see her in concert is like church for me. She is my ideal performer.
SP: There is indepth poetry in your songs and I noticed the poetry link on your site. Does this come naturally to you?
RS: I have always loved poetry and have a couple of friends who are poets full-time, so I think about writing a lot. We talk about ways of developing the craft and not just waiting for inspiration to strike out of the blue (although that's always nice). I found talking with them, reading poetry by masters and staying disciplined about writing every day, even if it's crap, is the best strategy. I've heard that Daniel Lanois writes a song a day although most are never heard by anyone.
SP: At what age did you first know that you were going to be a musician?
RS: I never thought about it as a profession really. I always sang and when I was in grade four I made a tape on my little stereo and even took a picture that looked like a classic 80s album pose. I think when I made the clearing I really had a sense that I was being true to that kid who made that first awful cassette. I was letting her out, letting her speak. It's one thing to sing all the time and play for friends and a whole other reality to put something out there publicly. I still find that a bit strange sometimes.
SP: Was your interest always in folk music?
RS: I went away from folk for a long time and just now, returning to a more minimalist aesthetic, feel my interest returning. My mom taught me all the classic 60s stuff when I was just learning guitar and in high school in the countryside we still listened to the original folk artists. There was always a lot of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel playing.
SP: I was listening to The Clearing and it sounds to me that there was a great deal of anger expressed in this song, about what is going on in the world today. It sounds like you are pointing out that we are sent mixed messages about love and fear. This is what I got from it. Just for curiosity, I am going to ask you, what is your message with this song?
RS: I wrote the song for my cousin, actually, after she experienced a terrible thing. She is a great traveller and adventurous, courageous person. She lived in Kenya for two years teaching in a remote village. One day she and some people she was travelling with were held up by machine gun and robbed and stripped. It was horrific. Then a little while later some of her friends were killed in the bombing of the U.S embassy in Nairobi. She came home at that point in shock. She was so traumatized and it made me furious the way this brave, generous person was taken and abused by the ridiculous world we've created, the way that dreamers are eaten up and spat out by less imaginative, cruel human beings. She's okay now but it's been a long process. So I wrote the song imagining her as a mythical child wandering bravely through a dangerous forest full of wolves, acknowledging that the forest is dangerous but it is also the place of transformation and beauty as long as you can keep walking. I was reading Italo Calvino's rendering of Italian folk tales at the time and a lot of the imagery is from those stories.
SP: Besides guitar, what other instruments do you play?
RS: I play piano which is really my first instrument. I played French horn and trumpet in high school but I haven't picked them up in a long time. I would like to for the next record though.
SP: What make of guitars do you play?
RS: I play an Ibanez electric my drummer found in a dumpster in Toronto-he must have interrupted a robbery in progress, and an old acoustic thing that plugs in and is very cheap but familiar. I also own a classical guitar that I put away for a long time but am getting out again as I play with new (old) sounds.
SP: You do a lot of finger picking in your music. It sounds beautiful. Did it take you long to develop the finger picking techniques, the way you have mastered it?
RS: Thanks. No, it's funny but I actually learned finger picking first from my mom. It was the strumming I found really hard to do and keep in time. I think it's the opposite for most people. For a while I despaired of ever learning to be a good strummer. Now I'm passable.
SP: Do you seen an opening for folk rock to return to popularity, in today's world of rap music?
RS: I do. I think the music business is so corrupt, top-heavy and constructed by guys with an MBA and absolutely no musical taste that it's rotting itself into oblivion. I like rap I just don't appreciate that the only videos I can watch on Much Music (Canada's MTV) are booty videos. The radio I won't even talk about it's so BORING. Because really, that's the bottom line I think. It's not the offensiveness or sexism or materialism of the culture but just how horribly boring it all is. Nothing moves me or makes me want to dance. Except Missy Elliott. I think it's so bad right now though that there's hope. The bigwigs have created a vacuum so large that independent or just good music has this huge space to rush up through.
SP: Besides music, I see that you have an interest in yoga and that you are an instructor. I commend you for keeping a balance in life.
RS: Thanks. It was a life saver for me. Singing is very much about the body but other than that I was living a very cerebral life and it was making me crazy. Yoga was a revelation that made me feel like a child again.
SP: For youngsters, who want to become musicians, what do you recommend for them to do?
RS: I think they should follow their instinct. My parents tried to get me to take piano when I was very young and I just wasn't into it. When I got a little older my interest suddenly appeared and I learned in one year what it would have taken 6 before. You have to love it for itself and do it for yourself not because someone is telling you to.
SP: For our readers, where can they listen to and order your music?
RS: There are some MP3s at http://rachelsmith.iuma.com and at cdbaby.com/rachelsmith where they can also order the CD. In Toronto it is available at Soundscapes on College Street. I have a new record coming out very soon called "famous secrets" so MP3s of that will be available soon for pre-listening and then for purchase.
SP: Your're wonderful. Keep it up.