Mindy Smith - On the inside
A couple of years ago, Jesus crossed over and went pop. It was an unlikely development to say the least. At a time when contemporary Christian music and southern and black gospel were as far outside the cultural mainstream as ever, four very different, theologically fraught singles went to #1 on the popular charts. Both Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and Hoobastank's "The Reason", the latter not an expressly religious record but one that resonated with young Christians, topped Billboard's Hot 100. Both also won Grammys. Meanwhile, Josh Turner's "Long Black Train", a latter-day gospel number, reached the top of the Billboard country singles chart. Buoyed by the hit "Come To Jesus", Mindy Smith's One Moment More did the same at Americana radio. Yet in the end, apart from coinciding with evangelical Christianity's co-optation of national political discourse, what might have been a trend proved to be a fluke. After the records in question enjoyed their respective runs, the pop charts went back to secular business-as-usual, and the above-mentioned hitmakers followed suit. All of them, that is, except for Mindy Smith, a church-bred backslider who seems constitutionally incapable of not singing and writing about matters of the spirit, most notably her own. "I wish I knew how to get to where it's just cool," Smith says, using the word cool as a euphemism for peace of mind and pronouncing it the way Rickie Lee Jones might. "I am a war zone with myself and I write about it," Smith goes on, pushing her sunglasses up into her lank brown hair. "I told myself I wasn't going to do that on this record [the new Long Island Shores], but I can't help myself. It's just what I do." Smith is sitting at the desk of her producer, Steve Buckingham, in the Nashville offices of her record label, Vanguard (which released Long Island Shores on October 10). Gold and platinum LPs line the walls, and trade magazines are scattered everywhere. Smith, a naturalized daughter of Tennessee whose Long Island brogue intensifies the more emphatic she gets, looks pretty damn cool -- rocker chick cool -- in her stovepipe jeans, knee-high boots, and cotton tunic. Rail thin and with penetrating dark eyes, she could pass for Grace Slick circa Surrealistic Pillow. The internal conflict or "war zone" Smith talks about is writ large on her new album. Within its first 20 minutes, she prays for a broken world ("Out Loud") and sings about leaps of faith ("Edge Of Love"), a soul on fire ("Please Stay"), and the key to heaven ("I'm Not The Only One Asking"). "I know I'm not the only one waiting among wandering souls down here/So brother if you know the answer, please whisper it in my ear," she beseeches on the chorus of "I'm Not The Only One", a neo-Appalachian Goth-rocker flecked with lap steel and octave mandolin. Granted, some of the language Smith employs on her record is metaphorical, grist for her musings on the ins and outs of love. Time and again, though, she reaches for images that carry spiritual freight. The girl can't help it: The gnawing in her soul pervades everything she does. Maybe nowhere is this more evident than in the words she commits to song. "It tends to be a lot of what I write about," she says. "You can try to deny that you're a dog lover, but if you love dogs, you're going to love dogs. I'm not belittling the issue. I'm just saying that sometimes it's easier to figure out how to go with your own flow. I'm drawn to God. I want God. I think everybody, most people do." For all of Smith's talk of matters of the spirit, she insists her music isn't explicitly Christian. "I actually don't really spend a lot of time physically going to church," Smith explains. "I have a different perspective. I'm not opposed to church. I would go if I found one that I was comfortable enough in." So how do you get fed spiritually, if not in a community of other people? "That's a good question," Smith says. "I don't know." Then, after a short pause, she lowers her voices and adds, "Maybe that's something I should think about. "I have really neat people that I admire who have really neat outlooks on the world and we all just kind of visit and chat," she goes on. "It's just about the fellowship." Smith certainly doesn't see her music as a vehicle for converting anybody. "It's not like, 'Can I be a Christian artist?'" she says. "I'm just talking about what I know. If I don't know what I'm talking about, I won't write about it. "I'm not a good storyteller. I wish that I knew how to do that. I really respect the Kris Kristoffersons and the Patty Griffins and the John Prines of the world. Patty Griffin can do it all. And Dolly. They're very well-rounded when it comes to their writing. I'm a little bit more limited to spiritual battles and life as I know it." When I suggest that this might not make for such a limited compass for a songwriter -- indeed, that it might lend Smith's work more focus -- she says, "You think so?" "I hope so," she says after I nod my head by way of affirmation. "It's working out so far. "I've been really blessed in people's reaction to me," she goes on. "People who maybe need to have a voice or something. People who say, 'That's what I've been trying to say but I didn't have any idea how to put it into words.'" Smith cites Buddy Miller's Universal United House Of Prayer as a recent, and singularly prophetic, case of an album conveying a crucial spiritual message and doing so outside of a narrowly religious format. "That was an amazing record, but it wasn't your typical gospel record," Smith says. "And I love gospel music. I love me some good old Bill Gaither Trio, I'm not going to say that I don't. But that's not really what I've been put here to do. I think the way that I approach my spirituality or songwriting is more of a discussion than a case of, 'You must believe the way I believe.' Smith freely invokes the vernacular of evangelical Christianity in conversation. She talks about being one of God's creatures and about being put on earth for a specific purpose. She alludes to God working directly in people's lives and to having her prayers answered (or just as often, not). When our conversation turns to where God might be amid all the suffering in the world, she says, "I think He's ready to go. I think He's ready to work with us if we just ask and let him. I don't know, but that's what I've been taught." Smith might be comfortable with conventional Christian parlance, including the use of a male pronoun to describe God, but it's the tensions between such received notions and the more searching undercurrents in her lyrics that lend her music ballast. It's this relentless struggle, never taken for granted, that gives Smith's work such moral authority. Nothing comes easily in her songs, not even coming to Jesus -- that is, if the minor key in which she sings of doing so is any indication. This conflict is at the heart of the gospel according to Mindy Smith, where God's absence is felt along with God's presence. "I'm definitely not dogmatic," she says. "I have my ideas and try to apply them to my life. I think you do better by setting an example. "I'm not always a good example," she hastens to add, lowering her voice to a whisper and stifling a giggle. "I think it's better to leave it as an open discussion than to point your finger or stand on a soapbox." Smith grew up a preacher's kid, or "PK," on Long Island and only moved to Nashville in the last decade. Her father, a non-denominational Protestant minister who still pastors a church in New York, is a proponent of tolerance. But that wasn't what Smith, who is adopted, encountered after graduating from high school, when her search took her to an ultraconservative seminary just outside Memphis. "It wasn't healthy," she says, not volunteering the name of the institution. "I didn't agree with their doctrine of God at all, and that caused problems. And they didn't agree with me and made it very clear. "I think God is less shallow than we sometimes give Him credit for. I think He's a little more open to the fact that we're a little screwed up. I mean, He made us all, so, you know, he already knows." A better fit was Cincinnati Bible College, the seminary Smith later attended for a couple of years. It was shortly after the death of her mother, who directed the choir at Smith's father's church and seems to have had the greatest impact on Mindy's spiritual and musical development. "I went mostly just to recover from my mother's death," Smith says of the school in Ohio. "I grew up in the church, but I wasn't necessarily going to become, you know, somebody profoundly church-driven. I've never been that person. I've never been into missions. "I had no intention of going back to seminary school after the bad experience I had in Memphis. But there were people that I knew in Cincinnati, some students I'd grown up with that had known my mother. I found great comfort in that. I had to get out of New York and get away from the ghost of missing her, and try to figure out how to pick up the pieces." Smith confronts this ghost on her new album's title track, where, longing for home, she anticipates a different sort of family reunion. "There my mother Sharron lies deep in the earth of the Long Island Shores/I will visit her grave and plant yellow roses at her stone," she sings in haunted waltz-time, strains of cello and viola sighing behind her. To hear Smith tell it, she wasn't the only person upon whom her mother left a profound impression. "My mother could move mountains just by singing one or two notes," she says. "She moved your heart to a place that you weren't expecting to go. She meant every word of it and found great joy doing music. "At times it was a pain in the ass," Smith goes on, whispering that last word as if she thinks her mother might hear her. "If you're a choir director, you've got to shut up a lot of people, a lot of adults. Every now and then she would have to holler at people. Mainly, though, she was really patient and fun, and pretty cool, but there were times... "Music has always been a struggle for me," Smith continues, veering abruptly in another direction, or at first seeming to. "I was your typical teenager who wanted to be a hot shot. I'm not gonna say that I didn't, 'cause that was how it was, and it didn't work out so well. I actually stunk. I hadn't had a lot of support from my teachers. My mother had a different outlook on music and presented it in a way that must have had an impact on me, because that's how I've been able to do what I do. That's how I've been able to find music as a great outlet to express a spiritual perspective. "I don't think you can verbally teach someone that. You have to experience it for yourself, and I experienced it watching it in my mother. Singing with Dolly Parton has that affect on people. Or Alison Krauss. There are people who have that affect on people and you can't explain it." Smith's mother, who died of cancer in 1991, sang everything from cantatas to hymns to contemporary gospel music. Sadly, Mindy has only one recording of her mother singing, a low-fidelity dub of a song called "Love In Any Language" that she performed at a wedding. "It's a terrible recording but it's very moving," Smith says. "It's the only recording we have of her singing and it's a shame because she spent all of her life singing. I had planned on doing something after she got well, but that wasn't the way it panned out. "God had a different plan, I suppose," Smith adds, choking back tears. "I'm not thrilled about it." Neither was Smith terribly thrilled about growing up a preacher's daughter. (Her brother went on to become a minister like their father.) "There aren't a lot of PK's in New York," Smith explains. "Most people that I was in school with were Jewish or Catholic. Young kids couldn't understand that my dad wasn't a priest. They couldn't figure that out. "We lived right next to the church. It was tough. I wrote 'Raggedy Ann' about it." The song, which appears on Smith's first album, is something of an update of Dolly Parton's "Coat Of Many Colors". Its chorus, set to a fragile melody, goes: "I'm just a little girl, and I'm Raggedy Ann/Making believe I'm happy, hey, Raggedy Ann/Falling apart at the seams." "But who doesn't think back to their childhood and go, 'Oh, that was kind of tough, you know?' Like having a parent who works all the time. We were so lucky. I had friends who were jealous that my parents were always around. We had dinner at the family table and that's what they wanted, so everybody has their perspective." The one thing, by her account, that Smith was not while she was growing up was "cool." Appearances to the contrary, she still doesn't see herself that way. In the bio for Long Island Shores, she even admits to having an "identity crisis" during the making of the record, largely over thinking that it should have been much "cooler" than her debut. "With my first record, people tried to put me in a box as, you know, a girl with a guitar from Nashville, and I got really confused by that," she says. "Now there's nothing wrong with being a girl with a guitar from Nashville, and I'm very proud of my first record. But I also thought, 'I have so many colors inside me. I have to show them.' With this record, I just wanted to make sure that happened. And I think that as an artist and as a person, I might have tried too hard to do that. After awhile I felt like maybe I was running away from Mindy Smith." The upshot of this process was that some of the more progressive things she recorded with her supporting cast -- which included Dan Dugmore on steel, Bryan Sutton and Buddy Miller on guitars, Reese Wynans on keyboards, and a rhythm section of Michael Rhodes and Eddie Bayers -- didn't make it onto the album. "I just had to give that up," she says. "I'm not cool. I guess I thought that I should be cooler than Mindy Smith. It's not gonna happen. I had somebody say to me, 'Thanks for representing those of us who aren't cool,' and I thought, 'Oh, that's kind of a cool perspective. I like it. I'll work my uncoolness. "I like to watch, you know, documentaries," she adds with a sheepish smile. "I'm one of those people. I'm definitely interesting, I'm just not hip." Interesting but not hip is an apt description of Smith's new album, which, despite involving Steve Buckingham again (as co-producer), and featuring some of the same musicians, isn't a rehash of her debut. With mandolin player Lex Price joining Smith and Buckingham behind the board, the new record has a richer sonic palette, from the raggy blues of "You Know I Love You Baby" to the liquid ambience of "You Just Forgot" to the Anglo-Celtic accents of the title track. Smith's lithe soprano, by turns gauzy and keening (and sometimes both at once), animates everything with an ease that belies her often turbulent lyrics. The arrangements are still built around acoustic instrumentation and thus still inhabit the folkier reaches of the singer-songwriter continuum. Some of the music, though, is darker than on Smith's previous album. At times, the record's more aggressive forward motion imbues it with a modern rock sheen akin to some of Kasey Chambers' noisier work. The album even employs the occasional drum loop, courtesy of Roger Moutenout, a Nashville engineer who has worked with Sleater-Kinney and Yo La Tengo. You wouldn't know it from listening to Long Island Shores, but Smith dotes on glossy pop productions, even to the point of having pop dreams of her own. "There are times when things need to be a certain way," she says. "I listen to Shania Twain. I love that polished sound. I love it. I aspire to write the perfect pop song. I don't know if that's gonna happen. Certainly it's not my focus, but that sure would be fun. I love that stuff. But I also love John Prine and I love that he just goes for it and sings and has a good time." Neither John Prine nor Shania Twain appears on Long Island Shores, but Smith did manage to enlist one of Nashville's most admired and respected musicians. "Buddy's on my record!" Smith enthuses when Buddy Miller, a good-and-then-some singer and player, comes up in conversation. "I was just so elated and completely just, 'Aah!' He's so sweet and humble and kind and wouldn't assume that anyone would want to do anything with him. I love him and Julie both. They're just so connected. Musically, they rise to a place most people can't imagine." The Millers' influence can be heard at points throughout Long Island Shores, and not just for Buddy's presence on a handful of tracks. Smith writes and sings with an empathetic, prayerful spirit that at times approaches Julie's, and the brooding, Appalachian cast of "I'm Not The Only One Asking" is redolent of emerging Miller classics such as "All My Tears" and "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger". As much as she wanted Buddy to play on the album, Smith says it was only due to fortuitous schedule changes, and her persistence, that it finally happened. "I admit it, I kind of cornered him," she confesses. "But he was really sweet about it. I love it. I love Buddy Miller." Miller's playing on the record certainly is unmistakable. Most folks, though, might need to consult the credits to confirm that it's Buddy (singing well below his normal range) trading lines with Smith on "What If The World Stops Turning". "It's in a low register, and it was tough," says Smith of Miller's vocal part. "I wrote that song with John Scott Sherrill [perhaps best known for penning John Anderson's hit "Wild And Blue"] and I wanted somebody who would appreciate what John Scott Sherrill does as a songwriter. I wanted that perspective there." Perspective is something Smith has in abundance, especially when it comes to the big picture, to the things that really matter. "I tend not to be fearful of addressing most any issue that I'm struggling with," she says, "or that I see making an impact in the world. I'm not a political person, by any means. But I don't think that throwing bombs at each other is going to solve any problems. Humanity needs to step it up. We make great technological advances but our hearts are kind of shrinking. "The people fighting over there, I don't know, I'm not in that position," Smith goes on, alluding to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I pray for them. I pray for everybody there. Again, I'm not a political person. My heart just says to me that maybe this isn't right. That's what the song 'Out Loud' is about -- on so many, many levels. It's not just about the state of the United States, or the rest of the world's perception of the United States. It's about how we're treating other people. Maybe we're having issues with somebody's lifestyle, or maybe... "I'm not a prophet but that's what the song's about. It's about humanity as a whole. Clearly, it was motivated by certain issues in the world at the moment. But I do think it can coexist with a lot of things that are happening. In New Orleans, for example. The people down there are still struggling and so now we just let it go and they're still homeless. It's the same issue. It's a human issue." No shrinking heart, Smith is given to conflicted deliberations such as these. She seems to invite the dissonance, to let it get to her, or at least to accept it as an inevitable byproduct of her struggle to make sense of the things she believes and the things she sees happening around her. Doubtless it's this struggle, this willingness to confront and even listen to the noise inside her, that draws people to her songs, as well as to the often subtly discordant arrangements in which she cradles them. Sometimes, of course, the noise can be too much, too jarring. Thus a song like "Peace Of Mind", the unvarnished appeal that closes Long Island Shores. "I need peace of mind and hopeful heart/To lose this rage and move out of the dark," Smith sings to delicately filigreed acoustic guitar. Her words are like a prayer, and so is the music, but they're not your usual supplication. Smith invokes God at one point, but more by way of confessing to us that she needs God, that she -- and by implication everyone -- needs a steadfast hand to quiet the storm within. "I need peace of mind and gentle hand/Or a miracle for this broken soul," she sings toward the end of the song's final stanza. After that, her fingers stray off into a dissonant guitar interlude, casting doubt on whether Smith's hopes can in fact be realized. Finally, she regains the melody and, in a small yet firm voice, reasserts, "I need peace of mind and a hopeful heart," trusting that someone, divine or human, will hear her. ND senior editor Bill Friskics-Warren is the author of I'll Take You There: Pop Music And The Urge For Transcendence, which came out in paperback this fall. He too is a fan of both Shania Twain and John Prine. Buddy Miller, too.