Misner & Smith's Artful Balance
Impeccable harmony singing and an at once modern and timeless approach to songwriting have been hallmarks of Sam Misner and Megan Smith's music since they started collaborating more than a decade ago. Accomplished actors — the California-based duo first met at a Shakespeare festival, and first sang together when they were both cast in Woody Guthrie’s American Song — as well as musicians, it’s perhaps no surprise that their songs are steeped in story and vivid imagery. What is surprising is their ability to successfully navigate dual careers as actors and musicians while continuing to flourish and evolve as artists. Between regular acting gigs, they've kept up a busy performance schedule and released four acclaimed CDs: Halfway Home, Poor Player, Live at the Freight & Salvage, and Seven Hour Storm. As they prepared for their homecoming show at The Freight & Salvage on February 5, I talked with Misner & Smith about balancing music and theater, their new video and next album.
Deborah Crooks: Last year was busy with music, acting gigs and the trip to Bulgaria — how has this latest round of creative work and touring influenced your songwriting and live show?
Misner & Smith: Our work as actors has influenced and shaped our songwriting and live shows since the beginning. On so many levels. Playwrights have been as influential in our songwriting as have our favorite songwriters who have inspired us. Theater and music, at their core, are ways to tell stories, and that has always been a thread that runs through the two arts for us. Each inspires the other, back and forth. Over the past year and a half, we've been lucky enough to be able to work on a pretty diverse set of plays: we played opposite each other in a brilliant play dealing with gender roles and feminism (and a whole bunch of other themes) called "Rapture, Blister, Burn," we wrote and performed original music for a production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and played several roles in the show, too. I also acted in a production of “King Lear” at the California Shakespeare Theater this past summer. One thing that working on Shakespeare teaches you is how versatile and powerful words can be. Not just the meanings, but the sounds of the words themselves—the vowels, the consonants, internal rhymes, and how the lines are phrased—they all have colors and elicit emotions that we're often not even aware of as we're hearing them. The choice of one word over another can make such an enormous difference, and that is so true in songwriting too. I think acting continues to inspire us to search for the deeper, more obscured parts of the human experience, the motivations that are often not right on the surface. There are parts of being human than can't be explained in everyday language—that's why we need poetry and music.
The trip to Bulgaria opened our eyes and hearts in a way that only travel can do. It was part of a cultural exchange where we were sharing shows with poets from the U.S., and musicians from Bulgaria. Neither of us had ever been to that part of the world before, and we spent three weeks traveling around a stunningly beautiful country, performing for hundreds of people along the way. We were humbled by how welcomed we were everywhere we went. Even with language being a barrier in many cases, the universality of music was undeniable. There are so many stories from the trip, and so many faces and conversations that we'll never forget. It reminded us that music is not a commodity, it's communication. In that way I'd say our live shows feel even more important to us now, and we feel very lucky to be able to do what we do.
You’ve balanced dual careers as actors and musicians since you started playing music together. How do you balance acting and playing?
It's been a joke between us for a long time: Well, if this music thing doesn't work out, there's always the lucrative career in the theater to fall back on...And vice versa...But, to be honest, it is truly a juggling act, trying to balance the two. At the same time we feel very fortunate, to have both. On one hand, as an actor you're completely relying on someone else to hire you in order for you to be able to do your craft, but as songwriters and musicians, whether we have a gig or not, we can always be working and performing on our own. So there's a certain amount of creative control that comes with that part of our lives. At the same time, though, there's a certain anxiety and exhaustion that can come from having to be the writer, performer, booker, publicist, marketing specialist, and producer of your own work—as any independent artist can attest to, I'm sure. "Balance" is an interesting word, because even though it sounds like something stationary or still, it actually implies something that is constantly in motion, always in flux. I don't know if we're ever "balanced," truly, but we are constantly balancing, if that makes sense. We've been lucky to be cast in many of the same plays, but that isn't always the case, and that's when it gets tricky because in professional theater we're performing anywhere from 6-10 shows a week. That doesn't leave any time to perform our music, for the most part, so we have to be able to be flexible and compromise with each other. I'm not sure there's a perfect balance, necessarily, but when we're asked "So are you musicians or actors?" Our answer is always: "Yes." The truth is that both art forms feed us in different ways, and together make us who we are.
Tell me about your new video. How did you choose this song?
"Lovers Like Us" is off our most recent album Seven Hour Storm, and it's been a regular in our live shows for a few years now. We chose it because it features our vocal harmonies, and in particular how we use harmonies to help tell the stories in our songs. Megan's ear and talent with harmony singing is astounding to me, and I feel incredibly lucky to sing with her. The song is about a relationship that is in a state of limbo, I suppose. That tug of war of emotions and desires. Wanting to hold on, wanting to let go. The video was shot and recorded live by the guys at Pint of Soul, and we'd been wanting to work with them for awhile because a big part of their mission is to capture really good live sound to go with high quality video, so you get this intimate feel to their videos both visually and sonically. We spent the whole day with them on location at a beautiful, small vineyard near Sonoma called Little Vineyards, and recorded four songs in a couple spots around the property, and at different times of day. For "Lovers Like Us" we really liked the juxtaposition of a beautiful day under an oak tree as we're singing of the slings and arrows of relationship turmoil.
How is 2016 shaping up and what can the Freight & Salvage audience expect?
We're really excited to be playing this show as a trio with our good friend, Josh Yenne, on pedal steel and electric guitar. We've been playing in trio formation quite a bit over the last couple of years, and getting really tight as a group. Josh is a great addition to our sound, and along with his excellent chops and musical ear, he really helps to frame the diversity of styles we write in.
It's always a joy to play at the Freight, the sound there is incredible, so we thought it would be the perfect place to introduce a new song. We've been writing some new material and plan to spend 2016 continuing to work on the next album. In the meantime we're also planning to record an album of songs written by specific influences of ours, putting our spin on them. We've been influenced by so many different kinds of music that we want to try to represent as many of them as we can. Kind of like looking through old family albums and seeing where you came from.