Linda Smith "The Space Between Buildings" (1987), Do You Know The Way" (1988)
I am proud to announce not one, but two tapes by singer Linda Smith. Her very personal body of work from the late 1980s to 2001 is highly distinctive and rewarding. These are her first two home recorded productions, “The Space Between Buildings” ( 1987) and “Do You Know The Way ( from 1988). Click the link above to stream or download the tapes now.
I first encountered her music when good friend and music critic Jack Jordan brought one of her singles to my radio show. I was captivated by her voice which is quite different than many female singer songwriters. A very singular sound that resonated with me right from the start.
Later, I received her CDs and witnessed the growth of a very special and talented artist. She has since turned to visual art for her creative pursuits but we will always have her wonderful oeuvre to enjoy.
Check out her early experience comments here as well.
See more of her art work here.
How early did you start writing songs?
I think it was 1979 or 1980. I was particularly inspired by groups like the Raincoats and Young Marble Giants.
Did melodies and arrangements just come to you? Or did you have to “compose” them?
I never learned to read or write music but learned some guitar chords to start. From there I just tried to sing over a basic chord progression with some words I wrote. It was all very unschooled and haphazard. I didn’t begin to arrange songs until I started recording later on. I heard the parts in my head and tried to play them as best I could.
When were you first able to record your material? How did it feel to hear it back?
I decided to buy a 4 track cassette recorder (Fostex x-15) in 1985 or 86 when I was living in New York and playing in a band called The Woods. The idea at that point was simply to make demos of new songs for the band. I’d done a little recording in studios before that and always felt dissatisfied with the result. Mainly I wanted to have more control over how things sounded. It was very difficult to explain my ideas verbally to the others in the band. As I began to make these 4 track recordings myself, I found the process to be more like painting a picture, something I could accomplish all by myself. I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to go out of the apartment to a rehearsal space; I could do everything at home and have something finished in a short time. Playing the recording back made me realize that there was another way to do music. I got a big kick out it.
How did you hear about the home taper/ tape trading network?
I don’t recall being aware of home taping as a movement at first. I’d seen Option magazine and read the cassette reviews, I think. I guess that gave me the idea that I might put together a collection of songs myself.
Did you send tapes for review?
Yes. For the first cassette (The Space Between the Buildings) I also placed an ad in the same issue that the review happened to be in.
Did you actively trade tapes with other people? Did you get names from the various magazines?
I don’t recall initiating any trades but I did respond if someone wrote and offered to send me a tape for one of mine. It is interesting to think about all of this, especially since it took place via the US Mail. It was exciting to get letters and packages from all over.
You also recorded some 7” vinyl early on. Why did you go to this effort?
If I remember correctly, Tim Alborn was starting a small label in Cambridge, MA and had come across some of my music somewhere. He asked for a couple of songs for the Harmony in Your Head cassette in 1989, I think. Eventually we talked about doing a record and a year later he released the Gorgeous Weather EP. The emergence of small labels like Harriet, Simple Machines, and Slumberland seemed to be related to home taping in that both movements were very much DIY efforts. There wasn’t any commercial outlet for any of this music originally; the only place it might be heard was on college radio.
Musically, who are some of your influences?
In general, I was influenced by 1960’s AM radio, especially as I grew up listening to it on a small transistor radio. (To this day, I prefer treble over bass.) In particular, The Beatles, of course, as well as later discoveries like Nico. A few years ago, I sold most of my record collection but couldn’t part with the Beatles or Nico albums. The interesting thing about much of Nico’s music for me is that it isn’t rock/pop music at all, though she usually found herself placed into that category simply because of her association with the Velvet Underground. She created a very personal kind of art song but was forced to play in rock clubs, unfortunately. I’ve always thought her lyrics were wonderful simply to read.
When you listen now to your early tapes what do you think or feel? Can it take you back to the time when you made the songs?
It really seems as though it was made by someone else when I listen to it. It can evoke certain past situations but it is all so long ago that I sometimes have to laugh and wonder what I was thinking.
I was fascinated by your version of ”Do You Know The Way To San Jose” because I grew up there. Have you ever been there?
I’ve been to California a couple of times but never San Jose.
That song is delivered in a much different way than Dionne Warwick’s bouncy, upbeat version. It sort of encapsulates the sprawling, faceless, soporific, strip mall on every corner, Nowhere Man kind of vibe to me. Was that your intention?
That’s interesting and makes sense. For me, though, the song was chosen because it summed up some things I was thinking about at the time. I’d just moved back to Baltimore after living in New York for a few years. San Jose was a stand in for Baltimore, and LA represented New York, I suppose. I’ve always been a huge Bacharach/David fan also and this provided a good excuse to do one of their songs. I never really appreciated Baltimore until I lived in New York and the song suggests this feeling, too.
In fact, much of your material is rendered in a slow, meticulous and moody way. I see this as your primary style although not exclusively so. Talk about that for a minute.
It seemed to be a mode that came naturally to me. I didn’t really think too much about why until later when I read that someone mentioned this style as “conversational”. I think somewhere in my mind was the idea that with the songs I could speak to individual listeners in a personal way. It was never the kind of music that was meant to be played loud, but preferably heard through headphones.
Many home tapers ( including myself) use the recording medium as a kind of therapy. Is this the case for you?
Though I think that making music or practicing any other artistic pursuit can be theraputic, therapy in itself was never my intention. That sounds too much like jogging or some other activity used for self improvement:) Recording was something I wanted to do as opposed to something I thought I should do. I wanted to make songs like those I grew up listening to.
Do you ever consciously challenge yourself by working in a new way or with new instruments?
These days, I’m working on paintings, not music so I guess that could be seen as a conscious challenge. Occasionally, I’ll have a tune in my head and a phrase that might make a song but I don’t feel the need to do anything with it. It gets forgotten fairly quickly.
For awhile you joined The Silly Pillows but I don’t think much was released, was it? This seemed like a match made in heaven to me ( I believe Christopher Earl of The Squires Of The Subterrain was also involved). Was the distance between you and Jonathan too great to continue? Did you ever perform with them?
We did an entire album together and performed once at the Mercury Lounge in NY. The distance was a problem as I didn’t have a car at the time and rehearsals were in an out of the way area of Pennsylvania. I recall taking a long bus ride there once. Recording was easier since Jonathan was using a studio in NY and I could simply come up, record my parts and then go home the same day. I really enjoyed singing his songs but my limited range couldn’t quite reach some of the notes:)!
What have you learned about yourself from recording your music?
I realized that I much prefer working alone than in a collaborative situation. When one starts out doing music there is always this idea of the group dynamic being important in putting a song across. With groups like The Beatles and The Raincoats as my ideals, I initially had the notion that a band was a group of friends who came together to make a unified and distinctive sound that would engage others. I thought I would enjoy live performing since I’d often imagined myself on stage playing guitar and singing while listening to my favorite records. When I began recording, I realized that I wasn’t really interested in these things. I wanted something more permanent that I controlled every aspect of myself.
Did your recording equipment play any role in how you felt about your tunes? By that I mean, did the various platforms ( cassette, open reel,digital) inspire you in different ways?
By the time I made my fourth cassette (Put It In Writing) I felt very restricted by the 4 track format. I was bouncing more tracks down and adding effects as I recorded. The result was not satisfactory overall. For me, moving to 8 track reel to reel was a vast improvement and offered more flexibility. I understand that some listeners like the old 4 track sound better but my own preference is for the later recordings and songs. I was able to do more layered arrangements with the 8 track and could develop each song differently.
Did you ever have aspirations to become “popular” or is music something that just springs out of you and needs to be expressed?
While I always hoped to find listeners, I knew that “popularity” in the usual music biz sense was not for me. Being uninclined towards live performance, I was aware that my music could not be promoted in that way. I don’t know if I would say that music was something I “needed” to do. Again, it was something I wanted to do. I think those are two different things.
Do you have any pending projects or goals?
Around the time I recorded my last batch of songs in 2001 (Emily’s House), I became interested in painting again after many years. I decided to go back to school in 2003 and got an MFA in 2008. Aside from a very occasional jam session and some guitar playing in a group called the Window Shoppers, I haven’t focused on music very much. I don’t see this changing; painting is what I want to do now.
Thanks for your time Linda. Good luck with all,