Interview: Singer/Songwriter/Animator Meaghan Smith Releases 'The Cricket's Orchestra'
Meaghan Smith - Photo by Jennifer Tzar
When Meaghan Smith decided to quit her career as an animator and pursue the singer/songwriter path, she took a big leap of faith. Thankfully, the leap was well worth it, and in October she released her first full studio album, The Cricket's Orchestra. Though it may sound contradictory, the album is a throwback ahead of its time. By combining underappreciated instruments such as the mellotron with her fresh take on love songs, Smith has crafted her own batch of modern-day standards. And she has even returned to her roots to animate her own music videos.
LAist caught up with Smith last weekend to talk about crazy ex-boyfriends, her just-released Christmas EP and her upcoming three-night gig opening for Joe Purdy at the Hotel Cafe.
You include instruments such as the mellotron, optigan and celeste throughout your album. Did you write with these elements in mind?
I discovered these instruments around the time I started recording with producer Les Cooper. I'd written all these songs and they had this vintage-y kind of vibe. It started with the song "I Know," which I wrote for my grandfather. I said to the producer, "I'd really like this to sound like a track that he would like, because this one's for him." Then Les told me, "I have all these crazy mellotron samples from the 30s. Let's just go through them." He had a full library of them on his computer, and I fell in love with the sound right then and there.
Meaghan Smith - "Heartbroken"
In addition to the guitar, you play the omnichord. What is it about that instrument in particular that you love?
It's hard to explain, but it just has the right sound. It's the same thing with the mellotron and optigan samples. All the different instruments and sounds I use have this underlying theme that's a little vintage and a little quirky. It stands out just enough, but doesn't drive you crazy when you hear it.
A few years ago, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) released an EP of yours called Lost With Directions. How did the recording/production process for The Cricket's Orchestra compare with that experience?
It was completely different. Lost With Directions was something I sort of fell into. The CBC will sometimes take a Canadian artist no one has ever heard of and make a record for them—and that's what happened with me. They always tailor the record for their radio stations, so it fits their format. Although it didn't fit my format 100 percent, it was absolutely generous of them, and that's what really got everything started for me.
The tracks on that EP were a bunch of songs I'd written but hadn't really planned on playing for anyone. With The Cricket's Orchestra, I knew that people were going to hear these songs, so I wrote with that in mind, and also had more input regarding production.
How did you come into contact with T-Bone Burnett, who plays on the song "Poor"?
My manager had been in touch with him. He'd heard a copy of my record and really liked it. We wanted to remake one of the songs and he was interested in working with me, so that was totally amazing.
Meaghan Smith - "I Know"
You describe your sound as "modern vintage" and I think that concept is perfectly illustrated in the sound of "A Little Love." How did the turntable come into the mix on that track?
The producer I was working with asked me if I wanted to have a guest on the record. I think what he had in mind was someone a little more singer/songwriter-y, but I really love this DJ named Kid Koala, and suggested a collaboration with him.
It's just one of those modern vintage ideas—there's turntable scratching over top of a string quartet. The idea sounds like it shouldn't work, but I think it totally comes together when you hear it. I love how it turned out.
The song "You Got Out" has such a great rockabilly sound. What was your inspiration for that one?
That song is a true story! The inspiration comes from a boyfriend I had who got sent to jail. He broke out of jail, came to my house and wanted to run away with me.
I was in high school and had classes the next day, so I was a bit freaked out and told him I couldn't go with him. When writing this record, I just looked back on some crazy experiences, and that one obviously stood out!
It almost sounds like a Wild West story—back in the days when they had a one-room prison with a single guard keeping an eye on everything.
Yeah, totally, which is why I think that style of music really suits the song. It all just came together really quickly.
Since your husband is in the band, is it a bit weird for him when you tell stories about your ex-boyfriends?
A little, but he's just so amazing compared to all the people I've written songs about. He knows I think he's the best, and he thinks the stories are funny. In reality, the songs on The Cricket's Orchestra represent the path I took in getting to him.
Are any of the songs on the record about him?
Yes, the song "Poor" is one I wrote for him. It chronicles my journey of trying to make it as a musician. I made this record myself, so we saved up for years and spent tens of thousands of dollars of our money on this album. He supported me through all of that, and he was just so incredible.
I think a lot of people can relate to it, especially since so many people are struggling financially nowadays. The message of the song is that maybe you don't have a lot of money, and maybe times are really hard, but if you have somebody you love, you're not poor.
It's great that you two can tour together, too!
Yeah, there were so many people at the beginning who told us, "Do not try to do this together!" But I'm so glad I didn't listen. He's also everything you'd want a band member to be—easygoing, organized, on time, and a great guitar player.
Since your mom plays piano and your dad plays bass, did you grow up playing a lot of music with your family?
Pretty much, and it gets really hokey at Christmastime. (laughs) My mom is a piano teacher, so there was constant music in our house. And if there wasn't a piano student playing in the other room, my dad would be listening to the Beatles or the Eagles or whatever. Our home was full of all types of music, and I attribute a lot of my eclecticism to that.
You've said that you were a big fan of musicals as you were growing up. Which were your favorites?
We watched a lot of VHS tapes because we only got one station on cable. There were Doris Day movies, Calamity Jane, The Music Man, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Sound of Music...
I watched a lot of cartoons, too. There are tons of songs in the old Disney cartoons—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, that kind of stuff. That's what I was raised on.
Did the Disney cartoons ignite your love for animation?
They definitely did.
Was it a surreal feeling the first time you animated one of your own music videos?
It was really exciting to see it all come together. You animate separately on a computer screen or on a piece of paper—then to see myself with a little cartoon bird made me realize, "This is how things look in my head!" It was cool to see everything come to life.
Meaghan Smith - "A Little Love"
What was your inspiration for the animation in "A Little Love"?
It was inspired Disney's old rubber hose animation, such as "Steamboat Willie." That's the era we were going for, and the director of the video came up with that idea.
Which is your favorite video of the ones you've created so far?
I don't know if I have a favorite video, but I do have favorite moments. I love the koala scratching the old gramophone record in "A Little Love." I love when the bird in "I Know" spins around and falls off the branch. I love the part where I dance with the mop in "If You Asked Me." I love in "Five More Minutes" where I float up and am carried away by the fireflies into the night sky. It was so fun. There's just a lot of crazy, kooky stuff going on in that video.
When you've reached a creative block, does it sometimes help to turn to oil painting and animation when you're having music issues, and vice-versa? Do they inform each other?
Absolutely, because I do get sick of one or the other at times. That happened a lot in college. I went to school for animation and I was drawing nonstop. At one point I got a little sick of it, and that's when I started writing songs.
Now that I'm focusing on my music, what'll happen is that if I've been touring for 4-5 months, I'll come home and paint for a month straight. I've found that I always need a creative outlet, so they just trade off with one another. It works really well for my brain.
I saw some great examples of your artwork on your website. Do you sell artwork at shows?
Yes, I had this idea to do this miniature art series, so I painted these tiny three-inch paintings of robots and animals and such, and placed them in these really ornate little frames I found. They're all original oil paintings and I've sold them through my website, Twitter and at shows.
I think everybody should have a little art in their home. Original art is so cool. And if people are impressed enough by my paintings to want one, then that's totally flattering and humbling for me. I've had a hard time keeping up with demand lately, so I'm going to spend some time in January making more. It's so amazing that I get to do both things—art and music.
Meaghan Smith - "If You Asked Me"
You've recently opened for artists such as k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan and Ron Sexmith. What's been the best advice you've received, or lesson you've taken away from touring with them?
It's been incredible, and I'm on tour with the amazing Joe Purdy at the moment. Right now I'm just trying to learn what truly makes a person successful—whether they'e a musician, an artist, a banker or a mom. I think I'm learning that it's a combination of real talent and work ethic—someone who is continually working at their craft and putting themselves out there.
For instance, k.d. lang blew me away with her vocal performance every night. She would start warming up an hour and a half before a show. That's dedication! She works really hard at her craft and it pays off.
What's your goal when it comes to the people who attend your shows?
When it comes to my own shows, I want people to feel like their day has been brightened, or that they've experienced something cool. If I've done that, I think I'm working hard enough.
I guess I see success as a mixture of talent and a little bit of luck. I really like the quote, "The harder you work, the luckier you are."
You released a Christmas EP this week. How did Wish Upon a Star come together?
I love Christmas songs and just had an idea to make a little Christmas EP. I've got four tracks on there—one original and three covers.
One of the songs on the EP is "Christmas Time Is Here." Did you sing along to it as you were growing up and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special?
Totally. We watched that special every Christmas when it came on TV. Thankfully, it aired on the one cable channel we received!
The EP has a great mix of songs and your cover of "Little Drummer Boy" has a great groove to it. How did that come together?
Thanks! I love that song, but sometimes I find that the pa-rum-pa-pum-pums kind of get in the way of the lyrics, which are so heartfelt. It's all about giving what you have, and if you don't have anything monetary to give, just give of your talents and give of your time. So I took out the pa-rum-pa-pum-pums and just let the drum do its own funky talking.
Meaghan Smith - Photo by Jennifer Tzar
You sang a cover of the Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man" on the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack. How did that impact your career?It was just a really great way to get a lot more exposure to a wider audience. It's a great film, and that's the audience I want to reach—people who are into interesting music and like those types of movies. I felt totally out of my league with all of the other people on the soundtrack, but it was just so awesome to be included in such a fantastic project.
I know The Cricket's Orchestra was just released, but have you already started working on your next album?
Yeah, I'm constantly writing down song ideas and I've definitely written some songs, but I'm nowhere near finished with them.
Right now I love playing the Cricket's Orchestra songs every night—I don't think I'll ever be done perfecting what I'm trying to do with them. They're just really fun to play!
You'll soon be in town to play three nights at the Hotel Cafe—what are some of your favorite places to visit when you're in LA?
I love LA and the Hotel Cafe is probably my favorite venue, so I can't wait for our first gig on Sunday!
Regarding favorite places, on one of my last trips, I went to Venice Beach to visit a friend of mine. I went there planning to drop something off, and he said, "Why don't you take a walk and check out the beach?" Long story short, I ended up staying the whole day and went swimming in my clothes. I didn't leave until 11 p.m.
I love that there's so much good food in LA. I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but I can tell you that at one restaurant in Silver Lake, I had the best vegan burrito of my life.
Do you eat a vegan diet?
I'm vegan when it's possible to be vegan. It's hard to eat well on the road, but whenever we're in LA, I definitely try to eat mostly vegan food. I also love Real Food Daily and we eat there a lot. I once got the nachos with the cashew cheese, and it's ridiculously good. I'm getting hungry now just talking about it. I can't wait to get to LA!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Meaghan.
Don't miss Meaghan Smith at the Hotel Cafe Dec. 13-15 as she opens for Joe Purdy. The Cricket's Orchestra is available via iTunes and Barnes & Noble, and her Christmas EP, Wish Upon a Star, has just been released on iTunes. To learn more about Meaghan Smith, visit www.meaghansmith.com
Note: For one week only, Meaghan Smith's holiday song "It Snowed" is available as a free download in the iTunes holiday sampler.